Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 29

Memorandum from Dr Mark Ellis, Huddersfield Technical College (HE 140)

  1.  The following observations are based on my experience as a tutor at Huddersfield Technical College and part-time lecturer at Huddersfield University. At Huddersfield Technical College, I run the Performing Arts Section with approximately 100 full-time students studying music, dance and drama; about 70 per cent of the students who complete proceed to Higher Education. While these observations are by nature anecdotal rather than statistical, they are probably broadly reflective of student experience across this subject area.

  2.  The three aspects of higher education specifically to be investigated by the Education and Employment Committee partly presuppose answers to questions about retention. Although in individual cases there may be obvious and immediate causes for drop out, the broader issue is more complex and should also take into account factors such as student recruitment processes, interview arrangements, entrance qualifications and student life-styles.

3.  FINANCIAL FACTORS

  Undoubtedly one of the major pressures on students these days is financial. Students are encouraged (in some cases perhaps irresponsibly) to borrow heavily in order to undertake their university courses. Students from less well-off home backgrounds do pay a reduced or nil university fee. However, the loan element of their support package is correspondingly higher. It is important to emphasise that this is not an increased grant but the "opportunity" to borrow more money in the form of a higher student loan. While the higher loan may seem to assist the less well-off student, it will actually have the reverse effect and prove a distinct disadvantage early in the student's career. In practice, the variable loan bandings exacerbate rather than reduce differences in relative wealth. Further research should be undertaken on the relative numbers of "maximum" loan students attending each university and "type of university". I suspect that this figure could become a student-profile benchmark comparable with the "free school meals" quota which is a crude (but often valid) classification of the socio-economic make-up of a particular school.

3.1  Variability of parental contribution

  A general impression is that parents pay less than their "quota" in student support funding. Is there any research on how much parents actually contribute to their son's/daughter's higher education and how consistent this is?

3.2  Long-term financial factors

  In large-scale economic terms, the next generation will have to be more self-sufficient regarding pension arrangements, while starting their working lives with considerable debts. They will be expected to fund their children's education in turn (perhaps to an even greater extent). Thus, compared with graduates from the "pre-loan era", this group will face three additional major financial obstacles: repayment of their own loans, establishing a pension and supporting their own children through college. This will make it near impossible for may graduates from poorer home backgrounds (ie those with maximum loans) to achieve the level of increase in their standard of living which might be expected in the twenty-first century.

3.3  The limited subsidies are unevenly distributed

  It is widely believed that courses at older universities are relatively better subsidised. These universities tend to attract students from wealthier backgrounds. Furthermore, the selection procedures are relatively rigorous. Almost certainly there is a correlation between extent of selection and level of retention.

  The higher level of tutorial support offered at the older universities is also reflected in their high retention rates. Increased funding should be made available to reinforce tutorial support at the newer and less well established institutions.

3.4  Students are distracted from their studies by working in term time

  Students at many universities take up term time work often in relatively low paid jobs. Some universities limit the amount of work a student can undertake during term time, and this should be encouraged more widely.

3.5  Student lifestyle

  Nevertheless, studies of student expenditure have shown that after accommodation, drink is one of the major expenses. A culture that allows and even encourages young adults to build up debts, which are substantially increased because of alcohol consumption, is storing up serious health, moral and economic problems for the future. At one time drink and debt were seen as causes of major social problems; now students are encouraged along those lines.

3.6  Relative costs of subjects

  At the moment there is no significant difference between course costs to students. Thus, for example, a medical student—who would cost a great deal more to educate that an history student (even on a year-for-year basis)—pays the same fee as for any other subject. Equally the trained medic would probably have a higher earning potential. Yet the university fees are set at the same level. It would be logical to relate fees at least partially according to the actual cost of the course.

4.  RELATIVE DECLINE IN ACADEMIC STANDARDS OF UNDERGRADUATES

  The number of students in Higher Education has expanded rapidly. Because of the large percentage increase in numbers, students of a relatively lower calibre are recruited; this places the student under greater pressure to achieve academically, and hence increases the likelihood of drop out. The rate of expansion is often incompatible with maintaining consistent and high academic standards and a high student retention rate.

4.1  Pressure to recruit students at HE level

  Higher education institutions are under pressure to attract students to fulfil artificial quotas. This means that, in some cases, students are being accepted with relatively low "A" Level results. For example, one of my "A" level students from last year was offered a place to study for a science degree on the basis of a single E grade at "A" level.

4.2  Need for a consistent graduate attainment level

  Employers in particular, and the wider community in general, do not benefit from an inconsistent or low standard of graduate attainment. There should be greater emphasis on the development of non-degree vocational courses, such as HNDs, for those students who have the potential to benefit from higher education, but are not necessarily of degree calibre.

4.3  Consistency of degree gradings

  To ensure consistency between university courses, for all major subject areas there should be one common paper across the country taken as part of the degree award. The perceived value of a degree is an important factor in motivating students to complete their chosen course.

4.4  Minimum requirements for graduate entry

  A nationally imposed minimum entry for a degree course would immediately raise the level of recruitment and students' expectations/ambitions. The level could be set at, for example, 20 UCAS points plus GCSE Maths and English at grade B. I have come across specific instances of students who drop "A" level subjects and attainment levels in response to a low admission offer from a university.

5.  QUALITY OF TEACHING AS IT RELATES TO STUDENTS

  I believe that there is little objective assessment of teaching skills at university level. The "Call for Evidence" specifically mentions the "recruitment of highly qualified teachers in higher education". How are "highly qualified teachers" assessed? Does this refer to lecturers at university who have high subject-specific academic qualifications or does it refer directly to a teaching qualification? Universities tend not to look for or even expect a teaching qualification from their academic staff; in general they rank qualifications, research experience (and evidence) as higher priorities.

5.1  Comparison with teaching documentation in other sectors of education

  At FE level the teaching process is subjected to several layers of scrutiny. All new tutors are expected to obtain a teaching qualification, (typically either City and Guilds 730 or PGCE). There are annual and documented classroom observations, which (though only informally graded) are used to inform the processes of action planning and staff development. BTec courses are subject to both internal and external moderation. "A" level exams—and the AS and A2 replacements—are externally examined and moderated. In addition, there are regular FEFC inspections.

SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER CONSIDERATION

  1.  The long-term large-scale implications of large numbers starting work in debt need to be carefully researched. Can lower and even middle-income groups realistically cope with the individual debt burden now being accumulated together with the responsibility for pension arrangements?

  2.  Universities should carefully regulate how much work students can undertake during term-time. Universities are centrally funded and as such taxpayers have a right to feel that their contribution to the education system is being fully taken up by the students for whom it is intended.

  3.  Subsidising the education of less well-off students. Realistically, there will have to be an increase in taxation if the unacceptable level of student debt is to be reduced. To make this politically acceptable, the tax might have to be a graduate tax.

  4.  Consideration of differential charging for university fees according to actual cost of tuition and/or potential earnings.

  5.  Wider general education for students on financial management, and long-term planning.

  6.  Externally set minimum grades for university entrance with a corresponding expansion in HND courses for less academically inclined students.

Dr Mark Ellis

January 2001


 
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