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

Memorandum 32

Submission from the National Union of Students



  The National Union of Students (NUS) is a voluntary membership organisation comprising a confederation of local students unions, or similar organisations, in colleges and universities throughout the UK. We have 600 constituent members, which is virtually every college and university in the country. As such we represent the interests of over seven million students; more than two million of whom are studying at UK higher education institutions (HEIs)[79]. NUS is one of the largest student organisations in the world.

NUS welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Innovation, Universities, Skills and Science Select Committee's inquiry into "Students and Universities".


    —  NUS strongly supports participation in higher education from all those who have the potential to benefit from it. To this end, we would support the development of post-qualification admissions (PQA), the creation of a national bursary scheme and more rigorous widening participation (WP) policies.—  NUS believes that the 2009 higher education funding review must be wide and deep enough to address significant changes to the sector and the student demographic, and to allow the creation of an equitable and sustainable funding system. The review must recognise current and projected student debt levels, the case for greater public funding and disparities in funding and support for part-time students.

    —  The higher education sector faces huge challenges from changes in the student demographic and patterns of study. These challenges must be confronted and the sector must become more flexible, particularly in admissions and credit accumulation frameworks.

    —  More concentrated work is needed to ensure information, advice and guidance (IAG) is clearly understood and that applicants and students can navigate their way through the higher education system. This is particularly important for mature applicants and those intending to study part-time.

    —  Sustained investment in student engagement is needed at both local and national levels to ensure the learner voice is at the heart of higher education. The creation of higher education policy should involve genuine and wide student engagement.


  1.  NUS strongly supports participation in higher education from all those who have the potential to benefit from it. In addition to the economic benefits there are many social benefits of a better educated society as highlighted in a 2003 HEFCE report[80].

2.  The number of people going on to higher education has significantly increased over the last thirty years and yet, during that period, the proportion of those going from the lowest socio-economic groups has barely increased. In 2005, the most advantaged 20% of young people were up to six times more likely to enter higher education than the most disadvantaged 20%[81].

  3.  In addition to widening participation it is essential that the admissions process is both fair and seen to be fair. NUS believes that a system based on predicted grades, especially where over half of these grades are inaccurate[82], should be changed as soon as it is practical to do so. A post-qualification application (PQA) system is essential to ensure confidence in the university admissions process.

  4.  The 2004 Higher Education Act enshrined the responsibility for admissions with individual institutions and so the improvements in the processes are the responsibility of each institution. However, with 169 HEIs across the UK, each with responsibility for their own admissions procedures—as well as the knock-on impact on schools, colleges, exam boards—it is clear that to implement a PQA process we need significant political pressure from the Government to overcome the vested interests of different parties.

  5.  NUS would also stress that grades should not be the sole determinant in any application process. HEIs should be making admissions based in significant part on assessing the potential of the individual.

  6.  The information, advice and guidance (IAG) provided to applicants is essential in ensuring that they attend the right institution and pursue the right course for them; these are two of the key reasons cited by students for not continuing their studies[83]. This information should provide reliable and independent information about courses and the financial support that they will receive. NUS therefore calls for a single source to provide all necessary information for potential applicants, whilst advice and guidance should be further personalised. It is vital that part-time and mature applicants receive appropriate IAG.

  7.  UCAS should provide information about part-time and postgraduate courses, and where appropriate should provide an application route.

  8.  Rising standards in schools, with more young people achieving higher A-level grades, has made it harder for universities to choose between well-qualified applicants and has resulted in a number of institutions introducing entrance exams. NUS is concerned that these exams are often an extra barrier for those from families with no experience of higher education and that certain well-resourced schools will be able to provide additional coaching and preparation for their pupils.

  9.  A-levels are seen as the usual route to higher education for younger applicants, yet less than half of young people take this qualification. Of those that achieve at least two pass grades, the vast majority already go into higher education. It is therefore important both to increase the number of young people staying on to take A-levels and to ensure that HEIs do more to accept students with different qualifications.

  10.  If higher education is to truly deliver on the ambitious and progressive targets for widening participation it will need to become a lot more flexible in its provision of courses and HEFCE will need to be more flexible in the institutional funding for courses with more funding for modules and smaller chunks of credit.

