Examination of witnesses (Questions 298
WEDNESDAY 24 JANUARY 2001
BETT, CBE, MR
and PROFESSOR JOHN
298. It is my pleasure to welcome Sir Michael
Bett, Pro-Chancellor of Aston University and Chairman of the Bett
Committee, David Packham, the Registrar of Aston University and
Professor John Beath, the Head of School of Social Sciences, University
of St Andrews, and Chairman of the Conference of Heads of University
Departments of Economics. That is the most formal address you
will get this morning. Welcome indeed. You know this Select Committee
has been looking at higher education, first in terms of access
to the higher educationthat is a report that we have nearly
completed. The present phase of our inquiry is to look at student
retention. We have made, and are continuing to make, visits. We
have been to Surrey and Kingston last week and we are off next
week to various institutions in and around Manchester. Although
today we have pretty wide-ranging questions I shall be asking
members of my Committee and you to come back to the question of
retention. I would like to open the questioning by asking, the
Bett Committee, Sir Michael, seemed to flag up some very important
warning signs about the quality of teaching if we went on as we
were going. What I would like to draw you out on this morning,
to start, is how far you think that the signs that you saw, the
worrying signs, were already influencing and have, perhaps, influenced
more today, by now, the quality of teaching that we see in universities?
(Sir Michael Bett) Thank you very much for asking
us here. I should say that I am very grateful that you will go
to the more informal style from now on. When we looked at higher
education we were looking at the staff rather than the students.
We hope that we took the students interests into account, but
it was about the staff. However, I do think there are various
aspects of what we discovered that affect the retention of students.
The first one, obviously, is the amount of money in the system
and what that does to the quality of people that are retained
in the higher education system as academics and as teachers. I
think, if anything, the situation will be worse today than it
was then, though I know that the Government is taking certain
measures which I suppose I would describe more as sticking plaster
than strategic at this stage. If I can just give you an example,
today with the changes in the funding arrangements for students
there is a greater and greater likelihood that students will build
up some amount of debt. It is not unusual for students to build
up £10,000 or £12,000 worth of debt. Let us just take
a very bright one that you spot and you think, "Gosh, let
us persuade him to do a PhD". At that point you offer him
something round £7,000. He has a debt of £12,000 on
his back and he is offered £7,000, so if he takes that job
the likelihood is that he will build up further debt. If you want
to keep him in the education system you start him off as a lecturer
at somewhere around £18,000 at age of 27 or 28, when he might
well be married and have children. He will be comparing that with
the starting salary of his bright counterparts who went straight
into work at the end of their first degree course and they will
have gone in on at least the amount that he is now being paid
as a lecturer aged 27 or 28. I think that is a very daunting prospect
for bright, young students who would like to stay in academia
and provide the next wave of teachers and researchers, but for
whom debt and relativity provide disincentives. That is just an
example. It becomes more and more serious as we go along.
299. I understand that. That is something that
we picked up on very strongly at the University of Surrey, for
example. Do you think that is already impacting on retention rates,
because we are getting less motivated and less well paid people
in the teaching profession?
(Sir Michael Bett) That is a very great generalisation.
It would be extremely rude about some very good people, indeed,
if I tried to label everybody with that generalisation. It is,
nevertheless, quite a good working tool to think that way. That
is the tendency.
(Professor Beath) I wonder if I can follow up on that.
I think it would be a great misjustice to teachers in universities
to say they were less concerned with issues of quality. We are
extremely concerned about issues of quality. The problem is that,
as Sir Michael indicated, the real resource pressures in the higher
education system are such that more or less the same number of
staff are having to teach ever more students. It is not surprising
that in a situation like that, where staff student ratios are
rising, undoubtedly, that students at what ever stage, undergraduate
or postgraduate level, run into problems of whatever sort and
they might need to talk to somebody and might need this problem
to be identified and simply find that the care, support and guidance
they need is just not available because there are so many of them
trying to get at that. It is not surprising that at some levels
and in some institutions retention rates progression through the
universities has been a particular problem.
