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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400 - 419)



  Q400  Dr Harris: Yes.

  Professor Driscoll: It is there; it gives people something to think about. Because they are not achieving the benchmark I do not think it means that they are not trying. The colleagues I speak to at Oxford and Cambridge are doing somersaults, metaphorically speaking, to try to encourage applications from a broader spectrum and to achieve their benchmarks. If we did not have the benchmark then we cannot make progress. I guess that the essence of any system that is trying to progress is to set as clear a target as possible and then to ask people to produce the strategies that will achieve that. The strategies we use at the moment may be failing and we may need to rethink how we can get closer to those as targets.

  Q401  Dr Harris: I just want to deal with one of those strategies. Professor Arthur, you explained that at Leeds you offer a discount on A Level scores for certain cases from a poor educational background, you might say. What is the discount?

  Professor Arthur: It is two grades on A Levels; so if the course is requesting three As then we would offer an A and two Bs. The student has to pass a 10 credit level zero module during a weekend at the University before the offer is made.

  Dr Harris: So you have a relatively simple but transparent system where schools know—it is generally the schools—that if they qualify they know the broad categories you have explained. Do all the other universities in the Russell Group do the same thing?

  Professor Arthur: I could not speak for the entire Russell Group. I am aware that we are partnering with 10 other institutions up and down the land, many of which are in the Russell Group that have a similar programme and we are arranging to swap students, as it were. So if a student does well in our 10 credit module and we make an offer and that student does not wish to come to Leeds and wishes to go to another university they can transfer that credit across.

  Q402  Dr Harris: It is the discount I am talking about.

  Professor Arthur: The discount would be the same or similar across the university institutions.

  Q403  Dr Harris: Let us say that you are doing the right thing, by saying in advance so that people know; otherwise it is relatively pointless because you want to try to attract applicants knowing that they will have a fairer hearing by a few points, as it were. If you are doing the right thing—and let us say you are—should not every university that is particularly failing to get those students in, obviously, or according to their benchmark, do the same as you? In other words, if the university does not do that or does it on an ad hoc basis for a student after application, is it not by extension that they are not doing the best thing or the right thing? You cannot both be right.

  Professor Arthur: I think other universities can do other different and equally fair and just systems. There are systems in other universities that will transparently offer points and discount A Levels; so they may use a different system to get there but they have schemes that do that.

  Q404  Dr Harris: If your university offers a discount of two points for people from poor socioeconomic backgrounds—and let us say we assume that that is fair—then if the same student applies to another selective university that does not offer that discount, even though they may do other things, and essentially they are going to have to get three As then that cannot be fair on that measure at least. So should there not be a degree of uniformity, both in terms of saying in advance and doing the same thing and then evaluating it obviously?

  Professor Arthur: It would be nice to see the scheme extend, of course. We have the advantage that we have interacted with the student and we have the security of having taken them through one of our own modules and we have seen the results; so we have evaluated their potential in a way that we are confident about the course. Whether other universities will be confident about our activities is up to them.

  Q405  Dr Harris: You are doing the right thing by your terms, but other universities are not doing that. Professor Driscoll.

  Professor Driscoll: I think the issue that Dr Harris is pressing here is one that has been given a very high profile within Parliament and outside, but I have to say that it is very much a second or third order of importance to the unfairness of people who do not get a place in any university. At this very moment we are faced with record applications and over the next three years, if there is no lifting in the numbers cap, 15,000 students, mostly—

  Q406  Dr Harris: That is a different question—

  Professor Driscoll: It is a very important point that students who could get a place in university will not get a place—

  Q407  Dr Harris: Professor Driscoll, I actually agree with you.

  Professor Driscoll: That is a scandal. And getting more working class kids into Russell Group universities is really absolutely irrelevant.

  Q408  Dr Harris: That is not the question I asked and this is not a soap box for you; I actually happen to agree with you and I agreed with you when you made the point at the HEPI[2] breakfast. But I have to get through some questions and so this is not an opportunity—

  Chairman: Let us go to the next question.

  Q409  Dr Harris: The next question was about success rates. Would you be happy with the situation, Professor Arthur, in your universities where the success rate of students from state schools who were suitably qualified, who applied—because I know part of the problem is application and I know the biggest problem is achievement, but once you get over those hurdles would you be happy if the success rate was lower for state school applicants, or comprehensive school applicants than it was for independent school applicants after they have applied and on the same predictive scores?

  Professor Arthur: Personally I would not be happy. I would like to see an evenness between the application rate and the offer rate and the admissions rate of students with the same level of qualifications from different parts of the sector. That would be my preference.

  Q410  Dr Harris: Is there data among the Russell Group for the success rates for students who finally get to apply but whether they are then successful in getting in?