  11.  Many HEIs do much excellent work in widening participation, and it is important to ensure that schemes such as AimHigher are properly funded to ensure that this work can continue and be enhanced. It is also important to ensure that this work happens at a much younger age, as highlighted in the recent NCEE report[84]. It is not just a question of raising aspiration, but of raising achievement.

  12.  The Government also created the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) through the 2004 Higher Education Act. OFFA aims to "to promote and safeguard fair access to higher education for under-represented groups in light of the introduction of variable tuition fees in 2006-07."[85] It is increasingly clear that OFFA does not have the powers or resources to meet that aim.

  13.  NUS is concerned that differential bursary offers are available to students attending different institutions, and we are concerned that bursaries are being allocated on criteria not related to financial need[86].

  14.  The current bursary arrangements are complex, and create difficulties for students in making comparisons between different packages of financial support on offer at different institutions. This is evident from the operation of the first year of the new finance regime, in which 64% of HEIs distributed less than they anticipated on bursaries and 12,000 eligible students missed out on receiving them[87].

  15.  NUS has called for a national bursary scheme, supported by other groups such as the Million+ group of university vice-chancellors and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) think tank in its September 2008 report[88].


  16.  NUS believes that, following Lord Dearing's Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education[89] in 1997 and through the more recent findings of the Burgess Review[90], the current system of honours degree classification is not fit for purpose.

17.  According to the findings of the Burgess Group, higher education faces the challenge of developing consistent reports on student achievement that describe the full range of accomplishment and can live alongside simpler summative judgments[91].

  18.  The "student experience" now includes many opportunities for non-formal learning that are critical to students' progression and employability. These include volunteering activity, student union involvement and part-time work. NUS believes that HEIs should recognise and record these achievements and help students articulate the knowledge and skills that they have gained as part of a more holistic exit document.

  19.  NUS supports the introduction of the Higher Education Achievement Record (HEAR) as a positive step toward reforming the degree classification system and is pleased to be working with the HEIs currently trialling the system. Significant further investment is however needed to ensure that the system develops adequately, and can eventually be presented as a credible alternative to the current system.

  20.  Despite problems with the degree classification system, UK higher education awards highly respected degrees. It is important that confidence is maintained in the system, academic quality and standards are continuously improved and that the honours system is reformed to support this.

  21.  It is clear that plagiarism and collusion are issues faced by every HEI. NUS is committed to ensuring students are aware of and appreciate the value and importance of academic integrity. We believe that "punishments" and "penalties" are usually unhelpful in combating these issues and often take up significant amounts of valuable staff time.[92] Institutions should instead focus their resources on deterrence through effective induction and training.


  22.  The NUS Student Experience Report 2008 showed that students receive on average 15 contact hours a week and undertake 16 hours of private study[93]. However, the number of contact hours students receive and the number of hours spent on private study, are both significantly influenced by subject area, institution type and year of study[94]. It is however important to note that we should not only be looking at the inputs students receive, but also at their learning outcomes.

23.  The most concerning area is the divergence in contact hours by subject by type of institution. For example, medical and life sciences students in Russell Group universities receiving 21 hours contact a week compared to 17 hours a week in post-1992 universities and the seven contact hours that mass communications and documentation students receive in Russell Group universities compared to the 14 hours in post-1992 universities[95].

  24.  The NUS Student Experience Report showed that whilst there was high satisfaction in the learning facilities and resources there were a number of disparities amongst different resources and by year of study. For example whilst 71% of all students believe that quiet and individual study meets their needs, this rises to 76% for first years and drops to 67% for final year students. The two broad areas where there was least satisfaction of learning resources was facilities for group study areas (67%) and facilities for practical work (54%)[96].

  25.  The importance of closing the feedback loop is also highlighted by the NUS Student Experience Report, with 92% of students being given the opportunity to provide feedback about their course of whom only 51% believe that the feedback is acted upon[97].

  26.  The NUS Student Experience Report also shows that students are generally very happy with the quality of their teaching and learning experience with 85% rating this as good or excellent[98]. It is however concerning that there are significant differences between how students would rate the quality of their interaction with professors, senior lecturers, researchers and postgraduates with those rating it as good and excellent 53%; 68%; 20% and 24% respectively[99].

