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


Views of students

298. This inquiry has been about student engagement and the student experience of university. Detailed below are some of the answers given when we asked students what for them makes for a good, or bad, university experience.

  • I […] have had a very positive experience within university because of the excellent teaching and support that I have received.[553]
  • For me the main one would have to be the high standard of teaching, which is good value for the tuition fees we are paying for our course. There's nothing more frustrating when you go to a lecture and you have a lecturer just reading Powerpoint slides, especially when they are available at other sources like on the internet and the virtual learning environments we have as well.[554]
  • What I consider to be a good university experience is a place where you can go to learn, where you feel supported by the staff within it. So it doesn't matter if you've got all the modern facilities and all the best teachers.[555]
  • If I were to use one phrase to encapsulate which makes or breaks a student experience it would be getting involved. The endless opportunities available at university are wasted if students are not properly encouraged to embrace them and push themselves.[556]
  • What I think makes a good university experience is a clear and defined career path. Myself personally, I've been working for many years. I come from a single parent background and it's a career change, so my reason for going to university is because I just want a whole new changing career.[557]
  • What contributes to a successful university experience is an institution which actively seeks values and acts on student feedback.[558]
  • For me the students' union were the good guys at the university. They kept me going. They showed me the extra-curricula activities I could do. I didn't enjoy my course in the first year. I really wanted to leave, but it was the extra-curricula activities.[559]
  • Where parents can afford to meet the cost of living students gain better degrees; where parents can't afford it, their children's job prospects are damaged. When debts are so high and repayment takes so long many poorer students may decide to avoid university due to its cost, especially at the moment. University is too expensive and there are not enough grants offered to poorer students.[560]
  • Within the current job market it is important that universities do prepare their students for jobs as not only are students now competing for jobs but many experienced people are losing their jobs, meaning that graduates are up against those who have a lot more experience.[561]

The higher education sector

299. When we were in the USA we asked an academic with extensive experience of European and American higher education for his views on the British system of higher education and how it compared with the system in the USA. He said that the best of the British was better than the best of the American but added that the British system was hampered by an "inherited elitism", an interesting assertion. While we now have a mass higher education system in England, much of the ethos and operation of the sector has been influenced by the research intensive universities in the 1994 and Russell Groups. Is this sustainable in the face of a government objective to have 40% of all adults in England gaining a university qualification by 2020?

300. One clear example of the weight of history lying heavily on the sector is the boundary of institutional autonomy and a reluctance in parts of the sector to develop greater openness on terms other than those which they have determined. We found one example where autonomy and lack of transparency appeared to have led to a serious deficiency— statistically flawed methods of assessments used for degree classifications. We conclude that one of the challenges the higher education sector faces over the next decade is to develop greater openness and transparency in relation to, for example, academic standards, external examiners and the safeguarding of the student experience.


301. We consider that an essential first step towards greater transparency is to define the roles and responsibilities of the higher education sector—academics, managers and students—and of the government with regard to higher education. We concluded in chapter 5 that all would benefit if their roles and responsibilities were set out in a concordat. It could, for example, define the nature of both individual academic freedom and institutional academic autonomy, the principles applying to the consideration of applications for admissions and, more specifically, that only assessments meeting acceptable statistical practice will be applied to the marking of students' work (see paragraph 257 and following).


302. We envisage that as part of the concordat there should be a general agreement that each higher education institution would produce, in consultation with its students, a student compact. Such compacts could cover the following:

  • for prospective undergraduate students an indication, by faculty or department, of the number and duration of lectures, seminars and tutorials with an indication of (a) the likely size of groups attending lectures, seminar groups and tutorials—for example, based on the previous year's experience, or the average in the department—and (b) the amount of teaching that will be carried out by named academic staff and by graduate students;
  • information regarding academic staff who will be available in a given year to guide students outside formal lectures and seminars;
  • a commitment to return work assignments to students within a certain period and provide detailed feedback; and
  • in return each higher education institution should be able to set out what is expected of students, how many assignments they will be expected to submit, and how much time they will be expected to devote to private study.


