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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420 - 439)



  Q420  Chairman: Should that be universal?

  Professor Driscoll: All students should have a full view of how they are going to be taught, the quality of that interaction, whether it is a small group, large lectures and so on. I think that is perfectly reasonable. But Bahram in this HEPI report is saying nothing about that and what we are having to do in the university is to grapple a declining real unit of resource with a threat of further cuts in the future to put a package together that maintains quality, and I have to say to the Committee that I am extremely worried about the cuts that DIUS are now being asked to face because that will undoubtedly impact on the things that students are concerned about—that is contact hours, the quality of the facilities they have and the student support like careers advice and welfare advice and so on. So I think there is a really serious issue. So concern about students and the quality of their experience and standards in the end is money.

  Q421  Dr Gibson: How do you decide on contact hours?

  Professor Driscoll: I do not decide. The teaching teams take the resources they have and they work out a scheme for that programme that best uses those resources and best designed to support the learning for those students, and it varies across subjects.

  Q422  Mr Cawsey: There were basically three points that I want to raise, which Professor Driscoll has largely covered. The first one was the one about the student experience. The second one was about contact time and the level of information that students get when they are making their choices and whether that should be extended. When we were in America, for instance, we went to the Georgetown University and there were some American students who had had part of their academic experience in the UK and they were talking about plagiarism and they had a whole book on it—not just saying you should not do it but how can you avoid doing it and how you can write in a way that is sound. Then they were saying that in the UK they were just basically told not to do it. How supportive are we of students in terms of the information we give them? And my final point was that efficiency gains have been the mantra of all governments for a long time now and at which points do efficiency gains just become hard cuts in what is your sector. Professor Driscoll has given us his perspective and so I want to know if whether any other colleagues want to ad to that?

  Professor Brown: Can I just make one point about the HEPI surveys? I am not here to defend the HEPI surveys; they were done because of no other work being done. If the Vice Chancellors collectively are now going to commission work of that kind I would be delighted to see the outcome.

  Q423  Chairman: I do not think they are, though, are they?

  Professor Brown: I have no knowledge. But basically that is exactly the kind of thing that we should get a handle on really. The other thing I must say, in fairness, the finding in particular that British students who go to university seem to study less intensively than continental students has been validated by a number of independent surveys, so that aspect of the HEPI survey I think is right. But on a general point, which covers all of the contributions made, all of the emphasis has been upon what the students are saying about the quality of the course. When you ask the Vice Chancellors what they said it is, "Get in touch with the students." That is fine and more could be done but there is no substitute for an independent, impartial expert view of the curriculum from professional academics who know their subject and that is the gap in our arrangements at the moment and that is what needs to be done. Go on having student surveys, go on asking the students, that is fine; but you have to do more than that if you are really going to get a handle on academic standards.

  Professor Driscoll: I do not think there is any problem with that, Chairman.

  Professor Arthur: I would just remind Professor Brown that I pointed at four things that I rely on, one of which also included exactly the detailed student academic experience review that he identified and it just so happens that we choose to do that internally and it is very high quality.

  Q424  Chairman: Do you publish it?

  Professor Arthur: Do we publish externally, no; it is used internally to enhance. The reports are available internally to other schools in the university.

  Q425  Dr Gibson: Can we get to see it?

  Professor Arthur: I am sure you can see it if you wish to see it. Comparisons with the United States and what the United States provide to their students, please remember that unit resource for an American student is approximately double than that available in the United Kingdom and if you give us that level of funding we will provide that level of quality. And I would certainly add that if you want the United Kingdom and its higher educational system to remain internationally competitive and you want to have impact and you want graduates to have the sort of impact that they have had over the years and the sort of impact that you enjoyed as graduates as British universities then it takes significant funding. Please notice in all of that that I have barely mentioned the impact for research which is also important. But the impact of the quality of our learning and teaching and the graduates we produce is directly related to the unit of resource that we receive.

  Q426  Chairman: So it is inadequate at the moment?

  Professor Arthur: I think it is fast becoming inadequate.

  Q427  Chairman: Why can you not just say that? To say, "At the moment it is so inadequate that we need to significantly increase the unit of resources to remain competitive"?

  Professor Arthur: I personally have been saying that for a number of years; I think UUK has said it and it is in the Sustainability Report. I think the voice is quite loud about the fact that we need an improved unit of resource. If I look at the University of Leeds we went from 11,000 students in 1990 to 33,000 by 2003. Our student-staff ratio went from eight to 18 during that period; that was all related to reduction in resource.

