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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 100-119)


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 guess—and it is a guess; I do not know—is 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 of, no.

  Q108  Dr Evan Harris: Do you think there should be research, because it is a good question, is it not?

  Mr Williams: Yes.

  Q109  Dr Evan Harris: I always ask this question.

  Mr Williams: I think there should always be more research into things in general.

  Q110  Dr Evan Harris: Who should do that research?

  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 question—and I am not saying there is; it is an open question and one we need to investigate—that 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 the UK.

  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 things—you 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 somebody—not yourselves—to 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 organisations—and 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 arrangements—we 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 as well.

  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 quality—and I think here we are talking as much about quality as we are about standards—are 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.

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