Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
17 JULY 2008
Q120 Mr Wilson: Why do you think
that is something that your organisation should be commenting
on? Is it not a decision for the individual institution about
where they want to take their students from?
Mr Williams: Of course it is,
but one of our jobs is, if you like, to provide warnings, to say,
"Look: be careful", to act as a kind of collective conscience
for the sector so that through publications like the outcomes
report we can send messages about things which are not big problems
yet, and we hope they will not become problems"And
if you are careful they will not become problems, but do please
look for these things, do please be careful".
Q121 Mr Wilson: And you feel that
is more your role than any other particular body's role?
Mr Williams: Yes, because we have
access to the information which can raise those warnings.
Q122 Dr Evan Harris: I just want
to come back if I may to something which the Chairman asked about
the market in international students because I think he said that
there is a market which is worth £3.7 billion and it is supported
and maintained. Is "market" the right term, because
my understanding of a market is that you pay some money, the market
decides to provide you and you get what you want, and if you do
not get what you want then the market is not working? It should
not be called a market, should it?
Mr Williams: "Market"
is now used widely in higher education and one has to be rather
Q123 Dr Evan Harris: Not by me it
Mr Williams: No, no; you are the
exception perhaps that proves the rule. What is offered in higher
education is an opportunity, or a series of opportunities, and
that I think is what has to be made clear to everybody. That is
not just to do with overseas markets; it is to do with home students
as well. Universities offer an opportunity to learn and to be
assessed on your learning.
Q124 Dr Evan Harris: The reason I
do not call it a market is that it implies there is no non-market
force either present or that ought to be present, and that if
people just see it as a market it will just be, "We will
offer this, you will get a degree, we will meet the demand and
you will be satisfied". My final question is about this issue
of autonomy because the argument has been used that there should
not be any greater regulation, regardless of how well you do,
of standards in higher education institutions because, although
they are mainly funded by the taxpayer, they are autonomous, they
are independent. Therefore to have more rigorous, more intrusive
regulation of their standards (although I would share their view
in respect of academic freedom) would threaten their autonomy.
My question to you is, does not crying "autonomy" also
imply freedom from appropriate questions as well, like financial
questions? Because I do not understand why taxpayers' representatives
expressing an interest in standards is more of a threat to autonomy
than the fact that universities have to rely on getting international
students in to keep them alive, to keep them viable? I would like
you to comment on whether you think autonomy and independence
are an adequate response from the sector to suggestions that there
ought to be more regulation of their standards.
Mr Williams: I think you have
to look at what regulation might look like and whether or not
regulation would help or hinder. My view is that significantly
more regulation would hinder because it would, if you like, encourage
a compliance approach, which is the death knell of innovation.
I think the compliance model for regulation is one where people
teach to the test.
Chairman: It sounds very familiar.
Mr Boswell: Tick boxes.
Q125 Dr Evan Harris: Let us take
medical research just as an example. It is heavily regulated but
very innovative. You can have innovation with regulation because
regulation breeds confidence and enables people to think that
they are not wasting their time in an arbitrary system because
there is confidence in the fact that they are going to be treated
fairly and rewarded fairly in their work or study.
Mr Williams: Yes, but I think
the regulation of research is different from the regulation of
academic standards and teaching alone.
Q126 Dr Evan Harris: Is it?
Mr Williams: I think so. I think
it is a different neck of the woods.
Q127 Dr Evan Harris: So what is beneficial
in one is detrimental in the other? Why?
Mr Williams: Because the nature
of the exercise is different. It is a different task.
Q128 Dr Evan Harris: Yes, I know
it is a different task, that is self-evident, but what is so different
about it that it means that what is beneficial in one area is
detrimental in another?
Mr Williams: I think you have
to go back to what teaching and learning in higher education are
for. It is about providing opportunities for students to learn.
It is about the development of knowledge. It is about the conservation
and transmission of knowledge.
Q129 Dr Evan Harris: It is the same
in schools but we regulate schools. Do you think it is an argument
for deregulating schools?
Mr Williams: No, because we are
talking here about organisations that have the powers to make
awards. Schools do not have those powers. Universities do. That
makes them really quite different in kind.
Q130 Dr Evan Harris: Okay, but it
is sufficient to say that any greater checking up on whether what
they are doing is appropriate would harm them?
Mr Williams: Let us look at where
that does happen. That happensor happenedover most
of Europe where there was a national curriculum. The degrees were
owned by the state and the institutions essentially taught to
the agreed national curriculum. The countries of Europe are moving
at a huge rate. They are galloping away from that model because
it has held them back and dragged them down. They have welcomed
the Bologna Model because it offers them much more flexibility,
much more self-reliance, much more opportunity to innovate and
to develop their own self-confidence.
