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

Memorandum 58

Submission from the Edge Foundation

  The Edge Foundation is a charity and company limited by guarantee. Our aim is to make the case for practical learning, by which we mean learning by doing, for real. The Foundation funds projects which develop or demonstrate good practice in practical learning, and seeks to improve perceptions of practical learning in the eyes of young people, teachers, parents and the general public.


    — Higher education is much more diverse than the inquiry's terms of reference seem to suggest. HE is about more than just degrees, it's as much for adults as for young people, it's about part-time study as well as full-time courses, and it's offered by many further education colleges as well as universities.— We need to challenge the widespread belief that academic qualifications such as A levels are the only route into HE. The belief arises partly because -

    — many HE admissions tutors do favour academic qualifications such as A levels and discriminate against vocational qualifications such as NVQs. We need a national programme to improve admissions tutors' knowledge of apprenticeships and vocational qualifications.

    — school teachers and careers advisors don't appreciate just how many adults enrol on HE courses after successfully completing vocational programmes. UCAS and HEFCE should collect and disseminate data about part-time HE students so that the full facts are more widely known.

    — Apprentices should be encouraged to progress into HE. To make this happen, apprenticeship frameworks should be included in the UCAS tariff, and apprentices should be offered extra help (if they need it) with skills such as essay writing.

    — The Government should change the HE participation target to apply to all adults, not just people below the age of 30.

    — HE provision should be fully flexible to meet the needs of adults. For example, there should be more weekend tuition, plus greater use of credit accumulation and transfer so that adults can study in different places over a period of time.

    — All students—not just those studying for explicitly vocational qualifications such as a degree in medicine—should have the opportunity to learn by doing for real, by which we mean practising their knowledge and skills in a real-world setting.

    — Employers should be involved in the design and delivery of every degree-level qualification, not just explicitly vocational degrees.

    — Higher-level NVQs should be treated as mainstream HE qualifications.


  1.  The Committee's invitation to submit evidence on students and universities appears to limit the scope of the inquiry in some important ways:

    — the title of the inquiry, "Students and Universities", seems to overlook the growing role of further education colleges in the provision of higher education (HE)

    — the call for evidence contains an implicit emphasis on first full (bachelors) degrees, particularly in the section headed "degree classification", to the exclusion of other HE programmes

    — in the context of admissions to HE, the call for evidence refers to A-levels, Advanced Diplomas, apprenticeships and university entrance tests: these are, of course, not the only route into HE

    — the call for evidence mentions "government targets for Higher Education participation", which relate to participation by people under the age of 30; participation in HE is increasingly important for adults of all ages.

  2.  It is of course very sensible to limit the scope of the inquiry in some way: an entirely open-ended inquiry would be unmanageable! However, it is not clear whether these particular restrictions have been arrived at deliberately. Either way, we are worried that they may reinforce -

    — a widespread bias in favour of what might be called "traditional" first degree programmes

    — an assumption that "HE" and "university" are synonyms, and

    — a belief that HE is something which people do soon after they leave school.

  3.  In practice, the scope and role of HE is much broader and more diverse than the call for evidence might suggest. Many of our comments (below) reflect this broader view.

  4.  We will comment only on those aspects of the Committee's inquiry where we have a particular point of view.

Effectiveness of the process for admission to Higher Education Institutions, and the role of the Government in developing and promoting fair access and admissions policies for the UK Higher Education sector

  5.  One of DIUS's three core priorities for the future of HE is that HEIs should work to widen participation beyond young people leaving school or college with good A levels. It is particularly important for DIUS to lead the way in promoting progression to HE from apprenticeships and other vocational programmes.

6.  However, it is currently very difficult for young people to progress to university unless they have conventional "academic" qualifications such as A levels. There are three main reasons for this:

    — very few apprenticeship frameworks are recognised in the UCAS tariff system

    — very few admissions tutors recognise the potential of young people who have completed competency-based apprenticeships: they are much more familiar with A levels and other knowledge-based qualifications

    — few apprenticeship frameworks develop generic skills needed by new entrants to HE, such as essay writing, research and debating skills; and some do not develop specific skills needed for progression to HE (eg A level maths is generally required for entry to a degree level programme in engineering, but is not a compulsory element of the engineering apprenticeship framework).

