Examination of Witnesses (Questions 47
THURSDAY 11 JANUARY 2001
47. We now have Dorma Urwin, who is Principal
of University College, Worcester, and Professor Michael Wright,
Principal of Canterbury Christ Church University College; so welcome,
indeed, both of you, too. Thank you very much for attending today
at short notice. You will have the advantage of seeing the way
that we operate, to some extent. Many of the questions that we
are going to ask you are going to be going over similar ground,
so bear with us; this Committee has a reputation for going over
the same ground in certain areas. Can I start by going back to
the extent of non-completion, and we are fascinated to have you
here, because we spend an inordinate amount of time talking to
universities and not talking enough to colleges, and so, in a
sense, this is very refreshing for us, to have the opportunity
to talk to you, and I know that our colleague, Michael Foster,
was very keen that we looked at this area and called both of you
as contributors. Can I start by saying to you, what have you seen
in your own college experience; have you seen an increase in non-completion
rates over the past, I was going to say ten years, but are there
signs that non-completion rates are increasing, or is there evidence
that people are dropping out and coming back to finish? What is
the situation, how do you view it at the moment, in general terms?
(Professor Wright) I should say, I have
been in my present post for just over three years, and so, in
a sense, I cannot stretch back, personally, for those ten years.
The data we have, of course, published now by the Funding Council,
takes us back over the last three or four years; there has been
no significant change in my college over that time, and, from
what I can gather, such research as I have done, the position
has not been broadly different for a number of years. So insofar
as our performance indicator, our performance against our benchmark
is ahead of what is expected, I think that has been the case for
a little while.
48. So not much increase in non-completion rates?
(Professor Wright) That is my general impression.
(Ms Urwin) That would be true for Worcester as well.
I think what you need to bear in mind, of course, is that the
nature of the courses that we offer, typically the professional
vocational courses, have very low drop-out rates anyway; so, in
as much as there has been a marginal increase in drop-out, it
has tended to be amongst the mature students on non-professional,
non-vocational courses, and I have seen an increase in the drop-out
from those students.
49. Why is it that you are so successful with
this category of student then? Perhaps we could learn something,
in terms of other categories of students, if there is great success
in the professional qualifications. What is it about that sort
of qualification that seems to bind the student in and keeps them
(Ms Urwin) I think, students who come onto professional
and vocational courses, and in both our institutions we have a
high percentage of those students, they have made very specific
choices, they have made informed choices about a career that they
wish to follow; certainly, on the nursing and health side, they
receive bursaries to support them through the programmes. There
is a lot of support for the students, both from teaching staff
and other support staff, and they have made an informed choice,
they are interviewed before they come on the course, so they are
clear about what they are coming to and we are clear about them.
So I think there are some messages there. But I would stress that
the students following those programmes do get quite significant
support, both financial and otherwise.
(Professor Wright) Could I add a comment, which, in
a sense, is not an answer to your question but I think it is an
important, contextual remark, which is to say that the colleges
of higher education represent about a third of institutions in
total, universities and colleges, but only about 10 per cent of
the students, or, by definition, we are talking, on averagedangerous
thingbut, on average, about smaller institutions, which
may be a point you want to follow up. But, even within that 10
per cent, the kinds of programmes, the kinds of subjects that
our students are taking are disproportionate when viewed across
the whole of higher education. There was a sense, in listening
to your earlier questions, universities and colleges, an homogeneous
group, the only distinction, were they in existence before 1992
or were they not; now, clearly, it is a much more complex pattern
than that. So that, for example, in our colleges, the 10 per cent
of students include disproportionately large numbers of those
training to be teachers, nurses, for careers in agriculture and
in the creative arts, so those are the specialisms of the colleges;
whereas we do not have large numbers, for example, of engineering
and science students, other than those preparing to be teachers
in those subjects. We are a distinctive sector.
50. So you are distinctive in that you are smaller,
they are more intimate institutions?
(Professor Wright) As an average, yes, although some,
including my own, are as large as many universities.
51. Yes; how large is that?
(Professor Wright) In our case, it is about 11,000
52. So some of them are more intimate institutions.
Certainly, in terms of the way in which you express it, this professional
cluster is different, yes?
(Professor Wright) Yes. In my case, for example, and
it would be similar in many others, it is 30 per cent, roughly
30 per cent, training for teachers, 30 per cent training for various
careers in the health sector, and 40 per cent doing a range of
53. Will these be more mature students?
(Professor Wright) Often; often.
54. What is the balance between people coming
to you at 18, what we used to call the regular students, and the
more mature students?
(Professor Wright) Of our full-time students, the
latest figure I have is 27 per cent are under the age of 21, the
balance are over the age of 21. I am told, but I have not any
evidence of this, the average age is actually 28.
