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

Memorandum 63

Submission from Oxford Brookes University



    — Continued growth in the sector is important for economic and social reasons, including widening participation.— Improvement in school performance is central to widening participation, and universities can play a part in this.— The issue of admission to the most selective universities has the potential to be a distraction from the central issues.— On international benchmarks there is no evidence to suggest that teaching is overfunded in comparison with research or vice versa.

    — Selectivity in research funding is inevitable, but increasing the gradient of funding would not be helpful.

    — Innovative teaching is best supported by providing adequate funding for teaching, although the subject centres and CETLs have been useful. There is a need to look for ways of rewarding universities for excellent teaching.

    — Additional capital investment in universities would provide economic and environmental benefits.

    — Teaching at HE level needs to be supported by CPD. Existing subject networks are working well. Assessing excellent teaching is not easy.

    — HEFCE is a funding body and its role in monitoring quality is and should be limited. Quality monitoring undertaken in relation to health and teacher education is onerous.

    — The issue of degree classifications needs to be kept in proportion. The system is probably nearing the end of its useful life, and a gradualist approach to change is appropriate.

    — Plagiarism can be dealt with through the use of detection software, and through changing assessment practice, and Oxford Brookes University is taking an important role in this area.


  1.  it is very important that the Government maintains targets for the expansion of higher education for the following reasons:

        It is a necessary condition for widening participation. If participation rates overall remain stable, it is unlikely that higher education, or Government, will be able to broaden access by under-represented groups when that broadening would have to be at the expense of groups who are already participating and have clear expectations of their continued ability to participate.

        Current participation rates are still below those of many other developed countries. In a global economy in which intellectual assets are increasingly the dominant driver of success, having a highly educated population will be vital to the future of the UK. The Leitch report suggests that we currently have a significant skills gap in the working population now, and that this is so large that it cannot be met simply by recruiting more 18 year olds into higher education, so that we need to grow participation by those already in the workforce.

  Whether the specific target of 50% is "right" or not is not very important. The key issue is to continue to allow the sector to grow. There is plenty of evidence that there is demand there to support meeting the target. Over recent years, the limiting factor on the sector has been the availability of Additional Student Numbers to fund growth, not demand.

  2.  With regard to widening participation initiatives, much has been done to break down barriers to participation through low aspirations, and information barriers, although the existing efforts made by universities and others must continue. A major barrier to participation is poor achievement at GCSE and low staying on rates post-16. A major research programme into raising school achievement, combined with work which ensures that evidence of effective practice is transferred to schools, could make a real and sustained difference to participation by underrepresented groups.

  3.  It is unfortunate that the Government seems to have spent a disproportionate amount of energy on the issue of students from low participation backgrounds accessing the most selective universities, as opposed to the key issue of raising participation in higher education. Admission to HE should, of course, be "fair". In general, universities and their staff are strongly motivated to admit the candidates who are best qualified to do well in their institution. For all their shortcomings, the fairest criteria in this regard are bound to be the existing nationally assessed qualifications held by applicants. While it is reasonable to ask institutions to make efforts to make some allowances for differences in opportunity, our main attention ought to be focused on reducing those differences. There is a real risk that arguments about fairness of admission to elite institutions can become a diversion from the real issues.


  4.  Teaching and research are both core to the mission of higher education, and in a zero sum game it would be dangerous to assume that there is anything to be gained from shifting the balance. International comparisons suggest that the UK produces more high quality research per pound of public expenditure on research than other developed countries. This suggests that there is no "fat" in research budgets. Reductions in research spending would lead to less research and/or lesser quality. Similarly, spending on teaching per head is relatively low.

5.  The current selective allocation of research funding is inevitable given the very high cost of international research, especially in STEM subjects. Further intensification of that level of selectivity would be a mistake because:

    All universities must employ some staff who conduct research if the UK sector's brand is to be maintained.

    Greater selectivity would worsen the sector's existing tendency to be static. It cannot be healthy for some universities to know that they can never progress beyond a certain point, or for others to be confident that they will never lose their position.

