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

Memorandum 64

Submission from the Institute of Education (IOE), University of London


  This submission has been coordinated on behalf of the Institute by the Centre for Higher Education Studies (CHES—see

The Institute would like to offer a number of propositions to assist the Committee in its work, together with an indication of relevant research findings, many of which based on studies conducted at the Institute. Reflecting the breadth of the inquiry, this submission draws on a wide range of work from different research centres at the Institute. The Institute hosts the ESRC's Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP), which has conducted, among other themes, an important series of investigations of aspects of widening participation in higher education (see David, 2008 and We also draw upon some of the work of the TLRP-TEL (Technology-Enhanced Learning Phase), based in the London Knowledge Lab (LKL), jointly hosted by the IOE and Birkbeck College. The IOE's new ESRC Research Centre—Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES)—has projects examining the FE/HE/work interface in relation to changing economic and social conditions at the level of city-regions. The aim of this submission is to outline some of the key issues and to highlight key reports which should prove useful to the Committee in their inquiry.


  The main propositions presented in this submission are as follows (we have arranged these to follow the broad outline of the Committee's call for evidence):

    1.1 The main barriers to widening participation mean that attention needs to be focussed on the education system prior to application and admission to universities, and higher education has an obligation to assist with this (see 2.1 below);

    1.2 It is important to recognise that higher education has potentially profound social as well as economic effects (2.2);

    1.3 Greater attention should be paid to the differential effects of courses, institutions and mode of study on the life-chances and economic returns of individuals (2.3);

    1.4 To achieve its goals fully, HE requires teaching to take place in a research-sensitive environment (3.1);

    1.5 There is special challenge in designing and developing technologies to support higher education (3.2);

    1.6 The "service" or "third-stream" mission of universities is increasingly important (3.3);

    1.7 The continuation of a quality-assured "controlled reputational range" is of significant value to the UK HE sector (4.1);

    1.8 The process of degree classification requires overhaul (and ideally replacement by a device like the Higher Education Record of Achievement [HERA]). However it is also important to resist "moral panics" about the sector's approach to examinations (4.2), especially in a context where assessment is also important in its formative role (4.3);

    1.9 While the new arrangements for fees and student support in England and Wales are proving to be broadly progressive, they will continue to draw in a large public subsidy which may affect the ability of the system to expand sensibly (5.1);

    1.10 It is important for the Committee to understand and respond to the role of the student body in constructively moulding their own experience, through—for example—choice of subjects and mode of study, as well as their experience beyond the campus (5.2); and

    1.11 The impact of a rapidly internationalised system should also be considered in the Committee's deliberations (6.1).


2.1  The need to separate issues of widening participation from those of fair access

  2.1.1  Equitable access to higher education is an emotive as well as a highly complex issue. From the evidence we know the following about widening participation (WP).  WP is not about consistently perverse decisions by higher education admissions tutors. If anything university admissions have improved rather than further undermined distributional fairness.  Nor is WP undermined by well-qualified students from poorer or minority backgrounds making what at first sight may appear irrational choices regarding HE participation or of institution. The economic returns outlined in section 2.3 are not the only consideration.  WP is not just about aversion to debt. We need to look at attitudes to debt in the wider young population more generally.  WP is not simply about supply-side issues, such as the lack of short-cycle alternatives to traditional degrees.  WP in the UK is potentially about improving the quality of school-based experience for all students, but especially those from under-represented groups. Success in compulsory education is vital. The gap in higher education participation between richer and poorer students is almost entirely explained by the weak academic achievement of poor children in secondary school (Chowdry et al., 2008). To be effective on a significant scale, WP requires intervention well before the point of entry into higher education.  WP is about parental expectations throughout the educational lifecourse and effective information, advice and guidance (IAG) throughout the school career.  Perhaps most importantly it is about getting employers to live up to their rhetoric of supporting both younger and older workers in their personal learning trajectories (especially the former). Further education colleges have a major role here in terms of bridging the transition from work to HE (see Fuller and Unwin, 2008).

  2.1.2  A set of TLRP (Teaching and Learning Research Programme) projects examining different areas of HE demonstrates that recent UK government policies on widening participation have indeed led to increasing opportunities for learners from diverse families and disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. However, these policies have not led to fair or equal access to equivalent types of higher education that may lead to equal benefits in the graduate or professional labour markets. Nevertheless, the projects show that policies have also provided the opportunities for the development of potential new institutional practices and pedagogies to engage diverse students. The projects ranged across broad questions of policy for systems of post-compulsory, further and higher education, to questions about students' educational outcomes from school and their access to differential forms of higher education, especially across academic, vocational and/ or mathematical subjects (David, 2008).

  2.1.3  The problems of raising aspirations, or of "fair access" to prestigious institutions on the part of well-qualified non-standard students, could be viewed trivial when set against the genuine widening participation challenge of getting more people to the starting gate (Watson, 2006a).

