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10 Dec 2009 : Column 551

I always found that the lecturers whom the students complained about-there were a lot of bad lecturers in the universities and perhaps there still are, although I hope there are fewer-were often those who came in from 9 till 5, did not work there during the summer vacation doing research and just did the basic job. I do not think that that can be done any more, but there must undoubtedly be some bad teachers out there. If research is done in a university, there is not only better teaching but a better library, because the researchers are aware of all the new publications and insist on the library putting them online or buying them in. For STEM-science, technology, engineering and maths-subjects in particular it is important to have a good library, but I think that is true of all subjects.

What can we do about bad teachers? I sat on the promotions committee of the university of Salford for more than 10 years, and I had to judge the best and worst teaching across departments, so I thought that I knew who the better and the bad teachers were. The problem was there, even though students and lecturers could complain and complain when they did not think someone was pulling their weight. Our report flagged this issue up. What can we do about poor teachers teaching undergraduates in universities? The universities have not really grasped the problem, but when teachers are flagged up early in their career as bad, it may not be entirely their fault. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield asked, what kind of training do they get? Some universities are still not unplugging these people and putting them into professional development programmes. Our report flags that up, and the universities really ought to take notice of it.

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend is getting to the heart of the matter. Does he agree that the incentives to be a good university teacher are still very small? In contrast, publishing often very mundane articles in obscure journals has become such an industry, and is so well rewarded by universities, that teaching is still neglected.

Dr. Iddon: In my time, we did not differentiate between the three areas of teaching, administration and research. We had to do a bit of each, but that has declined in universities. People who can produce papers give their university a good reputation, and ironically the universities think-and I do too-that that attracts better students. Research has always been given a lot more importance than teaching, and that is even more true today. That is a shame, and I agree with my hon. Friend.

Our report also deals with contact times: when students are able to meet their teachers in the lecture theatre or the tutorial room. They vary enormously from one university to another, even within the same subject. At some universities and in some subjects, the contact times amount to about six or seven hours a week only. What are we teaching students? I used to have friends who believed that they could ignore lectures-they could not ignore practicals, which they had to attend-and still get a good degree. There are not many of those people around, of course, but I think that six or seven hours a week is a poor level of contact time in any subject. We must remember that we are looking for value for money. Some students pay full fees, so "value for money" is an important phrase-sadly, in my opinion.

In yesterday's pre-Budget report, a £600 million cut in the budget for higher education and science was announced, which the supporting papers say is to apply
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to "lower-value or lower-priority" programmes. I am not sure what that means, and if my hon. Friend the Minister can help us with that this afternoon, I am sure that many people in the academic system would be pleased.

Our report also talks about portable credits, another matter that has to do with access. The university of Bolton, which I represent, has one of the best access programmes of any university in Britain. The trouble at the other end, by the way, is that it has one of the worst drop-out rates. It gets praised for its access, but criticised for its drop-out levels. We really have to address that problem, and our report suggests a way out-the introduction of portable credits.

I have talked to many students who have studied both part time and full time at my local university. Some of them have to drop out for all kinds of reasons. For example, a student may have to drop out to take over a business when there is a death in the family. Again, women may have to leave to have children, or wives or husbands may have to follow their partners to another town when that partner gets a new job. Consequently, the students have to drop out of their local university course.

For a lot of people, particularly in communities such as mine, it is very difficult to stay at university and get a full-time, three-year degree. It is almost impossible for many. Part-time study is a boon for them, but even that can be difficult: people might have to drop out of even part-time study for a thousand and one reasons.

The report encourages universities to give credits for every part of the courses that students do, so that people can take the credits from one university to another, or even come back into the same university a few years later. We have to look at that if we are really serious about ensuring access to universities and degrees.

I have to congratulate the Government, as the infrastructure in universities today has improved tremendously. I am on the external advisory board of Manchester university's school of chemistry, and I visit quite regularly. The transformation of that university in the last decade has been so spectacular that I have not been able to believe what I have seen on my visits. I congratulate the Government on putting a lot of money into the infrastructure. I have even opened new laboratories that are state of the art.

Incidentally, one of the criticisms that industry often makes of students of STEM subjects concerns the university laboratories where we train them in techniques and instrumental procedures. If those laboratories are not as good as the industrial laboratories where they will work when they graduate, we are wasting our time. When this Labour Government first came into power, I am afraid that the instruments and laboratories were out of date. Industry was very critical of undergraduates' lack of experience when they started work, and it had to start training them from scratch. That situation has improved tremendously.

