Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
17 JULY 2008
Q100 Mr Boswell: Can I probe the
other side of this? I think the inference of what has been said,
and it is the whole philosophy that you started with, is that
institutions have a professional academic responsibility themselves,
and you can advise them on that, you can draw attention to deficiencies,
and the external examiner and peer review system should help with
that. Is it your impression that in reality, if X gets a really
bad review and there is a suggestion of academic padding, if I
can put it that way, the institution will grip that, if only because
other VCs or Universities UK are saying, "You really cannot
go on doing this kind of thing", quite apart from any pressure
you put on? Is there a sort of academic name and shame issue there?
Can I couple that with a question about between the departments?
My suspicion, and you may want to respond to this, is that this
is unlikely, though there could conceivably be a vice chancellor
instructing all departments to whitewash more people, but it may
well be that one or two departments are anxious about their recruitment
and are anxious to fill up their numbers rather than the whole
institution? If this is essentially an academic problem which
they have to discharge what peer pressures and sanctions are there,
maybe by way of discreet words and raised eyebrows, that are likely
to drive some remediation if these situations arise?
Mr Williams: I do not think I
am well qualified to answer your question in terms of what vice
chancellors talk about when they are in huddles together. My guessand
it is a guess; I do not knowis that they do not spend a
lot of time saying, "You are letting the side down".
When it comes to your second question, this is an area where I
think we want to do more work because it is conjecture. At the
moment there is not sound evidence one way or the other, but that
is an area where I think we do need to do some specific inquiry,
in a sense, to follow up some of the comments that have emerged
from the press coverage, because there has been a lot of noise
emerging and it is too much noise simply for us to ignore.
Q101 Chairman: Absolutely.
Mr Williams: We intend to follow
this up and try and find out whether there is a problem or whether
it is noise and, if it is, what is the nature of the noise. I
find it impossible to believe that vice chancellors are handing
down edicts to the whole institution because edicts like that
cannot be kept secret. Audit trails will emerge. If there is a
difficulty, and, as I say, we have only got hearsay evidence so
far, most of it anonymous, my guess is that it would be lower
grade folk fairly far down the institution but, as I say, that
is a guess. We need to have that evidence.
Q102 Dr Evan Harris: Can I turn to
the question of international students? Do you accept that some
universities are entirely dependent for their financial viability
on attracting international students?
Mr Williams: Given the percentage
of students the departments receive I think it is probably true
of some of them.
Q103 Dr Evan Harris: Given that,
is it possible to be certain or even confident, or even limitedly
confident, that an institution that depends for its viability
and therefore all the leaders in it for their mortgage payments
on getting a supply is likely to be influenced primarily by how
it maintains that supply and resource to keep itself going?
Mr Williams: They have to have
an eye for the long term.
Q104 Dr Evan Harris: We would like
them to have an eye for the long term.
Mr Williams: I think they have,
and I think that they are aware that if they get a bad reputation
their overseas market could be affected, so it is not in their
long term interests to deliberately act in that way.
Q105 Dr Evan Harris: Yes, I agree
with you. Let us accept what you say. The bad reputation might
be not awarding degrees to international students who did not
pass muster whether or not it was because of the language. That
might, in this world of websites and so forth and overseas students
who know exactly what they are doing and who are spending a lot
of money, mean that they would be very interested in knowing whether
they are wasting their money. That is what you mean, is it not,
that they are under huge pressure to award degrees to meet the
expectations; otherwise they will get a very bad reputation in
the medium to long term and therefore would lose the attraction?
That is what you mean?
Mr Williams: No, that is not what
I mean. What I mean is that if they follow the route that you
are suggesting, of pushing people through to get degrees, it does
not take long for that to be known and for the credibility of
the qualification to be undermined.
Q106 Dr Evan Harris: What makes you
think your scenario of poor reputation is more immediate, more
of a threat, more obvious than what I have just said, which I
put to you as a reasonable case, that they would be torpedoed
by their reputation abroad as someone to whom you pay all your
money and you do not get your degree?
Mr Williams: We have not seen
either scenario in reality.
Q107 Dr Evan Harris: Has any research
been done that you know of into which of those is more likely?
Mr Williams: Not that I am aware
Q108 Dr Evan Harris: Do you think
there should be research, because it is a good question, is it
Mr Williams: Yes.
Q109 Dr Evan Harris: I always ask
Mr Williams: I think there should
always be more research into things in general.
Q110 Dr Evan Harris: Who should do
Mr Williams: There are a number
of organisations that might do it.
Q111 Chairman: But, Peter, in your
interview with the BBC on 23 June, this infamous or famous interview,
you said that in terms of international students there were concerns
on the part of audit teams that the number of international students
was being increased in an unsustainable fashion in some institutions;
yet when we look through your report the words "unsustainable",
and indeed "sustainable", do not appear at all.
Mr Williams: No. That was a gloss.
Q112 Chairman: But it is an important
gloss, is it not?
Mr Williams: Yes, it is.
Chairman: Because the accusation is,
and you know exactly what Evan Harris has said
Q113 Mr Boswell: It also implies
that you would know what a sustainable rate would be.
