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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 169 - 179)



  Chairman: Could I welcome our first panel of distinguished witnesses to our inquiry this afternoon: Professor Janet Beer, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and Dr John Hood, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. Can we thank you very much indeed, Professor Beer, for your hospitality at lunchtime today and, Dr Hood, for your hospitality this morning when we visited the Business Centre. Before we start, declarations of interest.

  Mr Boswell: It would be proper for me to declare publicly my interest as a graduate of Oxford University and as a former member of New College, Oxford.

  Ian Stewart: Seeing as we are into declarations I have got to record that I am a PhD student registered at Manchester and I am on the Council of Salford University.

  Dr Harris: I am a member of Oxford Brookes University Court and a graduate of Oxford University, and have the pleasure of representing many of the staff and students at both universities.

  Q169  Chairman: I am on the Court at Birmingham University. I wonder if I could start with you, Professor Beer; literally in just a few sentences what do you regard from the point of view of your institution as the purpose of higher education?

  Professor Beer: There is a balance of benefit between the individual and society in terms of what universities are for. They are obviously to enable individuals to develop their full potential and to develop potential intellectually, but also to equip them for work, to equip them to make a contribution to society and also to achieve personal fulfilment, so there is the individual. In terms of wider society universities exist to increase knowledge, both for its own sake and for applied purposes. Obviously universities serve the needs of a knowledge-based economy and, probably finally, they play a vital role in fostering and shaping a democratic society.

  Q170  Chairman: Have we got the balance right between those different factors?

  Professor Beer: I believe that we have.

  Q171  Chairman: Dr Hood, what is the purpose of higher education as you see it from an Oxford point of view?

  Dr Hood: I thought Professor Beer gave a very good answer actually. I could elaborate in places but I do not think it probably serves the time of the Committee well.

  Q172  Chairman: Do you think we have got the balance right?

  Dr Hood: The question about balance is not for one institution to answer or another institution to answer, it is a question of looking at the institutional profile across the nation and it is a question that perhaps more properly should be asked of those who are thoughtful about the policy for the system because you are talking about a higher education system in this country and in many countries that is extraordinarily diverse. The institution that I represent is at one particular point in what is an extraordinary array of different types of institution each with, I would think, valid purposes as defined by their local communities, their national communities, their international communities. Do I think that we have got the purpose of the University of Oxford right? The purpose of the University of Oxford is a purpose that is defined by the scholars of the University of Oxford and it has been reasonably consistent for a very long period of time; by and large it is serving its multiple constituencies very well indeed.

  Q173  Chairman: Given the fact that the UK taxpayer puts some £12 billion into higher education in one form or another, is it not time that the UK taxpayer had a greater say over what happens in its universities rather than leaving it to yourself and your fellow Vice-Chancellors, Dr Hood?

  Dr Hood: The UK taxpayer through Parliament, through the civil service and through representation on governing bodies and the like has a very substantial say over what happens in British universities to the extent that they receive taxpayer funding.

  Q174  Chairman: You have total autonomy I am told.

  Dr Hood: I wish we did.

  Q175  Chairman: Enlighten us, why have you not got autonomy?

  Dr Hood: We have autonomy and we protect our autonomy in the sense of academic freedom but we do not have autonomy in the sense that we are unregulated, that we are in a non-compliant regime, for example, where we set our own regulatory framework, our own compliance norms, quite the contrary. The Government's funding, be it teaching funding or research funding or funding for various outreach purposes or for tech transfer purposes comes with very prescriptive conditions attaching to it and very strong audit and other related requirements.

  Q176  Chairman: Is that right, Professor Beer, and is it right that we should have that level of interference from the Government?

  Professor Beer: I would prefer not to talk about—and I do not think John was talking about—interference; we can all talk about partnership, we work in partnership with Government to deliver desirable social and economic benefits as I already talked about when we discussed the purpose of higher education. Like John, in order to maintain the integrity of our institutions we do need to keep a distance and we do need to maintain institutional autonomy, but that is not to say that there are all kinds of partnership and it is not just with the Higher Education Funding Council or with DIUS, it is obviously with the Department of Health, with Children, Schools and Families and all branches of Government.

  Q177  Mr Boswell: If I might first take the point that Dr Hood has raised it occurs to me that at the formal and institutional level there is a high degree of autonomy. In terms of planning the system there is almost no academic autonomy; there may be influence but having had some participation in the other side of it anyone who runs the system as a whole is probably in or around Government and the funding bodies. Do you think that is a happy balance or would you like to see less interference in your day-to-day activities ideally and possibly, at the same time, wishing for the ideal, more influence on the overall shape of the system delivered by academics rather than by officials?

  Dr Hood: It is very important that institutions have autonomy in terms of the election of members of staff, in terms of the design and delivery of their academic programmes and so forth. We would all accept that where other parties are funding our activities then we have a responsibility to ensure that those who fund us are satisfied with what we are receiving the funding for, so the question of is there too much compliance, is there too little compliance, is not a question I fear that can be discussed in the general, it would have to be discussed in the particular. In the case of the particular, whether we are talking here about the nature of research contracts and the reports that are required of researchers on one side or the funding that we receive from HEFCE and the various levels of compliance that are required for that, ranging from academic audit at one end to financial audit at the other, these are all things in their own case that are subject to an ongoing dialogue between the various bodies that are involved, and one hopes that we are able through time to establish a reasonable balance that keeps the funder satisfied that the funds they are providing are being responsibly used for the purpose for which they are provided, and on the other hand that the university has its autonomy preserved in terms of its academic activity and purpose and that the freedom of its scholars to pursue that which they are pursuing is preserved at all costs.

  Q178  Dr Harris: Both universities here that you represent are shown to be some distance from achieving your benchmark for the state school participation rate. I was just wondering whether you think the benchmark is wrong or, if it is not, what it is that is preventing you from reaching it or whether it is a combination of the two.

  Professor Beer: The first thing I would like to say is that I am really, really pleased to be asked that question because my colleague Vice-Chancellors in the Russell Group are constantly asked that question but nobody seems to take much of an interest in Oxford Brookes being away from its benchmark in terms of the mix of state and private school students, so I am very happy to answer that question. I do not think we have got any sense at Brookes that there are two tribes in the university, far from it, it is a very harmonious institution. In the mix we have got 20 per cent international students as well and on my latest figures we have got 74 per cent state school entries and 26 per cent private school.

  Q179  Dr Harris: And the benchmark is 88 per cent.

  Professor Beer: We are 12 per cent adrift from the benchmark. Having said that, the benchmark needs to be more sensitive because we out-perform another benchmark exponentially and that is the one that describes participation of social classes three manual, four and five, and we have a completely off-the-scale number of students from those social classes. We work very hard in terms of bringing students in from those social groups.

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