Examination of Witnesses (Questions 169
MONDAY 30 MARCH 2009
Chairman: Could I welcome our first panel
of distinguished witnesses to our inquiry this afternoon: Professor
Janet Beer, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and
Dr John Hood, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Can we thank you very much indeed, Professor Beer, for your hospitality
at lunchtime today and, Dr Hood, for your hospitality this morning
when we visited the Business Centre. Before we start, declarations
Mr Boswell: It would
be proper for me to declare publicly my interest as a graduate
of Oxford University and as a former member of New College, Oxford.
Ian Stewart: Seeing as we are into declarations
I have got to record that I am a PhD student registered at Manchester
and I am on the Council of Salford University.
Dr Harris: I am a member of Oxford Brookes
University Court and a graduate of Oxford University, and have
the pleasure of representing many of the staff and students at
Q169 Chairman: I am on the Court
at Birmingham University. I wonder if I could start with you,
Professor Beer; literally in just a few sentences what do you
regard from the point of view of your institution as the purpose
of higher education?
Professor Beer: There is a balance
of benefit between the individual and society in terms of what
universities are for. They are obviously to enable individuals
to develop their full potential and to develop potential intellectually,
but also to equip them for work, to equip them to make a contribution
to society and also to achieve personal fulfilment, so there is
the individual. In terms of wider society universities exist to
increase knowledge, both for its own sake and for applied purposes.
Obviously universities serve the needs of a knowledge-based economy
and, probably finally, they play a vital role in fostering and
shaping a democratic society.
Q170 Chairman: Have we got the balance
right between those different factors?
Professor Beer: I believe that
Q171 Chairman: Dr Hood, what is the
purpose of higher education as you see it from an Oxford point
Dr Hood: I thought Professor Beer
gave a very good answer actually. I could elaborate in places
but I do not think it probably serves the time of the Committee
Q172 Chairman: Do you think we have
got the balance right?
Dr Hood: The question about balance
is not for one institution to answer or another institution to
answer, it is a question of looking at the institutional profile
across the nation and it is a question that perhaps more properly
should be asked of those who are thoughtful about the policy for
the system because you are talking about a higher education system
in this country and in many countries that is extraordinarily
diverse. The institution that I represent is at one particular
point in what is an extraordinary array of different types of
institution each with, I would think, valid purposes as defined
by their local communities, their national communities, their
international communities. Do I think that we have got the purpose
of the University of Oxford right? The purpose of the University
of Oxford is a purpose that is defined by the scholars of the
University of Oxford and it has been reasonably consistent for
a very long period of time; by and large it is serving its multiple
constituencies very well indeed.
Q173 Chairman: Given the fact that
the UK taxpayer puts some £12 billion into higher education
in one form or another, is it not time that the UK taxpayer had
a greater say over what happens in its universities rather than
leaving it to yourself and your fellow Vice-Chancellors, Dr Hood?
Dr Hood: The UK taxpayer through
Parliament, through the civil service and through representation
on governing bodies and the like has a very substantial say over
what happens in British universities to the extent that they receive
Q174 Chairman: You have total autonomy
I am told.
Dr Hood: I wish we did.
Q175 Chairman: Enlighten us, why
have you not got autonomy?
Dr Hood: We have autonomy and
we protect our autonomy in the sense of academic freedom but we
do not have autonomy in the sense that we are unregulated, that
we are in a non-compliant regime, for example, where we set our
own regulatory framework, our own compliance norms, quite the
contrary. The Government's funding, be it teaching funding or
research funding or funding for various outreach purposes or for
tech transfer purposes comes with very prescriptive conditions
attaching to it and very strong audit and other related requirements.
Q176 Chairman: Is that right, Professor
Beer, and is it right that we should have that level of interference
from the Government?
Professor Beer: I would prefer
not to talk aboutand I do not think John was talking aboutinterference;
we can all talk about partnership, we work in partnership with
Government to deliver desirable social and economic benefits as
I already talked about when we discussed the purpose of higher
education. Like John, in order to maintain the integrity of our
institutions we do need to keep a distance and we do need to maintain
institutional autonomy, but that is not to say that there are
all kinds of partnership and it is not just with the Higher Education
Funding Council or with DIUS, it is obviously with the Department
of Health, with Children, Schools and Families and all branches
Q177 Mr Boswell: If I might first
take the point that Dr Hood has raised it occurs to me that at
the formal and institutional level there is a high degree of autonomy.
In terms of planning the system there is almost no academic autonomy;
there may be influence but having had some participation in the
other side of it anyone who runs the system as a whole is probably
in or around Government and the funding bodies. Do you think that
is a happy balance or would you like to see less interference
in your day-to-day activities ideally and possibly, at the same
time, wishing for the ideal, more influence on the overall shape
of the system delivered by academics rather than by officials?
Dr Hood: It is very important
that institutions have autonomy in terms of the election of members
of staff, in terms of the design and delivery of their academic
programmes and so forth. We would all accept that where other
parties are funding our activities then we have a responsibility
to ensure that those who fund us are satisfied with what we are
receiving the funding for, so the question of is there too much
compliance, is there too little compliance, is not a question
I fear that can be discussed in the general, it would have to
be discussed in the particular. In the case of the particular,
whether we are talking here about the nature of research contracts
and the reports that are required of researchers on one side or
the funding that we receive from HEFCE and the various levels
of compliance that are required for that, ranging from academic
audit at one end to financial audit at the other, these are all
things in their own case that are subject to an ongoing dialogue
between the various bodies that are involved, and one hopes that
we are able through time to establish a reasonable balance that
keeps the funder satisfied that the funds they are providing are
being responsibly used for the purpose for which they are provided,
and on the other hand that the university has its autonomy preserved
in terms of its academic activity and purpose and that the freedom
of its scholars to pursue that which they are pursuing is preserved
at all costs.
Q178 Dr Harris: Both universities
here that you represent are shown to be some distance from achieving
your benchmark for the state school participation rate. I was
just wondering whether you think the benchmark is wrong or, if
it is not, what it is that is preventing you from reaching it
or whether it is a combination of the two.
Professor Beer: The first thing
I would like to say is that I am really, really pleased to be
asked that question because my colleague Vice-Chancellors in the
Russell Group are constantly asked that question but nobody seems
to take much of an interest in Oxford Brookes being away from
its benchmark in terms of the mix of state and private school
students, so I am very happy to answer that question. I do not
think we have got any sense at Brookes that there are two tribes
in the university, far from it, it is a very harmonious institution.
In the mix we have got 20 per cent international students as well
and on my latest figures we have got 74 per cent state school
entries and 26 per cent private school.
Q179 Dr Harris: And the benchmark
is 88 per cent.
Professor Beer: We are 12 per
cent adrift from the benchmark. Having said that, the benchmark
needs to be more sensitive because we out-perform another benchmark
exponentially and that is the one that describes participation
of social classes three manual, four and five, and we have a completely
off-the-scale number of students from those social classes. We
work very hard in terms of bringing students in from those social