2.2  The need to understand HE as a positional good

  The really serious issue raised by HE expansion is about polarisation: the growing gap between those with access to this good, and those without. At the heart of the matter is the question of social mobility. The debate can all too easily descend into a competition between two narratives: one stressing the role of HE in reproducing patterns of elite formation; the other more confident about the effect of expanded, more democratic systems in enabling new entrants. A new study shows how in the UK both narratives can be true (Williams and Filippakou, forthcoming).

2.3  The importance of combining personal and social rates of return

2.3.1  Globally, we are currently going through a neo-liberal phase where human capital and personal economic returns rule. It is true that the average value of higher education in economic terms is substantial, both to the individual, in terms of higher earnings (Blundell et al., 2005), and to society as a whole. However, in recent years the wage premium earned by some new graduates appears to be falling (O'Leary and Sloane, 2005). The rate of return to a degree varies by institution (Chevalier and Conlon, 2003; Iftikhar et al., 2008; Power and Whitty, 2008). It also varies by subject, with quantitative degrees and some vocationally oriented degrees having greater value (Walker and Zhu, 2003; Sloane and O'Leary, 2004). It is imperative that students are well informed of these nuances of the graduate labour market in order to ensure students are making fully informed decisions.

2.3.2  Non-financial benefits to education also need to be taken into account. The Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning at the Institute of Education has demonstrated (on the basis of study of cohorts born in 1958, 1970 and now 2000-01) that participants in HE in the UK are likely to be happier, healthier and more democratically tolerant (Feinstein et al., 2008).

  2.3.3  There is a further issue: "drop-out." Evidence from Chowdry et al. (2008) indicates that students from more deprived backgrounds are more likely to drop out even if they are equally qualified when they enter HE. As HE expands, retention and completion are as important as widening participation.


3.1  The importance of teaching in a research-sensitive environment

  The main effect of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) will be to freeze funding at a level set as it was somewhere between 2001 and 2007. There are potential dangers in this development, which could affect the student experience. Missions could become narrower as internal concentration of resource mirrors external funding. They will also be increasingly dominated by medicine and science; not least because funding required to "match" investments in science and technology will progressively bleed the arts and humanities (Watson and Amoah, 2007: 81-108).

3.2  The challenge of pedagogical development, in particular the use of information and communications technologies

For the learning process to be fully supported, it is important for technology to be able to elicit and facilitate "intensive, active learning", which requires several technology features to be in place, and integrated (Laurillard et al., 2008). The technology-based tools currently being used in HE have not been created for "intensive, active learning" of the kind our desired learning outcomes require and our students expect (Entwistle, 2005). The complexity of degree-level study as an activity requires a wide range of digital tools, technologies and features to be integrated within a learning environment if the learner is to be supported adequately. Few enterprises other than HE have such extensive and complex requirements, but education as an industry does not have the commercial power to attract significant R&D to serve its technology needs. By working only with the emerging technologies created for commercial and leisure use, education is inadequately served.

3.3  The relevance of "service," "third stream," and "knowledge exchange" to a contemporary teaching and learning environment

"Third stream" or "third mission" activities are not only good ways of embedding in enterprises (public and private) the knowledge that exists within universities. These activities are also means of producing new knowledge, and, probably more typically, re-configuring existing knowledge, so making it applicable to new contexts, to the benefit of students at undergraduate as well as postgraduate level (Temple, 2008).


4.1  The role of quality assurance (QA) in maintaining the "controlled reputational range" of the UK system

  One of the most distinctive features of the development of the UK system of higher education has been its willingness to take academic responsibility for its own enlargement. However, there is serious work to be done on quality assurance: to bring up-to-date the system of external examination; to identify and take account of the issues raised by innovations in teaching and learning, and especially in student assessment; to probe the deeper issues raised by the relationship between teaching and research; to take steps to ensure that collaborative provision between institutions—sometimes across wide distances, and making use of new media—lives up to its intentions on quality and standards; to calibrate external interventions so that they are led by secure assessment of risk and not just reputation; to think hard about acceptable standards of advertising and promotion; and so on (Watson, 2006b).

4.2  The desirability of replacing degree classification

There is widespread recognition that the system of honours degree classification historically utilised in the UK system is no longer fit for purpose. It is now clear that there is substantial variation across degree classes earned in institutions with similar intakes, as well as by subject (Yorke, 2007). Development—and implementation—of a Higher Education Record of Achievement (HERA), as recommended initially in the Dearing Report and more recently by the group chaired by Professor Robert Burgess, is overdue.

4.3  The role of assessment in teaching and learning as well as qualifications

The role of assessment in promoting learning is often associated with a distinction between formative assessment, in which learners are given feedback to enable learning, and summative assessment for grading purposes, although in practice the two overlap. The amount of feedback a learner receives varies across the sector often with too much emphasis on the summative assessment (Gibbs and Dunbat-Goddet, 2007).


