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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480 - 495)



  Q480  Dr Harris: I am keen to focus on the issue of the reputation of the institution rather than bullying and harassment, and whether that is a good process. Dr Reid, on that question of feeling that you would be in trouble if you brought that in.

  Dr Reid: There is no doubt there is nothing an institution values more closely than its external reputation, and they are very protective of that. I know people certainly feel as though they cannot speak out; they cannot even speak out in their own department's staff meetings, never mind to colleagues from The Times Higher who may be interested.

  Q481  Dr Harris: Is it getting worse?

  Dr Reid: There is no doubt about it, yes.

  Q482  Dr Harris: Sally, has the UCU done a survey to get any harder sense than the assertions and anecdotes that we might consider?

  Sally Hunt: We have evidence through casework, Evan. We have constant monitoring of this in terms of our work at a regional and at a local level. I am acutely aware that it is not necessarily possible for us to go public on that rather than simply in generalities. If the Committee think it would help we could supply you with that kind of information.

  Q483  Dr Harris: A summary of the sorts of things.

  Sally Hunt: I would stress that we would class that as highly sensitive.

  Q484  Dr Harris: If you anonymise it and just give us a summary, perhaps.

  Sally Hunt: That is something that we can do, but our colleagues certainly are telling us it is getting worse.

  Q485  Dr Harris: A final question on that before I hand over to Gordon Marsden to talk about access issues. This question of feeling restricted in what you can say: is that overflowing at all into academic freedom and freedom to publish in your own area, or would you say it is a discrete issue that you have all agreed is a problem?

  Veronica Killen: I think there is more and more pressure put on academic staff to publish that which fits in with the school or university agenda. That has an impact upon academic freedom because it is becoming more and more difficult to actually do research that members of staff individually want to do or even present papers at various conferences, and the like.

  Q486  Mr Marsden: Thank you, Chairman. As my colleague, Evan Harris, said, I want to probe you on the issue of access and admissions, which obviously we have been talking quite a lot about. If I could start, perhaps, with you, Dr Reid, and then come on to Veronica and Natalie. (Sally, I am not excluding you but I will come back to you on something else, if I may.) What I want to get out of this, because we have had a lot of discussion in the previous session and elsewhere about the changing nature of the student body, the changing nature of the demography of students, and so on and so forth, is a sense from your experience as to how that has affected your teaching, your approach, in, say, the last five to 10 years. What are the pluses and minuses of a more diverse student body, from your position as a teacher?

  Dr Reid: Certainly in my subject area, we do not have the luxury of selecting from students who come in with straight-As; we have always had a very diverse base, of necessity. It is quite a regional base and we are recruiting, mostly, out of local and regional schools rather than schools from the city centre in Leeds. Those students, almost invariably, have had very little advice at school level about what subjects to take at A level; they know they are interested, say, in studying chemistry but they do not have any math, they do not have any physics and they have never been advised at school level that that might be a good idea. So the weaker end of the spectrum, if you like, we would take from is a student who has got a C at A level in chemistry, no A level maths and no A level in physics, and we are expected to retain those students through the system and deliver them a degree at the end. The pressure on us is supporting students who, quite frankly, are ill-prepared for university, and an awful lot of staff time goes into doing that, very much on the math side, particularly.

  Q487  Mr Marsden: Veronica, your teaching is in a very different area, which I assume has always had a substantial number of mature and continuing students. Indeed, I think, in one of our previous sessions we had a student who has come from that background. Again, how have things changed for you in the last 10 years, and has that been a positive or negative process?

  Veronica Killen: It is very obvious that there has been a change in the students that are coming through, both in their ability to have the skills that they need in order to study at higher education level and, also, their ability to cope with a very demanding course as well. Again, because many students are having to work and study at the same time, it has a big impact.

  Q488  Mr Marsden: Is that a good or a bad thing—that they are being stretched?