  Q428  Dr Iddon: I want to carry on in that theme and look at the tensions that might look apparent between the work that the research and the teaching universities do. Of course, universities compete from various sources for their funds within the dual funding system, from Europe, industry and even from the charities. Do you think that the competition that goes on for these funds within the universities takes focus away from teaching in any way?

  Professor Brown: There is substantial international evidence that it does. I chaired for many years a research and teaching forum which consisted of experts from a number of different countries looking at this and the fact is that over time research and teaching had grown apart and research had become the more prestigious activity and of course the research assessment exercise has contributed to that. However, it is a complicated matter; the evidence is not clear-cut. There are ways in which you can have more links between research and teaching. The reform of the RAE itself provides an opportunity for that. It seems extraordinary to me that the impacts that have been considered are impacts on the economy, on society and on public policy but not student education, yet actually that is the key impact. If you are going to conduct a survey of universities there has to be a productive relationship between research and teaching. That is very patchy, not just in Britain but in other countries involved because of the way in research and teaching have been pushed apart, partly through marketisation and because of the way in which research has come to assume greater prestige than teaching.

  Professor Arthur: It will perhaps not surprise you if I take a completely different view to that of Professor Brown because I see a very close relationship between the research that universities do and the learning and teaching that is provided. In particular I think the key function of a university, particularly like the University of Leeds and the Russell Group Universities and other research intensive universities, is to create graduates who really are capable of thinking for themselves. One of the techniques that we have at our disposal to do that is to expose them to the research process so that they get involved in learning about what knowledge is, how it is created, what its boundaries are, how uncertain that can be, the teamwork that is necessary to deal with research and communication, problem solving and that sort of skill base growing. That absolutely is at the essence of the strategy of the University of Leeds and is very central to the strategy of most research intensive institutions. So enhancing the research enhances the learning and teaching. Also, you will find a number of people at universities like Leeds who would describe the teaching informing their research, so there is a complete circular relationship between those two activities. We have chosen to develop assessment systems that pull these things apart. Most of us became academics because we believe that they stick very closely together, and putting that at the heart of the strategy in the University of Leeds has fired up the students and fired up the staff in a way that you would not believe.

  Professor Driscoll: I completely agree with Professor Arthur about what universities are about. This country signed up to the Bologna Declaration, but even if it had not been universally across this world people see universities not simply as degree factories but as engaging in both the development and the transfer of knowledge. Research can be undertaken outside a university and in it. The reason for having research in universities is precisely as Professor Arthur has described; in other words, to inform the teaching and to get that feedback loop. All universities in this country aspire to that, not just the Russell Group universities. The problem is the distribution of funding to do that. Dual support was really meant to ensure that all universities were well founded in terms of being able to provide a basic level of time for staff to engage in research, on which they would then compete for external grants. But that now has become a competitive process and a concentration has taken place on the research. What Professor Brown describes is also true. That has created a divergence in many institutions—it may not be true of Leeds—between teaching and research because we know now that many institutions appoint people simply to do research and cannot afford—because the stakes are so high—to let them do any teaching. So there is a divide taking place and staff are being appointed on teaching only contracts in Russell Group Universities and in the 1994 Group universities, the ones that profess the model that Professor Arthur is saying, so the nature of the RAE is creating the adverse effects and moving the sector in this country away from that ideal model that I think Professor Arthur so eloquently described, and we need to get back to that as quickly as possible. We need, therefore, to have a better distribution because the last RAE has demonstrated that all institutions throughout the sector can produce excellent research, not just within the Russell Group.

  Q429  Dr Iddon: Clearly, Professor Arthur, you believe that an academic doing research does enhance that person's teaching, so why have we focused research on just a few universities when we have so many other universities who are not getting a real share of the research cake? If we follow your argument through we ought to be spreading the research money across the whole university sector to enhance the teaching in all the universities.

  Professor Arthur: Would that we could. We have a limited resource and you have a cadre of universities that are truly internationally competitive across a broad range of disciplines. That is what research selectivity has always been about; it is why the RAE was invented; and it basically puts the money in the universities that can do the greatest delivery. If we can afford to run 159 research intensive universities that would be great but we cannot apparently afford so to do. So there needs to be a degree of research scientivity in the system. Michael has described pockets of excellence—other people have called them islands of excellence—and they have done exceptionally well and they have been awarded in the RAE as appropriate. But if you carry on with that system you will dilute across 159 universities a resource that will be inadequate then even for our very best universities, and I personally think that that would be a long term mistake. So research selectivity is a crucial aspect of the international competitiveness of our top universities.

  Q430  Chairman: Professor Brown?

