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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460 - 479)



  Q460  Chairman: Can I pick that up with you, Veronica, at Northumbria. Have you had anything to do with the QAA?

  Veronica Killen: Just before I start, can I say that I am not here as a representative from Northumbria University; I am here as a—

  Q461  Dr Gibson: Who told you to say that?

  Veronica Killen: It is just that we have a case on, at the moment, where a member of the union and an official branch officer may be going through a disciplinary case because they spoke in the press on a UCU matter. Back to the QAA.

  Chairman: Can I just say to you that while you are in this room you have total privilege; you are giving evidence to a Select Committee and, therefore, you have total privilege under the law.

  Q462  Dr Harris: Which means that you are not touchable, and they would be in contempt if they did try and—

  Veronica Killen: Thank you.

  Q463  Chairman: However, you cannot speak about the particular case because that is sub judice. Can I go back to my first question: have you had any involvement with the QAA?

  Veronica Killen: Not personally. I think maybe one of the other panel members has.

  Q464  Chairman: Can I move on, in that case. Gavin, have you?

  Dr Reid: Indirectly, yes. We have just been through a QAA institutional audit in the last 18 months or so.

  Chairman: Brian will pick up on this.

  Q465  Dr Iddon: I think what we need to know is what you think of the current QAA and whether you think its powers ought to be extended to allow it to monitor in a more important way than it does now, if it does it at all, the safeguarding of standards and the quality of courses in the university. Who is going to start?

  Veronica Killen: I think what is missing out of all the quality indicators is that there is no input from the academic staff themselves into this; what is the quality of the teachers' day-to-day workload and how is that calculated and put in? There was mention before about quality and the reduction of contact time, the reduction of income that is coming into the universities that is having a major impact upon the staff/student ratio, and the hours that staff work, but none of these indicators go into the quality mechanisms, as it were. Teaching staff and members come to us on a regular basis with work overload, bullying and harassment from the managers because of deadlines and trying to squeeze efficiency, as it were. It is the frontline staff that are at the pressure point of it all. It goes back to issues of plagiarism and pressures that students have because they are becoming more and more customers and they are expected to behave in that way, and we seeing staff being almost intimidated by students—

  Q466  Dr Iddon: Veronica, I am sorry to halt you, but the question was what do you think of the QAA and should they be given greater powers to ensure the standards in your university and all universities should be as high as possible?

  Veronica Killen: I do not know if the QAA is the place for that. Maybe one of my colleagues might be able to come in.

  Sally Hunt: We are not particular fans of the QAA.

  Q467  Dr Iddon: What is wrong with it, Sally?

  Sally Hunt: I actually think that what we find is it does not actually deliver what it is meant to be delivering. What we think is necessary, actually, Brian, is a very robust system of assessment that allows us to be able to know that there is an independent way that any particular institution and/or course and/or method of teaching is going to be assessed. Frankly, we do not see that being the case here. One of the things that we think started that particular principle disappearing was the reduction of the visitor's powers, for example. One of the things that we think could really be looked at more intensively, I think, than it is at the moment—and I was interested in the comment earlier because I take an opposite view—is what is happening with the external examining system, because what you do have to have is a system that has that independent ability to look at what is taking place, but it also has to have some ability for that to be transparent. I would also suggest that under the current regime there is a lack of transparency that means that it is not actually able to deliver the job, either for the academics within the institution that it is meant to be assessing or the people who are meant to be undertaking that work. Where commentaries are coming in, we are hearing about them informally but we are not able to talk about them publicly because it puts our members at risk. That is me being blunt. I know I am saying something that I cannot quantify to you but I have to tell you that is what we get. What we need is a system, as I said, that does reinforce that independence of assessment and the governance issues that have started trickling away since 2004, in our view.

  Q468  Dr Iddon: Is that the QAA with different powers?

  Sally Hunt: Yes, in many ways. What we actually believe is there needs to be a system that is underpinned with better core funding; you have to look at the quality there; you have to look at the ability to go in and make transparent your findings; you have to look at your ability to make sure that that network is one that is absolutely across the board. I would say, at the moment, we are not very comfortable with the system, but what we are not saying, at all, is that we do not think there should be some system like that—we do, because we think it is essential to standards and quality.

  Q469  Dr Iddon: Can I ask Gavin to comment on the QAA and whether its powers should increase?

