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10 Dec 2009 : Column 533

That is quite a powerful thing to say. It would clearly be inappropriate to have an Ofsted-type approach to teaching quality in universities-I fully accept that and we do not recommend such an approach-but it is important that the Government and the higher education sector draw up and implement arrangements applicable across the sector that would allow students to convey concerns about poor teaching, and ensure that universities take quick remedial action. We should empower students in that way. The Government should require universities, as a condition of support from the taxpayer, to have in place programmes to improve teaching quality and the effectiveness of all academic staff-I do not think that that would interfere with their autonomy-and there should be a review of the common practice in universities of using graduate students to teach, albeit in view of the main academic staff. That concern, which was raised by many students, clearly needs to be addressed.

The Government's initial response was lukewarm, but it is fair to say that successive Higher Education Ministers have pressed universities on that issue and made money available to improve teaching. Although the Government said that they believe

the Minister has asked HEFCE to explore with the sector whether institutions' human resources strategies provide adequate information about their approach to staff professional development-we feel that the Minister needs to take the issue of improving teaching quality seriously.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I value the work that the hon. Gentleman and his Committee did on the report. On his point about the involvement of graduate students in teaching or in support of the teaching effort, and linking it to what he is saying about professional development, is there a case for recognising the role that graduate and research students can play, and for actually structuring appropriate training and support, so that the quality of their teaching helps to raise the general standards?

Mr. Willis: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Committee certainly did not say that we should not have graduate students teaching; we said that they should be properly trained. Quite often, their experience is nearer to that of the students', and they can therefore have a much close interrelation. However, the idea that a person can suddenly teach at graduate level just because they have completed their degree is stretching things.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): On my hon. Friend's response to the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), we also need to recognise that part of the problem is that many graduate students are told to teach, and they are expected to do so, perhaps while their supervisor is on sabbatical. They are not properly remunerated for it, which is bad for the person taught as well as for the graduate student.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. The reality is that we need to get a grip of the issue. We must not have teaching on the cheap. We would not get
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high-quality research on the cheap and we expect people to deliver those programmes, and that should apply to teaching.

It was disappointing that Universities UK accepted none of the criticisms on teaching in universities. It said in its response:

None of those surveys asked those specific questions, so they did not get the answer. However, I am grateful to the Minister for recognising that the quality of teaching is important and that we need to do something about it.

The final area I wish to examine is standards. That issue has generated much heat in the media, though not as much light as I would have liked. In my view, a key role of a Select Committee carrying out an inquiry is to test the orthodoxies-a thankless task, but essential. The orthodoxies on standards in higher education as we perceived them are, first, that the UK's international reputation is of strategic importance, and I think that we would agree with that. Secondly, universities themselves have the responsibility for maintaining the standards of their awards -again, we agree. Thirdly, maintenance of standards is integral to universities' autonomy and that autonomy is the keystone of the sector. Fourthly, all universities have systems in place to ensure that courses are regularly reviewed and, fifthly, the Quality Assurance Agency conducts regular visits to universities to scrutinise how they maintain standards. Who could disagree? The system should therefore be perfect. However, what we found when we challenged those orthodoxies was a somewhat uncomfortable truth.

We found that the system in England for safeguarding consistent national degree standards in higher education institutions is out of date, inadequate and in urgent need of replacement. With even the head of QAA describing the degree classification as "rotten" and "not fit for purpose", the issue needs to be taken seriously. The current arrangements with each university responsible for its own standards are perhaps no longer meeting the needs of a mass system of higher education in the 21st century with 133 higher education institutions and more than 2 million students.

One statistic sticks out like a sore thumb. The proportion of first class and upper second class honours degrees has steadily increased over the past 15 years, with the proportion of students achieving first class honours rising from 7.7 per cent. in 1996-97 to 13.3 per cent. in 2007-08. There may be good reasons for that, such as better teaching, harder-working students or a metamorphosis in students' ability. However, there may be perverse reasons, such as universities inflating marks to keep their positions in the league tables. I hope that it is the former, not the latter. The short answer is that we do not know. That is the uncomfortable truth. Nor is there any appetite whatsoever to investigate the reasons for that significant degree inflation objectively.

