Examination of witnesses (Questions 140
WEDNESDAY 17 JANUARY 2001
RANDALL and MRS
140. In the present structure, we were hearing
from studentsand we heard from teachers as wellthe
students arrive and they are immediately pitched for by the modular
structure of these courses. They are immediately pitched for,
into a sort of conveyor belt of bite-sized modulesthey
may start out being big survey courses and they then progress
subsequently. There does not seem to be, in the structure of many
universities' courses at the moment, the traditional term or two
terms for overall reflection, before, as it were, they get on
the conveyor belt. Is that something which you inspect for? Is
that something which you are concerned about?
(Mr Randall) It is not something that we would inspect
for, in the sense of having a template to which we would expect
all institutions to conform. It is something that I am personally
concerned about. I agree very much with what you say; I think
the notion of bite-sized learning does not fit very happily with
the conceptual understanding that you would expect to be developed
in higher education. If we can, perhaps, move the pendulum, so
that we do not lose the flexibility in course design that modular
arrangements have brought but we do get back to taking a rather
more holistic over-view of what programmes are seeking to achieve,
I think that would be beneficial to students.
141. Before you move off that, Gordon, may I
just chip in? Is there not something rather worrying about the
questions and the answers there, John?in the sense that
beneath it seems to be a view that there is one system of teaching
that is effective across institutions. Is that not something of
a danger of the QAA approach?that, in a sense, for some
institutions bite-sized learning might be just the thing and it
distinguishes it from another institution down the road which
spends all its time reflecting very carefully over a long period
of time. In a sense, one of the criticisms of QAA has been, has
it not, that we might end up all with the same sort of teaching
methods, which would add a dull uniformity to the one hundred
and whatever it is higher education institutions that we have.
Is there a danger there? It seemed to be coming out from your
responses to Gordon.
(Mr Randall) There is a wonderful tension that I am
picking up from you that we pick up from the sector as well.
142. I like people to get tension!
(Mr Randall) When you asked this morning should it
not be our job to do this, that and the other, if you get through
to the point of trying to implement that as our job, then you
do go down this road of saying, "There is one way of doing
it," and you get the sort of dangers of conformity. We get
exactly the same from the higher education sector. We get a lot
of people saying, "Tell us what to do, then we know we will
be all right when your lads come in," and at the same time
they say, "Oh, but, you must remember, we are autonomous
institutions and we will do what we like, but just please tell
us what we ought to be doing." That tension I find fascinating,
that sometimes it comes from a little lack of self-confidence,
of fear that we are going to jump on anything that looks like
non-conformity. We do not have a conformist model. There is a
very healthy diversity of provision within higher education and
we do not want to get to "one size fits all". Having
said that, I think it remains legitimate to hold a view that the
sort of conceptual understanding that is required for the award
of an honour's degree is unlikely to be developed simply by adding
up a lot of small bite-sized bits of learning; at some point the
connections have to be made, the overview has to be taken and
the joining up has to happen. If the course is not designed in
a way that promotes that sort of overview thinking and the application
of ideas and understanding gained from one part of the course
to material that is studied in another, then we are missing out
on quite important attributes.
143. Perish the thought, I do not think we would
want the QAA to be in the situation of being the great prescriptor
as to what should or should not be done. We have had enough of
that from another body's chief inspector recently. But what I
think we would like to have is a sense that you are asking the
right questions about completion and about student experience.
I want to move us on from that to talk about the other side of
the coin to modularity, which is flexibility and portability.
One of the things that we have been picking up from our discussions
with people is that credit transfer, credit accumulation, sounds
fine in principle but in practice it runs up against the hard
rock of university autonomy, it runs up against fussiness, and,
perhaps, too much bespoke customisation of courses which means
that one university is reluctant to take on another university.
As you know, I have a long involvement with the Open University,
therefore I am a particular advocate, particularly for part-time
and continuing students, of the ability, when circumstances dictate,
to be able to drop out and then to come back in and pick studies
up. Is that the sort of issue that you are currently looking at
in universities? If not, should it be part of your remit?
(Mr Randall) I think the important thing about any
type of transfer of people leaving for a while and coming back
later is that when they go into any academic programme or part
of an academic programme, they are coming in with a shared understanding
between the students and those who will be teaching them of the
base of knowledge and understanding that they bring with them.