  Professor Arthur: I am not aware of any systematic collection of data.

  Professor Brown: On this point, Chairman, a few years ago HEFCE did a study and they found that once pupils got to university, if anything some pupils from some state schools did better than some pupils from independent schools. That was quite a well written up study and I am sure the reference could be supplied. That was across the sector as a whole.

  Q411  Mr Boswell: Can we whip through on to what might be called marketisation of standards and ask Professor Brown first. You comment in your memorandum on how little the impact of developments such as the expansion of student numbers on quality has been seriously studied and evaluated. First of all, confirm that that is the case. I cannot see any evidence that the Academy, QAA, UUK or HEFCE has done this work. It is not that many years ago since we were all talking about "more means worse". Why is this area so neglected?

  Professor Brown: I think there are a number of reasons. I will be very brief. First of all, to be quite crude about it, it is not really in anyone's interests to do so; it is not in the interests of individual Vice Chancellors because they are in competition with one another for students and income. It is not in the interests of the representative bodies because we all know the importance of overseas students in particular to the balance sheet of British higher education and the reputation; and it is not in the interests of government departments for various and all sorts of reasons. So first of all I think that without a genuinely independent voice that looks at these matters there is not a great market for it. Secondly, I think there is a specific reason. The former Higher Education Quality Council, of which I was Chief Executive, had both an accountability arm and an enhancement arm and we therefore did conduct inquiries into these matters in our Graduate Standards Programme, as you will recall, because you were the Minister at the time, I seem to recall, and actually was the foundation of a quality infrastructure which has now been adopted here, within Europe and even in America. But when HEQC came to an end the QAA picked up the accountability baton but no one, in my view, satisfactorily picked up the enhancement baton or put the two things together. Basically, until you have an independent agency which can report independently on the impact of funding and other matters on policy then that work will not be done. You need one agency which is responsible for the public funding of the sector and another which is responsible for reporting to Parliament on the use that is made of that funding and we do not have that at the moment.

  Q412  Mr Boswell: That would be funding both at the institutional level, it would seem, and at the sectoral level and collectively across the sector?

  Professor Brown: Yes that would operate essentially at the sectoral level.

  Professor Driscoll: My institution has just undergone an institutional audit from the QAA and I am glad to say we came out of it very well, but enhancement was very much part of their review, so I have to correct Professor Brown about that; they do address that, and increasingly stress the importance of enhancement in this audit cycle, and one would expect to see that strengthened in the future. People can challenge the adequacy of that and suggest that it may be strengthened in certain ways, but to say that it does not exist is simply wrong.

  Professor Arthur: My view would be that there is no wholesale problem with the standards in British Higher Education.

  Q413  Mr Boswell: If I may interrupt, how would you know?

  Professor Arthur: Because we have an internationally successful highly competitive higher education system that is the envy of the world that other people are copying and multiple international students wish to come here. I would not sit here and pretend it is perfect. It has been changing for 800 years and it will continue to change and improve. I rely on four different mechanisms to enhance quality and I think the key thing about any quality assurance system is that it must lead to enhancement. I have my own internal processes at the University of Leeds, our learning and teaching reviews and our annual health checks. I have the results of the national student survey; I have the institutional audit and I have the external examiner system. If you examine any individual part of that, it is not perfect but if you put all four things together you have a really significant programme of quality assurance that is aimed at enhancement rather than policing, and that is how we keep up the standards of the British higher education system.

  Q414  Mr Boswell: You have listed four; what about the international aspect? Other than by a market test—we know students that come here, for example, from other countries—how can you be sure that you are delivering in contrast with institutions in other countries?

  Professor Arthur: I think the short answer is that it is difficult to answer that question, except to look at the destinations and the activity and the impact for our graduates around the United Kingdom and around the world. So I think there is a really significant output issue that speaks for itself.

  Professor Driscoll: Just very briefly, added to the list of the ways in which we can assure ourselves about quality and standards, I guess in both our institutions across the sector a large part of our curriculum is scrutinised by professional bodies, in addition to the overviews provided by our systems—quality assurance and so on. I think that the nature of our systems, the extent of the involvement of employers and so forth is unprecedented anywhere else in the world. That is not to say that it cannot be improved and there are some things that I was chatting with Roger about earlier on that he might want to explore with you, which I think might be interesting ways of strengthening the system; how we can assure ourselves in my institution that the curriculum in a particular subject is up to date, and in another institution and so on. I think there are things that we could do that would help.

  Chairman: I think we want to come on to that.

  Q415  Mr Boswell: To put what might be a rather boring question out of the way—and I will ask Professor Driscoll and others if they must add—comparability of standards between your institution, for example, and one in the Russell Group, what does that mean? What do you understand by it and how is important is it formally? Is it something that needs moderating by a market test, or what?

