Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. Given that sort of experience, and we are looking and the Government is looking, with the new Institute of Learning and Teaching, at how we expand that experience across the higher education sector, would there be a role for colleges, such as yourselves, and we talk in other areas, in secondary areas, about having mentors, would there be a role for your colleges, and some of the people in those colleges, to act as mentors to those in the university sector whose teaching skills may not be quite as well honed as yours?
  (Professor Wright) In my case, actually, we do do a lot of that, not for universities but for further education colleges. One of the programmes we offer is a post-graduate certificate in education for those who teach or are starting teaching further education, so we already do that; not for other universities, we are happy to take on any additional business.

  Mr Marsden: Perhaps we ought to send you off with a flak-jacket to one or two of our senior universities on this matter. But can I move on a little bit from that.


  61. Before you do, just to pursue that point with Professor Yorke, who has been very patient with us today, what do you think of that view; is one of the reasons we are not getting retention rates as well in universities as we are in colleges, do you think it is because, basically, we have got some lousy university teachers, they are too busy researching, or have never completed any course in how to teach? Is there a fundamental flaw in universities not being able to teach?
  (Professor Yorke) I would not, in any way, say that any university teacher was lousy, in the way that you put it, but the situation in universities is changing, because of the developments which have been alluded to. There is a much greater use of courses for training university teachers now than there was, and so that is a growing thing, and there are many people in the universities who have got that kind of responsibility and whose work will have been given an immense impetus by developments such as the ILT, and the need for learning and teaching strategies as well. The market in education developers, if I can call them such, has been very robust lately, as institutions have sought to make appointments to these kinds of roles, recognising the need to do something about it.

  62. But is there an important view here, because Gordon made the point, in earlier questioning to you, that one of the problems that we found in universities in the United States, but also to some extent here, is that the most junior staff seem to teach the first year, which is the year that you say is the problem; two-thirds, if you are going to lose them, two-thirds of the people you lose you lose in the first year. Now I went to the London School of Economics, where there was a very old tradition that the biggest professors, the best known, gave the introductory lectures, and it was stunning, you know, Karl Popper and Michael Oakeshott, and people like that, they were the people that, if you like, gripped the imagination of students as they arrived, the sort of reverse. And I wondered if you thought perhaps that is one of the weaknesses?
  (Professor Yorke) I think there is a problem in that direction, yes. I would put my strong people in at the beginning, for the reasons, but they have got to be strong pedagogues as well as strong experts in the subject, bearing in mind some of the other things we have been talking about.

  63. If you ever met Popper and Oakeshott, I think you would agree they would meet that criterion.
  (Professor Yorke) Fine.

Mr Marsden

  64. I just want to move on from there, because we are talking about strategies to reduce non-completion and particular expertise that colleges of higher education might have. And one of the things that strikes me, from what you have said already, is that you may particularly have experience with taking in students from the further education sector, and that is something that I would like to press a little more, and, indeed, if Professor Yorke wants to add to this as well. We are told that the links between FE and HE are increasing all the time, and the number of HE courses, for example, that are now delivered in further education colleges is rising rapidly, but I want to press you on whether you feel that there is sufficient institutional collaboration, and particularly whether franchising arrangements, such as FE/HE links, help in the process of non-completion?
  (Ms Urwin) I think the development of the links between further education colleges and higher education institutions has been one of the most significant contributors to the growth in access and to widening participation; and having those links well established, so that students can move through easily from one institution to the other, is one of the critical factors in ensuring success in the first year of a degree programme. I would agree with Professor Yorke that the first year is the critical one, and probably I would say the first month of the first year is the critical one. And where students have been following programmes in a further education college they have the opportunity, during that year, to get to know the higher education institution, they can visit, they get to know the staff, they get to know the facilities that are available. Certainly, with us, we make them members of our students' union, if they are old enough, so they get familiar with the institution before they transfer, and I think that is actually very important, in terms of helping to retain them.

  65. Is there a social and, to some extent, a psychological factor at work here as well? Again, we are very exercised on the access issue about getting larger numbers of non-traditional, working-class, lower socio-economic groups, call them what you like, students in. And one of the things that I have been struck by, in my own area, in Blackpool, where I have a further education college that acts as a feeder college into Lancaster University, is the way in which it is a lot easier to persuade particularly women in their thirties and forties, who may come from a working-class background, to take those courses when they do not literally have to go ten miles up the motorway to a university but can do them in their local college?
  (Ms Urwin) I think it is absolutely true. We have many examples of mature, women students, in particular, who will start a foundation year at a local FE college, I am thinking of one in particular, this last year, who graduated, started in a local foundation year programme, came on to us, graduated, aged 47, with a first-class degree.
  (Professor Wright) I would simply echo much of that. We have a variety of arrangements with different further education colleges, and I think giving the students an opportunity to come into further and higher education gradually and in different ways, which suit different people, is exactly right.