  Dr Reid: It certainly plays a role. In my subject area the QAA specifies to the Royal Society of Chemistry what a chemistry degree ought to look like, not in terms of saying: "This is the curriculum and this should be the curriculum in every university in the land", but it sets out common targets that students should achieve at each level, and that kind of function is very helpful. Where in my institution it falls down is that the QAA only sees what the university management puts in front of it. I will give you an example: my university runs what has been described as a very perverse model for classifying degree schemes, and it was my external examiner who called it perverse. What happens is that low marks between 0 and 20 are rounded up to 20 and high marks from 80 to 100 are rounded downwards, and then they are averaged together, so you have this non-linear average before making a classification. That comment about this being perverse was fed through the system up to what they call the Learning and Teaching Board, but then it reached a dead-end. I know for a fact that the QAA never saw these comments from the external examiners.[3] One of the Vice-Chancellors said earlier that the external examining system was 10 years out of date; I could not disagree more with that, I think we need to empower the external examiners so that their comments must be published by an institution. If I can make a slightly different point, 10 years ago UNESCO published guidance, recommendations, on the status of staff teaching in higher education teaching institutions, and it defines things like what collegiality is, and what academic freedom is, and specifically there are things in there about the right to elect a majority of the academic bodies of an institution, and that has almost completely been lost. In my institution the Learning and Teaching Board is almost predominantly management; it only has four elected staff. The Senate, slightly different, it is around 50/50, but there is a working majority from management appointees. If we can go back to some of these more robust collegial arrangements that Sally was talking about, where the academics themselves have oversight of the academic issues, then we will have many more protections than we have at the moment. I am not sure if it is quite the QAA I see as performing that role, but I do see the QAA guiding the professional bodies where external professional accreditation is carried out.

  Q470  Dr Iddon: Natalie, have you any comments on the QAA?

  Dr Fenton: Yes, in my experience, the QAA is another bureaucratic, administrative burden that you learn to play the game of. You do it very well, you show the processes are there, but it does not actually command the respect of the academics delivering the teaching on the ground. As Gavin said, that respect is earned by your peers who come in and assess your work, and then comment—sometimes very harshly—on what is going on. The problem then is that those documents are not public and there is not a requirement that they actually deliver a response to them. Certainly, internally, the QAA does not actually, I think, ensure standards.

  Q471  Dr Iddon: I want to pose this question to Gavin, in particular, because it is about physical sciences and it is about Leeds, too. Apparently, at Cambridge (and I would have to ask the Clerk where these figures came from), in order to get a degree we require 44.8 hours per week contact time, whereas at Leeds it is significantly less than that. My figure here is 25.5. I agree these figures may not be accurate, but do you think it is right that you can get the same degree, a first at Leeds or a first at another university, yet the contact times with the students are different?

  Dr Reid: There are certainly different practices at Leeds than there are at Cambridge; we are one of the smaller chemistry departments in the country now, and that does impact both on teaching and on research. It makes things very difficult for staff to balance those. Formally, students study 120 credits in a year—each 10-credit module, if you like, carries 100 hours' worth of study time. Within that there will be lecturing, there will be lab time and there will be tutorials. I do not recognise the significant difference in contact time that you describe, but certainly we do not have the college-based tutoring system that Oxbridge has because it is just not funded outside Oxford and Cambridge.

  Q472  Dr Iddon: I am sorry; these figures were from a HEPI study. I am not reading my brief properly. Do the rest of the panel here see considerable differences between contact times and private study times, tutorials, that lead to the same degrees across the university system?

  Veronica Killen: I think there is a big concern, particularly in health education and social care courses, where direct contact time has been reduced over recent years. On the basis of just teaching itself, teaching is not just the passage of information itself but it is about the assimilation of knowledge and the synthesis of that knowledge, and particularly for professional based courses it is about the application of that knowledge. A lot of that teaching needs to take place in the classroom, but there is more and more time now on self-directed study, there is less and less direct contact time, and that is leading to big concerns amongst many of the education staff, particularly in health education and social care as well. It is made worse by the cuts that are taking place. We have got possible impending cuts from the Department of Health on the MPA (?) budget and the benchmarking price which could lead to a further, up to, 500 jobs lost around the country for health educators. That is making things much worse.