5.1  The need to separate and understand the balance between institutional and student support

  5.1.1  The new arrangements for student support from 2006 have proved broadly progressive but will have significant effects on the long-term financing of the system as the government contribution to the HE sector has actually increased not least through the increased generosity of grants and interest-free loans.

5.1.2  Dearden et al. (2008) illustrate who pays for these latest reforms by means of a circular flow of payments. The table below sets out their calculations of the net balance of payments (-ve on the table) and receipts (+ve on the table) between different participants within the HE system—universities, students, graduates and taxpayers—under the 2003-04 system (old) and current system of HE funding in England.

5.1.3  Looking at the first column of the table, we see that under the old system, universities received about £5.5 billion in total funding for teaching, coming mainly from taxpayers (via direct payments to universities in the form of the recurrent teaching grant made to HEFCE each year, and fee exemptions), and also students (via up-front fees). Graduates also gained around £0.6 billion, from maintenance loan subsidies (paid for by taxpayers). The second column shows that under the new system university income is increased, to around £6.7bn. This increase is paid for by graduates, through deferred fees (subsidised by taxpayers). Students become net recipients, receiving around £1.1 billion in total from new grants and subsidies.

5.1.4  Circular flows of payments: old and new systems, £billions

New system
compared to
old system

Sums of gains and losses

Note. Totals may not sum due to rounding.

  5.1.5  The final column of the table shows the net impact. First, universities' net position improves by around £1.3 billion, from £5.5 billion under the old system to around £6.7 billion under the new system. Second, the overall taxpayer contribution to the costs of HE rises by around £1.1 billion compared with an unchanged 2003-04 system for tuition and student support. Third, students are better off under the new system due to grants and fee deferral, by around £1.6 billion. Finally, graduates contribute around £1.7 billion more, through increases in fees, offset by new loan subsidies from the taxpayer.

  5.1.6  This analysis highlights the changing balance of funding between the public and private sector as a whole as a result of the new reforms. Taking students and graduates together, we see that the net increase in contributions from these two groups combined amounts to the relatively small sum of £100 million, whilst the net increase in contribution from the taxpayer amounts to around £1.1 billion. This highlights an important constraint on any future reforms to HE funding. Further increases in fees, for example, necessarily involve additional government spending (because of the subsidised nature of loans for fees) unless other changes are made.

5.2  The value of understanding contemporary student cultures

  5.2.1  A key challenge is to design and develop technologies that are genuinely inclusive, personalised and productive—as well as flexible in the sense of crossing pedagogical and technological boundaries between home, college and social contexts. This is a major commitment of the London Knowledge Lab (LKL), as well as the TLRP-Technology Enhanced Learning Phase (TLRP-TEL), directed by the head of LKL. From a policy point of view, there needs to be recognition that the development of 21st century technologies alongside 21st century pedagogies is a precondition for rising to the immense challenges faced by HE. Students—as young adults—live in a different world from that of many of their teachers. Their world is what the TLRP-TEL characterises as Web 2.0: "an umbrella term for a host of recent internet applications such as social networking, wikis, folksonomies, virtual societies, blogging, multiplayer online gaming and mash-ups" (TLRP-TEL, 2008: 4).

5.2.2  It is important not to underestimate the role of students in moulding their higher education experience. The decline in sciences (other than the biosciences) and technology may be irreversible (and we have shielded ourselves from its full effects in the UK because of overseas recruitment) (see Watson, 2006c). There is evidence of a negative correlation between objective "development" of countries and enthusiasm for science and technology (Nuffield Foundation, 2008).

  5.2.3  Student engagement is best developed through a combination of cognitive, practical and reflective elements. The formation of the student's "will to learn" may be understood as the imparting of certain kinds of dispositions and qualities: of personal initiative, courage, carefulness, resilience and so forth (see Barnett, 2007).


6.1  The international campus

  UK university campuses are now inescapably international, with many having students from more than 100 countries and several with a majority of students for whom English is not their first language. This is of more than economic importance. Too often, the experience of international students is one of relative loneliness, of separation from UK students, and a tendency to find themselves in groups of students from their own home country.


  Barnett, R. (2007) A Will to Learn: being a student in an age of uncertainty. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

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  Chevalier, A. and G. Conlon (2003) Does it pay to attend a prestigious university?, CEE Discussion Paper No. 33.

  Chowdry, H., Crawford, C., Dearden, L., Goodman, A., and A. Vignoles (2008) Understanding the determinants of participation in higher education and the quality of institute attended: analysis using administrative data. Institute of Fiscal Studies. Available at:

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  Yorke, M. (2007) Grading Student Achievement in Higher Education: signals and shortcomings. London: Routledge.

January 2009

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