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

Memorandum 1

Submission from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

  The Department welcomes this opportunity to respond to the Committee's request for evidence on the topics outlined below. This memorandum largely covers activities within England, although references to the research councils apply across the UK. Responsibility for higher education (HE) is devolved, while science and research funding is reserved.


    — An excellent higher education sector with world class learning and research is crucial to meet both economic and social needs;— DIUS is committed to increasing and widening participation in higher education to achieve the high level skills needed to secure the nation's future prosperity;

    — Universities are autonomous organisations and have their own admissions policy. Government is determined to promote fair and transparent admissions policies and has asked OFFA and HEFCE to undertake work in this area

    — Young people are motivated by different types of learning and these provide a variety of access routes to HE;

    — The Government has ensured that, even as participation in HE increases, sufficient resources have been made available to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to maintain the unit of funding. We have ensured that expansion is properly funded and have increased HE funding by 24% in real terms in the last 10 years;

    — The Government is committed to the dual support system through which funding for research is channelled to universities;

    — Maintaining and improving the quality of teaching is a priority and there are agreed standards and outcomes which are expected from HE;

    — Students who have the ability and wish to study in higher education should not be prevented from doing so for financial reasons, as there is a generous package of support available in the form of loans and grants;

    — The Government has set up a National Student Forum (NSF) to provide a mechanism for student feedback to be channelled into the policy-making process and improvements in the student experience;

    — The Government intends to publish in 2009 a framework for the development of higher education over the next ten to fifteen years


  1.  An excellent higher education sector is a central part of our national and international economic success and key to long-term growth for the UK. Higher education is about knowledge and understanding. It is about imparting knowledge to learners and extending that knowledge through research. Key objectives for higher education in the future must be excellence in research and in teaching.

2.  Higher education institutions (HEIs) and students are not homogeneous groups. This diversity is one of the strengths of the sector and means that the student experience will vary according to individual (social background, age etc), course (full time, part time under/post grad), institution (size, urban, rural, research intensive) etc Diversity means we can meet the educational and employability needs of a range of students.

  3.  Graduates stimulate the economy and make a huge contribution to our national wealth. We have high completion rates of full degree courses which results in a flow of graduates that remains above the OECD average. The UK continues to be an attractive destination to foreign students, second only to the USA in terms of overall numbers.

  4.  The Government has set an aspirational target to increase participation in higher education towards 50% of those aged 18 to 30 with growth of at least a percentage point every two years to the academic year 2010-11 (the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate—HEIPR). Domestic demand for higher education continues to rise (see Data Annex Figures 1 and 2). We are aiming to produce more, and more employable, graduates increasing initial participation rates and meeting our targets over time. We are also determined to ensure fair access policies so that young people from every social class, over 50% of whom now aspire to go to university, can benefit from higher education—a huge change from the 1960s when only 5% went to higher education.

  5.  Between 2000-01 and 2006-07 the numbers of part time students (undergraduate and postgraduate) rose by almost 12%; and the numbers of full time rose by almost 16%. We are funding a record number of places (1,156,000) in 08-09.


Progression into Higher Education

  6.  Good quality, timely information, advice and guidance (IAG) about progression to HE is extremely important and we are working closely with the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) to make improvements to help schools—with input from the HE sector—for example through the development of new, high quality materials for use in the classroom. It is essential that potential students can access the right information, advice and guidance to help them select the course which best meets their personal and career aspirations. This is a priority issue for the National Student Forum (NSF) which included recommendations on IAG in their recently published annual report (see para 38). It is important that young people, and their advisers, are able to consider this sort of information early, so it can inform their choices.

