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

Memorandum 79

Submission from Universities UK


  1.  Universities UK is delighted to contribute to the Select Committee enquiry into "Students and Universities". As the major representative body for the higher education sector, Universities UK has 133 members who are the executive heads of the universities in the UK. Universities UK works closely with policy makers and key stakeholders to advance the interests of universities and higher education.


  2.  This submission indicates the considerable work universities are undertaking in three key areas affecting students: admissions; ensuring quality and standards; and student support. It also acknowledges the challenges in these areas and offers solutions. It recognises the impact on students as well as institutions of the recent economic downturn and argues that universities are ideally placed to support the Government's efforts to ensure a speedy recovery, providing they are adequately supported.


  3.  Universities are actively engaged in reviewing, modernising and professionalising the applications and admissions process, and developing good practice guidance. They are keen to ensure that admissions policies and procedures are professionally administered, transparent, fair, accountable and offer a good service to the applicant. In this, universities work with bodies such as Universities UK, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions Programme (SPA), the Delivery Partnership and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).[335]

4.  The admissions landscape has changed significantly as a result of the strong growth in student numbers in higher education over the last decade (from 1.8 million to 2.4 million between 1997 and 2007), the rapid internationalisation of UK universities (with 14.9% of students now from overseas, compared to 11.3% in 1997), and through developments in new technologies which can enhance the admissions process. In 2008, 99.9% of applications through UCAS were electronic.

  5.  The higher level of qualifications held by applicants and the accelerating pace of change of qualifications and curriculum reform across the UK is also significant. In England, the development of the Advanced Diplomas will mean that from 2010 some applicants will offer new or revised qualifications and bring new skill sets and experience of different learning styles. To ensure that admissions processes reflect these reforms, universities are looking in more depth at the relevance to students of their entry requirements and course Entry Profiles. Universities have actively engaged with the development of Diplomas to ensure that they meet universities' requirements and are fit for progression to higher education. Over 250 institutions now have supporting statements on Diplomas on the UCAS website.

  6.  To keep the admissions process fit for purpose institutions use a range of admissions and selection approaches. These reflect both the diversity in institutional missions and the diversity of applicants from different countries and backgrounds who will demonstrate their potential to succeed in a range of ways. Universities use a variety of measures to assess an applicant's merit, achievement and potential. This is key to addressing issues of fairness and widening participation, such as the need to identify the potential of applicants whose ability might not be reflected in their grades, encourage applicants from under-represented groups, and differentiate between apparently equally qualified applicants for courses with competitive entry requirements.

  7.  For the majority of HE courses, little or no selection is required. Students applying with the required entry requirements secure an offer of a place. For the small proportion of courses which are highly selective, universities may seek to expand the range of information available to help them identify students with the greatest potential and ability. This is achieved through a holistic assessment of the applicant through interviews, portfolios and auditions, taking into account school performance and other relevant factors in the applicant's background, and the use of admissions tests. However, admissions tests only form part of the process as they provide only one piece of information about an applicant. They apply to only 0.7% of the 49,000 courses in the UCAS scheme for 2009 entry. Transparency in the use of these tests is important and the SPA programme has circulated a briefing for universities (December 2008) on the good practice issues associated with the introduction, or continued use, of a test. A similar briefing has gone to schools and colleges. This briefing provides information on the financial support available for applicants from widening access backgrounds.

  8.  There is a legitimate public interest in securing confidence in admissions. Universities have supported the introduction of the Widening Participation Strategic Assessments. Universities' admissions policies and procedures are open and transparent and are available on many institutions' websites. This will help to ensure that applicants are well informed and minimise misconceptions about admissions policies and processes. We also welcome the role DCSF and DIUS are taking in improving information, advice and guidance for young people , which is critical to raising aspirations and attainment.


  9.  It is now widely recognised that the principal barrier to widening participation in higher education is prior attainment. Research shows that there is no evidence of bias in admissions procedures against students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds or from particular schools and colleges (Schwartz Report, Section C1, page 8). Rather, evidence provided by the National Audit Office Report on Widening Participation in Higher Education, shows that prior attainment is the root cause in explaining the under-representation in higher education by certain groups. (NAO Report HC616, 2007, p 7).

10.  Universities' commitment to widening participation is not in doubt. As Universities UK's submission to the National Council for Educational Excellence (NCEE) demonstrates, all universities work to widen participation, using a wide variety of means, including extensive efforts to support attainment in schools and colleges through mentoring, classroom support, curriculum materials, providing access to specialist facilities, and supporting teachers through programmes of continuing professional development and opportunities to work alongside subject specialists in universities. Many universities are involved in partnering schools, including through sponsorship of academies and trusts. These initiatives to raise attainment in schools complement long-standing work to raise aspirations and encourage applications to higher education through, for example, summer schools, compact arrangements and student ambassadors. Increasingly, universities approach widening participation as a long-term activity, many starting with primary school pupils. Achieving change may take several years and requires strong partnership with schools and colleges to raise levels of attainment.