Our report also looks at international students. As I have said already, they are a tremendous boon in our universities because they give students a rounded experience. Some universities rely a lot more than others on attracting international students and if they could not come here in their present numbers, those universities would suffer badly. We should never forget that, so I just want the Government to be a bit cautious about the fees that
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international students are charged. It is not just about money. It is about having them here to interact with our own students, so money is not everything.

The report recommended a national bursary scheme, but sadly the Government have rejected that idea. There is a lot of competition now between universities, which have formed themselves into bodies such as the millennium plus group and the Russell group. That suggests that competition is going on, which is not altogether a bad thing. However, it would be a sad thing if some universities were able to give more and better bursaries than others. I agree with the report's conclusion that we should have a national bursary scheme, and I hope that my Government will have another look, please, at that proposal.

I have a very favourable attitude to the TRAC approach-the transparent approach to costing, which reveals the true costs of teaching and of research. There is some overlap, but there will always be a grey area in the middle, and it is very important to know how much we are spending on teaching across the departments of each university, and between one university and another. That has been another big step forward.

I shall finish by dealing with the Government's response to our report. They said that we painted a picture of our HE system in a less than positive light. I am sorry if we did that, because none of the Committee members who took part in these investigations wanted to paint our university system in a poor light. I think that I indicated through my concluding points that tremendous progress has been made all round-in admissions and in infrastructure. This country is still producing some of the best university students in the world at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and long may that remain so.

2.29 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I am delighted to be able to contribute to this estimates debate, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who has great knowledge and experience of this area. May I congratulate the Select Committee on Science and Technology and, in particular, its Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), on giving us such a thought-provoking and wide-ranging report? I also congratulate him on his excellent speech. Indeed, all the speeches have been first class-I hope that hon. Members will excuse the pun-not just 13 per cent. of them. Perhaps we can have a Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education investigation at short notice into the number of first-class speeches being given in the House of Commons-although we still have some balance to come with the Front-Bench speeches.

As the House will know, I continue to take a particular interest in the higher education sector, so I was delighted when the Committee published this much-anticipated report back in August. Despite the controversy in the sector, I am grateful that the Committee has set out so many of the important issues in the higher education sector, not least those involved in the fees review, which we need to examine in detail. It was important that the report put down a few markers, and it has been helpful in doing that.

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Hon. Members may be aware that last week I held a Westminster Hall debate on the future of higher education, which also proved to be useful and thought-provoking. I wish to take this opportunity to thank all the hon. Members who turned up and contributed so intelligently to that debate, because I know that it had a very early morning slot and a few people probably had to get in a bit earlier than they would have liked.

As I say, the report is thorough and wide ranging. It highlighted salient issues ranging from admissions to teaching, and from standards to scandals in some places. In some ways, there is so much in this report that it is difficult to know where to start, but I wish to use the time available to me today to build on some of the issues and arguments that I set out in that Westminster Hall debate, putting a particular focus on standards and quality. I should also like to say a few words about Professor Hopkin's report on the Student Loans Company and about the Minister's thoughts on the recently published report by Demos advocating the introduction of a "civic corps".

As autonomous institutions, universities have the responsibility for maintaining the standards of their awards and the quality of their teaching to students so that they can achieve those standards. The body responsible for assuring standards is the QAA but, as the Chair of the Select Committee said, the report notes that the QAA's role

In evidence to the Committee, the then QAA chief executive, Peter Williams, with whom I have discussed this several times, confirmed that the purpose of the organisation is to

He continued,

So although the QAA is said to have responsibility for assuring standards in universities, it has little or no power to enforce them. It is not like Ofsted, for example-it certainly does not have anything like the same powers.

I am not as critical of the QAA as this report or the Committee appears to be. I have no doubt that the QAA acts more as an influencer than as an enforcer of standards, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. In many cases, the results of its influence are reassuring in keeping standards high. However, the report is right to raise the following important questions: is it right that the organisation that inspects our universities has, in effect, no real powers; and is it right that it is directly funded through subscriptions by universities? The Committee is right to question the cosy relationship that apparently exists within the sector. For example, I was shocked by some of the reports that I received when I was shadowing this brief of the external examination system and the cross-checking of degrees. The QAA's current purpose, therefore, should be robustly challenged, and I think that that is what the report has done. When we talk about university standards, especially in the international context, we need to know that the quality assurance system is accountable, rigorous, transparent, responsive and public-facing.

