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


Memorandum 69

Submission from Staffordshire University

SUMMARY POINTS

    — The introduction of 14-19 diplomas should be welcomed in their own right and for their potential contribution to improving the HEIPR which is currently falling well short of the 50% target.— Compact agreements we believe are an excellent method of motivating young people to consider progressing to University. — Broad support for Lifelong Learning Networks in the provision of additional opportunities for potential students by creating clear and transparent progression routes into HE for vocational learners.

    — The University welcomes the proposed HEFCE changes to how the Widening Participation premium is allocated but greater clarity is needed around targeting, accountability and evaluation.

    — There needs to be greater alignment between the government's expectation of greater flexibility in provision and funding models. In particular, the government needs to radically rethink how it incentivises part-time students and employers to develop their skills and contribute to the economy.

    — To ensure that creativity and innovation in teaching and learning continues to flourish it would be appropriate that a proportion of the replacement fund to the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF) (say 30-40%) should be dedicated for this purpose.

    — It is absolutely essential that all universities engage in research and scholarship and that this is appropriate to and aligned to their mission. This diversity in research should be recognised in terms of a funding methodology that ensures that the infrastructure for research is supported in all universities.

    — The continued professionalisation of both academic and academic support staff is essential to the ongoing quality enhancement of the sector.

    — The Government should be confident in the findings of the Quality Assurance Agency and, hence, in the teaching provision, learning opportunities and value of degrees awarded by universities in the UK. The work of the QAA should be more proactively promoted to prospective students and employers.

    — The introduction of the Higher Education Academic Record (HEAR) is at the pilot stage will need careful evaluation. The current system of the UK's systems of degree classification has served the sector and students well over the years and is well understood by employers and students alike.

1.  ADMISSIONS

  1.1  The sector as a whole has made significant advances in providing alternative routes into higher education. Staffordshire University is at the forefront of recognising alternative routes into Higher Education, attracting many students from diverse backgrounds and offering a variety of non-traditional qualifications. The principal criterion is that students are admitted on the basis that they are able to demonstrate their potential to succeed. It is recognised that this is not always demonstrated through the achievement of formal qualifications.

1.2  It is disappointing that recruitment levels to the first wave of Diplomas have been low. However, we believe that they will become an increasingly attractive option. Staffordshire University has been involved in vocational qualifications and admissions projects for some time and we were the first HEI in the area to produce and share our admissions statements with local schools and colleges, local authorities, connexions advisors and other stakeholders with regard to the new diplomas. All our Faculties are involved at the developmental stages of the new diplomas and we have a diploma working group within the University to enable us to develop a co-ordinated approach to the University's position and responses to this new progression route into HE.

  1.3  While entrance tests are becoming more common in the sector, the University has not introduced these. However, all applicants are interviewed for particular awards ie nursing and art and design courses where portfolios are also considered. We have a very effective admissions process due to our centralised admissions team and close liaison with Schools and Faculties.

  1.4  Compact agreements we believe are an excellent method of motivating young people to consider progressing to University. Staffordshire University is part of Aimhigher's HE CARD scheme which offers young people the opportunity to make informed decisions about their future. Together with nine other universities, plus the Open University, Staffordshire University has made a promise to all students completing the HE CARD goals that they will receive special consideration when applying to one of the universities involved in the scheme. In addition, Staffordshire University also provides a number of its own progression opportunities.

  1.5  Staffordshire University is the lead university for the regional Lifelong Learning Network. These networks have provided additional opportunities for potential students by creating clear and transparent progression routes into HE for vocational learners. However, it is too early to evaluate their success in this key area. In addition, Foundation Degree provision helps many students to study in their locality prior to topping up Foundation Degrees on campus. The Staffordshire University Regional Federation is a very good example of successful partnership working between HE and FE so as to provide local HE progression opportunities.

  1.6  The University welcomes the proposed HEFCE changes to how the Widening Participation premium is allocated. In future entrants from the most disadvantaged quintiles will attract funding at four times the rate of those from the second most disadvantaged quintile. This is to be welcomed as it recognises the cost of engaging the most disadvantaged groups. Similarly we welcome the de-coupling of retention and widening participation monies. However institutions need a strong guide as to the level of accountability required for widening access monies, the level of evaluation and how prescriptive HEFCE intends to be regarding targeting. There are particular concerns regarding adult learners as guidelines at present tend toward the school-centric.

