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

Memorandum 78

Submission from Birmingham City University


1.  Executive Summary

    — A national admissions system for part-time entry is unlikely to be beneficial — Participation must be considered from a broader perspective than has traditionally been the case — Any cap on participation is both unhelpful and potentially damaging— The Higher Education Academic Record is a useful addition which augments existing robust processes for maintaining standards and quality

    — Current arrangements for part-time financial student support are inequitable

    — Co-funded provision is a high risk approach with some inappropriate funding mechanisms

2.  Introduction to the Submitter

  2.1  Birmingham City University is one of the largest Higher Education Institutions in the UK. We have a strong track record of high academic standards, vocational, relevant provision and of working with regional agencies and employers to promote economic regeneration. We are a forward-looking university, with innovation and creativity at the heart of everything we do. In addition, we retain our commitment to widening access to higher education. Our mission sets us as a powerful force for learning, creativity and enterprise, promoting economic, social and cultural well-being.

3.  Body of Evidence

3.1  Introduction

3.1.1  The University is pleased to have the opportunity to respond to the Select Committee. The current economic climate will affect education as well as the private sector. Nevertheless, we believe that universities are critical component to delivering regeneration, promoting sustainability and meeting the need for knowledge in the economy.

3.1.2  UUK has recently published a paper which outlines how universities can assist employers and thereby further the economy. As an example, the success of the initiative led by Advantage West Midlands following the closure of the car plant at Longbridge, shows how close collaboration between regional authorities, further education colleges and higher education institutions can help workers made redundant find alternative and fulfilling employment.

3.2  Admissions—Effectiveness of the Process for Admissions

  3.2.1  The recently published Schwartz Review Report confirms that universities are committed to recruiting students from a wide range of backgrounds and with a variety of entry qualifications and to ensuring the equity and transparency of their admissions processes. The changes made since 2004, as a consequence of the Schwartz Report and the publication of the QAA Code of Practice, have ensured that applicants can have confidence in HE admissions processes. The quality of information and guidance provided to applicants has also improved significantly. Institutions are aware of the need for further improvements, including options for flexible/part-time study and solutions for workforce development applicable to a wide variety of employers. As with many universities, we are implementing these changes within a framework of planned continuous improvement and quality enhancement.

3.2.2  Whilst we support much that has been said during the HE debate initiated by DIUS about the need for courses to be delivered flexibly to meet the needs of employers and students who cannot or do not wish to study full-time, we feel that a national admissions system for part-time entry is unlikely to be beneficial. By their very nature, the vast majority of part-time students are local to their university. Therefore the introduction of a national system would merely distance potential applicants from that local university whilst adding an additional level of complexity and bureaucracy. We suggest that the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions group is best placed to assist HEIs in ensuring that their processes accommodate fully the needs of all applicants including those with non A level qualifications.

  3.2.3  Equally, we would not support the proposal to charge HEFCE with developing a credit accumulation and transfer system which builds on current practices for the accreditation of prior and experiential learning in light of the need for increasing flexibility. Whilst we would support the need for flexibility, lifelong learning and continued professional development to enhance workforce competitiveness, we do not believe that it should be within the scope of a funding council to propose an academic credit accumulation processes. If it were felt that such a system were required, we would propose that Universities UK would be a more appropriate body to undertake its development.

3.3  Admissions—Implementation and Success of Widening Participation

  3.3.1  Widening access is a much broader topic than purely working with schools and colleges to attract full-time 18 year old students from disadvantaged areas. This has often been seen as the primary means of delivering widening participation, reinforced by funding methodologies. Current proposals will increase the funding for widening access from this group further at the expense of allocations for improving retention. Students from such backgrounds typically require greater levels of support and still have a greater preponderance to withdraw. Therefore, such allocations should support and explicitly recognise the additional costs of supporting to success students from WP backgrounds, as there is little point in attracting new entrants if they merely withdraw.

3.3.2  A major priority for widening access needs to be on increasing participation of adults already in the workforce to up-skill those who currently do not hold a level 4 qualification. This is going to take significant effort to develop, but is critical to achieving regional and national priorities for both HE participation and the broader knowledge economy.