Routes to Higher Education

7.  If we are to increase participation in higher education, we need to ensure that all young people enjoy an education that fulfils their potential and stretches and challenges them so that they can go on to further or higher education or employment. The Government has a comprehensive qualifications policy for 14—19 year olds because young people are motivated by different types of learning. We have a range of qualifications providing a choice of curricula and learning methods. They each provide a variety of access routes to HE and progression routes to further study. They ensure young people are able to develop all the skills and knowledge they need, and that employers and universities want. A sample of the key access routes for young people are:-

    — A-level is the traditional university entrance qualification. OFSTED and QCA/Ofqual have confirmed that they are confident that A level results reflect the real achievements of students and that standards have been maintained.

    — The International Baccalaureate (IB) Entries for the IB are a fraction of those for A-level.

    — Apprenticeship frameworks now have a clear pathway to higher education for those who have the potential to succeed at that level. Arrangements are being piloted to award UCAS Tariff points for apprenticeships.

    — University entrance tests: Research has shown that a relatively small number of institutions use tests (14%) and only for 0.43% of courses in the UCAS scheme. They could impose burdens on under-represented groups and/or schools that are less familiar with preparing leavers for higher education

    — the 14-19 Diploma. Many HE Institutions have worked as part of Diploma Development Partnerships to ensure the Diploma qualifications have been developed in such as way as to ensure their suitability for progression onto Honours Degree courses. The Extended Project (EP) is a stand-alone piece of work which requires students to use independent research, critical thinking, planning, and evaluation skills which universities have particularly welcomed. The EP is a compulsory part of the Diploma, but can be taken alongside A Levels, or as a qualification in its own right. It is equivalent to half an A Level and is graded, like A levels and Advanced Diplomas, from A* to E.

  8.  Institutions including all Russell Group and 1994 Group Universities are now working on course-level statements for their 2010 prospectuses reflecting their acceptance of Diplomas. The Advanced Diploma will be awarded a maximum of 420 Tariff points; the same number as for 3.5 A levels. Work is underway in UCAS to consider whether an additional Tariff should be awarded for achievement of an A* grade in A levels and Diplomas. A decision is expected by the end of 2008.

  9.  Universities are autonomous organisations. The Government does not direct institutions in admissions policy. It remains a fundamental principle that universities are responsible for who they admit to their courses, but we must allow the most talented and hard working of our young people to achieve their full potential, irrespective of what kind of social background they came from, or the school they went to. Universities must operate a fair and transparent admissions policy and we believe that key to increasing public confidence in application and admissions processes is to increase openness, transparency and accountability. Earlier this year, we asked HEFCE and OFFA to look at how HEIs can bring together their widening participation and fair access policies, including transparent admissions system into a single document and we will announce our response to this advice shortly.

  10.  We are addressing barriers to progression into higher education for those with vocational qualifications. We are responding to the demand for developing those in work who may have vocational qualifications or significant practical/work related skills and who need to access higher education through, for example supporting employer co-funded places for their existing workforce. Lifelong Learning networks are addressing barriers to progression into and through higher education for those with vocational qualifications by developing new routes as are Foundation Degrees.

  11.  Entry to most full-time first degrees, HNDs and university diplomas, for UK students and for students applying from overseas, is administered by the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) an independent body and a registered charity (see Fig 1 Data Annex). Between 2002 and 2007 the number of applicants rose by 15%. Provisional figures show that the total number of people applying for 2008 entry was 582,657

  12.  HEIs accept many different qualifications as evidence of an applicant's potential to succeed on the course they have applied for. They couch their offers of a place in conditional terms, based on the qualifications and grades they expect the applicant to achieve before taking up the offer. Some institutions will use UCAS Tariff points instead of, or as well as grades to specify their offers.


  13.  Lack of financial support should not present a barrier to students who have the ability and wish to study in higher education, as there is a generous package of support available in the form of grants and loans. No eligible full-time student has to pay their fees before or during their studies. All students are able to apply for a loan for the full variable fee.