  11.  Government initiative funding has undoubtedly brought benefits particularly in supporting universities to widen participation through initiatives such as Aimhigher, Aimhigher Associates, the widening participation allocation, and financial support for students. The funding provided by DIUS for higher education sector-led initiatives such as SPA and the Delivery Partnership is also valued. However, the total funding of £364 million for universities to support widening participation activities for widening participation (including access, retention, and for students with disabilities) is insufficient. The additional costs to institutions of such targeted initiatives are 31% above the cost to institutions of recruiting and retaining traditional students. However, it remains a pressing challenge to ensure the right balance is struck by freeing universities to set their own agendas through block grant funding and providing the right policy incentives to help the sector develop.

  12.  Widening participation forms a key part of Government policy but it still appears that in public debate the focus is on the issue of fair access, ie the percentage of pupils from lower socio-economic groups who enter institutions with a large number of selective courses. We would urge Government to focus on the wider context. Research by the Sutton Trust for the NCEE shows that each year 360,000 16-year-olds do not achieve the standards to stay on to do A-levels, and of these around 60,000 were in the top 20% at some point whilst in school.

  13.  It is also important to note that, although higher education policy continues to focus to a large extent on the full-time 18-year-old undergraduate, universities have considerably diversified the range of students they attract and support. Between 1997 and 2007 the number of students in higher education grew from 1.8 million to 2.4 million. In the same period the number of part-time students grew from 618,000 to 911,000, and the number of students aged over 21 from 1.2 million to 1.6 million. Despite this, completion and post-graduation employment rates for UK students remain well above the average for other countries in the OECD. In Universities UK's recent submission to the DIUS HE Debate, we have urged the Government to do more to recognise the range of ages and modes of study which characterise UK higher education, and to give consideration to moving towards a mode-blind system of fee and financial support. A copy of our submission to the DIUS HE Review debate is enclosed.


University-based research

  14.  Universities UK welcomes the substantial additional investment, both recurrent and capital, that has been provided for research over the last 10 years. The Government's ongoing commitment to research and innovation is a good news story. However, as we stated in our submission to the 2007 Spending Review, there remains a continuing need for funding in support of high quality teaching, including infrastructure, and at the very least maintenance of the unit of public funding.

15.  In the UK funding for research is selective in the way it is allocated, based on the criteria of excellence, and highly concentrated. It is critically important that we continue to support high quality research wherever it is found, so that we can remain internationally competitive. However, research funding is currently concentrated to an extent where if it goes any further we could risk endangering the system as a whole. Any further concentration could, for example, lead to a significant loss of high quality provision, reduce the capability to develop future capacity and substantially limit the flexibility needed to respond to new demands. Moreover, success in the RAE is only one part of the picture: other centres of excellence exist beyond those for research, and a suite of appropriate measures that can recognise and reward excellence in all its forms are therefore required. In relation to the Committee's concerns for this enquiry, further concentration of funding could also jeopardise the vital link between research and teaching in universities.

16.  Universities UK also recognises the importance of the relationship between teaching and research. This issue was explored in depth by a Research Forum, set up following the 2003 White Paper, chaired by Sir Graeme Davies. We would suggest the Committee revisit this report as part of their inquiry, as many of the issues raised are still relevant.


  17.  The UK's international reputation for high quality teaching is of key strategic importance. Universities themselves have the responsibility for maintaining the standards of their awards and the quality of the learning opportunities which support students to achieve against those standards, and they work hard, both collectively and individually, to fulfil those responsibilities. The processes by which they do this are described in detail in Universities UK's recently published document Quality and standards in UK universities: A guide to how the system works. A copy of this publication is enclosed.

Quality assurance

18.  All UK universities have systems in place to ensure that new courses meet the right standards, and that courses are regularly reviewed, by looking at evidence from students, graduates, employers and external examiners. The QAA conducts regular visits to universities to scrutinise how they do this. QAA reports are publicly available and include judgements about the confidence that can be placed in universities' management of quality and standards. All universities subscribe to a set of common tools called the "Academic Infrastructure". This includes: Frameworks for higher education qualifications, describing standards represented by each qualification; Subject Benchmark Statements, setting out how those standards apply in particular subject areas; and the Code of Practice for the Assurance of Quality and Standards in Higher Education, which gives detailed guidance on the management of quality under ten sections, covering everything from external examining and assessment practice to careers education and guidance.

