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


Memorandum 42

Submission from the University of Leicester

INQUIRY ON STUDENTS AND UNIVERSITIES

Summary

ADMISSIONS

    — Current practice does not always distinguish strategies to encourage wider participation and strategies to encourage fair access.— There is insufficient emphasis on the evaluation of widening participation activity.— Participation rates amongst lower socio-economic groups have increased, but it is unclear whether the change is a consequence of widening participation activity, school performance or expansion of higher education.

The Balance between Teaching and Research

    — Current funding mechanisms ignore the reality that prospective students are attracted to the group of UK universities whose strategic mission is defined by the synergy between research and teaching.

    — An unintended consequence of ignoring the link between research and teaching is the impact on the provision of teaching of successive Research Assessment Exercises.

    — Changes in priorities for the funding of teaching over the last few years have not supported the research/teaching synergy.

STUDENT SUPPORT AND ENGAGEMENT

    — The possibility that the support packages for students might change gives rise to concern about the possibility of major perturbations in student populations, which would have financial consequences. This would have to be managed carefully.— Progress towards a proper functioning market would take time, because of the change of culture that would be required both outside and inside universities.

    — The extension of the student loan scheme to Masters' level programmes would be beneficial for both students and the economy.

    — Policy developments appear to disadvantage part-time students in comparison with their full-time peers.

    — Particular financial problems arise for students who need access to state benefits and are the very people who should be benefiting from widening access strategies.

    — Individuals may be prevented from undertaking a higher education course because of benefit rules which disadvantage students and are compounded by a seemingly widespread lack of understanding of student eligibility on the part of benefit advisors.

DETAILED SUBMISSION

The implementation and success of widening participation initiatives

  1.  There needs to be clear thinking and delineation between strategies to encourage wider participation (ie encouraging individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds with ability to progress to HE) and strategies to encourage fair access (ie that the very brightest are given encouragement and equal opportunity to enter the country's very best universities or the most challenging courses). This is not always the case in current practice.

2.  The two require a distinct approach both at institutional and Government level. It is possible for a university to have excellent schemes for widening participation, encouraging young people to aim high, and yet have a very poor record itself in terms of fair access to its own programmes. Schemes designed to tackle fair access need to focus as much on admission and selection processes as on activity to raise aspiration.

3.  There is insufficient emphasis on the evaluation of widening participation activity. Much of current evaluation activity tends to focus on counting the volume of activity rather than the achievement of outcomes and student progression. Greater use of quantitative admissions data should be used to gauge success. For example, the evaluation of the £180 million Excellence Challenge scheme, an ambitious plan launched at the turn of the decade to secure wider participation and fair access focused heavily on how the money had enabled HEIs to develop additional activity. It did not look with any degree of details at the impact on patterns of admissions (http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/research/data/uploadfiles/RR644.pdf)

  4.  Consistency of funding streams is also important. The resources invested through the Excellence Challenge were swiftly reallocated towards the end of the scheme's life.

  5.  A combination of inconsistent resourcing, evaluation that focuses on activity rather than outcome and a wooliness around whether the sector is seeking to tackle issues of fair access or wider participation means our understanding of what is really effective in this arena is not much more mature than at the start of the schemes a decade ago.

  6.  In his annual letter to the HEFCE in 2000 the Secretary of State called for "substantial progress" on the issue of widening participation. As the data below shows there is evidence that participation rates amongst lower socio-economic groups have increased both absolutely and in relative terms. What is unclear is whether the change is a consequence of widening participation activity, changes in school performance (ie more students from lower socio-economic groups achieving five grades A-C at GCSE enabling them to progress into level 3 study and hence through to HE) or expansion of higher education. The impact of the move to variable fees is not discernible on participation data (except on the behaviour of deferred entrants in 2005) as the graphs, using UCAS data, below demonstrate (note UCAS's methodology for classification of socio-economic groups changed in 2002).







The role of the Government in promoting fair access

  7.  Admissions policies are the responsibility of individual HEIs. All will focus on selecting and admitting the very best students. It is legitimate for the Government to engage with the sector in exploring the extent to which this stated aim is being met—in particular the ability of HEIs to determine talent that may be hidden because of disadvantage.

8.  Although there are some shortcomings with the system of performance indicators for widening participation in higher education, the University believes that providing information on institutional success in relation to this issue is right and proper. The Government may wish to consider a carefully targeted pilot scheme which would look at the impact of widening participation and fair access activities on quantitative admissions statistics in a selection of HEIs.

