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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 388 - 399)



  Chairman: Could we welcome our first panel of witnesses this morning and may I apologise for starting the session slightly late this morning. We welcome you very much indeed to this, the Students and Universities inquiry, Professor Michael Arthur, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds; you are very, very welcome and congratulations on achieving notoriety as the new boss of the Russell Group. We wish you well in that post. Professor Michael Driscoll, the Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University; thank you very much indeed for being with us this morning. And Professor Roger Brown, the retired Vice-Chancellor of Southampton Solent, currently Professor of Higher Education Policy at Liverpool Hope University; a very warm welcome to you, Professor Brown. There is an interest to be declared.

  Dr Iddon: Can I declare, Chairman—and this is for both panels this morning—that I am a member of the University and College Union, Visiting Professor at the University of Liverpool School of Chemistry, a member of the External Advisory Board, School of Chemistry, University of Manchester; and I am unpaid Parliamentary Adviser to the Royal Society of Chemistry.

  Q388  Chairman: Can we start with you, Professor Arthur? We recently visited the US and we visited Georgetown University outside Washington, a leading private Jesuit University. We were told in great depth how the university prepares students from all backgrounds for entry into the university and the steps that they actually take to make sure that when the students arrive at quite prestigious universities they are able to actually fit in and take advantage of it, particularly students from less privileged backgrounds. What do you think is the balance of responsibility between the universities' role to make sure that all students, wherever they come from, can actually fit into the university effectively? And what is the balance between your role as a university and that of schools?

  Professor Arthur: I think each university would take a significant responsibility for doing exactly that. At Leeds we would have a detailed induction programme which goes on for two weeks, which has academic and social aspects. But for students from particularly disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly students that come in on our Access to Leeds Programme, which I am more than happy to explain to you, then we have a very detailed programme that starts as they apply to the university and then increased support when they first arrive and throughout their course.

  Q389  Chairman: How are they flagged up to you?

  Professor Arthur: Those particular students?

  Q390  Chairman: Yes.

  Professor Arthur: We are in the process of changing it but hitherto it has been an arrangement with specific schools and the entry criteria for that course are on the basis of social or educational disadvantage; so things like receipt of Educational Maintenance Allowance, first timers into higher education coming from a school with less than 45 per cent A to C; students from a care background and those sorts of issues. Any other form of individualised personal, social or educational disadvantage they wish to declare is brought to our attention by the teaching staff and we offer a specific programme for entry, which includes a discount on A Level scores.

  Q391  Chairman: What about the social aspects? Going back to Georgetown again, they made sure, for instance, that the rooming arrangements, with students coming from obviously challenging backgrounds, were carefully taken into consideration. Writing courses were prepared to make sure that they were able to start the courses running rather than having to catch up once they got there. Is all that in place?

  Professor Arthur: Similar sorts of arrangements. It is run by a team called the Access and Community Engagement Team and there is a social programme for those students. I think there is a real balance to be struck between doing special things for those students and fully integrating them into the rest of the activities and programmes at the university, and there are certainly special skills courses to bring students up to speed rapidly if they lack writing or other skills.

  Q392  Chairman: Professor Driscoll, all is well in the university world then and students, wherever they come from, have an easy transition into higher education.

  Professor Driscoll: I would not say that at all, but the students that you describe are exceptional at my university and in fact we know nationally that 48 per cent of students come from colleges rather than schools. In my own university over half the students who come to initial higher education to undergraduate degrees are mature students. We work very closely with the schools because a lot of our recruitment is local and we have 80 or 90 partner schools that we work with, both helping to prepare students to come on and raising their aspirations and so on. The more difficult group to prepare in advance, of course, are the mature students who may be entering from work or from unemployment and we have to try to work with them when they arrive at the university to make sure that they are properly inducted and properly integrated. Although we cannot easily access them before they apply and they come to the university, nevertheless those students, of course, by the very nature are more mature; they are usually more sorted out; they have been in the labour force and they are coming into higher education to raise their future employment and career opportunities. So they are not difficult people to induct and to get integrated into the student body. But our students are very, very diverse, so it is difficult to have a programme that is one size fits all. We try to tailor our induction programmes for students, both domestic and internationally. I would say that our biggest challenge is a cultural one with international students rather than students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are not untypical in my university, so we are experienced, if you like, in handling those issues and trying to make sure that we maximise their chances of success.

  Q393  Chairman: Professor Brown, the question I am really trying to get at is you can understand—take Liverpool Hope, which we visited, which clearly has a lot of local students and the Liverpool students see that very much as their local university—there being a real link between schools and colleges and the university, but do you feel that that applies throughout, particularly to the more "prestigious universities"?

  Professor Brown: It is very dangerous to generalise, Chairman. I think there is a wider issue, which is that the universities now have to cope with a much wider range of students from a much more diverse set of backgrounds and there are more students than there were, who are not well prepared for degree level entry, and this is true even for students with good A Level results. I think if one were redesigning the higher education curriculum now one might well think in terms of a foundation year, not just for international students or students with acknowledged learning difficulties but more generally really. I am sure other bodies would have given evidence in this, but I think there is a real issue about the extent to which the school and university curriculums are drifting apart rather than coming together. In the old days A levels were a good proxy for first year university entry; A Levels do not fulfil that need now and therefore on the one hand you have a proliferation of rival qualifications like the pre-U, the A star, etcetera; but on the other hand of course those qualifications are being taken from pupils from a more differential range of schools. I think there is a serious issue about the mismatch between the school and the university curriculum, which individual universities—and most universities—that have similar arrangements as those that have been described, in themselves cannot necessarily cope with.

