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

Memorandum 74

Submission from GuildHE


Summary of Key Points

  This submission is presented on behalf of GuildHE, one of the two representative bodies for higher education with 29 institutions in membership or associate membership. It argues that:

    — GuildHE institutions have a proven track record in widening participation (including the recruitment of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and the recruitment of part-time and mature students), in student retention and in providing a good level of student support;— GuildHE institutions also have excellent experience in working with employers and in the delivery of vocationally based education;— In the current financial situation it makes sense to build on these strengths—channelling funding into a small number of research intensive institutions and focusing on the relatively small numbers of students able to move to those institutions may not provide the best use of scarce resources;

    — Current restrictions on additional student numbers prevent institutions which are well placed to meet the needs of local communities and could recruit more students from doing so—more flexibility is needed;

    — Better funding mechanisms are important in meeting the needs of part-time students;

    — Funding for capital investment is needed to support teacher training in the STEM subjects as well as to support high level research activity in those areas;

    — The strength and value of the UK honours degree is acknowledged but we recognise the need to ensure that the systems by which standards are maintained and quality assured are better understood both in the UK and elsewhere;

    — We also support the need to provide more information about the full range of student achievement through the Higher Education Achievement Report.


  1.  GuildHE is one of the two representative bodies for higher education and the key advocate for the importance of institutional diversity. Our member institutions comprise some of the newest and most dynamic Universities in England, well established University Colleges and specialist higher education institutions; and associate members offering higher education in privately funded institutions or specialist further education colleges.


  2.  An underlying theme of our evidence is the importance of diversity—both within the student population and within the institutions meeting the needs of those students. We feel that the need for this diversity in the higher education ecology can too easily be honoured in principle in government policies while being overlooked in practice.

3.  Our higher education institutions are grounded in areas of key strategic importance for higher education today. Widening participation objectives are critical to all four areas under consideration by the Committee. These are not new initiatives for institutions like the University of Winchester or St Mary's University College Twickenham. They were established (under earlier names), for that very purpose over a hundred years ago—to provide opportunities for women or for other groups who would not otherwise have had access to higher education at the universities of the time.

  4.  Likewise "employer engagement" has always been a feature for our members working with professionals and practitioners for example in teacher training or healthcare. Other institutions with particular strengths in vocational areas—for example Writtle College and Harper Adams University College in agriculture and the land-based industries, or Norwich University College of the Arts and The Arts Institute at Bournemouth in the creative industries—have always had a clear focus on the employment sectors which match the needs of their students. Buckinghamshire New University has its origins in an institution established in the 1890s to provide skilled people for local industry (the furniture industry) while the Royal Agricultural College was founded even earlier to meet the need for education to support the agricultural industry. This viewpoint therefore underpins our evidence.

  5.  In responding to the breadth of enquiry from the Select Committee, we have concentrated on those areas where GuildHE members have a particular message or distinctive interest. In doing so we are not disregarding the importance of the other issues the Select Committee has raised—we appreciate expertise offered elsewhere. The comments below follow the headings used in the call for evidence. We are also forwarding, as further context for our material, the GuildHE submission to the DIUS Debate on the future of higher education—



  6.  We feel strongly that all those able to benefit from higher education should have the opportunity to do so. We welcome therefore the setting of high aspirations for the number of students participating in higher education. We seek a transparent and effective admissions process and work closely with UCAS and SPA (Supporting Professionalism in Admissions) as well as with the Delivery Partnership Steering Committee in supporting our institutions. But, we have concerns about the extent to which policies on extending access to higher education sometimes appear to translate into, either an aim to extend access to a small number of students in a small number of universities only, or an aim to give access just to those whose employers can afford, and are willing, to pay.

7.  GuildHE members' institutions have an excellent track record in recruitment of students across the whole range of backgrounds. They consistently exceed the benchmarks set for the recruitment of students from low socioeconomic groups. In the statistics published in 2007 and 2008 by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), Harper Adams University College and University College Birmingham were shown as being among the very highest performing HEIs for widening participation. In the 2006-07 figures, University College Plymouth St Mark and St John had the highest percentage from among all HEIs based in the South West region of young, full-time, first degree entrants from a lower socio-economic background.

  8.  Many of our members have a high proportion of part-time and mature students—often coming back into education after going straight into employment from school. York St John University has over 30% of its undergraduate students who are over 21. Others have similarly high numbers. It is in these areas that there is scope for growth in admissions to higher education.