Mr Williams: I think what we are
interested in are the ways in which institutions are managing
their growth. There are two issues here, I think. One is the way
in which they recruit their overseas students and the other is
the way they look after them when they are here. It is quite clear
from our audit reports and our outcomes report that they do a
lot for the students when they are here. The question that crosses
my mind, and the one which I think we all want to be pursuing
more, is do they have to do more than they should be expected
to when they are here? In particular I am thinking of English
language capacity. Is there a questionand I am not saying
there is; it is an open question and one we need to investigatethat
students coming here are having to have a lot of language support
because the institutions' ways of ensuring that the students have
appropriate English language capacity before they allow them in
are not acting as effectively as they might be? We have seen one
or two instances of that possibility but we have also seen, and
I bring to your attention the report produced by UKCOSA, which
is now UKCISA, called Benchmarking the Provision of Services
for International Students in Higher Education Institutions,
where it talks about the ways in which institutions are dealing
with the requirements of English language both before and at the
acceptance stage and then subsequently when the students are in
Q114 Chairman: There is a fundamental
issue here, Peter, and that is that in your interview with the
BBC, which set a lot of these hares running,and I am not
saying that is a bad thing at all because we would not be having
this debate if you had not said those thingsyou did make
these comments about sustainability and you also indicated that
there was a widespread problem with agents and that there was
this view that if they pay their fees they get a degree, and that
is the most damning indictment of the overseas student market
where £3.7 billion comes into the UK as a result of that.
Mr Williams: In what the BBC reported
me actually saying I think I used the word "might".
I am not saying this is the case. There have been problems with
agents; that is well known, and those problems were so well known
that the British Council decided to start a course for agents
in order to raise the standard of agents. Agents are and have
been a problem. What we are saying is that a problem agent is
a serious problem for an institution and we are just alerting
them to the need to ensure that the agents they use know what
they are doing and are under proper control. That is an important
message to give to the sector.
Q115 Mr Boswell: Thank you. I am
glad that the agent issue has come up, but can I just build on
it to ask your perception of a slightly different matter, and
we could spend a second inquiry on it but we will not, and that
is the comparability between UK sourced degrees and degrees which
are franchised abroad? I do know that separately you go and you
look at British higher education provision in Malaysia, for example.
I also know the institution I refer to, of which I am a board
member, offers degrees on its own account, degrees through an
associate college in London, and is increasingly going to offer
degrees offshore in the Far East. I happened to see the graduates
there only the other day and was very interested in the large
participation which seemed very positive. Are you satisfied (a)
that you can make sure that a degree which is offered in place
A is of the same value as place B, whichever those are, and (b)
that in effect institutions are not creating situations where
there is a soft option that people will take up in one place?
Can you possibly also say, if you can draw on your experience
when you are doing a country audit, "There are bad agents
performing here", and that you will get somebodynot
yourselvesto do something about that?
Dr Stephen Jackson: As you say,
we have an audit methodology here which looks at the quality of
standards of provision by institutions operating overseas. If
you look at our website, at the report and the links between UK
institutions and partner organisationsand in the past we
have been quite critical of a number of institutions and the way
in which they are managing those things because we recognise that
there is a degree of risk associated with partnership arrangementswe
have detailed in our code of practice how we expect institutions
to manage those relationships and we have procedures for following
up any identified issues which come out of our audit activity,
so we are very conscious of the reputational risk associated with
this type of activity.
Q116 Mr Boswell: Because it is contagious
as well, is it not?
Dr Stephen Jackson: It is the
bad apple argument, is it not? If there is evidence of poor practice
for one particular link it does have implications for other institutions
Q117 Mr Wilson: Can I bring you back
to this notion of sustainability because I do not think you really
got to grips with what you believe is sustainable? By saying something
is unsustainable it is suggesting that you somehow have a measure
of what is sustainable and what is unsustainable for an institution.
Can you be more specific on what you mean by "sustainability"?
Mr Williams: Yes. What I mean
is that an institution which would be predominantly populated
by overseas students would have a quite different dynamic to it
from one that did not. Of course, we all fervently want to see
overseas students in the UK in higher education institutions,
they do nothing but add lustre to them, but I think we have to
be careful that we do not by chance find ourselves in a position
where we are essentially operating overseas universities in the
UK, unless that is what the university wishes to do and unless
it recognises the needs and demands that that will create for
it. My concern is that recruitment without consideration of the
effect of recruitment of overseas students on the overall dynamic
of an institution is likely to create its own difficulties and
I think we have to be careful about that. Things are sustainable
if proper protection is put in place to ensure that the standards
and qualityand I think here we are talking as much about
quality as we are about standardsare not to be jeopardised.
Q118 Mr Wilson: When you are talking
about sustainability you are talking about the dynamic of an institution,
the culture, the ethos?
Mr Williams: Yes.
Q119 Mr Wilson: It is not the financial
viability of the institution that you were referring to when you
were talking about sustainability?
Mr Williams: No. I tread very
warily in the area of finance.