  Professor Brown: There is a simple solution to the problem, which is that if you save concentration and selectivity for the areas of research which are expensive to conduct, where it is not a good use of resources to have a spread of the resources widely, apart from that you simply fund pro rata to staff research and then pick up the outcomes through audit.

  Q431  Dr Iddon: Can I put it to you that if we are short of resources, as we obviously are, and we cannot do what you would like to do, Professor Arthur, do we have too many institutes badged as universities and should we not adopt the American system of community colleges that rely solely on teaching and do not even try to compete for the research base?

  Professor Arthur: I guess that would be for the Houses of Parliament to decide.

  Q432  Chairman: What is your view?

  Professor Arthur: I am quite a fan of the American community college system; I think it is a system that allows students to move into research intensive opportunity in their learning. It is a system; I think we should look at others. I have said it is important that students should be exposed to how knowledge is created as a part of their education.

  Professor Driscoll: I think it would be a very backward step. We are where we are and I think we need to find ways of enhancing the support for research in the rest of the sector to get the direct benefits that Professor Arthur has described to all our students. We are currently below the OECD average in terms of what we spend as a proportion of GDP on research, so there is some capacity there; and indeed on higher education. So the idea that we are over funding our universities does not stand up on a proportionate basis, compared with other countries, and we have some scope for raising funding without taking it away from other institutions.

  Professor Brown: The evidence is very clearly that research concentration has gone too far in Britain and what you actually need is a differentiated set of institutions—you need community colleges, you need basically teaching universities where staff conduct scholarship as an aid to their teaching and then you need a small number of—not very many—research intensive universities.

  Q433  Mr Marsden: Professor Arthur, I do want to press you on the nirvana of the teaching methods that you have described to me because that is your justification for the concentration, as I understand it, of funding in research. In assuming we were to buy that argument on a philosophical basis where is the robust evidence as opposed to the assertions that you have given today that there is that direct relationship between research and teaching, and is it not the case, as we have heard from several of our witnesses, that in many cases research and teaching are in a ghetto, an increasing ghetto and apartheid in your own Russell Group universities?

  Professor Arthur: I can only really speak for the university of which I am the Vice Chancellor.

  Q434  Mr Marsden: Could you speak very specifically to how the assertions that you have made today about the link between teaching and research in universities, how those are independently asserted and verified as opposed to you just telling us that you believe it is so?

  Professor Arthur: The quality of the outputs that we produce in our research and our graduates and eventual destinations; the notion that universities like ours will help create these for the future. Nine of the 12 Members of the Committee, who I presume regard themselves as leaders are graduates of Russell Group institutions. So there is evidence over a long time frame of the impact of that approach.

  Q435  Dr Gibson: In the good old days people used to get promotion just for research. Has it changed because for academics, besides car parking charges, promotion is what it is all about for them and the recognition of their work; or is it just teaching?

  Professor Arthur: Again, I can speak for the University of Leeds. We are currently in the process of redesigning all of our promotions criteria to give an equal weight to learning and teaching, enterprise and knowledge transfer, and research. We are in the final throes of how you do that at professorial level; we have already done and agreed it with the UCU for all of the other grades.

  Q436  Dr Gibson: How do you become a professor in a Russell University without publishing in a high-flying journal?

  Professor Arthur: I would need to show you all the criteria, Ian. You would need to have some research to go with your teaching profile; you would need to have some teaching to go with your research profile, at our institution.

  Dr Gibson: That balance, in itself, adds to the pressure.

  Q437  Dr Harris: We have just heard earlier from Professor Brown that a credit-based system would be administratively inconvenient.

  Professor Brown: It might be expensive.

  Q438  Dr Harris: Administratively inconvenient, financially and hassle-wise. However, do you see, in terms of fairness to students who, when they are marginal (if I can use that term) may well drop out—in America they have credits and they can come back in; here it is more of an all-or-nothing. Do you see advantages in terms of fairness to a credit-based system?

  Professor Driscoll: Yes. Some people, when there is the prospect of an innovation, see problems. We have had a credit-based system in my Universities since 1992. The problem we have is that not all other institutions have credit-based systems, so it creates a problem for people wanting to transfer in or asking to transfer out.

  Q439  Dr Harris: I understand that. Therefore, Professor Arthur, if you believe in community colleges, in America you transfer after two years with your credits. Do you accept you would have to have a transferable credit-based system in order to have, at least, some community-type scheme in this country where people could transfer to more research-intensive universities if they pass muster in their early credits?

  Professor Arthur: If we are going to run that type of system then, clearly, we need to sort out that set of issues, yes.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 2 August 2009