(Mr Packham) I would agree with that. I think that
some of the mechanisms that have been put into place, like the
Quality Assurance Agency and the Teaching Quality Assessments,
which have been referred to, are good developments. The problem
is that over the last 12 years, or so, student numbers in higher
education have doubled and the university of resource has declined
by about 40 per cent, it is bottoming out now. This next year
there is a slight increase, the first time for a long time. One
of the consequences of that has been very much less favourable
staff/student ratios. If you take my own university, we have first
year classes in business and in pharmaceutical sciences ranging
from 150 to 300 or so. I think in terms of the retention facts
you are looking at it is easier for students to fall through the
net. First of all, you have lecturers who are teaching much bigger
classes and the lecturers themselves are under pressure to do
research, to bring in research income, to do life-long learning,
and so on, and a different make-up of students as well through
widening participation. Another consequence is that the number
of personal tutees a personal tutor has, has risen, 1 to 30 or
1 to 50 is not uncommon. It is easier for students to fall through
the net. I agree, it would be simplistic to say that generally
the quality of higher education is suffering. The pressure on
academic staff has increased immensely over the last ten years,
and particularly in recent times. Despite the welcome innovations
of Teaching Quality Assessments, which people are very conscious
of, there is no doubt that staff are under a very great deal of
pressure and the widening participation, the implications of widening
participation and the changed student financial arrangements are
300. The example you used was of a male student
and then a postgraduate. Presumably, the situation might, certainly
at a later point in their career, be even worse for female post
graduates and lecturers. Can you expand on that?
(Sir Michael Bett) If you looked at our report we
made a great deal of the fact that we did not think there was
necessarily equal pay and certainly not equal opportunity. That
is one of the strongest parts of the report. It would be tedious
of me to refer to all that here but we were convinced on that
and all of the evidence we got seemed to support those views.
I would say, yes, I did use a male example but it could be just
as forbidding for a young lady to develop the sort of debt that
I was talking about. I think you also have to take into account
we do not have a culture of young people building up debt, however
it may be that elsewhere in the world this has become a way of
life. There is still a fairly puritanical streak here, for a lot
of families the prospect of their son or daughter building up
a debt of something like £10,000 or £12,000 by the age
of 21 is a really daunting thing. I think that will continue to
contribute to failure to retain over the coming years.
301. Some of the language you are using is language
used by Andrew Cubie in his report and in his evidence. Would
you expect or be hopeful or be confident that the recruitment
issues that are debt related in the United Kingdom might improve
in Scotland or do you think the effect may not be clear for some
years, if any?
(Sir Michael Bett) I look to my left, I do not regard
myself as an expert on Scotland but I do think the circumstances
are different there.
(Professor Beath) Of course, I do come from a Scottish
University but I also wear a national hat. If you change a set
of rules on funding you do not see immediate response to that.
I think you should come back and ask me that question as to whether
the experience in Scottish universities has been significantly
affected by the "Cubie reform" in three years time.
Then we will have built up evidence and we would be able to look
at before Cubie and after Cubie and see whether there was any
significant difference in the retention statistics.
302. You say that resources and actions that
have been taken so far are, perhaps, worthy attempts but in the
scale of things sticking plaster. Could you say what sort of scale
of resource need to go in? Can I ask you, in the same answer,
this is something I have been struggling with, whether the priority,
the funding has to come from somewhere, funding to solve the problems
you identify, than from further expansion under the current plans?
(Sir Michael Bett) It is difficult to do one without
the other, effectively, if I may say so. In this we reckon the
total costwas six per cent at that time. I have not done
any sums since to check that but it is in there in detail. We
costed-out what we recommended and the total, I think I am right
in saying, was six per cent.
303. My last question on this, do you see any
way of that pay gap being closed without a significant increase
in the funding per student? Are there ways that universities might
make efficiency savings in order to fund the difference or to
simply pay men less to equalise it.
(Sir Michael Bett) Over the years universities have
been making considerable savings and contributing, I think rightly.
I do not think any organisation is so perfect that it cannot be
improved, I do think that we could carry on making improvements
in efficiency. At the stage we have reached I do not think that
the universities can generate out of savings the sort of funds
that are necessary, in my view, to make the situation a lot better
than it is today.
(Professor Beath) I would like to comment on that
point about efficiency savings. I think it is an interesting statistic
to note that between 1990 and 2000 the real wage that you pay
an academic has not increased at all. For lecturers it was 22,200
in 1990 and in 1999 it has risen to the magnificent figure of
22,700, and yet over that period the university has been asked
to make efficiency or productivity gains of 1.5 per cent per annum.
There must be few industries, I think, where if you deliver productivity
gains at 1.5 per cent per annum you have not had a real wage increase.
There is a real issue here of a sector which is under severe pressure.
(Mr Packham) I think you would get a very strong reaction
to the suggestion that universities through efficiency gains could
make funding available to deal with the pay gap. John is being
very gentle about this. If you look back at what I call cuts,
because I am from the north, I think they are called efficiency
gains, they have been implemented in the 1990s, up to 1997, I
should say, they were about three to four per cent per annum.
