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I asked the new vice-chancellor-I sympathise with him, because he has not been in post very long-to come down on Monday afternoon to discuss the situation with Cumbrian parliamentarians from both Houses. I
would like to ask the Minister, who is now in his place, whether he will have time after that meeting, probably early in the new year, to meet a delegation including myself and others to discuss the matter further. Although we have made great progress, we have a problem, and we have to come through it.
I recognise that the university of Cumbria has to build its own reputation. I suspect that it might be many years before it has the reputation that Oxford has, but that is what we must try to achieve. We must try to improve the university. However, we will overcome the problem. The university has stalled, but it will continue; indeed, other great strides have been made during this time. Before 1997, we did not have any medical training whatever in Cumbria. We are now part of a medical school and are training medical students. We also have a campus of the new dental school based in Liverpool, so we have made amazing strides and we are looking forward to the future.
What I would say to those hon. Members who take universities for granted is that there are parts of this country that have been deprived for centuries. We are getting over that, but we should not lose the impetus. We should continue to strive to make higher education available to as many people as possible.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I congratulate the Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), on introducing this debate and on his leadership of our Select Committees, which has been much appreciated. May I also commend the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who came into the House on the same day that I did in 1987? He has stuck up for his constituents and made an important point, to which I will obliquely return later.
It occurred to me in preparing for this debate that it is almost exactly 17 years to the day since I became the Further and Higher Education Minister, in the then Conservative Government. And, for the record, it is now nearly 15 years since I stopped being that Minister. I realise that that is a mere blink of an eye in the history of institutions as venerable as Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrews. Nevertheless, I am staggered by how many of the issues remain current. It is rather like the gentleman from Salamanca university in the late middle ages who was locked up by the Inquisition for five years and resumed his next lecture with the deathless words: "As I was saying yesterday".
When I was doing the job as the Higher Education Minister, I was very much involved in higher education quality issues and issues of access to higher education. It would not be generally known, because it was private correspondence, but my first request through my private office on becoming Minister was for further information on the socio-economic background of participants in higher education at that time. One therefore should not feel that we are talking about a matter of interest to just one or two parties. It is remarkable to me, looking over that period, how little has changed with the institutions that we are dealing with-and in certain cases, the personalities we are dealing with. At the same time, however, the sector has undergone major expansion since the 1990s, which has been superimposed on the rapid expansion that began in the 1960s after the Robbins
report and was accelerated in the 1980s, so that, in rough terms, we now have between 10 and 20 times as many students as in my days as an undergraduate.
I suppose that we should declare any current interests. First, I was a member of the previous Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills. I signed the report and in no way do I resile from our conclusions. For the reason that the Chairman of that Committee has outlined, we needed to be pretty trenchant in what we said. As for my personal interest, I suppose that I should declare that I am a graduate of Oxford university, as we are well represented here. At the same time, my wife comes from an educational background in the Principality, as some hon. Members might be aware. I am also a governor of the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff. I say that not as some statement of virtue-although it is a hugely engaging, interesting and constructive job-but, I hope, as a validation of a certain range of interest in higher education across the piece.
Anyway, it is far too late in my political career for any covert elitism or for making elaborate gestures against alleged dumbing down, or even any in favour of it. Nor am I particularly interested in megaphone diplomacy with Universities UK about alleged strengths and weaknesses. What seems practical is that we should recognise the strengths and find practical and useful ways of mitigating the weaknesses, always operating within the context of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Even if we have been quite harsh and blunt as a Select Committee in some parts of our report and its press release, it is entirely proper that we have challenged some of the conventional wisdom and any element of defensive complacency. To quote from almost my first speech as an ingénu Minister, from about the first time that I was let out and considered safe enough to speak in public, "The days of the unaccountable professional are over." That was true in 1993, and it is still true.
In relation to my work as a governor of the institution that I have mentioned, perhaps I might also advert the fact that I am particularly proud that one of the bits of our mission statement is that governors should act as the safeguards and guardians of the philosophy of dissent. It is terribly important, and entirely consistent with the principles and values of higher education, that we should have a debate about such matters. We should bring them out and not seek to push them under the carpet.
I would like to begin my remarks by putting three points firmly on the record, in case they are misunderstood. The first point-I say this in no sense to soften up the opposition to our report or another view to it, wherever that might come from-is that the British university system, although not faultless, is an overall success story on almost all counts, including student numbers, which have already been referred to, and completions of degrees. We have a low drop-out rate and high participation and success. We have major international participation, which has also been referred to, and, at the same time, we sustain research excellence well above our weight. Some of the great continental universities-the Parises, the Bolognas and the Bonns of this world-have tended to fall behind simply because they have fallen victim to the coils of bureaucracy and inadequate resourcing.