When we asked Universities UK about the increase in the number of first class honours, the answers we got would shame a first year student in statistics:

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Ministers appeared to take at face value explanations about grade inflation without detailed analysis. In fact the figures showed a steady increase in the proportion of first degree students achieving first class honours-an increase over the period of 72 per cent. That needs explaining, but rather than engage with the issue, it seems that everyone prefers to look the other way and hope for the best. Why? The defence is always university autonomy. I am talking here about institutional autonomy, not academic freedom.

The Committee rightly dared to question the institutional autonomy of universities to set and maintain their own standards, not because we wanted to lead an onslaught on the autonomy of higher education, but because we found evidence that autonomy was, if anything, obscuring, if not undermining, quality and standards. As a Committee, we would defend vigorously the right of universities to maintain autonomy from the state and be the custodians of academic freedom. That is the unique strength of our university system and why it is admired around the world. But in return, universities must be able to provide clear, peer-reviewed evidence that they are the true custodians of standards too. They cannot have it just one way.

How we compare academic standards across different institutions is not easy, but simply to ignore the challenge is unacceptable. The evidence we received on assessment methodologies gave us serious grounds for concern. One witness told us that there is

We established that quite small variations in the way in which degree classifications are determined can have more effect on the classification of some students than was generally realised. One academic told us that

If that is the basis on which we award degrees, something is wrong. There needs to be transparency and if the price of higher education organisational autonomy is a lack of transparency and inconsistent standards, we have to ask whether it is worth it?

Two pieces of evidence that we took from students and during the inquiry gave us real concern. First, different levels of effort were required in different universities to obtain degrees in similar subjects, which might suggest that different standards may be applied. Secondly, we came across some pointers that students in England spend significantly less time studying, including lectures, contact time with academic staff and private study, than their counterparts overseas. Our visit to the US confirmed that. We made no conclusion about these variations other than to ask that more research be done to examine whether these factors affect quality. That is not an unreasonable thing to ask. Sadly the Government said that they were

The only answer we were given by vice-chancellors, whose overseas market might be affected by declining quality, was that as international students continue
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to apply to our universities standards must be satisfactory. As we say in the report, we consider that it is

Of course, the defence of standards by both the Government and sector was the existence of the Quality Assurance Agency. But we found that the QAA focuses almost exclusively on processes, not standards. That is why we called for the QAA to be transformed into an independent quality and standards agency with a remit to safeguard, monitor and report on standards. We did not seek some standardised format that could mechanistically be monitored by an Ofsted-type organisation. Instead, a quality and standards agency would take up the challenge of maintaining standards across the sector rather than simply within individual institutions.

In reply the Government said:

That misses the point. It is not better public relations that are required for the QAA, but a better examination of standards.

In a discussion only two weeks ago, I was intrigued to hear the new chairman of the QAA, Anthony McClaran, outline a proposed consultation on key principles and processes for a revised quality assurance system. He said that the purpose would be to provide authoritative, publicly accessible information on academic quality and standards in higher education; to command public, employer and other stakeholder confidence; to meet the needs of funders and of autonomous institutions; to meet the needs of students; and to reply on independent judgment. Hallelujah! That is exactly what we have called for. Quite frankly, I am not bothered whether it is called the quality and standards agency or the QAA, providing those issues are addressed.

That was a useful exercise for the Committee to undertake and it pointed out several issues that need further discussion. The Committee recognised the strength of our higher education system and that to meet the needs of a 21st century, post-recession economy, the system has to work harder, better and to a higher standard than ever before. We have to compete with a US system and an Administration that has just put nearly an extra $1 trillion into higher education, and with China and India, which are putting untold wealth into producing not just widgets, but the highest intellectual quality. That is why we did the report and why we recommended it to the Minister. In that spirit, I hope that he will respond in an appropriately supportive way.

1.20 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I thank the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee not only for the report before us today, but for the report by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, which he also chaired. There is no doubt that his Committee has a good reputation for holding Government to account. That is what Select Committees are about. He said that some Members might wish to go broader than his report, which I have read, and I intend to do so.

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The thing about students and universities is that people need a university before they can discuss them. It is not a packed Chamber today, is it? However, the two hon. Members for Oxford constituencies-the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith)-are present. That says something about the fact that Oxford university is probably the most famous university in the world and has done tremendous things not only for Britain, but the world.

Mr. Andrew Smith: I am grateful-as too, I am sure, will be the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)-for my hon. Friend's recognition of Oxford. However, my hon. Friend must remember, when talking about universities and Oxford, to mention both of them-Oxford university, and Oxford Brookes university and its excellent work.