  7.  As a result of these factors, it is not surprising that only 2-4% of apprentices currently progress to higher education.[204]

  8.  To help improve progression from apprenticeships to HE, Edge recommends that:

    (i) apprentices should have the option to undertake an access to HE course alongside, or after completing, their apprenticeship

    (ii) all level 3 qualifications (including NVQs) should be included in the UCAS Tariff, and DIUS should fund UCAS to develop a "points calculator" to give credit for completing an apprenticeship framework

    (iii) admissions tutors should not discriminate against vocational qualifications, nor in favour of academic qualifications such as A levels; and there should be a national programme of continuous professional development to improve admissions tutors' knowledge of apprenticeships and vocational qualifications

    (iv) the Government should introduce a national bursary scheme for students who enter HE following an Apprenticeship or other vocational programme at level 3

  9.  It is too soon to know whether admissions tutors will routinely discriminate against young people who gain new Diplomas. However, 65% of HE applications made by A Level students are successful, compared with 11% from BTec students:[205] this is surely a powerful warning for the future, as is the NAO's comment that "The absence of clear progression pathways for non-academic qualifications in England marks a clear distinction from the other countries [we have] studied."[206]

  10.  Indeed, we are concerned that some HEIs are already suggesting that some diplomas will not equip students for HE. Accordingly, Edge suggests that:

    (v) the Department for Innovation, Universities and Schools, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, Sector Skills Councils and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, should - HEIs' policies on admitting students who hold qualifications other than A levels and

    b.recommend ways to overcome admissions tutors' reservations.

  11.  Taking a slightly wider view, there is a real need for better information, advice and guidance (IAG), to counter prejudice against vocational learning among teachers and careers staff. Such prejudice currently results in many young people being steered away from vocational options, because adults believe other options (eg A levels) are the only guaranteed route into HE. Edge recommends that -

    (vi) UCAS and HEFCE should collect and disseminate data about the characteristics of part-time HE students: this will demonstrate that a high proportion of adult students do not hold A levels or other "academic" qualifications when they first enter HE

  12.  Finally, admissions policies should encourage participation and progression amongst adults of any age: we comment further on this point in the next section.

The UK's ability to meet government targets for Higher Education participation and the relevance of these targets

  13.  The Government's principal target is for 50% of young people to participate in HE before the age of 30.

14.  We support the Government's view that "participation" can take many forms, from a short part-time course to a full-time degree programme. It is a pity that so many commentators fail to understand this point.

  15.  However, we see no reason to limit the participation target to a particular age group. A total of 12 million adults in the workforce (69%) have qualifications below level 4. According to recent research, 30% would consider going to university at some time in the future and 6% were already seriously considering this option.[207]

  16.  Edge therefore recommends that -

    (vii) the Government should no longer limit its participation target to people under the age of 30 and should instead actively encourage entry to HE at any age.

  17.  There are, of course, some barriers to adult participation in HE (and other forms of learning, for that matter). Adults often have additional responsibilities—for example, as parents and carers—which make full-time participation very difficult.

  18.  There are already opportunities to study at home, notably through the Open University and learndirect, and many HEIs (including FE colleges) offer part-time programmes which include evening classes. Digital and web-based technologies are helping to transform the ways HEIs can deliver learning, so that high-quality learning can be delivered off-campus at a time and location of a learner's choosing, while maintaining close links with the HEI "hub".

  19.  That said, there is still some way to go before HE offers a fully flexible approach to learning. For example, HEIs should be challenged to teach more part-time students on Saturdays and Sundays, as well as Monday to Friday, and to accelerate the development of innovative and flexible teaching methods.

  20.  In addition:

    (viii) it should be much easier to study for units at more than one institution (eg at a Further Education college, a university, via learndirect, and so on), over an extended time period. To support this, there should be -

    (ix) greater consistency in the use of credit accumulation and transfer frameworks; for work-related HE, these frameworks should be developed and overseen by Sector Skills Councils.

The balance between teaching and research in UK HEIs

  21.  Current government policy places too much emphasis on research, sometimes at the expense of teaching. Accordingly, Edge recommends that:

    (x) every HE institution should publish a statement of its core mission, setting out very clearly whether it wishes to be regarded as -

    — a research-led institution

    — a teaching-led institution

    — a hybrid.

  22.  Funding formulae should recognise the mission of each type of HEI. For teaching-led institutions, there should be additional incentives to broaden the range of courses and qualifications offered to students, particularly to promote part-time and short courses for adults.

The quality of teaching provision

  23.  The Government, HEFCE and QAA view of teaching and learning is, we believe, too narrow. It focuses too closely on the quality of the teaching which takes place within the confines of the HEI, and tends to underplay the importance of learning which takes place elsewhere.

24.  Knowledge gained in the lecture theatre or the library is never enough on its own: students need opportunities to practise what they learn. This is obvious in some contexts, but less so in others. Medical students' performance in examinations is a poor predictor of their clinical skill, for example, and medical schools therefore provide a large amount of work-based learning for all their students.