The Committee rightly raised concerns about the comparability of academic standards between universities. I fully appreciate that there is no national curriculum in
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higher education and nor do I want there to be. As they are autonomous institutions, it is only right that different courses are offered in different universities. In my former brief, I travelled around the country to numerous institutions and can understand why potential students are confused when applying to different institutions. However, the Committee struggled to assess the current situation, finding itself in difficulty when it dared to question whether a degree from Oxford university meant more than one from Oxford Brookes. The question made vice-chancellors very uneasy. However, in this day and age and at a crucial time for higher education, it is imperative that standards are understood in their consistent application across the sector. I simply ask whether all degrees, irrespective of where they are taken, should be set against a consistent set of standards across all higher education institutions.

If the fees review decides to open the market and to allow universities to set their own fee level, they will need to prove to students that they offer value for money and that their degrees are considered worthy by employers. The Government and vice-chancellors sell the concept of higher fees by saying how much more income will accrue through a worker's lifetime as a result. This needs to be evidence-based and to be constantly under review. In this digital age, there is absolutely no reason why universities cannot provide students with all the information that they need to make an informed choice.

It might well be the case, as the Committee's report suggests, that the current system of self-regulation is out of date in the 21st century. However, something holds me back from supporting this view unreservedly. My gut instinct is that on the whole-there are always exceptions-universities are at their finest when they are at their freest and at their best when they have more autonomy, not less.

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) talked about comparing apples and pears. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) accept that a plural system is bound to be a diverse one, but that students need to know whether they are choosing apples or pears? The kind of information that he describes is essential if we are to create empowered learners.

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. It is about access to information. The more that universities become an arm of the state-through Whitehall or through quangos-the worse standards will become, weighed down by bureaucracy and box-ticking. The more interference that comes from Government and their agencies, the harder universities will find it to compete internationally.

Mr. Boswell: Following that earlier exchange, does my hon. Friend not agree that there is a risk that if too much is imposed from the centre, that might destroy some of the diversity that we all feel is important?

Mr. Wilson: That is critical. It is unimaginable to me that the Government should have any more involvement than they do in universities. That applies not just to the Government but to the arms of government, such as HEFCE, which are greatly involved in universities. Some would say that they have too much involvement
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and slightly suffocate universities' ability to undertake some of the activities that they would clearly like to undertake.

One thing that was outlined in the report and confirmed in the remarks made by the Chairman of the Select Committee is the culture at the top of the HE sector. The report described it as "characterised as defensive complacency". I happen to believe that in some parts of the sector there is defensiveness and complacency. There is also often ambivalence to criticism. Sadly, it sometimes reminds me of the "Little Britain" character whose answer to any question is "Computer says no." Sometimes, when speaking to vice-chancellors, I felt that, whatever the question, the reply would be the computer said no.

I believe that the universities have to give the question of standards and quality the seriousness it deserves and find a solution that generates confidence. However, I would instinctively rather that came from within the sector, not from the Government. From what the Chairman of the Select Committee said, it sounds like the QAA is taking that matter seriously.

Before things get too negative, let me say that I have great respect for vice-chancellors and the job they do in universities. Let us not forget that the sector is still world class and generates huge revenue for the country. The job is already difficult as many vice-chancellors have had to close departments, lay off staff and work within very tight budgets over the past couple of years. I am sure that their job will be made even harder by the Chancellor's announcement yesterday that the Government will cut £600 million from the higher education budget.

I have looked through the pre-Budget report, but it is not clear to me how the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property expects to achieve that saving by 2012-13. Perhaps this debate will give him a good opportunity to explain where that money will be saved. He must also tell us how, at a time when universities have been asked to "up their game", as Lord Mandelson put it, that will not have a detrimental impact on the learning experience or quality of education in our universities. However, things might become clear after we have heard an explanation, so I shall reserve my judgment.

Graduates will increasingly expect help with employability, especially in a continuing deep recession with high youth unemployment. When the Institute of Directors gave evidence to the Committee, it defined employability as a mixture of basic skills, personal qualities, good attitude and being reliable. To demonstrate a better service, universities should do all that they can to help their students to get into the world of work. Several universities are already leading the way in that area, including my own-the excellent Reading university-and it is fair to say that many universities that I have visited have dedicated teams to help students. Whatever happens with the fees review, universities will need to be able to demonstrate a marked improvement in the quality of the student experience.

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