  27.  NUS supports the further professionalisation of teaching in HE through initiatives such as HEA fellowships, programmes in teaching for academics and the UK Professional Standards Framework[100]. It is however worrying that this report also showed that a recent HEA survey of 2,500 staff showed that academics "continue to believe that teaching is under-rewarded and unrecognised by universities and colleges in comparison to research" and that promotion can be obtained on research achievement alone.

  28.  NUS is also concerned that the bulk of research funding is concentrated in a small number of institutions. This concentration has become much more acute over time; research funding in the upper decile has increased by 83% in the last 10 years, compared to the median increasing by 49% in the same period[101]. Research activity is crucial to the development of effective pedagogy and to be taught by research active academics is an important distinguishing feature of the UK HE system.

  29.  The NUS, University and College Union (UCU) and National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) employment charter for postgraduate student academic and academic-related staff calls for postgraduates that teach to be given fair and equal access to employment opportunities and work related training and opportunities for continuing professional development[102].

  30.  The primary responsibility for assuring quality of teaching provision and learning opportunities in UK HEIs should be placed on the institutions themselves. However, the Government, through HEFCE, plays a vital role in monitoring those standards and maintaining integrity of UK HE.

  31.  NUS believes that HEFCE should play a more active role in broad oversight of the Quality Assurance Framework; ensuring its integrity for the future. However HEFCE should leave assurance enhancement and audit work to the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) who are better placed to deliver these projects effectively.


  32.  Student engagement occurs in the formulation of HE policy at both institutional and national level. Many HEIs are increasingly listening to the learner voice, though there is much more that can be done to engage students in the HE policy making process.

33.  NUS believes that the learner voice is vital in the formation of policy at all levels. As "users" of education, students must be engaged in its future development. At a national level, NUS works closely within the higher education sector to ensure that students' views are put across to Government and its agencies. We are keen that NUS' unique independent, representative and organisational role in the formation of higher education policy continues and is extended to ensure students are at the centre of the formation of HE policy.

  34.  The formation of the National Student Forum (NSF), a sounding board for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, was welcomed by NUS. However, a body established and managed by a Government department should not be seen as a representative organisation. The current "user group" projects initiated by DIUS should recognise and incorporate the role of genuine and wide student engagement. The establishment of and consultation with the NSF should not be seen as a proxy for genuine and wide student engagement by Government or its agencies.

  35.  NUS recently published the report "Broke and Broken: a critique of the higher education funding system", which argues that the current system is inequitable and unsustainable, and that the 2009 review of funding should be broad enough in scope to consider the current funding system as a whole, including fees and student support, as well as viable alternatives to the current system[103].

  36.  There should be no review of the current HE funding system that does not include serious consideration of part-time students, whom make up over 40% of higher education numbers[104]. Yet, of those studying part-time, 77% receive no financial support at all[105].

  37.  Part-time students should be able to access loans for their fees, which are repayable after finishing their studies on a similar basis to full-time undergraduate home students in England. Part-time students should be able to access loans for their living costs. There should also be greater regulation and capping of the fees charged by institutions for part-time study.

  38.  NUS is also concerned about the support available to other groups, such as student parents. A forthcoming piece of NUS research will examine the current levels of support for student parents and make recommendations in relation to other forms of support, such as childcare[106].

  39.  No student should drop out of higher education because they cannot afford to stay the course or because the support they need is not available. Non-completion due to factors outside an individual's control is therefore a concern and it is vital to ensure that safeguards exist to ensure students are provided with adequate support. However, NUS is concerned that non-completion of a higher education course is too often considered a failure.

  40.  Many students choose not to continue their studies for good reasons, and often choose to return at a later date. It is vital that the credit and qualification system allows this flexibility. This is just one of the reasons why NUS believes the current credit accumulation and awards system is not fit for purpose.

  41.  Within the context of increasing undergraduate debt, it is important to ensure that applications for post-graduate study do not decline, particularly given their importance for the future of UK academia. NUS therefore calls for a full review of the postgraduate student support, the fees regime and access to funding either as part of or in additional to the 2009 review.

