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

Memorandum 81

Submission from the University of Oxford

Inquiry into Students and Universities


  1.  The University of Oxford is pleased to make a submission to the Select Committee's Inquiry into Students and Universities. It would wish to support the input made by the Russell Group of Universities (of which it is a founding member) on the importance of sustaining and investing in a group of research-intensive and globally competitive universities within the UK. The few British universities that compare well against the best international institutions attract significant levels of research funding, and the most talented home and international students.

2.  Although the current Government has done much to rectify deficits in publicly-funded research contracts and has increased capital funding, UK universities continue to be severely under-funded in terms of total national funding available for research, and in the block grant for teaching activities.

3.  This memorandum to the Select Committee is necessarily brief, and does not seek to address all of the questions posed by the Select Committee. Further information can be provided to the committee on areas of particular interest.


  4.  Key points within this submission:

    — The University of Oxford supports the aims of the Government's widening participation programme and the collegiate University is involved in a large number—over 1,000 per year—of widening participation and outreach activities. The Oxford Opportunity Bursary Scheme is the most uniformly generous in the UK, providing more than £13,000 over the course of a four-year degree for students from lower income households.

    — The method of undergraduate teaching at Oxford, which makes particularly strong use of tutorials, provides students with intensive individual attention and feedback. Its major benefits include the development of powers of critical analysis and argumentation. The high level of engagement of senior research-active academics both in undergraduate tutorial teaching and in the teaching and supervision of graduates is a key feature.

    — Whilst there has been considerable government investment in science and innovation in recent years, overall levels of funding for the sector are still inadequate, particularly for Oxford's methods of tutorial teaching. Student engagement, retention and the overall student experience are closely linked to the quality of teaching and learning experience, which must be well funded.

    — No clear case has been made for changing the current system of degree classification, and no alternative has been proposed that does not create more problems than it solves.


  5.  The University is engaged fully in the development and assessment of new qualifications. Oxford academics have been advising the Department for Children, Schools and Families on the development of the Phase 4 diplomas in Humanities, Science and Modern Languages. The Department of Engineering Science will now accept the Advanced Diploma in Engineering (Level 3) for entry, provided candidates have also obtained an A Level in Physics, and the new Level 3 Certificate in Mathematics for Engineering.

6.  Oxford seeks to interview as many as possible of its applicants for undergraduate places. It currently receives around 15,000 applications each year, for approximately 3,200 undergraduate places. It tries to ensure interviews for a minimum of three applicants for every available place for subjects that are over-subscribed. This allows those who are selected for interview to have multiple interviews, each with a minimum of two trained staff from the subject discipline conducting each interview. All those selected for interview have at least two interviews, with most science disciplines offering three interviews, and Medicine offering four interviews, for each candidate. In total the collegiate University conducts more than 24,000 interviews for around 10,000 applicants over the two-week interview period in December.

  7.  Undergraduate interviews are carried out within Oxford's colleges. The collegiate University continues to review and assess its admissions procedures and practices, against the background of internal, national, and international policy developments. Oxford has recently adopted a Common Framework for Undergraduate Admissions across the collegiate University; incorporated applicant contextual data into the selection process; ended the separate Oxford application form and application fee; developed a policy on providing feedback to applicants, and provided an on-line interview training course for staff conducting admissions interviews. The collegiate University is clear that this method of assessing candidates is the optimal way (together with its comprehensive range of widening participation activities, and the provisions of its bursary scheme) of identifying potential and recruiting the most able students, regardless of their educational or social background.

  8.  Entrance tests are used to assess around 80% of the current applicant pool to Oxford. They are used either for subjects that have high levels of demand (such as History, Law, English, Mathematics, Physics), or where there are elements of the subject that mean that existing school or college qualifications do not provide a full picture of aptitude for the degree (Psychology, Classics, Modern Languages), or where both of these issues apply (in subjects such as Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE), Medicine, Economics and Management). The tests are an important element of the admissions process because they help the University to differentiate between applicants who, on the basis of UCAS application alone, all have strong, if not outstanding, credentials. At present, the tests are mainly used to short-list students for interview, and always in conjunction with other applicant evidence. All tests are approved and monitored by the University Admissions Executive and Education Committee, and are subject to an annual validation report. Applicants are supported with a range of information and other material, including past papers, that are available free on the University website.

  9.  The University attaches value to structured interviews by trained multiple interviewers, the aim of which is to identify appropriate candidates for an academically intensive tutorial education system. We feel it would be contrary to our commitment to widen participation if we were to depend entirely on examination grades. We believe this would tend to favour those students from schools and colleges where there was substantial additional support available, particularly those in the independent sector. Interviews, like tests, are one of several tools at the interviewers' disposal to assess potential.