  9.  Areas of concern for us are:

    (i) the extent to which the current standstill on recruiting additional student numbers, other than those which have been already agreed, for 2009-10 and 2010-11 and the lack of flexibility in the system (which prevents re-distribution of numbers from those that may struggle to recruit to those that would wish to recruit more) impacts more severely on smaller institutions and prevents them from meeting the needs of their local communities. Institutions such as Buckinghamshire New University, which recently achieved university title, University College Birmingham, which recently won the right to university college title, and GuildHE members of the National Arts Learning Network such as Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, have the potential to attract more applicants but cannot do so because of the limits imposed on additional student numbers.

    (ii) the adequacy of provision for mature and part-time students who are more likely to rely on having good local access to higher education, sometimes gaining entry through further education linkages. Those with jobs, families, or caring responsibilities cannot easily move location to find a course to suit them. Many of those supported by the University of Cumbria in Cumbria Higher Learning, for example, would not be able to access higher education outside their local area. Those aspects of government policy which rely on encouraging students to move may be misplaced.

    (iii) the importance of the higher education role in information, advice and guidance from early stages in schools. In particular, we have reservations about the consequences of the new "adjustment period" which may encourage students to switch institution at the final stage prior to starting university or college.

    (iv) the inadequacy of the financial support packages available to part-time students. It is vital that support for part-time students should be put on a better footing. The distinctions between part-time and full-time students have begun to break down with a rising number of full-time students undertaking the equivalent of full-time paid jobs. A more even balance of funding, with an improved package of support—both for part-time students and for institutions—might enable a more realistic approach. We recognise the current pressures on financial resources—but feel that in these circumstances it is all the more important that resources should be redirected to where they can do most good. Funding decisions which favour the most research intensive institutions particularly those with a more traditional, not very diverse, student population may not make the greatest impact in the larger parts of the population that are most in need and may not provide the best use of limited resources.


  10.  The balance between teaching and research is of critical importance for our institutions. They are sometimes characterised as "teaching led" institutions. While they might be proud of this recognition, they would resist strongly any suggestion of being "teaching only" institutions. The link between research and teaching is a key aspect of higher education wherever it is delivered. There would be concern therefore, on the part of our member institutions, at any suggestion that research funding be increasingly channelled, for the future, into an even smaller group of institutions.

11.  GuildHE appreciates the protection of the unit of funding for teaching and the increased recognition for good teaching practices. In securing research informed teaching, and achieving a fairer spread of funding to support economic and social prosperity, it is fundamental that a broader view of research is recognised. This must include applied research, research undertaken with employers and commercial interests, and practice based research. The Centre for Sustainable Development, at the University for the Creative Arts, for example, facilitates research on eco-design and broader sustainability considerations in product and service development. Newman University College, Birmingham has undertaken a series of research studies to inform workforce planning and training for key industry sectors as well as research to identify why white working class boys seem to reject higher education as a life choice.

  12.  The importance nationally of the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is well understood and we recognise that these are resource intensive subjects. They make heavy demands in terms of the facilities available and expect high level research. Many of our institutions are expertly engaged in the training of teachers who will be responsible for teaching the STEM subjects within our schools, thus providing for the next generation of undergraduate and research students. There is currently a mismatch of funding in this area. The Training and Development Agency for Schools, which is responsible for the funding of Initial Teaching Training, does not fund capital expenditure, while capital funding for the STEM subjects channelled through the Higher Education Funding Council for England does not connect to the demands made for training the teachers of STEM subjects for the future. We would like to see support for the STEM subjects feed through to funding for capital investment for teaching training facilities and in particular laboratory refurbishment.

  13.  GuildHE was actively engaged in the development of the Professional Standards Framework for those engaged in teaching and the delivery of learning in higher education. Evidence to date is that there are proportionately more staff within our institutions taking advantage of the opportunity this offers for the accreditation of initial and ongoing professional development for staff in higher education. This matches the emphasis we place on high standards of teaching and our concern that students should gain the best possible benefit from their higher education. The record of our institutions in achieving recognition through the award of National Teaching Fellowships also reinforces this point. The University of Worcester has, for example been awarded four National Teaching Fellowships. We would like to see more emphasis and funding recognition given to academic teaching excellence.


  14.  GuildHE has worked closely from the outset with the group chaired by Professor Bob Burgess on measuring and recording student achievement. We strongly support the recommendations of that group in the final report on honours classification that better ways need to be found of presenting the full range of student achievement. Not withstanding the deservedly high standing of the honours degree itself, a simple classification of the final degree, into first class, second class and so on, does not do justice to the full achievement of the students concerned.

15.  In the meantime many stakeholders, including employers, continue to want a simple classification system, which they think will give the answers they need in terms of providing a means of discriminating between students. We hope that in time they will be persuaded of the advantages of looking at a wider range of information.

  16.  It is critical not to underplay the strength and value of the UK honours degree. We would suggest that one of the difficulties is that the means by which standards are maintained and quality assured are not always well understood by the public at large. Higher education institutions have a responsibility to explain more clearly the systems that apply.