Q131 Dr Evan Harris: They might not
like it but there are other people involved here, are there not?
Obviously, everyone wants themselves to be less regulated, do
Mr Williams: They do.
Dr Evan Harris: I am just saying overall.
Chairman: I think we have perhaps come
to a stalemate on that.
Q132 Mr Wilson: Can I say that I
am very pleased that you have raised the issues that you have.
You have created a very important debate in a number of areas,
but the discussion of grade inflation, worries about too many
overseas students and concerns about standards might create a
negative impression overseas and I just wonder whether you think
that what you have said will have negative repercussions for our
Mr Williams: I sincerely hope
not because I think what this does, what we do, what you do, shows
just how seriously the UK takes its standards. We could not have
this discussion in most countries of the world. What we can do
here is open them out and say, "Look: we care deeply about
our standards. We care deeply about our higher education. We want
to make sure that everybody takes this at a level of seriousness
which goes well beyond the UK", and that is what I think
we do and that is what I think the work of the QAA helps to do,
but it is also immensely valuable, as I said at the beginning,
that a committee like yours is willing to engage with these questions
because it adds to the recognition of the seriousness of standards
and quality, which is what we are all keen for. I sincerely hope
that in the overseas world they will say, "Wow! We can have
confidence in the UK higher education because they are not taking
this lying down. They are thinking about the issues, they are
worrying about the issues, they are doing something about them".
Q133 Mr Boswell: Thank you for this.
I think we have had a good rattle around some really difficult
issues. There were some fine words and some fairly provocative
remarks that you made in your report, and that is part of your
job, but what happens now? Who is going to grip this and do something
Mr Williams: Let me just say that
I think there are five things we want to do, partly in the light
of our own work.
Q134 Mr Boswell: In parallel with
that can you suggest, delicately, also that others may need to
do with you?
Mr Williams: Yes. This is certainly
something we cannot do entirely on our own. We will need to call
on others to do it. It is partly in the light of our own work
and partly in the light of the noise in the system, the things
that are coming out. The first thing we are going to do is try
and make our causes for concern process more visible so that it
is easy for people to find out about it. There is a downside to
that because we are not resourced to deal with an avalanche, should
an avalanche happen. I hope one does not come but we will cope
with that if it does and if necessary we will seek additional
resources from our funders. The second thing we are going to do
is that we wish to extend our causes for concern process so that
we do not just wait for complaints or concerns to come to us,
but when we see, if you like, a critical mass of concerns in the
ether we then take action to see whether or not there is something
substantial or substantive in those concerns. The third thing
we are going to do is develop an action plan to make inquiries
in a series of these areas, and that is where we are going to
need other systems.
Q135 Mr Boswell: And this might,
for example, be the interdepartmental issues that we talked about?
Mr Williams: All of those key
issues that are emerging. As I say, we are not set up as a research
organisation so some of it we will be able to do ourselves, some
of it we will need to go and commission others to do for us. The
other thing we will do is that we will ask complainants, and you
see if you can do this, to let us have the evidence because without
the evidence we are really rather stuck. If we have evidence which
is usable then we can take action, but our difficulty is that
a lot of the noise in the system is not usable. We have analysed
335 responses to the media pieces in the last three weeks and
of those we think 12% have sufficient evidence in them were we
to get the real evidence.
Q136 Dr Evan Harris: You are not
a research organisation but you can add to your list of things
to do publishing your recommendations of what research needs to
Mr Williams: Yes.
Q137 Dr Evan Harris: It has come
up a couple of times.
Mr Williams: Yes.
Q138 Mr Boswell: We might like to
have a note on that when you are ready.
Mr Williams: We are about to go
from this meeting to our board meeting in which we will be putting
these proposals to our board.
Q139 Chairman: I think 12.5% is a
fairly significant percentage to be taken up, is it not?
Mr Williams: It is 40-odd.
Chairman: I think that demonstrates that
something needs to be done. On that note could I thank you very
much indeed, Dr Stephen Jackson, Peter Williams, Douglas Blackstock
and Dr Nick Harris. I think it has been an incredibly useful session
this morning. We would like as a committee to be kept informed
of your next steps because I think we intend to keep a very close
eye on this as we may well return to the issue of teaching and
learning in universities because that is really the heart of what
you have been saying. Thank you very much indeed this morning.