  10.  The University supports strongly the Government's aim to widen participation in higher education. It is engaged in a wide range of outreach activities. Some, such as the regional conferences held for teachers, are designed to attract applications specifically to Oxford. Oxford collaborates with Cambridge University on regional student conferences, undertakes subject-specific initiatives such as Classics outreach, and organize residential summer schools. Other activities such as AimHigher projects in Milton Keynes, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and the Looked After Children initiative in Oxfordshire, are designed to raise regional awareness of, and aspiration to participate in, higher education. There is no expectation that these will result in increased applications to Oxford specifically.

11.  The University's use of contextual data within the admissions process takes into account applicants' educational background at age 16 and 18, social and economic deprivation indices based upon the applicant's residential postcode, any time spent in care, and participation in Compact or other higher education preparation schemes designed to encourage sustained contact with higher education. Oxford is working with other universities to include in our admissions process participants in their access programmes.

  12.  In the course of the last academic year, representatives from Oxford conducted more than 1,000 activities designed to engage with potential applicants and their teachers, advisers, parents and guardians. These activities are with children in primary, secondary and tertiary education sectors. In doing this, the University has embraced new technology: developing podcasts, blogs, web and video content to provide free information, advice and guidance on all elements of the admissions process.

  13.  On the introduction in 2006 of higher variable tuition fees for home undergraduates, the University revised its bursary provision and launched the Oxford Opportunity Bursary Scheme. These are the most uniformly generous bursaries available within the UK, worth up to £13,450 over the duration of a four year degree. They are structured to ensure that students from lower income households should have little or no need to take up maintenance loans. Students qualifying for Government grants (ie those whose family incomes are lower than £25,000 per annum) are qualified for a maximum bursary of £3,150 per year, together with a start-up payment in the first year of up to £850. In conjunction with the Government grant, this should cover all reasonable costs of living in college-provided accommodation in Oxford. Partial bursaries are made available to students from within other family income brackets. Other financial provision such as scholarships, study and travel grants, and hardship funding is made widely available by colleges. The collegiate University is determined that financial considerations should not be a deterrent in a candidate's decision to apply to Oxford. The University commits around 25% of its additional fee income from tuition fees to the funding of bursaries and outreach activity.

The balance between teaching and research

  14.  The University is internationally renowned for the quality and diversity of its research. Total research income in 2007-08, including the HEFCE block grant for research, totalled almost £400 million. Of this sum, funding won in open competition through externally sponsored grants and contracts amounted to £285 million, up by 15% on the previous year.

  15.  Oxford is also a world-leader in commercialising the results of its research. Through its wholly owned technology transfer company, Isis Innovation Ltd, it has spun out 62 companies since 1997, files on average one patent application each week, and manages over 400 patent application families and 200 licence agreements. In 2008 Isis received 202 invention disclosures, entered into 74 new deals to license technologies to business and managed a total of 978 projects. The exploitation of Oxford intellectual property for national benefit also involves other organisations and institutions, under the terms of research agreements or specific licenses. These include universities, the UK Research Councils, Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust.

  16.  Whilst there has been substantial government investment in science and innovation in recent years, the economic downturn is a matter of concern, as the Government's own fiscal settlements are likely to be become tighter. Research Council budgets will undoubtedly face closer scrutiny, and the number of projects they can support will be affected by the Full Economic Costing (FEC) model and higher costs in the HEI sector. In addition, Charities' funding for research may be seriously affected by the fall in investment income. The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) in the UK is responsible for approximately one-third of all public expenditure on medical and health research. At Oxford, support from UK based charities is the single largest source of direct research funding. The Government's Charity Research Support Fund (CSRF) is an important supplementary component of the UK research funding system. There are signs that business expenditure on R&D will be affected by the state of the economy.

  17.  It is vital that government continues to invest significantly in research, research infrastructure and research training. The Government's dual funding model has been, and continues to be, a core component of the success of UK research. The continued educational development of staff and postgraduate students and researchers will require continued financial commitment from Government.

  18.  The Sunday Times University Guide (September 2008) remarked that "Oxford offers an outstanding education… no other university can boast the sheer breadth of excellence evident at our two oldest universities [Oxford and Cambridge]." Its article on Oxford commented "Aside from the world-class teaching and research and the tutorial system that often gives students one-on-one attention from some of the world's leading minds, Oxford offers sporting, musical, cultural and social opportunities that are equally all-encompassing".

  19.  The method of undergraduate teaching at Oxford is world renowned, making particularly strong use of tutorials. These involve small numbers of students (usually between one and three) meeting with tutors to discuss work, which has been prepared specifically for that tutorial. Tutorials foster a close relationship between the tutor and the student, and are also particularly beneficial for developing skills of critical analysis. Rather than being occasions to demonstrate that students can repeat what they have read or been taught, tutorials often require students to critique primary and secondary literature and to be able to defend an argument. A great advantage of the tutorial system is the individual attention that students receive, particularly in terms of tutor feedback on work. Students have the opportunity to explore their own ideas directly with experts in particular subjects. While tutorials often form the backbone of teaching in Oxford, they are supported also by lectures, seminars, college classes (often in groups of perhaps 10 students), and (in the sciences) laboratory work.