  17.  The GuildHE higher education institutions are well placed to speak for the robustness of the systems in place. Just like universities, those higher education institutions that do not have their own degree awarding powers, but work in partnership to deliver programmes leading to a degree of the university or awarding body, will undergo institutional audit in their own right. The reports from those institutional audits, be they private or public bodies, are published on the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) website alongside those of other institutions. And, in addition, the arrangements in place for oversight of awards and the assurance of standards by an awarding institution is subject to scrutiny when the awarding body undergoes its own institutional audit or audit of collaborative provision.

  18.  Although such partnership arrangements between higher education institutions work very well, many of our institutions also aspire to award their own degrees. The criteria for the award of taught and research degree awarding powers are determined by Government—the award of such powers is at the discretion of the Privy Council. Those of our institutions which have successfully applied for and been granted degree awarding powers under the criteria set in 2003 following the Education White Paper, The Future of Higher Education, (Cm 5735) have undergone a period of intensive scrutiny and review that cannot easily be matched elsewhere.

  19.  Responsibility for advising the Government and the Privy Council on the grant of degree awarding powers rests with the QAA. The latter appoint a team of assessors, who, over the best part of a year, spend time within the institution scrutinising its activities, including direct observation of the operation of examination boards and academic committees. The recommendation that is made by the QAA to Government on whether or not degree awarding powers should be granted is dependent on the reports made by assessors based on direct observation and the evidence collected over an entire academic year. Those institutions, such as Falmouth University College or University College Birmingham, which have gained degree awarding powers in these circumstances, can rightly be proud of what they have achieved.

  20.  The importance of ensuring that the systems in place are understood applies not only within the UK but beyond. There are some instances where those institutions which do not hold their own degree awarding powers find that their international students encounter difficulties in getting recognition for their degrees on return to their country of origin. An example is China where an earlier memorandum signed by the British Government differentiated between the recognition to be given to degrees awarded after study at the awarding institution and degrees awarded after study elsewhere.

  21.  Recently students graduating from, for example Leeds Trinity and All Saints College, which awards degrees of the University of Leeds, have found that their degree certificates are not recognised for the purposes of state employment in China. The consequences are very serious for the students concerned and potentially damaging for the reputation of UK higher education as a whole. We are aware that the UK Government is seeking to address the problems of degree recognition in China—we hope that it can be given priority in the interests of the students concerned.

  22.  GuildHE members take plagiarism seriously and are using many of the more sophisticated software detection facilities. Student experiences before they enter higher education and the ease of access to materials on the internet mean that this is likely to remain a potential problem. But we see it being best addressed through active teaching and learning approaches and varying the assessment methods such as live presentations. For institutions such as Rose Bruford College or Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts live evidence as well as supporting written material has always tested competences as the professional is delivering directly. The educational and social values set in our institutions also support that delivery.


  23.  GuildHE institutions have a good record on student retention—once recruited students tend to stay. Transfers in from elsewhere also find their feet. In the HESA statistics for 2006-07 Bishop Grosseteste University College had a drop out rate of just 1% for mature students—as against a national average drop out rate of 14%. For understandable reasons, widening participation and good retention rates do not always go hand in hand in the same way elsewhere. We link our institutions' good record on student retention with their similarly good record on student support, including financial support. The evidence of the National Student Survey is that smaller institutions have levels of student satisfaction to match, or in some cases exceed, those found in larger institutions. Bishop Grosseteste University College also features at the top of the scale in terms of student satisfaction levels (as measured by the National Student Survey for 2008) and in terms of ensuring its students get the financial support to which they are entitled.

24.  The good results achieved by our institutions reflects the level of care given in the delivery of teaching and learning and the support offered to students throughout their programmes of study. But we would argue that it also reflects the development of a learning relationship with students that starts before they embark on their programme of study so that they know what they can expect, and what will be expected of them. GuildHE institutions continue to support many initiatives on information, advice and guidance including, in some cases, hosting the regionally based Aim Higher hubs establish to develop widening participation. Students also need to know—when they first start to think about higher education—what the costs are likely to be and what sort of financial support is available to them. Work by our higher education institutions in providing information for schools has been shown to be very valuable in enabling students to take up their full entitlement to financial support.

  25.  GuildHE backs the current initiatives to support and build on student engagement in areas such as the development of the curriculum within institutions and the assurance of quality and standards. The experience of our institutions has been that successful delivery of teaching and learning relies on good working relationships between students and staff. They have found that informal mechanisms can sometimes be as, or more, important than formal mechanisms to achieve the same end and allow the student voice to be heard. The educational culture within the institution makes all the difference.

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