    Less research intensive universities employ staff who are strongly motivated to undertake research, some of whom will move on and attain international prominence in other universities.

  6.  The best way to develop innovative teaching is to fund universities adequately and enable them to compete in recruiting the best students. That said, there is a role for overarching subject organisations, and for the CETL projects. Oxford Brookes University is proud to host two subject centres and two CETLs, and we believe that they have brought significant benefit to the sector.

  7.  The integration of learning and teaching and research is an important issue and our joint CETL with the University of Warwick, the Reinvention Centre, is focused on integrating research into the undergraduate curriculum.

  8.  There is a real dilemma in rewarding excellence in teaching at university level. Excellent research draws in more competitive funding through the rae and research councils. Providing an excellent student experience promotes the reputation of the institution and enhances its ability to select the best students, but it does not lead to opportunities to grow and offer that experience to more students, as the growth of the sector overall is constrained, and the funding model is designed to allow for the redistribution of funding only in a very slow and indirect way, in part to avoid destabilising institutions in difficulty. A free market in home student recruitment, with funding following students directly, and no cap on the growth of individual institutions, would reward success, but perhaps at the price of unacceptable levels of turbulence in the system. A degree of rebalancing away from block grant for T would provide greater incentives to offer a high quality student experience without risking institutional failure at an unacceptable level.

  9.  As with other parts of the public sector, universities struggle with an inheritance of poor quality buildings from the 1960s and 70s. The problem is being tackled, and the HEFCE EMS statistics show progress in reducing backlog maintenance and improving condition and functional suitability. Progress is necessarily limited by availability of funds. Additional capital funding would enable universities to accelerate investment in infrastructure which would help to boost the economy and offset the decline in construction in the private sector. Given that modern buildings and refurbishments are being designed to meet much higher standards of environmental performance there is also a case to be made in terms of reducing long term energy costs and contributing to sustainability targets.

  10.  Initial training for academic staff in learning and teaching is now securely in place across the sector. The next challenge is to embed CPD for staff as they move through their careers. As in other areas of professional practice, there is a need for a sound evidence base on what promotes effective learning, and mechanisms for ensuring that this is reflected in practice across the sector. The subject centres have proved to be effective in this latter role. At Oxford Brookes as at other universities, we have criteria in place for rewarding excellent teaching. Gathering objective evidence of excellence is more challenging than it is in the research arena. Greater incentives to institutions to achieve excellent teaching might encourage a greater focus on rewards to staff. There is a role for teaching only staff in HE, but the proposition that there is a large number of high quality staff who wish to work in higher education and have no wish to undertake research is not borne out by experience.

  11.  HEFCE is a funding council, and its role in quality and standards is to ensure that its funding methodology supports their maintenance, and that institutions are properly accountable for how the money is spent. Higher education is appropriately regulated in general by the QAA and, where appropriate, by professional bodies. We do have some concerns about the onerous nature of the quality regimes in health and teacher training, and their interaction with contract compliance.

  13.  We support the gradualist approach to exploring other approaches which will, in due course, replace the current classification system. It would be optimistic to think that employers will, in general, have the capacity to make use of a very detailed profile in selection, as opposed to using grade point averages, at least at the initial stage in the selection process. Recent remarks by the Chief Executive of the QAA were unhelpful and exaggerated the scale of the problem with the current system, which employers of our graduates do not raise as an issue. Nonetheless, classifying degrees is probably an approach which is nearing the end of its useful life, and we need to prepare for something new in an orderly fashion.

  14.  Plagiarism is clearly a matter of concern but the term covers a wide spectrum of issues from poor referencing to deliberate cheating, and there is a risk that this is not widely understood outside HE. The Assessment Standards CETL at Oxford Brookes has undertaken valuable work on how assessments can be structured to minimise plagiarism, and alongside clear articulation of expectations to students, and processes for detecting and dealing with plagiarism, it is a manageable issue.


  15.  The key issue in student support is the continued gulf between the levels of support available to full- and part-time students. This distorts the existing market by encouraging students to study full-time rather than part-time. It also prevents the participation of part-time students who would study if they could access equivalent levels of support to full-timers.

January 2009

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