14.  Improving access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds is a key priority for the Government and we have made real progress in recent years (see Figures 3 and 4). The proportion of young entrants from lower socio- economic groups has increased steadily, reaching 29.8% in 2007. Since 1997-98 the proportion of young people entering university for the first time from State schools has risen by over six percentage points to 87.2% in 2006-07. However, we have always said that widening participation requires a long-term approach and that results would not be immediate.

  15.  HEFCE's widening participation allocation of £364 million recognises the additional cost to HEIs of recruiting and retaining students from non-traditional backgrounds. This is in addition to the work that HEFCE has commissioned from Action on Access to disseminate and promote examples of good practice in retaining students. For students entering full-time first degree courses in 2005-06, 78.0% are projected to obtain a degree. This is amongst the highest overall completion rates in the OECD countries. Non-completion rates have fallen from 15.8% in 1997-98 to 13.9% in 2005-06.

  16.  We continue to help and encourage a range of people to enter HE through for example.

    The Aimhigher programme, to raise the attainment levels of young people and their aspirations towards higher education, so that the numbers and proportions of young people from backgrounds currently under-represented in HE continue to rise. Aimhigher enables partnerships of school, colleges and universities to co-design and deliver a range of activities to engage, enthuse and enable young people to be able and willing to participate in HE. Aimhigher is impacting on the aspirations and attainment levels of young people.

    Aimhigher Associates commenced in September 2008. The programme will build to 5,500 undergraduates mentoring 21,000 pupils from age 13 to support them and encourage them through educational transitions and into HE.

    The HE recommendations from the National Council for Educational Excellence which were announced in October and focus on how universities and schools/colleges can work together to identify and nurture young talent.

  17.  Many HEIs are engaged in a number of their own outreach and other activities designed to help young people from under-represented backgrounds to apply successfully to their institution. These include "Compact Schemes", which provide additional support to prospective HE students including arrangements which may allow lower entry offers to be made. Recent research has identified 51 HEIs offering some sort of compact arrangement, although they vary widely in scope.

  18.  We welcome the announcement by 11 of our most selective universities to extend opportunities—for the best performing students from the most challenging backgrounds—to show what they can achieve, and seeking further to develop ways in which their outreach activity, including in some cases compact schemes, can help young people. Our most selective universities are recognising their full responsibilities in helping to seek out and develop the best of talents, wherever they are in our society.

  19.  We are growing student numbers to record levels. But we are not simply concerned with recruiting younger students. Our development of new models for the funding and design of HE courses will also enable us to grow the number of mature students entering HE part-time. As part of this strategy for growth, over the next six years HEFCE have been asked to support twenty new HE centres with around 10,000 student places, under our New University Challenge (NUC) initiative. This will allow more students to gain access to HE locally and bring significant benefits through driving local economic and social regeneration

The balance between teaching and research

  20.  The Department has ensured that, even as participation in HE increases, significant additional resources have been made available to HEFCE in the last decade to maintain the unit of funding in real terms. For 2008-09 the Department has allocated to HEFCE a recurrent grant for teaching of £4,920 million. This includes widening participation funding and funding for anticipated growth. Most of this budget is linked to student numbers recruited by institutions, which are at record levels

21.  Working with HEFCE, the Department has sought to raise the profile of teaching in HE. HEFCE is providing significant funding for special initiatives that support teaching excellence and innovation through research and dissemination of best practice. That includes, in the current year, £35 million for the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs) which reward and promote excellent teaching practice; £17.9 million to the HE Academy which supports the sector in providing the best possible learning experience for students; £54 million for institutional learning and teaching strategies, supporting professional standards, teaching informed and enriched by research, and staff and student volunteering; and £2.6 million towards the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme which makes awards to individuals and to institutions for projects to build on expertise.

  22.  The details of individual programmes of training and continuous professional development in teaching vary according to the needs of institutions and individuals. The Higher Education Academy (HEA) published in 2006 the UK Professional Standards Framework which HEIs can apply to their professional development programmes and activities to demonstrate that professional standards for teaching and supporting learning are being met.