  66. Just one final point, on developing that and talking about collaboration and co-operation, we now have, the Government has obviously set up the Learning and Skills Council, we have Regional Development Agencies, and there are parts of the country where there are clearly regional clusters between HE and FE working and developing well. Do you think that that is a model for future progress, that we should be putting more emphasis on the regional collaboration between FE and HE, particularly in terms of the access targets which Government is talking about?
  (Professor Wright) I think it is inevitable. I am not sure that being utterly prescriptive about it will achieve anything, but there are certainly some good examples; and, without wanting to make this too personal, for example, my college has developed what I think is a very effective arrangement, in Thanet, with the further education college there, we have developed a higher education campus, and frankly it is almost seamless.

  Chairman: Right. Charlotte, would you like to continue the line of questioning?

Charlotte Atkins

  67. Yes. Can you identify a student who is at risk of non-completion when they enter your college; and, if you can, what do you do to try to reduce that risk?
  (Ms Urwin) I think, again, it does depend on the type of course they are doing. I think we have to accept that the students following professional vocational courses, by and large, are much less likely to drop out. The students most likely to drop out are the ones who come through the UCAS system, who perhaps have chosen programmes without sufficient information about the programme, and within the first couple of weeks it becomes clear that this is not the right programme for them. Now that is why, as Professor Yorke said, it is incredibly important that they get the support through academic advisers, through counsellors, through the registry, in the first few weeks of the programme. I think if they are with you after four weeks then the chances of them dropping out decrease considerably. But that does require a lot of personal tutor input and it requires properly integrated student support services, so they get picked up in one way or another.

  68. So do you employ people who are skilled at doing precisely that, or is it an add-on to their day job, as it were?
  (Ms Urwin) We have, I think we both have student support centres, where we have qualified academic advisers, qualified welfare advisers, financial advisers, health advisers.

  69. In some ways though, if you have students going into a vocational course, say, for nursing, it is going to be much more difficult for them to transfer to another course if they suddenly decide that nursing is actually a bit too much like hard work and they cannot quite hack it, it is going to be quite a bit more difficult for them to switch over to another area of work. If you are coming into an academic course, you can maybe switch onto another subject. So what do you do with the students who do opt for a vocational course and then find it is not for them?
  (Professor Wright) It is possible to move out of teacher education into, as it were, an ordinary BA, BSc; it happens relatively little, I have to say. I can only re-assert, in a sense, what Ms Urwin has just said, and that is, if one has effective interview arrangements, before students join the programme, one is often looking, obviously, to see that they really do understand what this will involve, that they really are motivated towards a career in teaching, or nursing, or whatever, that they understand what the course will involve, that they will spend half of their time in a hospital or in another health setting, or in a school, and so perhaps it does sound rather idealistic, but really one is seeking to head off the problems before they arise. It is more difficult, clearly, when one is recruiting students to a more general BA, BSc scheme, in a subject which they can have had, by definition, sometimes no experience of, and where perhaps they have no clear idea of where it is going to lead, in careers terms. For those students, if I may just say this, we do seek, at a very early stage in their time with us, in their induction, actually, to begin to say to them, "Look, it's early to say `What are you going to do in three years' time,' but you must think about it."

  70. And how many of those students on those vocational courses actually end up getting a job, a real job, within their chosen field of study?
  (Professor Wright) The vast majority do take an initial post in either teaching or nursing, to take those two areas. I think there is an interesting question as to what happens to them three years after that, but if I say that is not my problem, it is my problem, and it is our problem, but that is perhaps a separate question.

  71. Would you like to comment on that as well?
  (Ms Urwin) Yes. If you look at the figures for first destinations, again, you will find that colleges like ours have very high first destination statistics, and that, again, is partly this reflection of professional and vocational courses. And, certainly, within my own area, 97 per cent of nurses who qualify through the pre-registration contract go into nursing, and predominantly that is within the West Midlands, so they are actually taught and trained and then employed within the region.

  72. That is quite common, is it not, even if you are talking about training doctors, that they often do locate where they were trained, so that is not a huge surprise. Does student financial hardship enter into the equation, as far as drop-out is concerned, within your colleges?
  (Ms Urwin) Yes, certainly; in my institution, you will find that one of the most predominant, or typical, reasons given, particularly by mature women students, for non-completion is financial pressure, child care responsibilities, domestic responsibilities, it is those three coming together. I think, very often, perhaps for the younger students, it is as much a fear of debt as the reality of debt, and there is a very strong concern, in effect, not to take on a second mortgage.
  (Professor Wright) I am less sure, that is not to say I disagree, I am less sure. I am very sure that students whom we do not know about may be put off by debt or the perception of debt. The evidence I have is that once we recruit the students they do not tell us that they are leaving for financial reasons, they tend to tick a box and talk to us about `other reasons'; whether that really is money, in some cases, I could not possibly say, but finance is given by not as many as perhaps I had thought when I looked for the information. But, again, I think one has to remember that, for a third of our students, they are receiving NHS bursaries and tuition fees are paid, so you take a third of our students out of the equation.