They have reduced over the last few years. We are still losing
out year-on-year. I think it is true to say that in the early
1980s there was fat in the system, I think that has gone and you
are down to the bone, and you would be cutting into the marrow.
My own view is, and I think it is shared by a lot of people in
universities, and I would favour this, there really ought to be
a real terms increase in higher education funding from the public
purse. The other way is to do it through top-up fees, a debate
which you are aware of at the moment. My worry in relation to
your brief on that is that I think it could increase attrition
and reduce retention.
304. Thank you for your indulgence, Chairman.
If there is more money from the public purse, is there a danger
that it will be spent on expansion or other things and not on
the pay gap? Would the Government need to say, "For this
real terms increase we want this to be used to tackle some of
the problems", and they will probably choose. Universities
also say, "We do not want money with strings attached".
Is there a happy medium?
(Mr Packham) I think there is a happy medium and increasingly
through the Higher Education Funding Council there has been a
very strong steer or prescription about how you spend funding.
One of the things which has happened, which impacts on this, is
over the next three years, something like £330 million going
in for staff development, equal opportunities, the gender pay
gap, and so on. This is useful, but it is not nearly as much as
was recommended in the Bett Report. I think it is a reasonable
305. I just have a quick supplementary on that
line of questioning, is it the case that we spend more proportionately
on student support out of the total budget than other countries?
(Sir Michael Bett) I have no information on that.
(Mr Packham) Statistically I think it is the case
if we look at the OECD stats. One of the reasons for this historically
and traditionally and one of the reasons why United Kingdom universities
are good at retaining their students, better than France, Germany
and the US, is because we have had selective entry, fixed term
undergraduate programmes of three or four years. To do that when
students are under the microscope you, and this is how this has
developed, really need strong systems of student support. Yes,
we do spend more than France, Germany or Italy.
306. Do you think that should continue or do
you think we should be focusing on paying for staff and/or other
investment? It is a balance, which way do you think we should
(Sir Michael Bett) The quality of education is going
down. However much you put into supporting the students you are
not really helping the system or the nation. You have to do what
is necessary to keep the quality of the educators up, and support
the students. There is no point in being very good at supporting
students through a second rate system.
307. You would rather move towards spending
more in terms of quality that is delivered rather than student
(Sir Michael Bett) Student support tends to be remedial
308. One assumes if you are employing staff
you are giving them as much support as possible subsequently,
and we will be getting on to the casualisation issue, what I was
talking about, really, is the balance between putting it into
pay salaries, research facilities or putting it towards maintenance
grants, abolition of tuition fees, and so on. What do you think
is the right balance towards what is happening in other countries?
(Mr Packham) Many people in the United Kingdom higher
education system would agree with this, that the first priority
now, a real urgency, is restoring the pay gap and covering the
pay gap. If you do that and you get committed staff, particularly
at the young end, where at the moment we are finding it very difficult
to bring good, committed young academics into the higher education,
in some subjects more than others, if you can do that through
giving them a decent level of pay you will help on the student
support side, because it is less likely that students will fall
through the net and the quality of academic support will be better.
I think many people will agree that the top priority is the pay
(Sir Michael Bett) I would like to add that in 2005,
John will correct me if I am wrong, we are due for quite an exodus
in higher education and unless we have it right, bringing the
youngsters through to teach, we are going to have the crisis that
I do not think is with us yet. I think we are in sliding down
the hill mode rather than crisis. There is a crisis on the horizon
and unless we get it right and bring young teachers and researchers
through now, before 2005I need not go on.
(Professor Beath) Can I answer Charlotte Atkins' question
and then follow on in response to Sir Michael's response. The
higher education process and how you get it right, it is quite
a subtle problem. You have to think of it in this way, a flow
of students coming in and an output of skilled people out of that
process at the end. The issues we are talking about are twofold.
People in the education process, the inputs, could drop out because
of student debts. To these inputs, the ones that you do retain,
you are applying highly skilled, technical input and training
them to be good students. What we want at the end is better quality.
We can improve that and enhance that, either by improving these
technological inputs, getting the staff in by reducing the dropout
rates or by some combination of them both. Your question is, what
is the right balance? I think that is something that we need to
think very hard about. I do not think there is a simple answer
to that. However, there is a problem that Sir Michael addressed,
that is what I call the swinging 60s time bomb, that is a large
group of people who are currently senior academics and in 2005
they will simply disappear from the system. There are a significant
number of subject areas where the recruitment problems into higher
education and university teaching are extraordinarily difficult.
