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

Memorandum 15

Submission from the Education Committee, Birkbeck College Students' Union

  Birkbeck College Students' Union (BCSU) is an independent body, funded by Birkbeck College, to represent over 19,000 Birkbeck students. We have been representing and campaigning for our members since 1904. Our advice centre is open daily. This submission is from Union Council's Education Committee, which leads on the education and education quality for the Students' Union.

In early 2008 our members voted to incorporate as a charitable company limited by guarantee, and with the support of the Birkbeck College, we adopted a new constitution. The effect has been commendation on our open and transparent democratic structures by various external bodies and internally we have increased participation at all levels within our organisation.


    — Withdrawal of ELQ has negatively affected university admissions policies and this will take time to settle down.— The part-time sector must be funded on the same basis as the full-time sector. Part-time institutions require full-time services, buildings, student support and libraries.

    — Further education qualifications should be designed to become a stepping stone to Level 4 qualifications. The UK must not slide into a two-track system of mass and elite education through the introduction of entrance tests.

    — National "academies" should be introduced to bring together national and international research, and foster regional collaboration. These would replace the current system of (research) funding councils.

    — There must be a standard national plagiarism policy; students must be treated equally across disciplines.

    — More national support given for student support, learning from Birkbeck's introduction of a dedicated Student Experience Pro-Vice-Master.


  1.  The part-time sector of HEIs (eg Birkbeck College and the Open University) generally operates a system of direct application, without using a body such as UCAS.

2.  UCAS in our opinion is centred on the first-time 18-22 year old full-time students, making multiple applications to up to eight HEIs and those HEIs which offer face to face contact are often those whose ambition and vision for the Student Experience is the greatest.

  3.  Much has been talked about regarding entrance tests, including the announcement from the previous Rector of Imperial College, Sir Richard Sykes that A-levels and equivalents no longer provided enough of a rigorous discrimination between students and that Imperial College was looking to introduce an entrance test.

  4.  Whilst we acknowledge that the current system of A-levels is seen as no longer providing enough of a rigorous discrimination between students, the introduction of entrance tests may produce significant challenges in delivering equal access to HE for many groups in society, further entrenching low levels of social mobility in the UK.

  5.  Any changes to admissions procedures must be equality assessed; there is a fear, and rightly, that little proactive initiatives and policies are being employed to equal access for many groups in society: white working class males, black people, women with caring responsibilities. Research suggests that whilst rhetoric has been to provide equal access, including the introduction of the Office of Fair Access, the reality is that it is the hierarchy of institutions at the university level whose decisions ultimately make or break a university's equal access obligations.[33]

  6.  We welcome the appointment of UCL to manage a secondary academy in Camden. The Government should encourage further collaboration between HEIs and the secondary and further education sector. This will help to match courses with admissions policies (see Para. 4) and the wider needs of a skilled knowledge economy.

  7.  We counsel the Government to actively increase the numbers of HEIs involved in secondary academies, and steer away from the path of academies being dominated by faith organisations and shareholder private enterprises.

  8.  For the part-time sector, there needs to be a levelled funding system with the full-time sector. Though the HEFCE funds part-time students as three-fifths of a full-time student, all part-time sector institutions require "full-time" libraries, laboratories, student support, buildings, staff and so on. We welcome DIUS' announcement that part-time funding would be included in the Fees Commission of 2009.

  9.  We welcome the Governments introduction of a part-time student grant.

  10.  We call on the Government to equalise student loan funding between the part-time sector and the full-time sector and to legislate to allow part-time fees to be paid in arrears: often part-time students are changing careers, re-entering the workplace after starting a family or they have been failed once by the full-time system and need "that second chance".

  11.  We condemn the effect that the withdrawal of ELQ Funding has had on university admissions policy, which in some instances we have experienced, have included students seeking to take a higher qualification when they are not suitable for admission, or entering a course which is exempted by the Government and seeking at a later stage to covertly switch into the ELQ-affected modules.

  12.  It is appalling that the Government has mooted that it will be a criminal offence not to disclose a qualification to an HEI in order to protect its flawed ELQ policy. The policy will continue to allow the richest to enter at any level and any course, whilst the poorest and middle income students will be forced to follow the Government's money.


  13.  Research is a vital component of any quality teaching environment and the Government must act to support research at our HEIs to enable all undergraduate (and below) students to access national and international level research, theories and methods.

14.  Where an institution cannot support research, collaboration with other partner HEIs should be made worthwhile. Research staff should be given financial and resource support to take part-time sabbaticals at partner institutions to build their research portfolio.

  15.  Without inspiring, research-led teaching, we will not have tomorrow's researchers and leaders.

  16.  We call on the Government to set out a radical funding plan to raise the proportion of GDP invested in research to above that of Germany.

  17.  In line with recommendations from the Stern Report, we call on the Government to make sure that new technologies for energy are born and developed in our Universities. In addition, we call on the Government to legislate that they receive tax-incentives to host research centres to boost our global contribution in developing technologies that can significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and raise food production.[34]

  18.  We would welcome a Government decision to review all of the research funding councils in England in light of our vision as outline in Para.20.