19.  While universities have the primary responsibility for the quality of the education they offer, Government and taxpayers clearly have a legitimate interest in how public funding for teaching in higher education is used. HEFCE has a statutory responsibility to "secure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education" it funds. Since 1997, it has fulfilled that responsibility by contracting with the QAA to carry out assessments on its behalf. Universities UK believes that the involvement of an independent, expert agency to advise on quality and standards is a significant strength of the UK system, which is one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated in the world. Indeed, the UK quality assurance system has provided the model for the development of quality assurance arrangements in many other countries, including, for example, Australia.


  20.  There is no national curriculum in UK higher education and universities have developed a range of subjects and learning approaches to reflect the expertise of their academic staff and the priorities of students and employers. Degrees are different and more diverse with far more choices available to students and employers than in the past, but all courses are subject to the same processes to ensure a minimum "threshold standard" is maintained.

21.  Degree standards have been developed by universities and described by the QAA so that, while the content of courses may differ, the level of understanding required in each case across different universities will be broadly equivalent. Each level of award is defined in one of the two Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications.

  22.  The frameworks for qualifications are underpinned by Subject Benchmark Statements which describe what gives a discipline its coherence and identity. The statements also define what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the abilities and skills needed to develop understanding or competence in the subject. Benchmark Statements for some subjects, such as Chemistry, include core content. Others, such as History, allow for a more varied curriculum. Where appropriate, benchmark statements combine or refer to professional standards required by external professional or regulatory bodies in the discipline.

  23.  All universities assess students against the intended "learning outcomes" of a programme of study (what students know, understand and can do) and the way they do this is also underpinned by the QAA Code of Practice. This ensures that universities have mechanisms in place to ensure that student performance is properly judged against appropriate standards. Assessment mechanisms and regulations will vary, by necessity, between disciplines. However, many of the QAA's Institutional Audit reports record efforts made by universities to improve the consistency of assessment arrangements, while identifying this as an area where further work is needed.

  24.  Universities in the UK have a long history of cross-checking the quality and standards of their own provision with that of other institutions through a system of external examiners. The involvement of external examiners is recognised internationally as a key mechanism for ensuring comparability across the UK higher education system.

  25.  One of the principal barriers institutions face in adapting to meet the changing needs of students and maintaining the quality of the student experience is the huge cost of modernising the teaching infrastructure, including providing learning spaces that accommodate advances in learning technology and parallel changes in pedagogical approach. While research infrastructure has received a relatively large injection of public capital investment over recent years, the teaching infrastructure has lagged behind. This is particularly acute in the post-92 universities which have poor quality inherited infrastructure, and where the pressures on resources are compounded by the fact that many institutions in this part of the sector have pioneered new forms of pedagogy and flexible modes of delivery in order to support the education of a more diverse student body. In 2007, Universities UK's Spending Review submission calculated that the investment backlog amounts to about £5 billion.


  26.  It is important to distinguish between "standards" themselves and "how student performance against standards is described". There is no compelling evidence of declining standards in higher education. Indeed, the relatively recent efforts to define the standards expected at each qualification level, and to describe how they apply in different subject areas, constitute a step forward in terms of both safeguarding standards over time and ensuring some minimum level of comparability.

27.  The proportion of first and upper—second class degrees has increased, but only by 6% over the past 14 years. This could be explained by a number of factors. Assessment practices have changed (as they have in schools) towards more coursework and continuous assessment, which may lead to students performing better. The shift towards the use of "learning outcomes" to define what students are intended to achieve has been accompanied by a shift in marking away from "norm referencing"—ie comparing one student with another— to "criterion referencing" which measures students performance against the intended learning outcomes. In theory, under this approach, all students could achieve the highest grades, rather than a set proportion of the cohort. Universities have also been working hard to improve the quality of teaching and support. At the same time, there is a widespread perception amongst students that they need "the essential 2:1" to be even considered by employers. That has undoubtedly driven students to work hard towards reaching that threshold.

  28.  Any system which attempts to summarise the achievement of students on a wide variety of programmes in a large number of institutions to a single, common, summative judgement will be a blunt instrument. We agree with the finding of the Burgess Group (led by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Leicester, Professor Bob Burgess), established by Universities UK and GuildHE in 2004, that the current undergraduate degree classification system does not adequately represent the achievement of students in a modern, diverse higher education system. However, as the Burgess Group found, it is easier to identify the problems with the current system than it to reach consensus on what should replace it.

  29.  Our quality assurance system is not static. It evolves in the light of experience. Annex A of Quality and standards in UK universities describes its evolution over the last two decades. More recently, Universities UK, GuildHE and HEFCE have worked together to improve the quality assurance system through the Quality Assurance Framework Review Group, which looked at different aspects of the system and made recommendations about how they could be improved.