My subject area has been affected by that. I can go into some
details if you wish me to. That is a real problem.
309. My first question, perhaps David Packham
would like to lead on it and then others can come in as is, clearly
in the real world, we have begun to the address the real world,
there are very hard choices and very hard priorities to be made.
I think you would have been particularly overjoyed, Sir Michael,
if one hundred per cent of your report was to be implemented in
terms of the funding recommendations. Let us assume that we build
on the initiatives that the Government have already taken and
that somewhere down the line more money does become available.
As I say, I would like to ask the question, initially to David
Packham, what are the key areas where we need to assure ourselves
of staff recruitment and the issue of staff retention? I mean
here, both in terms of the actual academic disciplines and also
as a supplementary, are there particular types of higher education
institutions where we need to be acutely conscious of the need
for extra funding which will assist the process of staff recruitment
and retention, bearing in mind that has, as we already discussed,
a direct relevance on student retention, given the staff student
(Mr Packham) In terms of the areas concerned the particular
disciplines where there is difficulty in attracting staff are
in areas like finance, accounting, economics, as has been mentioned
already, but some of the professional areas as well, law, pharmaceutical
sciences and oprometry. Frankly, it is because a student will
graduate from pharmacy or vision sciences, which we have at Aston,
and they can go out and get a starting salary well into the 20,000s
whereas they may start off as a lecturer on 18,000. Those are
some of the areas of particular recruitment problems. In terms
of the time bomb, I will just refer to that. We have difficulties
as well in recruiting staff into engineering, that is a subject
where the staff are obviously ageing, they are all ageing together.
We have had some subjects which have not had renewal for a long
time, that is a worry for the manufacturing industries. The second
part of your question in particular institutions.
310. I am not necessarily asking you to specify
individual types of institutions.
(Mr Packham) Perhaps my own university, it is an ex-college
of advanced technology, it came in in the 1960s but we are classified
as a pre 1992 university. If I was taking the statesman-like view
of looking at higher education I think probably in some of the
new universities, where they are having particular difficulties,
they started off with less favourable staff/student ratios, they
do not have the research income, by and large, because whilst
there is some very good research done in some of the pre 1992
universities they tend to be towards the teaching end of things
and staff/student ratios are higher. They have also had to expand
to try and keep their funding levels to a reasonable level and
so they are suffering more from staff/student ratios, and so on.
They have also been good at widening participation. In widening
participation it is often, but not exclusively the case, that
students may come in less well qualified and, therefore, need
311. Some of the new universities have been
too good for their own good in terms of funding.
(Mr Packham) I am not being critical at all. I think
that is a reasonable assumption. When you widen participation,
we have done this at my university, we made a conscious decision,
and we are lucky to be able to do this because of the catchment
area, and our subjects, we have widened participation, but we
have maintained standards. We have increased our take-up from
the Birmingham/West Midlands area, brought in far more students
from the ethnic minorities, who are keen on doing subjects like
pharmacy and optometry. In many of the new universities there
is a lot of intake and widening participation into arts based
areas, a high staff/student ratio and difficulties in supporting
the students. It is probably some of those universities that would
really welcome the injection of additional funding.
312. In a previous session with the Committee
Howard Newby specifically quoted economics as an example where
it is difficult to recruit. Perhaps you can say something about
that, both in terms of the recruitment of students and keeping
them into post-graduation and also keeping them into teaching.
I imagine the charms of, as a friend of mine was, being picked
up by the World Bank as a star economist in his late twenties
as opposed to going on and teaching economics must be a particularly
(Professor Beath) That is right. I should say, there
are other subject areas that are almost as badly affected as economics.
I do not want the idea to be put out that we are unique, we certainly
have a significant problem. The extent of the problem is the following,
there had been a growth in the number of MSc programmes in economics
and there is quite a healthy demand from students to enter such
programmes. If you are going to turn these people into university
lecturers you have to get them to do a PhD component. Then you
discover that at that critical point when they make the decision,
from finishing their MSc to "should I go on to a PhD"
almost none say, "Yes, I will go on to do a PhD". We
know that in the last three years, for example, at the LSE of
the United Kingdom students who went through the MSE only one
of these students has chosen to do a PhD.
313. I know the PhD system in the United Kingdom
varies from the system in the US, are we too rigorous in (a) the
amount of time we expect students to spend on a PhD and, (b) the
amount of research, very often lightly supervised, that we expect
them to do and the time limits in which we expect them to operate?
(Professor Beath) I would answer that is not the case,
and simply because the ESRC have made sure it is not the case.