  1.7  The latest HEIPR figures produced in April 2008 (for 2006-7) records the participation rate for 17-30 year olds as 40%, which is less than the previous year. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the 50% target will be achieved by 2010. This possibly reflects that qualification framework is not appropriate for all potential learners. Over the longer term, however, the introduction of the new diplomas should assist increased participation.

2.  THE BALANCE BETWEEN TEACHING AND RESEARCH

  2.1  For all universities teaching and learning are important core activities and core funding for these activities are for most Universities the most significant component of their income. Important influences on the level of funding include the price band, whether part-time or full-time, premiums related to widening participation, foundation degrees. The current funding regime to a large extent tends not to be based on recognising student achievements, insofar as institutions will not receive funding for a student if that student leaves the institution before completing his/her course of study. This could be defined as not submitting the final piece of assessment in the final module. It is anticipate that this anomaly will be addressed in the revised Teaching Funding Method. There is also a disconnect between the government's desire for greater flexibility and the funding model. This is most clearly seen in the case of part-time students studying over an extended period. However, this is also apparent in the increasingly popular two year fast track degrees; at Staffordshire University there over 150 students on this type of award. Institutions receive only the equivalent of two years of funding (plus a 50% premium for a long course) whereas students study the same number of credits as three year students.

2.2  The current Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF) has been very helpful in supporting a range of innovative and creative learning and teaching developments in institutions including the valued research informed teaching strand (which has benefited post-1992 universities in particular). However, the recent HEFCE consultation on the future of the TQEF proposes that its successor fund should be embedded in a University's core budget and would not be subject to the current accountability requirements. This could result in a significant proportion of this funding not being ring fenced for teaching enhancement. To ensure that innovation in teaching enhancement continues to take place then it would be appropriate that a proportion of this funding (say 30-40%) should be dedicated for this purpose.

  2.3  It is absolutely essential that all universities engage in research and scholarship and that this is appropriate to and aligned to their mission. The current RAE funding arrangements focuses very much, and rewards, research of international significance (4* research). It is recognised that the funding of this type of research is important for a number of reasons. However, 1* level research is of national importance and is often most appropriate to many SMEs, public sector bodies and charities. Much of 1* level research is applied research which gives a direct benefit to companies and other organisations for whom it is tailored. However, universities that focus on this important 1* level research receive little or no QR funding. As Million+ have proposed "the QR allocation should recognise the importance of funding the diverse range of research that is demanded by the diversity of the public and private sectors in the UK. QR funding should ensure that the infrastructure for research is supported in all universities." Whether this is via QR or by some other approach would need detailed exploration. At Staffordshire University, to reflect that research is very much applied in nature and has strong relationships with business and industry and the public sector, a number of Applied Research Centres have been established to provide a clear focus for our activity.

  2.4  The continued professionalisation of academic and academic support staff is essential to the ongoing quality enhancement of the sector. Staffordshire University, which is perhaps not untypical, has a range of development opportunities for staff. This includes an accredited professional development framework to support the enhancement in learning and teaching. A key component of this framework is a Post Graduate Certificate in Higher and Professional Development which although primarily designed for newly appointed lecturers, is also made available to experienced staff. It is very closely aligned to the strategic direction of the University by having a module focussing specifically on technology based learning. In addition a progression route is now available onto a Diploma and Masters stage, and this is currently being linked to requirements in the career development of lecturers.

  2.5  Acknowledging the fact that the student experience in universities involves more than lecturing staff, Staffordshire University also have a well developed framework of accredited course for support staff. In particular the Working in HE Award, the Foundation Degree in Professional Support for Education and the Higher Education Leadership and Practice Certificate. All these awards ensure that everyone working in the University has a wide perspective on the complexities of the organisation and how collectively it impacts on the student learning experience.

