Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 80-99)


17 JULY 2008

  Q80  Mr Boswell: In a sense, you are suggesting we disarm this arms race which has taken place by banning the essential component, the degree classification.

  Mr Williams: That is one consequence of it—one beneficial, in my view, consequence.

  Q81  Mr Boswell: To go on from that slightly—because I think we are going to get into what one might call the politics of this in a minute—could we get a view from you as to whether all this has happened, as it were, objectively and in the air? Because there are highly complex conceptual issues, like what a first class degree would be, and, in a sense, the diversity of the system is broken because the challenges are now too great. Or is it in fact a more sordid process, where one or two persons have—as some people in the press are suggesting—manipulated the system to pump up their institution and will indirectly destroy public confidence. Is this an academic argument or a cynical manipulation that is going on—not by you, but by those you identify?

  Mr Williams: I would like to start with the academic argument, because I think there is an academic argument here. The academic argument is that, essentially, over the last 15 to 20 years, higher education has moved from what one might describe as a norm-referenced classification arrangement to a criterion-referenced classification arrangement; that is to say, that hitherto or previously it was common for quotas to be applied to graduates from year to year, course to course.

  Q82  Mr Boswell: With 13% firsts.

  Mr Williams: That is right, we would expect to see 5%, 6% or 7% firsts or whatever. There tended to be quite a nice normal distribution curve. Over the last 10 or 15 years we have moved away from that which, in a sense, gave no account of how good you were as a student, merely where you were in the rank order of the cohort of that particular year, to what we might call a criterion-referenced system where the question is: What have you achieved? That does allow for improvement in standards. As students are learning more and being able to do well in their assessments, so that will be reflected in the outcome. I am fairly sure that is part of the reason—and of course institutions will not tell us. We do not have direct evidence yet of what you have described as the more sordid approach. If we were to encounter that, we would want to know precisely why and how a university was operating the decision, essentially, to go back to a norm-reference system but a norm-referencing against other institutions rather than within a class.

  Q83  Dr Evan Harris: Is the data available—it must be—of the percentage of, say, firsts for any given subject across each institution?

  Mr Williams: Yes.

  Q84  Dr Evan Harris: It is on your website.

  Mr Williams: Yes, HESA produces it.

  Q85  Dr Evan Harris: You would expect, would you not—or am I wrong?—that a university with significantly higher entrance standards and decent education would have a much higher proportion of first class degrees awarded than a university with lower entry criteria and the same decent standard of education?

  Mr Williams: Yes. That is what the evidence suggests.

  Q86  Dr Evan Harris: You said universities were sorting this out. Diana Warwick, the Chief Executive of the higher education representative body, Universities UK, is quoted in the BBC story as saying "Universities are already debating the classification of degrees". Is "debating" higher education talk for "sorting it out"? Or is it the same as we use here, which is just talking about it?

  Mr Williams: One of the reasons I am keen to discuss this is to ensure that the progress is continued. It is being implemented.

  Q87  Dr Evan Harris: It is being more than debated.

  Mr Williams: More than debated. The debate has happened.

  Q88  Dr Evan Harris: After your press release and the news coverage, what contact did you have from DIUS, from the Government Department?

  Mr Williams: DIUS wanted me to explain to them what the import of the press release and the BBC online account was. I explained to them the circumstances.

  Q89  Dr Evan Harris: And that was it?

  Mr Williams: They thanked me.

  Q90  Mr Wilson: Could I come back, because we did not get to an answer to my question as to whether you thought standards have gone up or down. I know we have talked about the individual awarding powers. In your experience, taking into account the conversation we have just had, have they gone up or down?

  Mr Williams: I do not know. What I can say is that they are appropriate for today—just as the standards of 1890 would not be appropriate today.

  Q91  Mr Wilson: Do you not think it is a little bit worrying that you, representing your organisation, do not know whether standards are going up or down.

  Mr Williams: The definition that we use for standards does not allow the question of whether they go up or down. Standards are arbitrary. Standards are fixed. If you are saying have they changed in some places they may have done, in other places they may not have done.