The balance between teaching and research

  9.  There are a group of UK universities, of which Leicester is one, whose strategic mission is fundamentally defined by the synergy between research and teaching. These are institutions which offer high-quality courses in traditional disciplines at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and engage in high-quality research in the same disciplines. They also have a strong widening participation ethos and meet WP benchmarks. They place equal weight on the importance of research and teaching, they recruit staff in the expectation that they will be both research and teaching active, and they provide their courses on the basis that students will be taught in a research environment.

10.  This research environment has a direct impact on the curriculum through opportunities provided for the continual updating and refreshing of core content and through the provision of special options. It also determines forms of assessment, which include the ubiquitous requirement for an extensive piece of independent study, and on the delivery of skills, including the ability to seek and assimilate information, prepare reports, think independently and critically and communicate findings. The strength of student recruitment to these institutions demonstrates that prospective students are attracted by these features of a university education, partly because employer interest in graduates with these skills remains as strong as ever. Current funding mechanisms appear to us to ignore these realities.

  11.  Universities which offer teaching in a research environment provide educational opportunities on the continuum from Bachelor's level to Ph.D. We believe that there is a lack of appreciation of the extent to which research informs every aspect of what we do in the discussions which have taken place in relation to the Bologna Agreement; there is a particular failure in mainland Europe to understand the strong focus on independent research which characterises integrated Master's programmes (M.Chem. etc).

  12.  We sense from recent research and public statements about student contact hours that there is some disquiet about the amount of independent learning built in to the undergraduate curriculum and the impact of this on contact hours, particularly in the arts and humanities disciplines. We would argue strongly that it is the space allowed for independent learning which characterises the UK HE system. Provided that such independent learning and development is properly guided and supported by institutions, including access to substantial library and on-line resources, the outcome is a level of intellectual independence which cannot be delivered through the mere transmission of the syllabus through face-to-face direct teaching.

  13.  One example of what we assume is an unintended consequence of ignoring the link between research and teaching is the impact on the provision of teaching of successive Research Assessment Exercises, which has led to the concentration of around 70 per cent of quality-related research funds to 25 per cent of institutions. This has put the delivery to undergraduates of courses in core subjects in some institutions at risk, and in the most extreme cases has led to their closure. We recall that during a time when Chemistry departments were closing after the last RAE, the Royal Society for Chemistry expressed the concern that the position would soon be reached where there were insufficient university places to generate the number of chemists required to support the country's needs. Action has since been taken by HEFCE to protect such vulnerable subjects, but we see no sign of any recognition that research selectivity is in itself one cause of the problem. We do not object to selectivity per se, but we do believe that funding methodologies for research and teaching should work together, not undermine each other. Research selectivity has gone far enough.

  14.  We also believe that changes in priorities for the funding of teaching over the last few years have not supported the research/teaching synergy. The increasing emphasis on part-time study, employer engagement and/or regional development (for example foundation degrees) have provided undoubted opportunities for institutions (including ours), but have denied flourishing traditional disciplines the capacity to expand. It is now virtually impossible to obtain additional funding for teaching except through "employment-related" routes, so there is a dislocation between the continuing popularity of traditional disciplines with students and employers, in particular the employers of young graduates, and the willingness of the government to support these courses.

  15.  In relation to research funding, and as a university which undertakes a considerable amount of medically-related, charity-funded research, where full economic costing does not apply, we very strongly support the continuation of the dual support system. Many of the major breakthroughs in medical treatment arise from the application of the dual support regime, and would not have happened without it.

  16.  Finally, and in relation to the assessment of excellence, we strongly support the continuation of some use of some elements of peer review as a means of assuring quality in both teaching and research. We acknowledge that the expansion of higher education has brought challenges, but we believe that these can continue to be met through systems which acknowledge institutional autonomy and the considerable benefits of self-regulation.

Perturbation consequent on possible change in the student support package

  17.  The possibility that the support packages for students might change radically gives rise to concern about the possibility of major perturbations in student populations, which would have financial consequences for institutions. This would have to be managed carefully.