Mr. Martlew: But I shall try not to mention Oxford United.

I was elected MP for Carlisle in 1987. As a Cumbrian MP, I was faced with a particular challenge. More than 300 years ago, the area's application for a university was turned down because of our warlike neighbours, the Scots; it was thought inappropriate to have a university so close to the Scottish border, so it was put in Durham. People in Cumbria long took it for granted that they would not get a university, as a result of which so few of our young people actually went to university, and many of those who did, such as Lord Bragg of Wigton, Hunter Davies, Margaret Foster and Sir Brian Fender, the great educationist, did not return for many years. That meant the area was being drained of its talent, which we needed to bring prosperity.

Soon after I was selected as a candidate, I went to a lecture by the vice-chancellor of Preston polytechnic, as it was then-it is now the university of Central Lancashire. He said that north Cumbria and south-west Scotland were the most deprived areas in western Europe in terms of higher education provision. When I was elected, therefore, one of the first things that I knew that we needed to do was to provide local people with the opportunity to study for a degree without having to leave home and to encourage others to study there.

I am grateful to a good friend of mine, the noble Lord Glenamara, who was then chancellor of the university of Northumbria. Ted Short, as he was called when a Member of this House, was the Education Secretary who took the decision to locate the university in the north of England in Lancaster, not in Carlisle. As a Cumbrian, he always regretted having to do that, but I think that it was the fault of the local authority.

I worked well with Lord Glenamara, and in 1992, we opened-he kindly asked me to open it with him-the Carlisle campus of the university of Northumbria in the historic quarter next to the cathedral. That was the first time people from my area and north Cumbria could get a degree in their own constituency. And it made a difference. I remember meeting a young girl who must have been in her mid-20s with a child of about eight-obviously, she had a baby very young-who was attending the university. She had a child to look after and was thrilled that she could do a degree and become a teacher. There was great satisfaction in that example.

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When Labour came to power, my area got a brand-new hospital-the first private finance initiative hospital to be built in this country. However, the old district general hospital, which was a listed building, had no use. That could have been a disaster, because listed buildings with no use are, in many ways, a menace, as I know well. However, St. Martin's college-one of the finest teacher-training colleges in Britain-which was looking to expand out of Lancaster, took over the old hospital. It is now a teacher-training section of the university of Cumbria.

We had the critical mass of facilities needed to build the university of Cumbria. My noble Friend Lord Dale Campbell-Savours, who at the time was the Member of Parliament for Workington, proposed a university of the Lakes, which in some ways was meant as a virtual university, but at the end of the day it was not successful, and a traditional university was chosen instead. However, for many years we had had a very good art college, which became the institute of art. We pulled those things together and two years ago we were able to say, "We have a university of Cumbria." That was a magnificent day for many of us-as I said, the area had waited 300 years-and, as hon. Members can I imagine, we were rather pleased.

There is no doubt that the university has teething troubles. The buildings are spread throughout the county: it has two campuses in Carlisle; there is one in west Cumbria; another, called Newton Rigg-it used to be the old agricultural college-is out in Penrith; and there is a 115-year-old teacher-training college, Charlotte Mason college, in the Lake District at Ambleside. Those facilities were brought together, along with part of St. Martin's college in Lancaster, to create the university of Cumbria. We are well aware that we need the university if we are to attract talent and business, and to keep that talent. That has gone very well, and I am thankful to the Labour Government for that provision.

There is, however, a difficulty about the location of the headquarters, which I think, being MP for Carlisle, and because it is by far the largest city in the area, should obviously be in the city of Carlisle. That was agreed, as too-finally-was the Caldew viaduct site, which I suggested many years ago. Everything was going well until the current economic problems. We now have an £8.4 million annual deficit and the capital moneys for the headquarters might no longer be available or its provision might be stalled. I find that puzzling, because as far as I am aware there has been no cut in the higher education budget, so it is not a question of the effect of the recession. Rather, there are obviously other issues at play, and over the past month or two the local media have highlighted the problems.

I have talked about the campuses at Charlotte Mason in Ambleside and at Newton Rigg in Penrith. One of my concerns is about the talk of mothballing those campuses and moving a lot of the staff and the teachers to Lancaster-to return to the 1960s, that was when Cumbria lost out to Lancaster, which is now probably one of the top 12 universities in the country. However, the reality is that we cannot have a university of Cumbria, the majority of whose students are in Lancaster. That will undermine the whole process.

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