303. It also appears to us that institutional autonomy can get in the way of cross-sector arrangements that are clearly to the advantage of students and prospective students. First, the operation of, and principles underpinning, admissions arrangements need to be fully explained by all higher education institutions to enable applicants to know how and against what criteria they will be assessed. We call for a code of practice on admissions to higher education. Second, we see clear advantages for students if higher education institutions present information in a consistent format such as that which we suggest for inclusion in the student compacts. So we also call for a code of practice on information for prospective students.


304. We found a paradox in this inquiry. The higher education sector in England carries out, and has a reputation for, world-class research (and often world class teaching) but there was a dearth of research, especially applied research, into key areas that should inform policy formulation on higher education policy itself in England—for example, on the influences stimulating the growth in numbers of degrees classified as firsts or upper seconds, the relationship between teaching and research or the variation in students' hours of study between institutions. As we note in the body of the Report, there appears to be little appetite for such research, which we find disappointing. We are concerned that the higher education sector's lack of interest in research into parts of its own operation might be seen as a symptom of complacency and a reluctance to test and challenge assumptions, some of which in an increasingly global market for higher education may be outmoded. We see a role for Government here to identify, commission and publicise research on the operation of the higher education sector in England.


305. We were especially struck by the lack of clarity—and sometimes we even detected an element of irritation—when we asked Vice-Chancellors whether a degree from a research intensive university in the 1994 or Russell Groups was the same as one from a university established after 1992. Their responses were in marked contrast to those we received in the USA. The American Council on Education said there was no doubt that degrees varied between universities and between departments within a university and added that there was no question that the prestige of the Ivy League and top universities was greatest. Whether it likes the question or not, the higher education sector in this country is going to have to explain whether first class honours degrees from different universities are equivalent. It is unacceptable for the sector to be in receipt of departmental spending of £15 billion but be unable to answer a straightforward question about the relative standards of the degrees of the students, which the taxpayer has paid for.


306. In reviewing the evidence in our inquiry, we found that the arrangements for safeguarding standards need to be brought up-to-date. The arrangements that served us well during the 19th and 20th centuries are now in danger of failing under the weight of a higher education sector in England with 133 diverse institutions and where the total number of higher education students has increased in England by from 1.5 million in 1996-97 to 1.9 million in 2007-08.[562] Without the glue of common, clearly understood and consistently applied standards there is a risk that the sector could fragment further. If it does and if it follows the pattern of the USA, what is likely to happen is that the sector fragments and a hierarchy emerges—described to us by an American academic—as based on: the price an institute can charge in fees; the institution's position in league tables; a selectivity of students that may not be as sensitive to fair access and widening participation as the current arrangements; and value for money. We have no problem with a hierarchy of universities but what we do care about is that any such hierarchy should be based on excellence of teaching, scholarship and research, not exclusively on money.

307. We are clear that the sector needs to address the question of standards now. We have called for a new quality and standards agency, answerable jointly to higher education institutions and the Government, and reporting annually to Parliament. We envisage that such a body, expanding significantly from the work that the Quality Assurance Agency has done, will build and rejuvenate the limbs of the existing system that until relatively recently was working well—in particular, the system of external examiners—and to provide the best way to safeguard the integrity of standards in English higher education institutions.

308. It will also naturally be part of such a development that the relationship between this new agency and the Higher Education Academy be reviewed, including clarification of the key responsibility for quality enhancement in regard to the student experience. Although we had reservations about the operation of the Academy, it could and, we believe, should have a key role in promoting and enhancing academic standards.

309. The key to the successful transformation of higher education in England in the next decade will be to move away from a culture fixated on the most prestigious research-intensive universities and the results of the Research Assessment Exercise (and its replacement) to one where other models of study and university can thrive and excellence is recognised and rewarded for teaching supported by scholarship.

553   Q 184 (Ms Donaghy) Back

554   Q 187 (Mr Chotai) Back

555   Q 225 (Ms Davidson) Back

556   Q 186 (Ms Hopkins) Back

557   Q 231 (Mr Harris) Back

558   Q 228 (Mr Pollard) Back

559   Q 229 (Mr Topazio) Back

560   Q 185 (Mr Williamson) Back

561   Q 184 (Ms Donaghy) Back

562   See table at para 3. Back

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