  19.  Skilled jobs require different elements of research and we call for research and/or research methods to be key aptitudes and skills which all Level 4 awards and above have.

  20.  We draw inspiration from the Chinese system of "academies" and call on the Government (and this Committee) to consider the rapid introduction of UK-wide academies, which would bring together all of the national and international research under a single corporate body, transcending our universities, whilst keeping our Universities' unique characteristics, which particularly the Russell Group and the 1994 Group cherish.

  21.  Academies would in effect replace the current inefficient research funding councils, and prepares us for the next century for research and teaching. Academies may overlap and be regional in nature or simply specific to a field of research (eg Physical Science; Classics; Law)

  22.  Academies should be designed so as to reduce the concentration of funding for research producing short-term results rather than longer "applied, interdisciplinary and discursive research."[35]

  23.  We condemn the HEFCE for withdrawing special funding from the University of London's Senate House Library, which is a long-standing federal university research and teaching asset prized by many students and staff of the Colleges (and wider) of the University of London. It is the potential atomisation of institutions and specialist collections/services which drives us to call for academies to foster collaboration, which in turn will give us efficiency.


  24.  The schooling a student receives should reduce significantly the instances of plagiarism—a student should be trained to research, to "read around" and to cite and there is no shame in this and should be viewed as widening one's knowledge and not "cheating".

25.  With higher education increasing the number of graduates in the UK, we believe that the current degree classification into 1s, 2is, 2iis, 3s, Pass (and fail) could do with a spring clean so that final awards calculations are open and transparent.

  26.  The amount of discretion an exam board has can often work in a candidate's favour as well as against. This is particularly concerning when applied to plagiarism, where the treatment of one student on one course will be significantly different to that of another. Similarly making adjustments to marks is open to the same discretion, which all too often lets one or two students down, who on appeal, find that the exam board was in fact acting incorrectly.

  27.  All Universities must have a plagiarism policy, which instructs those who detect plagiarism how to initiate an investigation and what the appropriate sanctions are. It is unjust for students on different courses to be treated differently. Plagiarism is intellectual theft and should be treated as a serious academic offence.

  28.  The quality and standards of qualifications must be defended, and to this end dangerous "trendy" widening participation initiatives such as allowing McDonald's to award qualifications (the so-called "Greasy S Es" and "McDegrees") must be stopped. It is breathtaking that the Government's proactive drive to increase and widen participation in higher (and further) education has resulted in unethical private businesses beholden to the shareholder and the bottom line should be welcome in to the education-delivery sector.

  29.  Academic collaborations should lead on wider participation policy. Whilst partnerships involving some private companies (eg Microsoft) operate on a dual positive feedback mechanism which supports both the private business and academic research/collaboration, there is a clear danger that allowing private companies, such as McDonald's into the classroom or the research centre, will quickly turn our qualifications into a LegoTM stack of the lowest common denominators, without pushing our aspirations and vision higher—both of students and private companies.


  30.  It is vital that students' unions operate as independently as possible from the institution to whom they represent their members.

31.  Governing Bodies of HEIs should support their students' unions in the vital work they do, which in the case of Birkbeck College Students' Union is to provide daily counselling services and a full-qualified advice centre, course representation through to central university representation, education-related and extra-curricular clubs and societies, social and networking space, study centres etc.

  32.  Retention of students starts as soon as a student enrols. Breaks in study and temporary interruption must be sympathetically dealt with, especially in the modern HEI system.

  33.  Flexible study options need to be put in place, including Weekend classes, and in the case of "evening colleges" classes during the day (eg to link in with childcare arrangements).

  34.  More resources should be put into supporting student engagement with the university community and environment. All too often, students come to classes and leave just as quickly, not taking advantage of the diverse provisions on campus. Distance learning students, ironically, have more support as their expectations for support are less and the HEI is dedicated to "serve-up" support instead of operating like a self-service canteen. Service learning should be seen as a crucial element of Government policy on engagement (see Para 43 for one proposal).

  35.  Birkbeck College, in the summer, appointed a senior management team member specifically for the student experience, responsible for all things that student will need from first encounter with the application form to joining the alumni.

  36.  Financial hardship and harassment/victimisation are the main topics raised with our advice centre, aside from support in dealing with allegations of academic misconduct. The student funding system is utterly complicated, especially for part-time students who are earning some (and often varied amounts of) money.

  37.  Even before the ELQ cuts came in, access to hardship has been determined on previous qualification status, for instance a student with a BSc will be refused hardship funding in favour of a student who has no qualifications. Whilst the intention of this policy is to help those with no qualifications stay in education, the impact of the policy is to totally discriminate in the most vicious way against those who have been failed before in the education system or those who have self-funded to the point of hardship application as their business or work has collapsed.

  38.  The hardship funding system, like the ELQ cuts previously[36], aspires to drive the Widening Participation agenda forward, yet because both HEFCE and the DIUS fail to take responsibility for who is doing the Equality Impact Assessment (as opposed to being responsible for it legally), the result is devastating on students currently in the system as Universities are not au fait with funding policy, let alone Students.