  Veronica Killen: It is bad because it puts stress on the staff to try and raise the students up to the level where they should be, and it is stressful for the students as well. There are also issues to do with access and ELQ issues, and that is affecting an awful lot of institutions. I teach in the North East and we have one of the lowest local populations that come into higher education, and that is a big worry. It is getting people up to the level where they feel confident to apply to universities, and, also, to be able to fund themselves as well as they go through. So many of the universities are recruiting international students, which, again, has problems, and many students are not at the level where they should be to be studying higher education, and the investment is not going in from the universities to support those students either.

  Q489  Mr Marsden: Natalie, if I can come to you: looking at it, not just obviously from your own experience of Goldsmiths but from the area you are studying and researching in—and here I declare an interest, having taught as a part-time course tutor for the Open University for nearly 20 years before I became an MP—my experience there was, yes, those sorts of part-time students were pressured because they did not have the resources and support, as Veronica, perhaps, describes, but what they had in spades, very often, over the people from the 18-21 cohort, was life experience and determination. We are getting a very negative perspective of the situation.

  Dr Fenton: It is the opposite, really, and I think what is trying to be expressed is the fact that these students bring other demands with them into the department that it is very hard to manage, and really support properly. However, as students they are brilliant and I think they are the best students. If I went back (I have not done the research) and looked at those, the ones who do really well who really commit to it are the ones who come with less good A level results from more challenging backgrounds, but actually bring so much more to bear on that course that they are doing, and give so much more in lots of different ways. So I think it is absolutely critical that we bring those students in, and it is right and proper to do that. However, I spend an enormous amount of my time dealing pastorally with the problems that those students also have. I had a recent student with all manner of difficulties and it took me years and years to get her through her degree and she is finally going to graduate this year and is a wonderful student, and should do very well, but that has taken up the most extraordinary amount of time. If you times that by 20 I reckon I have a dozen cases on the go at any one time, of students that I have to ring regularly each week to check they are okay.

  Q490  Mr Marsden: Sally, I need to bring this to a conclusion. Obviously, you have given us very strong evidence supporting the broader access process and everything that goes with it, and you have also heard from Natalie the sort of agony and the ecstasy, if I can put it that way, of dealing with that sort of cohort of students. What do you think we need to do structurally to both continue that diversification—which is going to happen anyway—but make sure that we have support structures? In America, as we know, the community college network is a very, very long-established network. We have not got the same structure here; some FE colleges are very good at it and some are not. What are the step-changes that we need to take?

  Sally Hunt: Very quickly—that is a heck of a question! You need to look very hard at what has happened in terms of the definition of a successful academic, because we have to look at the structures that are in place that put demands and rewards that are based more on research than on successful teaching, and we have to acknowledge that that has an impact on how they deliver to students. We have to look at the support that academics get in terms of external examiners—and by that I mean independent, academic support—we have to look at the governance issues. We have to look at them being secure. That is the employment side. What I would say about students is that what this country needs is a process that says it wants to give people a hand up, not a pat on the head. A lot of the students who are coming through are people that we should be fantastically proud of, as a country; we should be incredibly admiring of what they do, because the amount of juggling they are doing is phenomenal, but we should, I think, be a lot more honest about the struggles they are having in terms of debt; we should be a lot more honest in terms of some of the policies which have been put through, which have been used on the basis of justifying better access, therefore we have to adjust what we do to support them, and sometimes I think we have to say that we have been wrong. What we need is a system that is clear, simple and gives support—not patronage—based on where you are or whether you are competent enough to do it, and if we can create that for students and a safe place to staff to actually be their most talented—and sometimes that is more teaching, sometimes that is more research—but able to do that in a collegiate way, I think you would actually get such a quality throughout this country that it would not be a case of just picking one particular university or a group and all the competition that happens between them (and you must hear it all the time); what we need is something that actually acknowledges that if we want to have a well-educated population that is going to drive us out of recession—and God knows we need that—we have got to have a university system that is safe for staff and one that is secure for the students.

  Q491  Dr Gibson: When you talk about undergraduates, I do not want to put you down but there are postgraduates too, which are rather important. Could you say one sentence, Sally, about that? Is there something written you could send to us about it? They are the lifeblood of universities.