  25.  However, work-based learning is entirely absent in many other HE courses. Practice, or the practical application of knowledge, is too often rooted in the classroom, the desk exercise and the case study. Edge believes that -

    (xi) all students—not just those studying for explicitly vocational qualifications such as a degree in medicine and surgery—should have the opportunity to learn by doing for real, by which we mean practising their knowledge and skills in a real-world setting

    (xii) access to opportunities to learn by doing should be monitored and reported on by the QAA

  26.  "Learning by doing" will include students developing their own real-world projects (eg drama students producing and performing their work before a live audience, management students setting up their own business, etc), but must also include working with people, businesses, charities and other organisations outside the HEI, in real work settings. All "learning by doing" should support—and explicitly count toward—the award of higher education qualifications.

  27.  To support this, HE teaching staff should themselves be required to spend a meaningful amount of time in work placements outside their institution, in order to refresh their knowledge and understanding of modern working practices and the skills needed by employers.

  28.  Edge strongly believes that employers should have much greater influence over the structure and content of HE courses. At present, some HEIs concentrate on attracting students to courses they want to offer, and neglect the needs of the wider labour market. At the same time, many students believe that HE automatically opens the door to a graduate-level job and to a lifetime earnings premium: although this may be true on average, it has ceased to be true for some disciplines and some HE departments.

  29.  Employers are already closely associated with some HE programmes. It would be inconceivable for an HEI to offer a degree in medicine without the active support of the NHS, and most engineering departments have excellent relationships with individual employers and their professional bodies. However, many courses—especially in the arts and social sciences—are designed and delivered with little or no input from employers. Edge strongly recommends that -

    (xiii) no degree-level qualification should be awarded unless employers have been involved in its design, and HEIs should be required to involve employers in the delivery of every programme at Foundation Degree or first degree level. Employer involvement in the design of degree-level programmes should be led by Sector Skills Councils, co-ordinated by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills

The quality of learning facilities

  30.  There has been sustained investment in HE facilities (including FE colleges) over the last decade. This is very welcome, and many campuses readily stand comparison with the best in the world. Our reservation is that some of the investment in facilities has been too timid and conventional.

31.  In order to raise the status of vocational learning, provide clear progression routes and improve the employability of students, Edge recommends that -

    (xiv) providers of HE should be funded to develop new centres of vocational excellence, endorsed by employers.

  32.  Wherever possible, centres of vocational excellence should be co-located with relevant businesses (or public and third sector employers). Alternatively, they should operate as businesses in their own right.

  33.  For example, Edge has agreed to sponsor a hotel school which will be run by the University of Essex and Colchester Institute. The new venture has the full support of leading employers and is part of the National Hospitality Skills Academy set up by People 1st, the Sector Skills Council for hospitality and tourism. It will offer 5* service to paying customers, and will enable students to study for HE qualifications through a combination of work-based learning and off-the-job lectures, seminars and projects. Students will be able to enrol at three points in the year, and to progress more rapidly than they would in a more conventional HE setting.

  34.  We believe the Edge Hotel School will be a template for other centres of vocational excellence, not just in hospitality, but in many sectors of the economy.

Degree classification

  35.  We do not wish to comment on this issue, except to repeat our earlier comment: the inquiry places an undue emphasis on degrees. HE must provide a broad range of opportunities if it is to make a full contribution to the skills and knowledge needed by the UK workforce in the 21st century.

Further action required by the Government and/or HEFCE to ensure that UK HEIs offer students a world class educational experience

36.  It is important to see learning as a process which may or may not be linear. The conventional view is that someone who has completed a level 2 qualification will progress to level 3, and then on to level 4 or 5. In practice, someone who has completed a level 5 qualification might legitimately follow this with a fresh period of learning at level 2 or 3.

37.  Treating further and higher education as separate phases, with separate qualification frameworks, is therefore both unhelpful and unrealistic. There should be more and better integration between qualification frameworks and types of institution. As noted earlier, there should also be opportunities to study for individual units over an extended period—that is, a series of "bite size" opportunities which could lead to the award of a full qualification at a later date. This would also help many employers, especially small and medium-sized businesses, to develop the skills and knowledge of their workforce.

  38.  We would like to see greater recognition of work-based learning as a means of developing higher-level skills and knowledge. In partnership with the University Vocational Awards Council, Edge is supporting HE@Work, which is working with employers and universities to find ways to give academic recognition to workplace learning and make it easier for working people to gain undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications.

  39.  Linked with this, it is wrong that NVQs at level 4 and 5 sit outside the core list of HE qualifications, because this suggests that they are inferior to other higher-level awards. Edge recommends that -

    (xv) higher-level NVQs should be routinely offered by HEIs, both alone and in tandem with other qualifications, with the active support, encouragement and funding of HEFCE.

January 2009

204   Source: University Vocational Awards Council. Back

205   Source: UCAS. Back

206   National Audit Office: "Partnering for success: preparing to deliver the 14-19 education reforms in England", 2007. Back

207   University is Not Just for Young People: Working Adults' Perceptions of an Orientation to Higher Education, DIUS Research Report 2008. Back

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