  3.3.3  Part-time mature students are fundamental to delivering this priority. The knowledge economy is reliant upon up-skilling of the workforce and on a commitment to lifelong learning. Employees must become more flexible to adapt to changing economic circumstances and workforce needs. However, some current policies actively discourage lifelong learning and re-skilling, including the current Equivalent and Lower-level Qualifications (ELQ) policy. Particularly in times of change, such as current economic difficulties, any cap on participation is unhelpful and potentially detrimental to the longer-term economy. This may not only be due to ELQ but to any other mechanisms such as restricting natural growth which responds to economic needs by capping additional student numbers.

3.4  Degree Classification—Higher Education Academic Record

  3.4.1  We remain convinced that the current system of degree classification should be retained but agree that it should be supplemented with a transcript. Therefore, we welcomed the project to develop the Higher Education Academic Record (HEAR) and expect to implement it when it is finalised. We believe the HEAR will assist portability and, because it will show how the student has performed in each component of the course, give employers a better understanding of the student's capabilities. This University has used standard assessment regulations across the whole institution for many years and they are well embedded and understood. The method of classification is clearly explained within the regulations and a description of the honours classification is recorded on our transcripts. We would also expect the HEAR to record this information.

3.5  Degree Classification—Effectiveness of Quality Monitoring

3.5.1  The QAA was assessed recently by the ENQA Board and found to be fit for purpose. QAA reports of institutional audits demonstrate to the government, funding councils, students, employers, professional bodies and the general public the robustness of its processes and its effectiveness in reviewing institutional arrangements for maintaining standards and quality.

3.5.2  Academic staff are very alert to the problem of plagiarism and more sophisticated detection methods (such as software) are now routinely used by institutions. At this institution, induction and learning and teaching strategies have been adapted to ensure that students understand what is required of them. When allegations of plagiarism are upheld the penalties imposed are severe.

3.6  Student support and engagement—Adequacy of Student Support Packages

  3.6.1  There is now an increasingly blurred distinction between full-time and part-time students, with more and more full-time students undertaking sometimes significant levels of part-time employment. Development of provision is becoming more flexible to respond to these competing demands. The student body is becoming less and less homogeneous, and certainly should not be simply regarded as traditional 18+ students. Yet the financial student support arrangements offered vary substantially between full and part-time, with part-time students being significantly disadvantaged. Bursary support for part-time is very limited compared to full-time and there is no support at all for students studying for less than half the full-time load in any one year The assumption that they can afford to pay upfront or that their employers would be willing to sponsor them is fundamentally flawed.

3.7  Student support and engagement—Adequacy of HE Funding

3.7.1  The current intent to improve workforce skills through employer co-funded provision is inherently risky. SMEs, who are a key component of the economy, are often unwilling or cannot afford to undertake co-funding. Since closed courses (ie those restricted to a particular employer) are not eligible for public funding, justification to employers on grounds of competitiveness become far weaker. Employees who undertake development without direct sponsorship from their employer, even if they later reclaim some or all of those expenses, will cost the employer far less than co-funded sponsored students. Funding Council planning assumptions which expect steady growth of co-funded provision, agreed in advance with no mechanism to divert funds between institutions in response to market needs, are in direct contrast to the very nature of such contracts that tend to be more volatile and dynamic.

3.7.2  It is not generally possible to achieve pro-rata part-time undergraduate fees to full-time, certainly under current support arrangements, with achievable part-time fees generally being significantly lower than the full-time equivalent. Nevertheless, it is broadly recognised that the cost of delivering part-time provision is higher, as two students studying 50% will require proportionately higher administration and student support costs, and for subjects such as art & design, increased storage/workspace. The sector could not suffer any erosion of funding for part-time students, such as increasing the assumed fee used within funding calculations towards the £3,000 level. This would put even greater strain upon institutions' abilities to deliver this important aspect of provision which is essential to realising economic success. Additionally, any such assumption applied to part-time co-funded provision would merely depress the market for such provision further.

January 2009

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