  23.  It is crucial that all institutions offer excellent teaching, but the balance between teaching and research must be determined by each institution according to its own strengths. Support for teaching in HE helps sustain, and is in turn enriched by, world class research.


  24.  The Government has made HEFCE legally responsible, under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, to ensure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education provided in institutions for whose activities they provide, or are considering providing, financial support. HEFCE fulfils its responsibility by contracting with the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and provides a close oversight on quality through its committee structures.

25.  The sector owned Academic Infrastructure, developed by the QAA in partnership with the sector, provides a means of describing academic standards in UK higher education. It allows for diversity and innovation within academic programmes offered by higher education. Audits are then carried out by a team of academics who review the institution's quality and standards, using their knowledge of higher education and reference points in the Academic Infrastructure. After each audit, QAA publishes a report on the audit team's findings. Each HEI also appoints external examiners (independent academic experts from other HEIs or from areas of relevant professional practice) to provide impartial advice on performance in relation to particular programmes.

  26.  As universities are autonomous organisations with legal powers to award their own degrees and responsible for their academic provision, the responsibility for ensuring appropriate methods of assessing excellence in teaching must remain at the institutional level. However, the national arrangements provide a public assurance about excellence and quality in HE overall, which are evidenced by:

    — positive outcomes from Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) audits;

    — consistently high student feedback—in the most recent National Student Survey 82% of students in England expressed overall satisfaction with the quality of their courses;

    — high graduate employability—93.6% of full-time first degree graduates from English HEIs in employment and/or further study; and

    — high employer satisfaction—84% of employers recruiting graduates thought that they were very well or well prepared for work.

  27.  Each university is different, bringing a uniqueness of experience to bear on its teaching provision. It is important that students receive good clear information about what each university has to offer, to help them make the right choices about what to study and where. The Department has encouraged the development of the Unistats website (formerly Teaching Quality Information website) as a key route to information on quality and outcomes for prospective students.

  28.  The Department maintains a keen interest in ensuring the HE sector's reputation for excellence, and has made clear that, if any concern does arise about quality, the sector should be in a position to respond proactively and quickly.

Degree classification

  29.  Instigated by the former Department for Education and Skills (DfES), a sector group chaired by Professor Burgess has reviewed current methodologies for recording student achievement. It concluded that, whilst the UK honours degree itself is a robust and highly-valued qualification, the degree classification system is considered no longer fit for purpose, because it does not describe the range of knowledge, skills, attributes and experience of today's graduates. The "Burgess Group" found no suitable alternative summative system, but concluded that there was a need to provide more information about each student's achievements.

30.  Maintaining confidence in the value of UK degrees is vital. The Burgess Group proposed, in October 2007, development of the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) which will pull together and increase the amount of information about an individual student's achievements and will give employers more detailed information on the skills, progress and attainment of prospective employees. In October 2008 Universities UK (UUK) announced plans for 18 HE Institutions to pilot the HEAR. The HEAR will incorporate the European Diploma Supplement (DS) which is one of the tools used in the Bologna Process to create a system of easily readable and comparable degrees across the European Higher Education Area.

  31.  HEIs have their own regulations for assessing the work of their students, underpinned by the sector-wide Academic Infrastructure which is key to the process of assuring quality and standards. Benchmark statements (one element of the Academic Infrastructure) set out expectations about standards of degrees in each subject area. HEIs also use a form of peer review—external examiners advise on the extent to which assessment and decisions on awards are sound and fair. The proportion of 1st and upper 2nd class honours degrees awarded by English HEIs has remained broadly constant at 58-60% over the last four years (03-04 to 06-07). Nevertheless, in response to recent media concern, the QAA is carrying out investigations into the use of external examiners and institutional assessment practices. The Department will be looking at the results of those investigations as soon as they become available in the New Year.