  Q92  Chairman: They are only fixed by an individual institution.

  Mr Williams: Yes, but they have to be fixed by that institution; that is to say, the standards are there, that is our standard.

  Chairman: That is not the question that Rob Wilson is asking you. He is asking you how can we determine whether, overall, the cost of X plus Y is the number of students now getting firsts or upper seconds compared with what they were doing ten years ago. The question is: Does that mean that standards in higher education have risen?

  Q93  Mr Boswell: I do not wish to obfuscate the question, because that is very pointed, but I think it is also necessary to ask, because we need to get feedback from you: Within all the constraints that we all understand about academic autonomy, is there at least some merit in considering whether there should be an objective standard? You say that it is not a question you can answer because there is no common standard of standards. Ought there to be a common standard so you could answer the question?

  Mr Williams: To a proper common standard would apply a national examination. A national examination, because otherwise you would always be comparing different—

  Q94  Mr Boswell: You would never be able to work out whether it had met the standard or not.

  Mr Williams: Exactly. A common standard would also undermine fundamentally the diversity of the system.

  Q95  Mr Wilson: What is your personal opinion? Not your opinion in the position as head of this organisation, but your personal opinion of standards and whether they have risen or declined?

  Mr Williams: My personal opinion—and it is a personal opinion—is that there has been some raising of standards. How much, I do not know. I think the students of today are very concerned indeed about the consequences for them of their degree class and are working hard to ensure they get the best possible level of degree. That suggests to me that standards have risen or at least have not significantly fallen.

  Q96  Mr Boswell: Are you able to give us a similar appraisal as to the differentiation of standards? We have established there is no single standard, but clearly there are a lot more institutions offering degrees which, in a sense, are making a claim by doing so. Is it your impression that the spread has now changed? Some of the serious players and the ones who have a huge reputation in place are going up, shall we say, and some of the others who are dependent on recruitment and clearing and whatever might be saying, "Oh, well, we need to keep bums on seats and show that we can function as a viable institution." If you are broadly happy about the system, are you worried that nevertheless we are creating more, if not defaulters, people who are giving rise to concern?

  Mr Williams: One of the sets of figures I have is that which talks about the award of firsts and upper seconds according to type of institution. I am hesitant about saying this because it does give the impression that there is, if you like, a league table of types of institution and the degree classification system is almost a self-fulfilling approach. It does show, however, that there is a clear differentiation between, if you like, groups of institutions in the different groupings, self-created groupings, the clubs, and that there is only one group, I think it is fair to say, which in the last five years has shown any major increase in the award of firsts and upper seconds. The others have remained pretty static.

  Q97  Dr Evan Harris: Which one is that?

  Mr Williams: That is the 1994 group, and there is quite a differentiation between them.

  Q98  Dr Evan Harris: Let us say that universities were dependent for their income and therefore their viability on the number of students that they accepted, and therefore, indirectly, the number of students who applied, and that there was evidence that students applied to those universities where they thought for any given standard they had a better chance of getting a good degree classification, and there was on the internet information available that told them which was the university which gave them the higher chance, all other things being equal, because it gave more upper second and first class degrees, if all those things were in place—and I believe they are—would that not be bound to influence the behaviour of universities? It is bound to.

  Mr Williams: It might well do. I am not sure I am necessarily the right person to ask that. I would say, however, that we would wish to see, as we undertake our audits, how institutions manage their admissions to ensure that there is not, if you like, one of those forces negatively influencing the other.

  Q99  Dr Evan Harris: Do you look at that or is that someone else's job to look at?

  Mr Williams: It is one of the things we can look at. You must appreciate in our audits there are a number of things we always look at and there are other things we look at if we see reasons for asking those questions. We cannot cover everything, or we would be there all day every day, so we have to be selective in what we look at. But it is an area we are certainly able to look at, partly because it is an area covered by our code of practice on admissions. Our code of practice on admissions offers a reference point to institutions as to how they should manage their admissions process.

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