The design of any part of the programme is going to make assumptions
about what the students already know so that the teaching is appropriately
pitched and appropriately paced. What we should be looking for
in terms of credit transfer is not just the level of learning
and the volume of learning but whether there is a reasonable match
between the specific body of knowledge and understanding that
the student has and what the programme would expect of them for
them to be able to succeed.
144. I understand that, John, but can I press
you on this point. Some universitiesand I am not going
to name themare more amenable than others to flexibility
and portability and the sort of transfer that we are talking about.
The question I am asking you is: Is this an issue that the QAA
will look into? It does seem to some of us incredible that we
talk about European cooperationand we have Socrates, Leonardo
and all these wonderful schemes across Europeyet we do
not seem to be able to get our act together very well in terms
of credit transfer and credit accumulation between different British
(Mr Randall) I suspect you will find that there are
exactly the same problems of people studying elsewhere in Europe,
getting recognition and credit for that.
145. I am sure of it. I am just saying that
we ought to put our own house in order first.
(Mr Randall) We are publishing this month the qualifications
framework, and we have descriptors of outcome which include descriptors
of outcome that can be used as stopping off points below the level
of the honours degree. That was something the Dearing Report called
for. If we can translate the sort of accumulated credit that a
person has from within the credit structure of an institution
to something that has a wider currency (as a recognised qualification
that attests to abilities, particularly the sort of level of intellectual
achievement that is being reached) that ought to make it easier
for an institution to say, "Well, you may not have an exact
match in terms of the subject knowledge, the subject may have
moved on a bit from when you left, but you have got a certificate
that says you have achieved level one or level two within a higher
education framework and we can place some reliance on that."
I think the work that we have done in developing the qualifications'
framework will be of great importance in assisting people to take
time out of higher education and for there to be identifiable
stopping off points that carry accreditation that is more widely
146. And that is something you are going to
(Mr Randall) That is something that we will be seeking
actively now to implement, having spent the last two and a half
years in some fairly intensive consultation and having got some
descriptors of outcome that everyone is happy to sign up to.
147. I want to move on, but, Julie, would you
like to come in on that?
(Mrs Swan) I would just like to add to that briefly.
So much of what we have been doing as the agency on our developmental
agenda has been about promoting explicitness of particular programmes
in higher education. We have alluded to it in the evidence we
have submitted: subject benchmarking and programme specifications.
What we should at least be able to do is to be able to equip the
individual student with something which is more portable because
it is more explicit about their previous higher education experience;
for example, introducing a common form of transcript, introducing
publicly available programme specifications which a student will
be able to take with them and say, "I have done X, Y and
Z, here it is on my transcript, now please give me serious consideration."
Chairman: I want to switch the questioning a
little. Val, would you like to lead on this next section.
148. Thank you. You have illustrated good practice
by the document you have for people with disability. I would like
to follow that up, related really to the last lot of questioning,
because my guess is that there may be students for whom, having
some disability, a year in and a year out may be the exact approach
which they want to take. First of all, do you have any evidencecoming
back to link up with non-completionwhether these different
groups, whether it be ethnic groups or people with disabilities,
also have problems with completion? Are you looking at that?
(Mr Randall) We do not have hard statistical evidence
that we could point to and say there is a count by ethnicity or
a count by disability, again because we are not a collector of
statistics. But there are institutions that are recruiting particularly
in areas where there is a relatively high ethnic minority population,
which will give particular attention to trying to meet the needs
of that population. It is a part of their mission. Some of those
institutions may also have relatively high non-completion rates.
I certainly do not want to damn them for trying to provide those
students with higher education, but we have had one or two cases
where the view that we have formed, from looking at what is going
on in an institution, is that, perhaps, some of the recruitment
to programmes has not been appropriate, that people have been
taken onto programmes for which they were not yet ready. One of
the things the Agency does on behalf of the Department is to carry
out the licensing of the Access to Higher Education bodies which
are responsible for approving the further education college programmes
designed to take mature students into higher education. Those
are remarkably successful. The students who come from them do
well and tend to complete their courses. I think that one of the
things that higher education needs to be perhaps a little more
willing to doit is very difficult when you have a funding
system that says, "Get the bums on the seats"is
to say, "You are perhaps not yet ready, but the best thing
for you would be to spend a year on an Access programme that will
get you to the point at which you can benefit from this course."
That is hard for a higher education institution to do, if they
are turning away customers.
149. The tension I see is between the institution
saying, "You are not ready and you do not comply," and
saying, "We want to meet the needs of the ethnic population."