  2.6  The University also a operates a Learning and Teaching Fellow Scheme which we believe is a valuable way of recognising and rewarding excellence. We have also had some success with the National scheme. In broad terms we believe that the national scheme is fit for purpose, however, we also think it needs reviewing to ensure that a significant focus is on rewarding excellence in teaching (and supporting teaching) particularly at non-senior levels in Universities.

  2.7  All HEIs are audited at regular intervals by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Preparation for such audits is taken extremely seriously by HEIs and all reports are published and in the public domain. The Government should be confident in the findings of the QAA and, hence, in the teaching provision, learning opportunities and value of degrees awarded by universities in the UK. The External Examiner system in the UK is well established and robust.

  The majority of university qualifications in the UK are credit rated and their portability should not be in doubt. Government should do more to reinforce the work of the QAA so that potential students and employers are assured that the standards in universities are appropriate and regularly monitored.

3.  DEGREE CLASSIFICATION

  3.1  The methodologies used by UK HEIs to determine degree classification have evolved over the years. The post 1992 universities have, in the main, adopted the former Council for National Awards Authority (CNAA) regulations which provided consistency in the way its regulations have also matured and been revised.

The key consistent element has been the external examiner system which enables external examiners from different HEIs to provide a judgement on a comparison with their own institutions and the sector on the standards of classification of awards. This system has worked well over the last couple of decades.

  3.2  The current system of the UK's systems of degree classification has served the sector and students well over the years and is well understood by employers and students alike. The introduction of the Higher Education Academic Record (HEAR) is at the pilot stage and has yet to be evaluated. It remains uncertain how the additional information required by HEAR will be used extensively by employers to determine the suitability of a graduate in contrast with the degree classification results already provided.

  3.3  The consensus, at present, is that international high flying companies select first and foremost on a) the HEI at which the graduate has studied and b) the degree classification obtained. Whilst the HEAR provides much more information regarding the graduate's profile, there is little evidence, at present, that the HEAR will replace the two criteria referred to above as far as companies are concerned.

  Indeed, small to medium sized companies, may actually find the HEAR of little help in determining the best candidate for the job. A great deal of guidance will need to be provided to such companies to interpret the information provided if the HEAR is to have a positive effect on graduate recruitment.

4.  STUDENT SUPPORT AND ENGAGEMENT

  4.1  Student engagement can be problematic if HEIs are not proactive in this area. The role of the Students' Union is vital to help students understand the importance of their engagement in HE policy. At Staffordshire University we work very closely with our Students' Union to ensure that students maximise their opportunities to engage with the University. We have a good Academic Representation Scheme in which students, at award level, are identified and trained by the Students' Union to enable them to participate fully in their roles.

4.2  It is important to emphasise that when students withdraw from their awards, there is often more than one reason for so doing. A huge amount of research has been carried out in the HE sector on this issue and it is clear that there are numerous reasons for students not to complete their awards. These include poor careers advice at school and college, financial reasons, personal problems, homesickness, health problems and insufficient research into their intended awards.

  4.3  Whilst full-time students now have a reasonable financial package available to them, many families are debt adverse and prefer to fund their sons and daughters to significant debt. We are therefore aware of students who could be entitled to bursaries but who do not claim them because their parents are not willing to apply for financial support for their offspring. Most 18 year olds are clearly not aware of the implications of student debt and the level of ignorance, despite government initiatives, is staggeringly high.

  4.4  Part-time students remain the forgotten group. For instance, if you are disabled and unable to study at least 50% of a full-time award in a year, you can expect to receive no help from the Disabled Students Allowance. This is a serious issue for many capable disabled people who can simply not afford to undertake an HE award.

  4.5  Whilst HEIs are encouraged more and more to provide flexible provision, the student financial packages available to students are not moving at the same pace and part-time students are seriously disadvantaged, financially, by often trying to work and study. Employer engagement is a major plank of government strategy and is welcomed by universities such as ourselves. However, students must not be disadvantaged, financially, by trying to improve their potential earning capacity by studying part-time in employment.

  4.6  Government needs to radically rethink how it incentivises part-time students and employers to develop their skills and contribute to the economy. The need for flexible provision is well recognised by this university but it must be matched by flexible financial support packages for students.

January 2009






 
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