  Q473  Dr Iddon: I have one final question and that concerns the Higher Education Achievement Report. We have heard, even this morning, that there are so many variations for students across all the different varieties of universities. Is there any value in HEAR? Sally, shall we start with you?

  Sally Hunt: I was hoping you would not! I am sick to death of reports on higher education and standards, and that is the honest—probably not very diplomatic—reaction. I think that our members have been assessed almost out of the lecture theatre, and I think that they have had what I would define very subjective assessments taking place of the standard of what they are doing to such an extent that I think it has been the most incredible de-motivator for people right across the board. That is just me being absolutely honest, because I have not heard an academic who is not willing and, actually, very interested to have their peers give them a very, very rigorous assessment of the quality of work that they do and how they work, but not the type of assessment that is taking place. Maybe I am cynical, and maybe my colleagues have a more positive view on it, but certainly I do not think it is adding to the value. I am not sure it is adding to the knowledge of whether the sector is actually delivering; I think it is just giving you yet more scripts and yet more headlines.

  Dr Iddon: We were asking, particularly, about the HEAR report. Has that particular report got value within the system?

  Q474  Chairman: It is a question of whether, in fact, a student gets a 2:1 degree or whether they get the more rounded American style, if you like, graduation certificate.

  Sally Hunt: What we are doing at the moment, Phil, is we are in the middle of an internal debate about that within the union, so what I cannot tell you is a UCU view. We do have discussions that are focused around quality, because it will not surprise you that when we are looking at that we actively support the concept that every community should have access to higher education, and that means of a particular quality. We believe that that has to have both research and teaching absolutely wedded to each other in a way that enables both students and academics to work in that way. That is a general point that is being debated. We are also very concerned, at the moment, that having that kind of discussion about higher education in this country, to a great extent, is masking a bigger debate that we think does need to take place, which is that it has been so under-funded and so—

  Q475  Chairman: I am sorry, we do not want to go down that road. I specifically wanted to get an answer to this question as to whether that is a useful tool. Very briefly, please, Gavin.

  Dr Reid: We have had some discussion internally in our institution, and what we have discovered is there are very different profiles of degree classifications between, say, the sciences and medicine and the arts; something like 60 per cent of all arts and humanities degrees are classified as 2:1s, and I can certainly see that employers may not be able to distinguish between one of those and the other. Students already receive full transcripts of their marks on all the modules, and that is, I think, what Burgess was recommending. I think that is there in the system already, and to concentrate too much effort on it, I think, at a time where there are other priorities—

  Dr Fenton: I would agree with Gavin that we already give those transcripts, so actually to change the whole system now would be a complete waste of resources.

  Q476  Chairman: Perhaps we ought to make sure that every student gets that.

  Sally Hunt: Every student gets those transcripts. That is straightforward, if it is only on assessment; if you are then doing the entire student experience that is a different matter.

  Q477  Dr Harris: Before I move on to access I wanted to ask this question about university reputation. Do any of you feel under pressure to not bring your university into disrepute by talking about issues to do with, say, standards?

  Veronica Killen: Most definitely.

  Q478  Dr Gibson: Why?

  Veronica Killen: There is a culture of fear and many members would like to say things but they feel that they cannot take it forward. We found that out within the union, with things like bullying and harassment cases; you can only get so far with them and then if members are not willing to go through the whole process it is very difficult. So things like bullying and harassment is a lot wider than reported.

  Q479  Dr Harris: Could the other panel members offer their view? I would be interested to know if this is an internal problem or whether it is getting worse because of the market, arguably (I do not want to lead you) and the importance of protecting the reputation when seeking to attract students, particularly international students, as Ian Gibson mentioned in the first question.

  Dr Fenton: I think it is undoubtedly getting worse, partly because of the need to market yourself in a particular way. That makes those staff who are particularly vulnerable—i.e. younger members or newer members to the profession, maybe, who have not got as much clout, standing or protection within the institution—very nervous about speaking out, or recommending that certain students should not be getting certain grades. Again, we do not have any evidence for that, there is no hard-core evidence, but there is a sense that that carries on. It comes back to all the issues around contact time and those staff who are successful at bringing in research who are then hived off and do not do as much teaching; it is dumped on the younger members of the department or the new members of the profession to have intensive contact hours, or even the PhD students. They are much less likely to speak out.

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