Mr St. Aubyn
55. I wondered, you are both, as you say, colleges,
and some of the universities with the best retention rates in
the country follow a collegiate system. Do you think there is
something about the collegiate approach that perhaps other universities
could adopt, and if they broke down their admissions into colleges,
and followed that sort of a policy, they could derive some benefits,
and what other things would they have to do at the same time to
make sure the concept really worked?
(Ms Urwin) I think all we could say is that our experience
of operating within smaller set-ups does seem to provide the opportunity
for a wide range of students to get the support they need. There
is a sense in which they perceive that they are part of a community,
and I think that is, to some extent, a function of the size.
56. Another aspect that came out of your written
evidence was how easily you feel students can transfer from one
course to another. To what extent do you think you are distinguished
from universities, which, after all, do also let students transfer
between courses, in what way do you think you are more flexible
and more able to assist students in that respect?
(Professor Wright) I have a statistic for this year,
because I was aware the point might come up. In this academic
year, 10 per cent of our first year undergraduate intake has transferred
programmes, since the beginning of the year; we allow it without
difficulty until the end of November, and round about 10 per cent
did it. I cannot give you an equivalent figure for universities.
I have a sense we are a little more flexible.
(Ms Urwin) I think, also, the other point I just want
to pick up on, which was touched on earlier, is that we do take,
about, now, about 10 per cent of our intake comes directly into
the third year. So, picking up on the point about can you step
off, can you transfer, can you take your credits with you, we
have a significant number of students now who actually do come
into both the second but particularly into the third year of the
57. Is there a factor here that perhaps in universities
the faculty's reputation, and indeed perhaps its funding, may
be adversely affected if students moved out of their particular
course and into another course of study? How do you deal with
that potential problem, if you are being so flexible with students,
in terms of letting them switch from one course to another?
(Ms Urwin) Certainly, in our case, the funding follows
the student, so if a student does transfer then the funding to
support that student would transfer from one department to another.
58. So, even though there are these transfers,
you would expect faculties to fight quite hard, in your situation,
as no doubt they would in a university, not to let a student go,
even when the student felt that it was not in their best interests
to stay on that particular course?
(Ms Urwin) No, I do not think that is the way we operate.
Our departments would, I am sure they would, seek to encourage
students, but they would be referred to an academic adviser and
the academic adviser would offer the advice on what was the best
programme of study for the student; if that meant transferring
then that is what would happen.
59. Perhaps I could draw out a little bit more,
because we have touched on it already, some of the factors that
may mean that you have a better retention and a better non-completion
strategy against than some other institutions. Nick has talked
about size, and we will no doubt come back to that. But I noticed,
and perhaps I can start off with you, Professor Wright, and the
others might like to chip in, in the submission that you gave
to us, and you talked about the factors that affected student
retention, you picked up on this point which Ms Urwin has just
talked about, about flexible course structures allowing programme
transfers, but you also said the "importance of teachers
who regard teaching and student support as their main priority;".
Now would you like to tell us how that works within your own institution,
presumably there is a research element there, and perhaps to comment,
and perhaps the others would like to come in as well, again as
to whether other institutions have that balance correct or not?
(Professor Wright) I stand by the assertion that I
believe it is an important factor that our academic staff regard
teaching as their main business, as it were. Now I do not say
that in the belief that there is not a tension there, but I think
that is an assertion I would be very happy to stand by, and I
believe staff in the college would as well. Why that is so and
how it has come about, I think, is a combination of factors. One,
I think, is, if we go back to the nature of the work that we do,
in the colleges, certainly if you take two-thirds of our work,
or thereabouts, 60 per cent, of teacher education and our health
work, of course, all of those staff have a teaching qualification,
they trained to be teachers, and, therefore, that is their life
interest, in one sense. So I think that is an important factor.
I think, at least I hope, that staff generally do understand where
the money comes from and what for and upon what criteria we would
be judged to be successful; the reality is, leaving aside other
income, as it were, it is probably a balance of about 97 per cent
to 3 per cent funding, whether from the Funding Council or the
Teacher Training Agency or the Health Service, it is to support
teaching activities. And I do not think staff are unaware of that
reality, and, I think, in that and in other ways, but probably
simply because it is their vocation to teach, that they do see
this as their most important activity.
(Ms Urwin) I would support that. The proportions are
not quite as high, in terms of teaching and health-related courses
in my institution, it is about 45 per cent, but, again, all those
staff who are engaged in those programmes already have a teaching
qualification, and certainly in my own institution we now require
all our newly-appointed staff to go through a teaching programme
to achieve a qualification.