To give you a specific example from the Bristol area that I have
picked up: I have youngsters in primary school who speak Arabic.
We then say to them, "Thank you very much, we actually at
secondary school want you to do German, French and whatever, and,
when you get to university, the main entry will be . . ."
Should we not have and from your guidance should there not be
a recognition of perhaps the multi-cultural, multi-faceted nature
of people coming forward, with different expectations other than
the traditional, "This is what we have to offer, you are"or
"are not""ready for it."
(Mr Randall) There are two things there. Firstly,
I try to use the term "matching" between the applicant
and what is on offer. That should not just imply that it is always
the applicant who has to be varied to match what is there.
150. Good. I am delighted to hear you say that
on the record.
(Mr Randall) But, in many casesand this is
where one of the strengths of some of the modular structures comes
init is possible to design and adapt the programme around
the needs of those coming in. I think we are now making that easier
to do because we have the universal descriptors for an honour's
degree and whatever the particular pathway, whatever the subject
mix, every higher education institution knows that they must meet
those standards if they are going to award an honours degree.
That actually is very liberating, because it is saying to institutions:
"You can follow whatever route you think is appropriate to
get people therewe will make a judgment about whether you
are doing it effectively or notbut there is the yardstick
for you to try to meet."
151. So the yardstick is in terms of standards
and not in terms of detail of the content of the course.
(Mr Randall) Absolutely not.
152. Or, indeed, of the qualification of those
people coming forward.
(Mr Randall) Absolutely not. It is the outcome that
should be achieved. The other thing that I would say in response
to that question is that we are working at present on a code of
practice on admissions and one of the things that we have in the
draft at the moment is pointing out that where all other things
are equal in terms of competitive admissionsyou know, where
you have many more applicants than placespeople will look
at extra-curricular activity. We are saying that they must be
very careful about how they make those judgments. If you say that
you will take the person who has shown leadership because they
have been running the rugby club, do not just go for people who
have been in the rugby club. You must look for leadership and
recognise that in different cultural contexts that would be expressed
in different ways. For example, in some communities, the likelihood
of anybody taking part in the sort of sporting and theatrical
activities that will often be favoured is relatively low, so people
need to look beyond that. They might say, "Well, wasn't it
entrepreneurial skills that you learned from helping to run the
family shop? How do we set that in terms of value against the
leadership skills you may have had by being the person who helped
train the rugby team." Cultural awareness I think is vitally
important in that aspect of admissions.
153. Just a quick question on this code of practice
for admissions, which is something we have been discussing recently
in terms of access. All other things being equal, are you thinking
about advising universities where there is competitive admission
to take into account the educational background of the students?that
someone with three B's who is going to be the only person to get
three B's from that particular school might be given preference
over someone with three B's where they are the hundredth person
in that cohort to get three B's and has had trouble getting to
that standard. Is that the sort of extra consideration that in
your code of practice for admissions you would urge universities
(Mr Randall) We are not going to tell universities
what their particular admission policy should be. What we are
saying is that it should be clear and transparent so that a student
or potential student would know exactly what it is that a university
will attach value to in deciding to whom they should make the
offer of a place. Clearly, there will always be a balance to be
struck between achievement that has already been demonstrated
in a conventional way (perhaps measured by `A' level results)
and potential. Somebody may have overcome, perhaps, greater obstacles
than somebody else to get to the same point, and, if they have
done so, they might have demonstrated greater potential along
the way. What I think we would want to sayand this is still
draft thinking at this stageis that universities need to
be clear and explicit about what they are doing, so that they
can defend the decisions that they have taken, so that people
will feel, whatever the decision was in their personal case, that
it was taken fairly and on rational grounds.
154. At the beginning, in answer to your first
question, you said that you were relatively relaxed about the
increase in non-completion, the perceived increase in non-completion,
from around 12/13 per cent to around 17 per cent, because of the
expansion that had occurred in higher education and that specifically
we were now no longer taking people congregated around the very
upper area of the ability range but going further downappropriately,
but going further down where there was a greater risk. Would you
say the same applied and has been simultaneous with heading down
the income scale? You hinted, in fact, in the second paragraph
of your written submission, that that may be a factor. Would you
say those things may act in parallel?