  42.  NUS is deeply concerned by current levels of graduate debt. have estimated graduate debt will increase to £20,000 by 2010-11[107]. In 2005, Barclays stated that if debt continued to increase at the rate it had between 2003 and 2005, it would reach £20,000 by 2010-12. These figures were calculated without any adjustment for an increase in tuition fee rates[108].

  43.  NUS is concerned by the prospect that debt levels will increase further still if the cap on variable fees is raised. HEPI has projected that if the variable fee cap was set at a maximum of £7,000, we might expect an average annual fee of £4,300. Over the course of a three-year degree and with the average loan for living costs, they would acquire a public debt of £25,000, once interest has been added for three years[109].

  44.  NUS believes public investment in higher education must increase significantly. The OECD's Report, Education at a Glance 2008 showed that the UK remains below the average for public investment in higher education, and below some of the UK's major competitors, with 0.9% of GDP invested[110]. HEIs must feel confident in making the case for greater public funding and the Government must respond to it[111]. If the UK is to remain one of the world's leading providers of higher education, it must continue to invest in both its HEIs and its students.

December 2008

79   For the sake of brevity, the terms university, universities, HEI and HEIs are used interchangeably in this document. It is also worth noting in addition that about 8% of all HE students are taught in FE colleges and with the recent passing of the 2007 Further Education and Training Act, which allows FE colleges to apply for foundation degree awarding powers, this number will continue. For more information from NUS on HE in FE please see the NUS (2007) Higher Education Handbook Back

80   HEFCE (2003) Revisiting the benefits of higher education Back

81   HEFCE (2005) Young Participation in Higher Education Back

82   Schwartz, S. (2004) Admissions to Higher Education Review Back

83   NAO (2007), Staying the course: The retention of students in higher education Back

84   NCCE (2008) National Council for Educational Excellence: Recommendations Back

85   OFFA (2008) Back

86   Callender, C. (forthcoming) Institutional Aid in England: Promoting Widening Participation or Perpetuating Inequalities?, p.11 Back

87   NAO (2008), Widening participation in higher education, p.35 Back

88   HEPI (2008) Financial support in English universities: a national bursary scheme Back

89   NCIHE, Dearing, R. (1997), Higher Education in the Learning Society Back

90   UUK (2007) Beyond the Honours Degree Classification: The Burgess Group Final Report Back

91   UUK (2007), Beyond the Honours Degree Classification: The Burgess Group Final Report Back

92   Carroll, J. (2002b), Deterring student plagiarism: where best to start? In: Rust, C. ed., Improving Student Learning Symposium (Oxford: Oxford Brookes University). Back

93   GfK/NOP (2008), NUS/HSBC Student Experience Report, Back

94   GfK/NOP (2008), NUS/HSBC Student Experience Report, pp. 15-26 Back

95   GfK/NOP (2008), NUS/HSBC Student Experience Report, p.22 Back

96   GfK/NOP (2008), NUS/HSBC Student Experience Report, p.47 Back

97   GfK/NOP (2008), NUS/HSBC Student Experience Report, p.29 Back

98   GfK/NOP (2008), NUS/HSBC Student Experience Report, p.14 Back

99   GfK/NOP (2008), NUS/HSBC Student Experience Report, p.25 Back

100   Paul Ramsden, HEA (2008) Teaching and the Student Experience Back

101   NUS (2008) Broke and Broken, p.11 Back

102   NUS/UCU/NPC Employment Charter for postgraduate student academic and academic-related staff Back

103   NUS (2008) Broke and Broken: a critique of the higher education funding system Back

104   UUK (2006) Part-time students in higher education Back

105   UUK (2006) Part-time students in higher education Back

106   NUS (forthcoming), NUS Student Parents Research Back

107   Push (2008) Student Debt Survey; Back

108   Barclays (2005) Graduate Debt Survey Back

109   NUS (2008) Broke and Broken: A Critique of the Higher Education Funding System Back

110   OECD (2008) Education at a Glance,3343,en_2649_39263238_41266761_1_1_1_1,00.html Back

111   HEFCE (2003) Revisiting the benefits of higher education Back

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