Last time I said something good about British higher education, it coincided with a lecture tour that I was giving in the states of the former East Germany. I delivered
a speech in Halle, which was duly picked up by The Times Higher Education Supplement, which gave me the headline-shock, horror!-"Minister goes to East Germany to say nice things about British higher education". However, it was and remains my view that those comments are appropriate.
My second general point is that Kingsley Amis got it wrong when he said "More will mean worse." In my earlier days, I would perhaps have said that "More will mean different", and I would now modify that message only slightly to read "More means more diverse." To take my own institution, the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, as an example, we have just been under the hammer of the Quality Assurance Agency because of our application to be awarded research degree-awarding powers. We were awarded those powers on 7 September, and we are now proceeding with an application for university status and title. It was an intense process, involving the engagement of specialists, the entire academic body and the governance of the institution; it was no soft touch.
However, obtaining those research powers does not preclude our institution from offering initial teacher training or being actively involved with further education colleges. It is not an either/or situation. Sometimes, when we talk about diversity in the system, we do not always recognise that it can exist not only across different institutions but within an institution, where different departments are doing particular things according to their own strengths.
In any case, I do not think that it would be acceptable to revert to some kind of rosy, cosy myth of an Edwardian university, with donnish obscurity plus a few self-indulgent, privileged undergraduates. Even if we wanted to do that-I do not believe that anyone does-we could not, because there is now a huge stakeholding in higher education across society. The aspiration to get one's children into higher education has now become a kind of middle class entitlement. The issue is whether those from other classes and backgrounds can match that. In addition, a dynamic economy requires a significantly graduate population.
The third issue that I want to mention is that of institutional autonomy. In evidence, Dr. John Hood, in particular, averted to the changing character of autonomy. As the Chairman has already said, our Select Committee attached importance to those observations. I am slightly sorry that the Government have rejected the idea of a concordat on this subject. Even if the Minister is not in favour of that, he needs to impose a self-denying ordinance above and beyond any legal constraints that he might have.
Dr. Evan Harris: I want to endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about the importance of that recommendation to review the meaning of autonomy. In some areas, there is not enough autonomy; academic freedom is under threat and needs to be safeguarded. In others, however, the taxpayer is entitled to expect universities not to hide behind their autonomy if they are unwilling to engage in evidence-based processes that would widen participation or improve standards.
I entirely endorse the spirit of that intervention. It is better that we should look at this subject properly, and not in an hysterical way. To make
a general point about educational debate, it is, paradoxically, often expressed in terms of an either/or situation: either one is completely in favour of autonomy or one is against it. Such false polarities characterise so many of these debates, and we should look at the matter objectively.
In any case, the Minister needs to hold himself back, and he and his colleagues in the devolved Administrations need to look at the activities of their funding bodies. There is evidence that they collectively hanker after centralised planning functions, which, in my view, they are ill equipped to discharge, and possibly legally constrained from so doing.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): As ever, my hon. Friend makes a thoughtful contribution to our considerations. Does he agree that the best expression of autonomy is when autonomous bodies collaborate, and that the funding mechanisms need to pump-prime, or at least catalyse, that kind of collaboration, which is a celebration of autonomy, not its negation?
Mr. Boswell: That, too, was a hugely helpful intervention. We are beginning to build up a picture. We really must stop telling people in higher education what they have to do, and leave them to make the right decisions. That is not meant as a threatening remark. If we are to implement reforms, they need to achieve buy-in from academics and institutions, whose confidence in the system we must retain, and whose self-confidence we must not subvert in the process. We do not want an infantilised HE system that is simply told what to do.
Having cleared those preliminaries, I want to speak to three areas of policy. At first sight, they might seem disparate, but I believe that, when viewed from a wider perspective, they hang together. The first is the quality assurance system, to which the Chairman has already referred at length. As I have mentioned, I played a part in this. In some respects, it has come under increasing strain: first, conceptually, because it is still not clear from the evidence-it was not clear to me when I was a Minister-how we compare a first in one discipline with a first in another, or firsts obtained from different institutions. These are difficult "apples and pears" questions to respond to.
Operationally, there is also a lack of clarity. We need to be aware that there is a temptation, or a tendency, towards upwards academic drift, about which we have already heard. At one end, that might involve the Russell group, with its higher proportion of firsts; the other end might involve some of the hairier anecdotes that we pick up and occasionally hear in evidence about courses that have been "stuffed".
I know from our own work that there are some interesting dilemmas between the extent to which one should try to get people in for access reasons-through clearing, for example, and by other means-as against the maintenance of standards. It is an interesting question: do we want the proportion from clearing to rise, to remain at the same level, or to drop? The answer is not necessarily the same for all institutions.
