Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460
WEDNESDAY 6 MAY 2009
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
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
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
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
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
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 momentand I was interested in
the comment earlier because I take an opposite viewis 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
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 thatwe 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
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 commentsometimes very harshlyon 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 yeareach 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 honestprobably not very diplomaticreaction.
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
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
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
vulnerablei.e. younger members or newer members to the
profession, maybe, who have not got as much clout, standing or
protection within the institutionvery 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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