  39.  Whilst we can give guarded welcome to increased grants, we caution the Government about targeting grants without first putting in place an equality policy to ensure that certain groups of students are not unfairly penalised. For instance, the rule that parental dependency for student financial support runs until age 20: which disproportionately negatively impacts on lesbian, gay and trans students who are (or would be) estranged from their parents or guardians. Research and our experience shows that current IAG targeting disadvantaged groups is inadequate eg the low uptake of tax credits shows that people often assume that they are not entitled to support. Furthermore, targeted grants will not support workplace diversity at middle and top layer jobs.

  40.  With regards to student parents who have a need for childcare, we call on the Government to enable local authorities to transfer childcare vouchers between each other, for instance, to support a parent who lives in an Essex County Council district travelling in with child to a London Borough and the parent having the option of choosing where the childcare can be had from week to week.

  41.  Students with caring responsibilities and those generally in the Part-time Sector are more likely to need flexible study and the need to interrupt studies. The cost of childcare is prohibitive, but more so is that of availability of local affordable childcare. Other students in the part-time sector, for instance, those who are self-funding, will be required to earn their fees up front and in the current recession, the self-funding self-employed (and those who are covertly career changing, and the "women returners") are coming under severe pressure financially.

  42.  No student wants to quit university, however, we must recognise that flexible part-time education is more often a route to enable those failed by the full-time sector re-engage with education.

  43. Each student should be assigned from the first day a personal tutor, and perhaps a senior student as a "buddy". We can learn much from the UK's medical schools and how their buddy systems work, taking the vast majority of medical students through their six year full-time programmes.[37]

  44.  The level of information literacy of new students, particularly in the Part-time sector is highly variable. The Government should ensure that FE-taught access courses should be more focused on critical information literacy. ICT in the National Curriculum should be changed to place more of an emphasis on participation and judgement. We believe this would also reduce instances of plagiarism (see Para 24).[38]

  45.  The taxpayer and the fee payer put a lot into the general pot for higher education. Society and the individual receive many benefits, particularly over time, from their experience of higher education. We forget, though, that there are many students who do struggle and fall on hard times (in a variety of ways, including, personal reasons, financial, housing, failure of dignity in education, harassment, etc) outside of the academic framework.

  46.  The Government prides itself on evidence-based policymaking and we hope that the Government will give greater support to those organisations and posts, which enhance the student experience and provide dedicated tailored students. To coin a phrase often touted around students' unions (organisations run by and for their members), is that the members (the Students) are the greatest asset to a students' union.

  47.  Members of students' unions have set real achievements, which today are being reduced due to funding cuts or, in some instances, due to trustees of some students' unions not listening or engaging with the members. Examples of this are the withdrawal of dedicated research student support; reduction in advice centre contact time and finally the abolition of member-led representation groups. On the positive side, we know that there is a yearning for these students to establish support centres as a "co-operative" within their students' union and/or university. Examples of these are entrepreneurship centres; skills for study classes and industrial liaison groups. This is all on top of clubs and societies and peer support groups.

  48.  We have seen little value in the Government's Minister for Students. We have seen no value in the student juries, particularly as they focus on the 18-22 year old full-time bracket.


  49.  Revoke the Withdrawal of ELQ Funding Policy.

50.  Bring the part-time sector funding in line with full-time sector funding across all funding channels.

  51.  Establish a Royal Commission to look into the creation of "national academies" on a discipline-basis and a regional-basis.

  52.  Actively promote more HEIs to run secondary academies; reduced the proportion of faith organisations and shareholder enterprises running academies.

  53.  Publish a collaboration policy which explicitly places an ethical value on collaborative partners in higher education to avoid the shameful McDonald's "Greasy S Es" partnership.

  54.  Stand down the student juries and enable the Minister for Students, or dissolve the ministry.

  55.  Increase funding into research to above the GDP% level of Germany.

  56.  Introduce fiscal and tax incentive measures to promote international research in green/ethical new technologies in higher education.

  57.  Ring-fence funding for Students' unions and universities (and other providers of student support) to develop their student support and student experience policies and activities.

  58.  Create a system of transferable childcare support, transcending local authority boundaries.

December 2008

33   Peter Scott, "Mass higher education-ten years on," Perspectives 9, no. 3 (2005): 68-73. Back

34   Nicholas Stern, Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (HM Treasury, 2006). Back

35   William Locke, "Higher Education policy in England: missed opportunities, unintended consequences and unfinished business," Journal of Access Policy and Practice 5 (May 2008): 180-204. Back

36   Birkbeck College Student Union, "Evidence 167-Written Evidence from Birkbeck College Student Union Council," in Innovation, Universities and Skills-Third Report: Withdrawal of funding for equivalent or lower level qualifications (ELQs), HC 459 (The House of Commons: Innovations, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, 2008). Back

37   Christine Guest et al., "Facilitating interprofessional learning for medical and nursing students in clinical practice," Learning in Health and Social Care 1, no. 3 (2002): 132-138, doi:10.1046/j.1473-6861.2002.00019.x. Back

38   Henry Jenkins, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Occasional Paper, Building the Field of Digital Media and Learning (MacArthur Foundation, 2006). Back

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