We need to achieve a system that delivers more perceived autonomy and that also has more teeth to deal with cases of alleged failure. We have also heard examples of that. We have allies in this matter, and, in some respects, things are easier than they used to be. We now have the
national students survey, which I welcome. We also have local student feedback. We must bear in mind that students are now stakeholders, because they are paying fees. I know that some universities are concerned about people going to a TripAdvisor-type system and rating their professor, as happens in some American institutions. I do not think that we could stop that. My own family would certainly use TripAdvisor to check out a hotel, and I do not think it unreasonable for someone to check out their professor as well, as long as they did not take everything that they read on such feedback sites literally.
As Universities UK mentioned in its response, money spent on quality assurance has opportunity costs. The Government's proposed cuts in the higher education budget are likely to drive a wish to achieve value for money, but we need to ask how much money we should spend in order to save money. I would be inclined to go against the message from the Select Committee and give the external examiner system one last chance. If we were to do that, we would need some kind of external, central involvement in spot-checking, outside the system, perhaps involving inserting an extra examiner from time to time.
I would also like to see some international participation. People will immediately comment that no one other than ourselves has an external examiner system. That might be true, but if such a system is a virtue for us, it could be educational for us to have someone coming over from Bonn university, or Rimini, or wherever. It could also be a useful way of cross-checking our own achievements. Are we as good as we think we are? That is the question that we have to keep asking. Our potential students will also ask it, whether they come from the United Kingdom or abroad. As the new chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, Anthony McClaran, has already reported, there are signs that the agency will place greater emphasis on institutional audits, as well as the alternative route of cause for concern inquiries. This is perhaps the more fruitful area for levering up standards.
I have mentioned the great efforts that my institution had to make to get itself accredited for research degree-awarding powers. The logic is that institutions should go through a re-accreditation process in a way that would be quite familiar to American universities, up to and including Harvard. I am not sure that we need to go that far, but I believe that there needs to be a slight element of precariousness in degree-awarding powers. They are bestowed, but they should also be able to be suspended or withdrawn with good cause.
It is perhaps ironic that I am leaning towards a two-tier structure with a re-introduction of some of the old distinctions between HEFCE as the funding council and the Higher Education Quality Council, which was run by the academic world, before the two in effect came together in the QAA. I acknowledge that the taxpayer has a perfectly proper interest in seeing that the £15 billion of public funds are well spent and that students are getting degrees with at least a minimum threshold standard, while the institutions operate to proper and internationally acceptable standards of academic commitment and governance. I want to emphasise the need for governance to be coincident with the academic effort. If governors are not talking to the academic board, they should be.
Beyond that threshold issue, or above it, the academic world itself both wants and claims to be able to manage a quality assurance system within its own institutions and by reference and audit across. This needs to be academically driven and focused on meeting quality standards. That needs largely to be influenced not so much by some comparison with a Platonic norm, as by compliance or otherwise with the academic goals and aspirations set by the institution itself including what it asks of and or promises to deliver to its student body. I am not so interested in a sort of Gertrude Stein-ish "A first is a first is a first" as a definition of common quality standards. I am interested in the double questions: in a degree from a certain university, first, is there something that has currency-the national interest test-and, secondly, does the course meet the needs and aspirations of students, which is the user test?
That brings me to qualifications. Part of the enhanced diversity to which I referred is the explosion of activity at all levels. In my days as an undergraduate, it would almost have been possible to claim no acquaintance with mature students at all and not very much with graduates. Now the whole system has opened up, with huge participation in higher degrees, mature students and part-time students, all on different courses and with their activities co-existent. These may range, for example, from diplomas and foundation degrees, which I now feel, having been an earlier sceptic, are one of the better innovations of the present Government, through, first, undergraduate degrees-the classic degree-to taught masters' degrees and doctorates. Remember also the huge range of opportunities for short courses and continuing professional development qualifications. My own institution is quadrupling its CPD effort over the next few years.
I am sure that we are right to call for a closer look at the integration or at least the concentration of policy between further and higher education and more generally within the framework of post-compulsory education and lifelong learning. We need to drop what I used to characterise as "Go at 18 for three years and you're out", and develop a much more flexible framework to meet the needs of students, including those returning to study after a break and, of course, those in remote parts of the country to whom the hon. Member for Carlisle referred; Cornwall is the same sort of issue. We need to meet the needs of employers, and they operate in localities as well.
Into this area falls the need for better transcripts of actual attainment rather than the current classification system that no longer seems fit for purpose; we have been told that as if we did not need to work it out for ourselves. We need a properly functioning credit system that carries credibility and is accepted, and a proper national record of achievement. I sometimes ask myself why we got that far by 1993 but have got no further forward since. As academics would certainly say, Rome was not built in a day, but all of this agenda has been, to my knowledge, at least 20 years in the gestation.
Finally, I want to refer to students themselves. They are now a major force in society, even in politics, and, very largely, a force for good, both now in their student days but also as developed and empowered citizens as graduates. Certainly those we met during our evidence gathering gave an excellent account of themselves and, in doing so, revealed the diversity of roots and backgrounds that now characterise the sector.
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