  20.  Oxford's student experience demonstrates the considerable benefits to students of learning in a research environment, from active researchers. It deepens students' understanding of the knowledge bases of disciplines and professions, including their research methods and contemporary research challenges and issues; builds students' higher-order intellectual capabilities and enhances their skills for employment and lifelong learning; develops students' capacity to conduct research and enquiry; and enhances students' engagement and develops their capacity for independent learning.

  21.  The Oxford Learning Institute supports excellence in learning, teaching and research at the University of Oxford by promoting professional, vocational and management development and contributing to policy development. The Institute takes a research-informed approach to all its activities. The Institute is also host to the Centre for Excellence in Preparing for Academic Practice, one of the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs) funded by HEFCE.

  22.  Tutorial teaching for undergraduates is extremely resource-intensive. The University's 2006-07 TRAC return to HEFCE indicated a deficit of £45 million on publicly-funded teaching (together with a deficit of some £40 million on publicly-funded research). This sum is the equivalent of around £4,000 per undergraduate each year, which is subsidised by endowment and other streams of income. The TRAC methodology does not take into account the costs of Oxford's colleges, a significant proportion of which are met from their own reserves. Resource levels per staff member and per student are significantly below peer institutions in North America.

  23.  The University has a significant number of postgraduates—approximately 7,500 —within the student population, whose education is related directly to the research undertaken in the University. Many work in major interdisciplinary research centres or in science and medical collaborations such as bio-medical engineering, radiation oncology and biology, medicinal chemistry and biomedical physics. A number will progress through externally awarded competitive research fellowships to posts in academic life, in Oxford or in other universities. Some progress through Oxford spinout companies into industrial and commercial institutions, and some move, on completion of a DPhil, straight into industry. A significant number of the overseas students swell the ranks of the most talented researchers working in the UK in universities, and in industry.

  24.  There are over 4,500 home and overseas students reading for research degrees. The number of studentships is extremely limited in some disciplinary areas. Competition to win a place at Oxford is intense and ensures that the University attracts highly talented and motivated candidates both from the UK and across the world. Many international students stay on after their studies, and add significantly to the intellectual capital of the UK. In this regard the loss of the flagship national funding for overseas research postgraduates, Overseas Research Students Award Scheme (ORSAS), which served as a major recruiting tool for academic talent, is a significant problem.


  25.  The UK higher education system is diverse, and government policy and the market encourage such diversity. This means that individual programmes, teaching methods, curricula, and assessment methods may vary significantly both among and within institutions. Nevertheless, institutions invest considerable time and resources in the examination process, and the external examiner system in particular. These efforts are designed to ensure the fairness and validity of assessments and the broad comparability of assessment norms among disciplines and institutions.

26.  The current system provides a simple overall summary statistic that records a student's overall attainment. Degree classification allows the application of academic judgment, for example in dealing with mitigating circumstances affecting student performance, in arriving at the summary statistic. It may be that in time, stakeholders will learn to use and interpret efficiently the more fine-grained information contained in the transcript (or the proposed Higher Education Achievement Record), so that the value of the summary statistic will decline, and eventually become obsolete. This will be a long way in the future, and in the meantime it would be a mistake to pull down an edifice that is widely respected and generally understood. Further, in the absence of the traditional degree classification, the demand for a summary statistic will inevitably and quickly be met by the use of Grade Point Averages and class rankings as in the USA. The current debate has offered no substantive argument for preferring these forms of summary statistics over the current system.


  27.  As noted elsewhere, the tutorial system employed by the University of Oxford is immensely resource-intensive, requiring large amounts of subsidy from other funding streams and sources. However, the collegiate and tutorial systems not only challenge students intellectually, they also nurture them in both a pedagogical and social environment. Oxford has a retention rate of over 98% of its undergraduate student body, testimony to the hard work and dedication of its academic, administrative and support staff, to the stimulating educational environment and culture of the University, and to the effectiveness of its welfare and financial provision.

28.  To make sustained improvements to student engagement, retention and the general student experience, and to secure a "world class" educational experience, we must maintain and build on the reputation of UK higher education institutions for teaching and learning characterised by challenging interactions between students and lecturers who are themselves actively engaged in "world class" research. To be effective this teaching is necessarily resource intensive and it is important that the unit of resource for such teaching is maintained and improved. Given the current context for HEFCE funding, it is uncertain that the unit of teaching resource for students can be maintained, let alone increased. The forthcoming fees review is therefore welcome.

December 2008

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