Student plagiarism

  32.  Student plagiarism is a matter for which HEIs, as autonomous organisations, are responsible for addressing and applying penalties. The QAA, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), and the HEA all provide advice and guidance to HEIs on dealing with plagiarism. In May 2008, JISC and HEA published the second part of their Academic Misconduct Benchmarking Research (AMBeR) Project and used the survey results to determine a reasonable extrapolation of the national number of plagiarism incidents across UK HE—7.20 cases for every 1,000 students or 0.72%, which is lower than other student surveys have previously shown. The report also suggested that the vast majority of incidences are first offences, which indicates that current punitive measures are successful. JISC and HEA will continue to use such research to support institutions and in the report they urge institutions to improve their existing recording procedures to aid transparency and communication within the sector.

Research Funding

33.  In the decade since 1997, Government funding for the UK research base has risen from £1.3 billion to £3.4 billion, and it will rise further during the CSR07 period. The Government channels research funding for universities through the dual support system, and remains committed to continuing it (see Figure 5). The system aims to balance:

    — a stable (but not static) financial foundation with competitive funding for specific projects.

    — the need for funders to promote specific priorities with the freedom of universities to set their own agenda.

    — the rewards for discovering new knowledge with those for working with users.

    — rewards for future potential with those for established performance.

  34.  The main methods for assessing research quality in the dual support system are the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which informs the selective distribution of funds by the UK higher education funding bodies, and peer review of individual projects, which informs research council funding.

  35.  DIUS believes that the RAE has significantly improved the quality of research over the past 20 years working within a dual support system. This is supported by the 2002 House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee report on the RAE which concluded that: "The RAE has had positive effects: it has stimulated universities into managing their research and has ensured that funds have been targeted at areas of research excellence."

  36.  The 2008 RAE results will fully inform HEFCE research funding until 2010-11 for all subjects. However, it is our intention (announced in 2006) to replace the RAE with the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF must take into account the whole range of indicators of excellence, including the broader contribution which academics make to policy development. HEFCE is now refining the details of the new system, in consultation with funding bodies and the university sector across the UK.

  37.  Research councils fund research through the mechanism of peer review—academics submit research proposals to a research council for funding, and expert peer review panels then allocate funding to those that are judged to be of the highest scientific merit. Academics are free to submit research proposals on any subject in a research council's remit; in addition, research councils will make calls for proposals in a particular area (proposals received will be evaluated by peer review) and fund post-graduate studentships and academic fellowships. Some (principally Medical Research Council (MRC), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) maintain their own institutes which employ scientists directly.

  38.  In August 2008 RCUK published, on behalf of all the research councils, a statement of mission and statement of expectation on economic and social impact, reaffirming its commitment to excellent research that extends the boundaries of human knowledge but emphasising the need to take into consideration the potential for societal and economic benefits when thinking about future directions for research.


  39.  Since 2003 the Government has encouraged the higher education sector to seek student feedback and to involve students in developing further improvement initiatives. The most tangible example is the introduction of the National Student Survey (NSS)—a survey of all final-year undergraduates on the quality of the teaching and learning on their course. The most recent results from that survey show overall satisfaction remaining above 80% (82%). All HE institutions now participate and pass the 50% publication threshold Results are used by HEFCE and the HEA to identify national development priorities and by individual institutions (universities and HE colleges) to identify specific areas for improvement. In addition the recent NUS student experience survey also showed high satisfaction levels—with 85% rating the quality of teaching and learning as good or excellent and 85% pleased they had chosen to attend university.

40.  In October 2007, DIUS Ministers launched the Student Listening Programme, designed to amplify the student voice in Government—and to give a strong message to the sector about the importance of directly engaging with students. Students must be at the heart of discussions and decisions to improve the student learning experience. Ministers regularly meet students on their visits to HEIs to take their views.