  Professor Driscoll: I think we get some assurance about that in terms of the content of the curriculum. I am an economist; I actually went to a polytechnic and then I went on to two Russell Group universities. I know that people share experiences, and we have an external examiner system. So there is a great deal of normalisation that takes place in terms of the curriculum content. Also, the information sources, whether at Oxford and Cambridge or at Middlesex, are of similar high quality because increasingly information sources are online and on the web, both in the formal library resource, and so on. So the difference is in information content. I have no evidence to suggest that teachers are better in some universities than others actually in performing as an inspiration in the classroom; and given that that is our bread and butter at a place like Middlesex we make sure that they are inspirational and are keeping the students interested. As regards standards, we do not give anything like as many firsts and two-ones as they do at Oxford and Cambridge and you would not expect us too. Oxford and Cambridge attract some of the brightest and hardworking students in the country, but we also have very bright and hardworking students who do get firsts and two-ones, but not in anything like the same proportion. If we were giving out the same number of firsts and two-ones I think you might ask the question: what is going on here? So I think there is strong evidence to say that degree standards, degree levels, awards in similar subjects across the sector because of the mechanisms that we have, the external examining system, and because of the way in which people are networked through the centres of subjects excellence bodies that we have in the country that you get a normalisation of standards across the sector and that is a great strength. And we can talk in this country about a British higher education system and British standards in a way that they cannot talk in the United States, where it is highly fragmented and where there are different systems and different accrediting bodies and it is difficult to know what you are getting. But here I think people do.

  Q416  Mr Boswell: Can I advance another question on value added? Do you think that that is important and can we measure it? It slightly joins together with the issue about access and outcomes. Is that relevant to this?

  Professor Driscoll: I think it is highly relevant and I think we need to measure it and I think there should be official measures. On the basis of peoples' past performance and social background you can make some sort of prediction about the likelihood of getting a particular classification. I think if an institution can raise that for a significant proportion of their student cohort then that is a measure of how they are succeeding with their students. I think it is something that has been neglected; it is neglected in league tables and I think undervalues the contribution that universities that have focused on widening participation, like Middlesex, make to raising skills and educational levels in this country.

  Professor Arthur: I want to come back to the comment about the standards, if I may, and let me say that I agree with a lot of what Michael said in the first part of his answer about the way in which we can be sure across different institutions. To go any further, though, would need something that would potentially be quite damaging. So, for example, if you really wanted to know if the first in a subject was the same at Leeds and Middlesex then perhaps you would need a national curricula and national testing, and I suggest that that would be madness and it really would destroy the diversity and the creativity of our autonomous higher education system, a system that other European countries are now trying to emulate.

  Professor Brown: I would like to make one or two comments in response to the questions that have been put and the remarks that have been made. First of all, I stand by my comment about not having the information and the evidence for that is in the HEPI surveys. Until the HEPI surveys were done it was not clear—and it still is not actually that clear—about the variability of the contact between institutions etcetera. Another of my points in my submission is that I believe that there has been a reduction in the overall volume of teaching on courses in British universities, but I do not know anyone has the interest in finding out whether that has happened or not or whether that matters very much. That is my first point. Secondly, I do not think that there is any evidence of a general decline of quality or standards but I think there are some longstanding difficulties, particularly in assessment, and there are some worrying cases that have come to light. I think given that we are now going into a pretty ferocious resource race in British higher education the market for international students is going to get tougher, etcetera and I think we have to strengthen our quality assurance framework. I think with the greatest respect, comparability is not the issue; the issue is minimum standards really.

  Q417  Mr Boswell: Thresholds.

