Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents



The experience of the student is at the heart of higher education. Successive governments have successfully increased the numbers of students gaining a higher education qualification but debate has raged about whether this has resulted in a diminution of the quality of the student experience. At the beginning of this inquiry we set out to answer the following questions. How has the student experience changed? Is it getting better or worse? Are students getting value for money out of higher education?

As nearly everything universities do affects students this was a wide-ranging inquiry, covering everything from the decision to apply to university to the standards of the degrees awarded to students. We made a point of meeting, and seeking the views of, students in a wide range of institutions. We were also keen to carry out this inquiry in the run up to the review of tuition fees scheduled to start in 2009, to ensure that wider issues—than, for example, the amount by which fees should be allowed to rise—informed the debate, and throughout we put the student at the heart of what we did. We were also mindful of the review of higher education being conducted by the then Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and believed our inquiry could help inform any future debate on higher education.

On the issue of student support introduced to mitigate the effect of variable fees, we found that the existing bursary arrangements were unsatisfactory and unfair. Students from identical backgrounds with the same financial need for support receive significantly varying bursaries depending on which university they attend. We call for a national system calculated on need to replace the existing arrangements. Such a system would widen the participation of disadvantaged groups in higher education. We fully support widening participation in higher education. We also conclude that the sector should have arrangements that reduce the elements of randomness and chance in the admission process and help ensure students get a fairer deal on access to all universities.

We also identified three areas of particular concern. First, the system in England for safeguarding consistent national standards in higher education institutions is out-of-date, inadequate and in urgent need of replacement. The current arrangements with each university responsible for its own standards are no longer meeting the needs of a mass system of higher education in the 21st century with two million students. Given the amount of money that the taxpayer puts into universities it is not acceptable, as we found during our inquiry, that Vice-Chancellors cannot give a straightforward answer to the simple question of whether students obtaining first class honours degrees at different universities had attained the same intellectual standards.

The body that currently "assures quality", the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), focuses almost exclusively on processes, not standards. This needs to change. We call for the QAA to be transformed into an independent Quality and Standards Agency with a remit, statutory if necessary, to safeguard, monitor and report on standards.

Second, we were surprised by the lack of consistency across the higher education sector. There is much good practice, indeed excellence, in the sector but it was not easy to establish whether it is consistently applied. We are clear that cross-sector arrangements are required and will benefit students and prospective students. We therefore call for codes of practice—to be followed by all institutions in receipt of public funds—on, for example, admissions, and also on access information to ensure that universities present information in a consistent format to allow prospective students to make informed decisions. As one mature student pointed out to us: "Getting a clear idea of the hours involved and when lectures would be was incredibly important to me because of child care".

In addition, we call on the Government to take immediate steps to introduce a credit transfer system which will allow credit earned in one institution to be transferred to another and portability of credits between tertiary education institutions in England—that is, between further and higher and among different higher education institutions.

Third, the treatment of part-time and mature students needs to be improved. The failure of the current system to treat them on the same basis as full-time students aged between 18 and 21 is in effect a form of discrimination that is not only wrong but also hinders the achievement of the Government's objective of 40% of all adults in England gaining a university qualification by 2020. The forthcoming review of fees needs to examine all aspects of support for part-time and mature students.

There also needs to be a change of culture at the top in higher education. At several points we encountered what could be characterised as defensive complacency. We found no appetite whatsoever to investigate important questions such as the reasons for the steady increase in the proportion of first class and upper second class honours degrees over the past 15 years or the variation in study time by students taking the same subjects at different universities. We also have concerns that the protections for whistle-blowers within universities are inadequate. Nor did we find any interest in testing the assumptions that pervade the sector—for example, that there is a link between carrying out research and the quality of teaching. We found some of the justification for the current arrangements wholly unconvincing. The most glaring was that it was possible to justify academic standards with a market mechanism.

Towards the end of the inquiry the Prime Minister reorganised Whitehall creating the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which will have responsibility for higher education. As a consequence select committee scrutiny of higher education will shift on 1 October to our sister committee, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. As this is therefore now a valedictory report we have framed our conclusions and recommendations in a wider manner than we had intended when we embarked on the inquiry. For example, we heard about the part that further education colleges play in widening participation in, and providing, higher education and this is an area we may well have examined further in a subsequent inquiry. On the evidence we took in this inquiry we expect further education colleges to play a crucial role in the development of higher education and in meeting the Government's 2020 objective.

The challenge for the next decade for the higher education sector will be to develop consistency in practice and standards and much greater openness and transparency.

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Prepared 2 August 2009