  Q394  Mr Marsden: Professor Brown, I thought those remarks were very interesting. If I could just probe you on a couple of aspects of the changing student profile. We know from all the demographic statistics that the cohort of younger people coming in, in all areas, is going to decline significantly over the next 10 to 15 years. At the same time statistics show, as Professor Driscoll illustrated in his own university, the steady rise in the number of adult learners, and who knows what additional numbers to that there will be given the economic downturn. How do you think that this change in demographic profile is changing universities' relationships with students and how do you think it should change them?

  Professor Brown: Again, I think you must differentiate a bit because not all universities have the same entry profile. The short answer to your question is that there will be more demands on universities for more flexible learning programmes—that is already apparent in many of the big cities here. We may also see the American phenomenon where students study in more than one university at the same time; up to half American undergraduates are studying at more than one university—it is often known as "swirling". This in itself raises big questions about who is responsible for the standards of the programmes, but we will put that on one side. So basically the demands of those kinds on universities will increase, and flexibility always costs more money. If you go down the credit based route, for example, if you have more teaching in the evenings and you have people working at weekends it all adds up to money and it increases the demands on the universities and it is not at all clear where that resource will come from.

  Q395  Mr Marsden: You have mentioned flexibility but is it not the case, from evidence we have heard and what is generally argued, that despite good intentions we are very far from the form of the sort of credit accumulation framework that could actually deliver the sort of flexibility in the good way that you describe.

  Professor Brown: Yes, but I spent a long time looking at credit frameworks in the 1990s and they are something of which everybody is in favour but nobody actually wants, and the test is whether people are prepared to pay for them. I do not think—except in some of the big cities where you have the kind of student demand that we have described—that for many students there is that demand for a credit framework. Bear in mind that many of our programmes are already quite flexible—a modular course can give a student a huge amount of choice compared with what was the case 20 years ago. I think if you do go down the credit routes there are issues we need to look at; you would need to revise the whole funding system, you would need to fund on the basis of credits and you would have to look at the quality assurance as well all because the great beauty in the present funding system is basically it funds whole students for whole years and that provides a relatively cost effective method of funding. Once you go down the credit route where you are funding based on credits the risk is that you need a whole bureaucracy to make sure that the students have acquired the credits and the funding has to be divided and so on. One would need to be quite careful about going too far down that route as a general position across the whole of higher education.

  Q396  Mr Marsden: Professor Arthur, can I come to you again to pick up on something that we saw during our US visit? I actually went on behalf of the Committee to a university called Howard University, which is an all black university in Washington DC. They have a very interesting initiative—it starts in middle grade school—which takes young, primarily black boys and girls from the five most deprived areas of Washington DC districts on a lottery basis. That school is actually attached to and supported by the university. You have described some of the things that you are doing at the moment to try and widen access and participation with local schools and elsewhere; is that route that I have described at Howard the pioneering, innovate sort of thing that Russell Group Universities such as you should be doing?

  Professor Arthur: There are programmes like that which I have been involved in personally actually, through the University of Southampton when I was there, which was in compact with inner city FE[1] colleges in Southampton and with Lewisham College, which was a special pathways programme to bring students into medicine. They just simply had to get through the pre-designated hurdles and then they were automatically offered a place in medicine, and that did recruit a lot of black and ethnic minority students highly successfully.

  Q397  Mr Marsden: I am sorry to interrupt you on that. I am talking about something where the actually university seeds, if you like, or plants—in this case a middle school—outside its window. There has not been anything like that done in English universities so far as I am aware.

  Professor Arthur: I think that is right. Our equivalent of that would be working with the schools in the city in the region and some of them in depth, the 12 partner schools where we are working in every single year in that school. Also, our participation jointly with Leeds Met, as it happens, in the developing of Academies in the city where we are contributing expertise to the development of those.

  Q398  Mr Marsden: So that is how you work it.

  Professor Arthur: That would be the closest equivalent. We also have a programme of medicine with Bradford University for coming into special routes of medicine in Leeds as well.

  Professor Driscoll: Our ancient universities used to have arrangements between their colleges and established schools but those schools have tended to separate away from the pairing with a university. It seems to me that there probably is not the same need in the UK that you identified on your visit to the United States, for that particular community that Howard University cater for. I think all of us have articulation agreements with schools. We have them in the partnerships I described between our schools and colleges of precisely that nature to encourage widening participation and to provide guarantees subject to achievement of required standards for places within my university. I was in India last week and part of that trip visited a higher education institution in Chandigarh, which had done exactly this and there you could see the value of the purpose because they were offering free places to a school they established on their university campus for rural children, who otherwise would not even get into a school if they did not create the school; and they provide free tuition and a free pathway into their engineering programmes, and I hope that one day one of those children will come and take a scholarship with Middlesex University as a way of establishing a connection and contribution to the development of rural people in India.

  Q399  Dr Harris: Professor Driscoll, do you think that the benchmark system is worth bothering with, given that a number of universities are well short of their benchmark and some people say that it is relatively meaningless. Oxford University, for example, thought a benchmark was unfair.

  Professor Driscoll: This is benchmark on wider participation?

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