  Professor Brown: Thresholds, yes. The issue is can we guarantee that anyone who takes a British degree is getting a worthwhile qualification with a worthwhile curriculum and that traditionally was ensured by external examiners. In my view, external examiners were outmoded 10 years ago and they are even more outmoded now. They became outmoded first of all because of the basic weaknesses in the system and there will be evidence from other bodies before you about that in this inquiry. Secondly, because of the growth of multi-disciplinary and modular courses which means that the external examiner is not in close contact with the student on a piece of work, which was the original rationale for the system. But then on top of that you have these forces of competition which inevitably will make people cut corners. I have set out in my submission what I think should be done about it but the key point really is that the Quality Assurance Agency basically looks at the procedures by which institutions ensure standards and it does not actually look at standards. If we are going to look at standards we have to look at them at the programme qualification level and you have to look at all aspects affecting standards—everything from the admission of students through to the usual things about the design of programmes, etcetera, and you have to look at things like resource allocation and marketing and all those other things that affect standards. That cannot be done at an institutional level; we have to do that at the department and the programme level. It would be highly preferable if institutions did that themselves instead of which, I am afraid, they tend to rely upon external examiners and they are, I am afraid, incapable of doing that particular job in the very diverse system that we now have. What I would ideally like to see, which is what I did to some extent at my university, is that you get academics in a certain area of concern from an institution which has a broadly comparable mission to look at all aspects of the curriculum in subjects, as I say not just the teaching schemes and the assessment schemes but the whole picture, and then advise the Vice Chancellor about the currency of that particular curriculum in terms of their level of knowledge in the subject in relation to the research and that sort of thing, and they should report to the Vice Chancellor and if necessary those reports could be published—I would not favour that—and then the efficacy of that process is picked through an enhanced system of institutional review. Otherwise I do not think we are secure and we can be secure in making the statements that we make, with the greatest respect to my Vice Chancellor colleagues, about the standards of our degrees. I am sorry, but that is my view.

  Chairman: I am sorry; I have to stop you there because we have to move on.

  Mr Boswell: No, I think that is very helpful.

  Q418  Mr Cawsey: As you know, our inquiry is looking at the student experience of universities and I know that every university would say that the student experience is caught in everything that you do. That seems an obvious thing to say. These are different times and students have to get into debt or pay fees and there is a drive to get more students into universities, and it is that dilemma, if you like, that makes us wonder how the experience of the student is changing in recent times and in the future. My first question is quite a simple one really. How do you keep in touch with what happens in your own institutions to satisfy yourself of the student experience? It is a long way, is it not, from somebody comes to the university on the first day and is up in the hallowed office of the Vice Chancellor.

  Professor Arthur: I personally visit every school in rotation constantly; I have been doing it for five years and during those meetings I meet with a selection of students of all different types—undergraduate, postgraduate, postgraduate research—without the senior members of staff present and I ask them to tell me what is going on and what it is like. I do a series of open meetings with the students—one a term—which are exciting and interesting and I can reassure you about the talent of our youth. I also work with our own internal audit systems of surveying our students and their views, as well as the results of the national student survey. So I think I get quite a good feel for what is going on in terms of student experience.

  Professor Driscoll: Similar things and in addition—apart from things on a national student survey—internal surveys that focus directly on other aspects of their experience and so on. I chair various committees that deal with these things, including the university's academic board where reports come though. I talk to staff and I talk to students. So it is a variety of feedback mechanisms. Our students these days are not slow to complain, I have to say, if they are dissatisfied, and it does happen and it does get looked into and people get taken to task if their teaching is not up to scratch or there are concerns about slowness of feedback. In fact in the national student survey this seems to be a sector-wide endemic problem and I know my university and I know all of the universities are working very, very hard to address that and to try to improve the response we get from the students for the future. I know that is a number one target in the sector. So we do take these things seriously and we do try to act on them. There is one thing, Chairman, that I know this Committee has raised in terms of students, and it is an issue for students, and that is contact time and the HEPI surveys, because we all know—and certainly the feedback we get—is that students would like more contact; they would like smaller classes; they would like to be able to interact more casually and be able to knock on someone's door and get a bit of advice about the essay they are writing or on some assignment they have done, and so on. Professor Brown said that the volume of teaching has gone down. Certainly throughout the 1990s it did because the unit of funding was half; staff-student ratios more or less doubled across the sector and it was inevitable when we moved from smaller group teaching to larger group teaching. However, what I would say, given that we have managed to maintain the unit of funding over the recent years, is that I can point to no area of my university where hours are being cut or have been cut in the recent past. So I think there has been some stabilisation here, but clearly it is a threat for the future.

  Q419  Chairman: The HEPI study was that there was a huge discrepancy between the number of hours of study in total and the outcome of degrees.

  Professor Driscoll: I think it did not comment on the outcome, it commented really on the discrepancy, the similar subjects and so on. A couple of things to say about the HEPI studies. The ones that were carried out in 2006-07 surveyed 15,000 students. This latest update surveyed 2000 students; the report does not even say how many responded. It is a woefully small sample and I do not think that any statistician would stand by those results. The other thing that disturbs me more seriously about the conclusions of those HEPI reports is that they take one statistic—that is formal contact hours—and extrapolate some extraordinary statements about effort and the work that students do. I think it is quite unreasonable. Bahram himself will know that what is important is not just the contact hours, it is the quality of those hours, and it is everything else that goes into that. My institution—and I am sure this is true of most institutions across the sector—produces course handbooks and in those course handbooks it describes the contact, the nature of the contact, the number of assignments they will have to do and the nature of the assessment, and it provides all the other information around the reading lists.

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