The ESRC have very firm rules about the nature of the PhD, the
need for good progression rates, and so on.
314. You do not think people are doing PhDs
until the cows come home and are not really getting the staff
or the financial support to do it.
(Professor Beath) There are financial penalties if
students do not complete their PhD within three years, severe
financial penalties. A university can be blacklisted if it does
not have a sufficiently good completion rate for PhDs. There are
controls in place to stop that. The problem is, I think, as your
World Bank friend will confirm, again if you compare the medium
salary of academics in economics and what economists can earn
outside, back in 1990 it was roughly something like the university
salary would be, 22,000, let us say for a senior lecturer at that
time, in industry it was about 30,000, now a senior lecturer has
gone up to 32,000/33,000 but that same person outside of university
is earning 60,000 plus. Students see that, the wage differential
gap, and they just do not want to do it.
315. Can I take you on, we have had a lot of
evidence, not just about the financial situation, which we are
talking about today, but also about what academics, particularly
younger academics, feel about the other pressures on them as part
of a package. You are particularly, if I say so, well qualified
to comment on this, because of your involvement in the research
assessment exercise and also with bench marking. You are almost
the ideal person to pronounce subjectively on this matter. One
of the things we have been concerned about is the extent to which
external episodes, like the research assessment exercise, and
to a lesser extent QAA, impacted so strongly on the time that
academics can devote to other things, like student support, that
(a) demoralise the academics, and (b) reduce the elements of student
support and what the balance is between teaching and research.
Do we privilege research too much in terms of an academic's career
pattern? I know that is a very big agenda, would you like to comment
(Professor Beath) Can I start with the last thing?
It is certainly true that in the academic profession if you were
you giving a young academic advice you would say, focus your energies
on research because the way the system works it is those who are
the research stars who will most rapidly rise. Certainly the pressures
on young academics to do research and publish that research in
the very best journals are significant. There is only so much
time. When an academic sees the balance and says, "Yes, I
am going to devote more of my time and energies and concentrate
on research, and of course I will do my lecturing. Given the time
I have I will do it to the best of my ability", it is inevitable.
316. That is the way the focus works, it is
(Professor Beath) Increasingly you will find that.
The post 1992 universities are rapidly adopting a research culture.
The pressures are coming in as well. I do not think this is something
that you need to do in pre 1992 universities. There is some tension.
317. That brings me on to my final question,
which is the things that the Government are doing to try and address
some of these issues in terms of recruitment and retention and,
indeed, modernisation of the management process. We know that
the secretary of state has allocated these sums of money, 50 million
for the coming year, 110 million for the year after, 170 million
for 2003-2004. That money has obviously been given for that process.
Should HEFCE be more prescriptive about how they actually target
some of that money, given the sort of things we have been taking
about? Should they be saying, so much of it will be spent on recruitment
packages for teachers in some of the key disciplines that you
are talking about or do you think that the strategic direction
programme from the top, as it were, from DfEE is tight enough
(Sir Michael Bett) We recommended certain ways of
spending money. We recommended certain topics, like the management
of people, which we identified as being below par, generally speaking,
and that universities should concentrate upon. I would hate to
see anything that was so prescriptive that it drove every university,
regardless of its problems, down the same line. I really think
that sort of prescription is not on. I do think, as I say, there
are ways in which we think extra money should be spent in the
report. I do think that there are aspects which HEFCE could concentrate
their minds on by guidance and making more money available the
318. Can I be provocative for a moment and say,
I am not saying necessarily because it is my view, but it certainly
a view that is expressed, not least amongst junior academics from
time to time, can we trust the Vice-Chancellors at some of our
universities if HEFCE says, "Here you are, you have these
problems in these areas with staff retention, etc. Here you are,
here is £20 million make sure you spend it in this area".
Can we trust them to spend it in that area and not on some prestige
project of a building, or whatever?
(Sir Michael Bett) I would say, yes I think we can
trust them. That is a blanket yes.
319. What are the mechanisms for being able
to verify that trust?
(Sir Michael Bett) You have to account for what you
spend the money on and people will see what you are spending the
money on. HEFCE would come back very strongly, indeed, on any
university which is not spending the money in the general area
to which the money is allocated.
(Professor Beath) Every university has to put forward
strategic plans. I would have thought that there is an obvious
device for doing this, that is that HEFCE would want to see a
strategic plan which identifies key problem areas, how the Vice
Chancellor concerned is going to tackle them and then could use
that to judge the quality of the strategic plan, and hence the
funding it would give to the institution.