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

Memorandum 101

Submission from Dr Stephen Dearden

    — This submission argues that there is evidence of serious failures in the maintenance of the integrity of the current system of degree awards— It has arisen from the creation of a competitive market in higher education, the marginalisation of academic staff with the shift to centralised management and the pursuit of the government's widening access objective.

    — The problem can be addressed through the strengthening of the system of external examiners or the adoption of external assessment of core units.

    — The conflict between the need to raise the fee cap while limiting the burden upon public funds of loan subsidies could be addressed by targeting support to those students from low income households who also meet higher matriculation and performance criteria.

  1.  The available evidence on social and private rate of return to investment in higher education is challenged by a number of methodological problems and data limitations. Any conclusions drawn will also be compromised by the significant change in the UK's medium-term economic situation. However the evidence does suggest that it is important not to focus upon average returns but to disaggregated results to take into account degree subject, classification and institution.

  2.  Drawing upon the limited quantitative and survey evidence there is some indication that a new binary divide is emerging in higher education. The post 92 institutions appear to have been the major destination for those students drawn into higher education by the widening access policies of the government. These institutions are becoming characterised by low relative entry qualifications, high dropout rates and poorer employment/pay returns. At the undergraduate level there are also suggestions that these institutions are most vulnerable to pressures to compromise academic standards to achieve recruitment and retention targets.

  3.  The maintenance of academic standards is central to the reputation of any institution. Evidence to the committee of a systemic problem has already been provided by other contributors and arises from three factors—the creation of a competitive market environment in higher education: the marginalisation of academic staff through the move from "collegiate" to "line management" organisational structures: widening participation targets achieved through the financial constraint of a fee cap.

  4.  The nature of the compromising of academic standards varies across the sectors. In the case of the old universities the pressures arise from concern with league table rankings or to maintain the flow of postgraduate overseas students. In the case of the post 92 institutions it is to ensure sufficient recruitment and retention of undergraduates.

  5.  Academic standards have been compromised by changes in degree regulations (eg "compensation criteria"), changes in the method of assessment—especially the greater weighting being given to course assessment—changes in degree course content and individual course syllabuses, management pressure on academic staff to "fully utilise the range of marks" and, in the extreme case, the threat of loss of teaching leading to staff priming students on exam content. Much of this is impossible to identify through formal monitoring procedures.

  6.  Although the introduction of continuous assessment has been justified as offering students the opportunity to demonstrate a wider range of skills, without a process of "standardisation" it undermines any inter-temporal comparisons of degree standards. I'm not aware of any such standardisation being undertaken in any institution.

  7.  The role of the QAA, focused upon organisational structures and bureaucracy, has failed to identify these problems and lacks the confidence of large numbers of academic staff. The contrast with its academic-led predecessor, the Council for National Academic Awards is stark.

  8.  I believe one solution lies in the enhancement of the role of the external examiner. But it is essential that external examiners are appointed from outside of the institution, from a national pool, and that their reports be given sufficient weight. A Council for External Examiners, perhaps as part of HEFC, would ensure their objectivity, enhance their role, ensure experience is shared across the university sectors and provide additional training. External examiners should also report directly to such a Council to ensure that institutional management give sufficient weight to their views. It is currently far too easy for senior management to ignore their comments. It would also be important that they were sufficiently remunerated in view of the current difficulty of attracting academic staff to these roles. The current system, exploiting an "old boys network" of friendly examiners compromises their integrity, especially where they are drawn from similar institutions. It is also crucial that they are drawn from amongst active "academic" staff, not management grades, with standing in their disciplines.

  9.   A more problematic alternative might be to move towards restoring externally set and marked examinations. Most degree courses include common elements that define their "discipline" base. These units could be externally examined, while allowing individual institutions to maintain the flexibility of offering their own particular course specialisms. Discrepancies in the marks between these externally assessed units and those offered internally would flag any problems in academic standards.

  10.  A more robust externally-monitored system of assessment would also allow consideration of the introduction of a performance threshold for access to student loans. The proposal to raise the fee cap presents problems of public funding to provide the necessary loan subsidy. Although adjustments can be made through the introduction of differing qualifying income thresholds or terms of loan repayments, including real interest rates, the focusing of financial support upon more adequately qualified and motivated students from low income households could be addressed. Widening opportunity is not achieved by dissipating limited public funds upon students who will not benefit from degree level studies as a result of their lack of motivation or preparation (the Robbins Principle).

  11.  A related issue that I believe the Committee needs to address is that of institutional governance and the adoption of the new 'manageralist 'model. Although most acute in the post 92 institutions, the shift from collegiate to line-management organisational structures has been profound. A history of recurring financial and organisational crises, the suspension and resignation of university Vice-Chancellors/Directors and votes of no-confidence by academic staff, suggest the "training company" model for Universities encouraged by successive governments has been far from successful. The government's proposal to allow a further reduction in the size of post 92 University Board of Governors, with the complete exclusion of academic staff, should be a major cause of concern.

  12.  The Committee should also urge the government to address the problem of student loan repayments by EU nationals and the qualifying period of residence in the UK for "home fee" payments.

  13.  Robust administrative arrangements also need to be put in place to identify what appears to be the increasing problem of bogus qualifications (forged or awarded by non-accredited colleges) presented by UK or EU passport holders born outside of the EU. As this involves access to subsidised student loans this would represent fraud. Universities should be clear in their responsibility to forward such cases to the appropriate authorities for investigation.

  14.  Universities are dependent for their success and their future upon the motivation and commitment of their academic staff. Institutions which are dominated by a new "management class", are devoid of open debate and have compromised integrity are no longer "Universities", whatever they may be called.

March 2009

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