18.  The introduction of capped fees did not introduce a market based on fee prices, since institutions generally charged the full fee. Market differentiation continued to be based on perceptions of quality, with the market "price" being the admission standard. If the fee cap were removed a far more complex market would emerge combining perceptions of quality and fee price, which could lead to major perturbation and instability in the sector. Progress towards a proper functioning market would take time, because of the change of culture that would be required both outside and inside universities. The relationship between the university and its students would change, as a willingness to pay more would come with a demand to receive more. Other consequences might follow such as a decline in postgraduate applications because of accumulated debt during undergraduate studies. All of this would have to be managed.

Support for Masters' Programmes

  19.  It is acknowledged that higher level skills acquired through masters programmes are a key driver of innovation and creativity within the economy. Competition for financial support for Masters' level programmes through the Research Councils, University schemes or charities is fierce. The extension of the student loan scheme to Masters' level programmes would be beneficial for both students and the economy.

Supporting Part-time Study

20.  For many universities part-time students are an increasing group and require a different approach and different types of support from full-time campus based students. The University of Leicester, for example, has around 21,000 students, around a third of whom are non campus based distance learning students, requiring different learning and teaching approaches and support mechanisms.

21.  Policy development would also appear to increasingly disadvantage part-time students, in comparison with their full-time peers. In light of the "Leitch" agenda and the changing demographics, HEIs are likely to find themselves targeting part-time students in work, and there are real difficulties in engaging and supporting these learners, given some of the financial support issues:

    — When the loan support system for HE students was introduced it was restricted to full-time students only and while there has been welcome provision of some support for those part-timers studying 50% of a full load, this has not affected the majority of part-time students in HE.

    — With the introduction of top up fees, fee levels for part-time students, though unregulated, have inevitably risen towards pro rata against full time fees, resulting in large fee increases for part-time students, but without access to the degree of support offered to full time students.

    — HEFCE funding did not previously discriminate against part-time or lifelong learning students, but the introduction of the ELQs policy removes funding for students in this group, the majority of whom are likely to be part time.

Students and state benefits

  22.  Particular financial problems arise for those students who need access to state benefits. Most full-time students are ineligible for benefits. Those that are eligible include lone parents, students with disabilities, carers and part-time students studying less than 16 hours per week. These are the very members of society who should be benefiting from widening access strategies and yet they may experience considerable financial hardship whilst a student, or may be prevented from undertaking a higher education course altogether because of benefit rules which disadvantage students and which are compounded by a seemingly widespread lack of understanding of student eligibility on the part of benefit advisors.

23.  Student eligibility is a complex area, requiring specialist knowledge which frontline benefit staff often do not possess. As a result, many students who are eligible for benefit, are incorrectly advised not to apply. These students are not easily identifiable and generally only come to light if they approach their institution's welfare service in relation to other matters.

  24.  During the benefit assessment stage many students receive incorrectly calculated benefit awards because of administrative errors. Student income is often inaccurately assessed by benefits staff because they do not apply correct student income disregards and calculate awards over the wrong periods. This is especially evident in housing benefit applications.

  25.  Eligible students often face a period of hardship between the end of the academic year and receiving benefit payment. This is because certain students are entitled to benefit in vacations only and cannot apply until the vacation starts, even though their situation is clear well before this date.

  26.  Regulations governing student eligibility to benefit can also be applied inconsistently. For example, Postgraduate Social Work lone parent students meet the qualifying conditions for income support in the summer vacation. However, government regulations do not specifically refer to this particular category of students, leaving their eligibility for benefit open to interpretation. Consequently, whether they receive benefit or not has become a postcode lottery. This is also true for PhD students who should be eligible for Job Seekers Allowance during their writing up stage, providing they make themselves available for work. Unfortunately many Jobcentre staff still treat these students as attending full-time study and students are often refused benefit as a result.

  27.  Benefit regulations also penalise potentially vulnerable students such as those in ill health. Under the former Incapacity Benefit/Income Support rules, some students who could prove sickness for a period of 28 weeks or more became eligible for benefit. The new Employment Support Allowance seems to exclude students entirely from claiming benefits whilst sick.

  28.  It is common for carers to struggle financially in order to maintain themselves whilst a student. Students are ineligible for Carers Allowance if they study over 21 hours per week, including course work undertaken at home. All full-time Higher Education programmes offered by this institution expect students, on average, to study over this permitted limit and therefore carers automatically lose their entitlement. However, their caring responsibilities are unchanged.

December 2008






 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 2 August 2009