Dr Harris

  73. To what extent are students these days discriminating customers, in terms of, for example, having paid, or their parents having paid, hopefully, their tuition fee, for that third that pays the full fee; does that make them more demanding of better teaching, or is it hard to make that tell?
  (Professor Wright) I think there is certainly anecdotal evidence that students do, now, increasingly, see themselves as paying for a service, but I would not want to overstate that yet, but one can certainly see it developing in that way; and, from time to time, of course, one gets a letter which says something along the lines you have just said, "I've paid for this; it wasn't good enough." But I often share with my staff the observation that, yes, if we want to use the language of customer, not many businesses also have to judge their customers, and so it is a very difficult balance to strike. But I still do not detect it is a serious issue, but it is one which I think is beginning to grow.
  (Ms Urwin) I think there is some evidence that, particularly parents, where parents are paying, actually rather more than the individual students, the parents are being more demanding, in terms of the quality of the facilities, the quality of the programme and the resources to support it; but it is not great at the moment.

  74. And what about term-time work, do you set limits? I know that the professional people on professional courses cannot actually take on that, and therefore may end up, although they have got a job processed at the end of it, so they may take on greater debt, but the people not on professional courses, do you have a limit to the amount of work that you think they should do, and how do you police that?
  (Ms Urwin) There is no formal limit. We have a Job Centre on our campus, which is there to facilitate part-time job opportunities for students. We counsel students very carefully and we suggest that the maximum that they should undertake is 15 hours, but we could not actually stop them doing more, if that was what they chose to do.
  (Professor Wright) We strongly advise a similar limit. Our impression is that probably something over half of our non-professional students engage in part-time work. I think I just want to make two points about part-time work, if I may. One is that, of course, many of those students do it for financial reasons, in other words, simply to continue to be a student; there is some evidence that others do it simply because they like to do it. The other point, I think, is that, the impact of students working, of course, we would be very concerned if the impact was, if it adversely affected their academic work. I think we have an equally serious concern that actually it adversely affects their overall experience as a student; in other words, it is not their work that suffers, it is the non-work aspect of being a student, that is what they give up in order to work.

  75. This is another issue now, but do you think your students look at your staff and say, "Yeah, they're well paid, cushy numbers, this graduation thing and going into teaching's really worth it"? Is there that direct sort of mentoring of "Come and be a teacher or lecturer in a college," or do you think there is a challenge there?
  (Ms Urwin) I do not think my students, or our students, would look at lecturing particularly and say, "That's a cushy number." There is quite a strong understanding, I think, that, with the increased numbers of students now passing through higher education, the actual demands on teaching staff have significantly increased, and managing the teaching and learning for significantly larger groups now than, say, were there ten years ago does place considerable demands and strain on lecturing staff. So I do not suppose that there are too many out there who would be looking at that as a particular role model; but I may be wrong.

  76. Do you think that improving the staff/student ratio and increasing the unit of funding would actually help retention by giving more staff/student contact time, clearly, it would, logically, but would that make an impact on the quality of the student experience, as one of the top three things to be done?
  (Ms Urwin) I think there is a range of issues there, but the quality of the student experience is dependent upon a number of factors, of which, clearly, the quality of the teaching that they receive is an important factor. I think, more support for lecturing staff, in the non-professional areas, clearly would help support them, particularly to cope with larger student numbers.

Mr Marsden

  77. Sorry to interrupt. Does that mean, in practical terms, less time spent literally having to collate and photocopy themselves and being able to pass it on to an assistant who could do it?
  (Ms Urwin) That would probably improve the quality of their working lives quite considerably.

Mr St. Aubyn

  78. When the Committee visited the United States, I think it is fair to say, we were all impressed by the extent to which universities there stay in touch with their alumni, and they see that very much as part of the continuing relationship with their students. You have emphasised the role your colleges play, in terms of providing support to students when they are with you; do you have methods, policies, about keeping in touch with your students when they leave, and to what extent do you feel you stay in touch with them more perhaps than do some of the other universities?
  (Professor Wright) We do have an alumni arrangement, or organisation, which enables us to keep in touch with students in a formal sense, through newsletters, etc. Of course, again, to some extent, given the nature of what we do, there is a considerable informal, local'ish network, in that, in the schools in which our students are trained to be teachers, as well as being in the college, there are teachers and headteachers who were graduates of the college, and similarly in the nursing and in other arenas. So we do have formal arrangements, but we also have informal arrangements.

  79. Do you think there is a sense, of students going through your college, that this is a long-term relationship, if you like, and one which, therefore, they would be very loath to jeopardise and cast out from because just in the short term they are having a hard time with their studies? That may be a contributory factor in terms of persuading them to stay through the course, because they can see the benefits of staying with the college and working with you?
  (Professor Wright) I think the majority can see the benefits of staying with the college because actually they are quite enjoying their time with us and can see sensible outlets at the end; and many of them, in fact, do have a continuing relationship thereafter, by way of returning for further study, professional updating. So I do not think that any of them cast themselves adrift for spurious reasons.

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