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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 120-139)


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 careful about—

  Q123  Dr Evan Harris: Not by me it is not.

  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 happens—or happened—over 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 they not?

  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 universities overseas.

  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 about it?

  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 be done?

  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.

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