  41.  As part of the Student Listening Programme five Student Juries were held between November 2007 and February 2008, giving "typical" students an opportunity to listen to expert speakers from the HE sector, debate issues of concern, and vote on their top priorities for the future.

    a. Building on the Student Juries, a new National Student Forum has been established in partnership with the student representative organisations. The Forum members are a representative group of 16 current students, with an independent chair (Maeve Sherlock).

    b. Since the creation of DIUS, we have designated a Minister for Students—with responsibility to listen to and speak up for students in DIUS and across Government. Lord Young is now the Minister for Students in both higher education and further education.

  42.  The National Student Forum's first annual report, which was published on 17 October 2008, focuses on Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) and Student Finance as two areas which are of top priority for students. It also includes proposals for further development by the Forum on employability and issues affecting disabled, international and postgraduate students. The Government responded publicly to the Forum's annual report and recommendations on 10 December.[3]


  43.  Non-repayable maintenance grants and bursaries have been reintroduced, focusing help on the least well off and families on modest incomes. The grants package has been significantly enhanced since 2004-05 by raising both the grant amount and the family income thresholds for receiving full and partial grants.

44.  In July 2007 it was predicted that a third of students would get the maximum maintenance grant and a further third a partial grant (see Fig 6 Data Annex). It is now expected that about 40% of the students will be eligible for the full grant. It has been necessary to make some adjustments to ensure that the original intention of the announcement made in July 2007, that is, that two thirds of students will benefit from a full or partial grant is maintained. In 2009-10 all eligible new students from households with an income of around £18,000 to £50,000 will benefit from higher levels of maintenance grant than in 2007-08; and those from households with an income of around £57,000 will get more total support including subsidised loans. An additional £100 million has been made available to meet that commitment.

  45.  In addition to subsidised loans for tuition fees, and living costs and non-repayable maintenance grants, students paying the full tuition fee and getting the full grant benefit from a non repayable bursary of £310 from their university or college. In fact many universities and colleges are paying much more, to a broader range of students. A typical bursary is around £800.

  46.  Students are also able to take out a loan to cover their living costs, the majority of which is non means-tested. Unlike commercial loans, student loans only attract an interest rate linked to inflation, so borrowers will repay no more, in real terms, than they borrow. Borrowers repay at a rate of 9 per cent of their income over a threshold of £15,000 a year.

  47.  In 2004 the Government introduced a package of support for part- time students for the first time and this was subsequently enhanced. This includes non-repayable, means-tested grants for fees, travel and course costs.

  48.  In addition, targeted support is available for students with specific needs: including full-time students with children or adult dependents, those with a disability and those who are eligible for income-related benefits. The Access to Learning Fund, a discretionary budget administered by higher education institutions, is also available for full and part-time students in financial hardship who might otherwise have difficulty accessing or remaining in higher education.

  49.  As noted above, the NSF's annual report made a number of recommendations on student finance. It reported that students were not always familiar with the range of financial support available to them and that further work may be necessary. Currently there is an extensive information and advertising campaign to raise awareness of HE and student finance.


  50.  Next year we will publish our framework for the development of higher education over the next ten to fifteen years. It will address the expansion and development of higher education in Britain. We need a framework to help us ensure that higher education in this country meets the growing demands upon it for research, teaching, international cooperation, economic development and cultural influence in the 21st century and provides a reference point for future policy decisions, including decisions about funding and other priorities.

51.  We invited contributions from external expert contributors on issues such as demographic changes, institutional performance, internationalism, intellectual property, part-time study, research careers, and the student experience and e-learning. Reports on these issues were published in November on the DIUS website. Representatives of the users of HE have also been asked to provide reports. The users will report shortly. They have been selected from a variety of backgrounds: business, the arts, public sector etc. The outcomes of the debate will help us ensure that HE in this country meets the growing demands upon it for research, teaching, international cooperation, economic development and cultural influence in the 21st century. It will also set the essential context for the work of the review of student tuition fees.

December 2008

3   Correction to paragraph 42-the Government now expect to publish its response to the NSF annual report in January 2009. Back

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