  Sally Hunt: I can send you pages, but in terms of what is happening in the post-grad population, I think they are being undermined by their ability to actually take on further study. Those who want to go into an academic career, I think, are being absolutely slaughtered, and that is something that this Committee needs to be absolutely aware of. I am more than happy to send you chapter and verse on that, Ian, if that is what the Committee would like.

  Chairman: Sally, this is specifically on undergraduates, but Ian is absolutely right; constantly, throughout this inquiry, the issue of postgraduates, MSc students and post-docs has come up, and I think the Committee has to return to that at some point.

  Q492  Mr Boswell: Two quick industrial questions: one, I think, you cannot open, and I would not expect you to—the whole substance of the situation of the dispute with the UCA. Could you just say a word about the attitude to protecting students, if push does come to shove and there is a formal dispute?

  Sally Hunt: I am challenged, Tim, because I thought Phil was going to tell me off if I raised that. We are in a situation where we have spoken at length with the National Union of Students because what we want is a situation where we are not actually putting them at risk, and that is something that is absolutely critical. However, we are also in a situation, where I have to say, taxpayers' money is being used by the employers—and by that I mean over 70 of all of the institutions that we are dealing with—to even challenge our right to ballot our members in support of us negotiating what is a job security agreement. I think that with what we have got taking place at the moment, we have to prioritise job security, and we want to do it with the employers. NUS and we are united in that, and that is what we will do. What I have to say, at the moment, is that the key to this is to actually get us round the table and have some meaningful negotiations. If we can do that a lot of this would not be something that comes into reality.

  Q493  Mr Boswell: Thank you for that. Can I just ask, very briefly, wearing your hat as General Secretary and, also, a member of the Executive TUC, you have both, as it were, an industrial and, also, a wider interest in terms of input into DIUS. We hear an awful lot about the importance of business, and all that. How real do you think that relationship is, and could it be improved?

  Sally Hunt: The relationship with business and education?

  Q494  Mr Boswell: No, your relationship, as the General Secretary, both on behalf of your membership but, also, on behalf of, as it were, the university sector and the input you can make into the kind of formulation of policy.

  Sally Hunt: I have always said that the department should, on a regular basis, listen to the staff, because we are actually very clear that our job is to tell the good news and the bad news; there are things that we think the Government is doing very well, and there are things that we are highly critical of. I think there is vast room for improvement, if I am honest, in terms of the dialogue, and I think that is something that we would welcome. Equally, I think, if you look at what is taking place within the Department for Children and the relationship with other education unions there, I think the inter-relationship is much closer, and I suspect it is one that has led to a much more cohesive and dynamic policy in terms of education discussion within that department. I think that is something that DIUS could learn from. All of the trade unions, at this point in time, are very focused on the need for all parties to realise that our clear responsibility is to protect our members' job, whatever sector that is in, and to make sure that our members are not asked to pay a price for something that they were not responsible for. That is the same within education as it is elsewhere. Certainly, I think that the more dialogue that we can have on a specific basis within DIUS (because it is not just about jobs for us; the jobs of our members, bluntly, are going to impact on our country's ability to actually dig itself out of recession and have a long-term future) and with the employers in a civilised way rather than it being a case of us being challenged through the courts because we want to raise the issue, the better I think it will be for all of us.

  Q495  Chairman: You got that in, Sally. We have run out of time. Can I just say that I am confused (I am often confused): we have less money in the sector, we have larger teaching groups, we have fewer contact hours, and we have a more diverse, as Natalie was saying, and demanding population of students, yet the number of first-class degrees has doubled, and the number of 2:1s has gone up by over 60 per cent in the last 10 years. Something does not quite ring true to me on that, but I will leave that hanging in the air and ask you all for a simple yes or no, at the end. Gavin, do you think that every lecturer in our universities, whether in a Million+ or a Russell Group university, should, in fact, be trained to teach? Yes or no.

  Dr Reid: Yes.

  Sally Hunt: Yes.

  Veronica Killen: Yes, definitely.

  Dr Fenton: Yes. We all are.

  Chairman: You all are, in your institution. On that note of unanimity, could I thank you all very much indeed for giving evidence to us this morning so frankly and fairly.

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