  30.  The QAA also supports improvements in HEIs by collecting together the information gathered through Institutional Audit and publishing papers in a series called Outcomes from Institutional Audit, drawing attention to common lessons which can be learned from their experience of reviewing quality management in HEIs across the sector. Universities UK and GuildHE are working with the QAA to improve the usefulness of this aspect of the QAA's work by creating a forum in which key findings can be discussed with the heads of institutions, in addition to the range of other ways in which the QAA already communicates with the sector and its representative bodies.

  31.  This focus on working continuously to improve academic quality includes work to support excellence in teaching. The Higher Education Academy (of which Universities UK is one of the "owners") works to support professionalism in teaching in a range of ways and has made a separate submission to this inquiry.


  32.  Universities UK is working in partnership with the National Union of Students on student engagement issues. Central to this is the establishment of the Cross-Sector Student Engagement Forum which includes representation from UUK, Guild HE, NUS, DIUS, HEFCE, the National Postgraduate Committee, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), the QAA and the Higher Education Academy. A project commissioned by HEFCE is mapping student engagement in institutions. The outcomes of the project will be launched at a conference in February 2009. We expect the project to highlight existing good practice in institutions and to act as a catalyst for future practical support for the development of student engagement across the HE sector.

33.  A recent OECD report[336] states that the UK charges amongst the highest student tuition fees (averaging USD 1,860) amongst the EU-19 countries, but these are "far below the highest tuition fees charged among the OECD countries, such as in Australia (USD 3,855), Japan (USD 3,920), South Korea (USD 3,883) and the United States (USD 5,027)". The OECD considers the UK to have well-developed student support measures including a public loans system to national students. The report states that in such systems, there are fewer financial barriers for entry to higher education, and concludes that given the shared public and private returns that higher education brings, costs and responsibilities for its provision should be shared between those who directly benefit, and society at large.

  34.  Although admission rates to UK HEIs increased by 10% to 57% between 2000-2006, the rate was only slightly higher than the OECD average of 56%, and was well below that for Australia (82%). UK growth in enrolments over 1995-2005 has levelled off at 33%, well below the OECD average of 40%.

  35.  A Universities UK report to be published in early 2009 will explore the financial impact on universities, students and Government of a possible increase in the tuition fee cap. The report assesses the impact on these stakeholders across a limited range of future scenarios for variable fees, funding and student support that might be adopted in England following the Government's independent review of fees in 2009.

  36.  Investment in high-level Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) is a key component of a world-class educational student experience. A lack of sufficient investment in technologically-based learning could make existing universities less attractive to home students and significantly limit universities' ability to engage with the borderless market as part of their proactive flexible response to demographic change. Maintenance and development of a high-quality estate, particularly teaching infrastructure as well as student accommodation, is essential to the quality of the student experience.

  37.  HEFCE considers that the HE sector needs a 3-5% surplus to invest in its future, and to continue to offer students a world-class educational experience. New income, most significantly from home and international student fees and recurrent and capital investment in research, has reversed the sustained erosion of university funding in the previous decade, but increasing cost pressures, including pensions and other staff costs, mean that overall the sector is in deficit by around 7.8% of reported expenditure, or £1.4 billion. The sector also has to cope with the rising domestic and international expectations of students as consumers of teaching, research and other university services. The UK invests 1.3% of its GDP in higher education, compared to 2.9% in the US and below the EU's 2% goal. Thus rising international standards in higher education increasingly challenge UK universities.

  38.  Despite the current global economic downturn, only by sustaining or increasing public investment in higher education as a key wealth creator can the long-term economic strength and competitiveness of the UK be assured.

January 2009

335   The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) supports institutions through the provision of continuing professional development and training for those involved in admissions decision-making, both academic and administrators.
The Supporting Professionalism in Admissions Programme (SPA) leads on the development of fair admissions. It provides an evidence base and guidelines for good practice and helps higher education institutions maintain and enhance excellence and professionalism in admissions, student recruitment and widening participation.
The Delivery Partnership is a sector -led project to improve the higher education applications process to increase the transparency, effectiveness and efficiency of the current system for both the applicant and institutions. This includes improvements to the system such as the information available for applicants as well as providing the opportunity for those applicants who have achieved better results than required for their firm offer to apply for a new course, if they wish, which best suits their needs and circumstances.
The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has developed, and recently revised, a detailed code of practice for the admissions process. It sets out what institutions are expected to do to ensure their admissions procedures are fair, transparent, readily accessible to all those involved in the admissions process and properly implemented. The QAA, is also revising the code of practice on Careers Education, pre-entry Information and Advice and Guidance. 

336   OECD Briefing Note for the UK, (Education at a Glance 2008), Back

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