(Mr Randall) I do not have any direct evidence to
say that as you go down the income scale it is hard to keep people
in, but, intuitively, clearly somebody who is struggling to make
ends meet is going to be, firstly, devoting less of their energies
to their studies and, secondly, may simply have to go out and
earn some money and be unable to continue. I come back to what
I think our primary purpose is. Lots of people want us to do lots
of things; we have to try to keep a bit of a focus and say that
what we are here for is to address the academic performance of
higher education and to look at the ways in which the academic
support and the academic systems of universities and colleges
can in this case assist in retaining the students that they have
got in. We are not the body that determines what student funding
is and we are not the body that determines the distribution of
the Parliamentary vote for higher education. What we can do is
to say, "Those are circumstances that are given; within those,
how well is a university performing in terms of the discharge
of its academic responsibilities?" That is what we are here
to try to hold them accountable for and to give them guidance
155. You would not want to be led up the garden
path. Looking at the HEFCE performance indicators and noticing
that, say, the University of North London has a 19 per cent non-completion
rate and Oxford Brookes has a seven per cent non-completion rate,
you would not want to assume that that was because the University
of North London was taking people who were finding it more difficult
academically, because, if a factora factor amongst severalwas
the fact that those were from a poorer background and therefore
found it difficult to sustain the levels of debt that they are
invited to do to variable degrees and always have been, you would
want to be aware of that, so you could make appropriate recommendations
on the academic aspects which are your responsibility. You have
to bear in mind founding factors, so you can weight the areas
that are your responsibility.
(Mr Randall) You have to be aware that both those
factors can be operating. In terms of the first judgment that
I think we would be making, we would be saying, "OK, if it
is a 19 per cent drop-out rate, that is a relatively high one."
We would want to look at it in relation to the individual subject,
where it might be higher or lower, and then to look at the issues
I mentioned earlier: Are we adequately identifying students who
are going to stand a reasonable chance of successful completion?
If there is a factor that the university points out to us: "We
are losing some of these people because they cannot afford to
carry on," then I think that from our academic interest we
would be saying, "Well, have you structured your programme
in such a way that you have got identified exit points, that will
allow a person to leave with some accreditation/certification
of their achievement to that point? And does that match up to
a qualifications' framework that everybody else is signed up to?so
they are leaving, admittedly before they had originally intended,
but with something that has a currency in the outside world for
both employment purposes and for subsequent return to higher education."
Chairman: We only have a few minutes left and
I do want to cover teaching research and quality of teaching issues.
Gordon, would you like to lead on that next stage?
156. Yes. You made it quite clear at several
points, John, that you see the primary role of QAA as examining,
as you have said, academic effectiveness, how academics balance
their time"personal time management" I think
you saidbetween teaching, research and administrative demands.
What evidence do you have from your reviews that that balance
is working correctly? I am thinking, particularly, of the ability
of younger academics to do a decent amount of teaching and support
students who might particularly need it in the context of completion,
as opposed to having to do pure research.
(Mr Randall) I think we have got a better
balance just as a result of the existence of review at subject
level of teaching. We have had a system where, for a longer period,
there has been a premium on research because of the research assessment
exercise and the way in which it drove funding. I think it was
necessary to get in some balance that made it clear that universities
would be judged also on the quality of their teaching. Therefore,
overall, I think we have got a slightly better balance now. I
still look back 30-odd years to the excitement and stimulation
of research-led teaching. Being taught by people who were active
researchers is a wonderful experience for any student. Not everybody
is going to be taught by high-level active researchers, but even
institutions that are not themselves research-led should find
time for the personal scholarship of academic staff, so that they
can keep abreast of those developments in their subject and transmit
that to their students. I would not want to get into a position
in which we assume that higher education teachers had to spend
all of their time on the teaching function and that there was
no room for personal scholarship and research.
Mr Marsden: With respect, I think you are setting
upin these non-sexist timesa strawperson there because
I do not think anyone would argue that. The crucial question is
whether in fact academics have enough time, because of issues
like research assessment exercisewhich still produce rather
large carrots on an individual basis than TQA would doto
transfer their research into the teaching of their students. When
we were at Surrey yesterday the Vice-Chancellor there was pretty
scathing about the research assessment exercise and the way in
which it could hobble, particularly young members of staff, in
that respect, even though they themselves were very keen to have
teaching that was research-led.
157. Do you have any view on what contribution
the research assessment exercise has from the QAA's point of view?
Is it hobbling? Is it undermining? Is it doing damage to the quality
of our teaching institutions?
(Mr Randall) I think it has the potential to produce
a measure of distortion because the stakes are very high for some
institutions. In the current exercise, where there are rumours
around that if you do not get a four in the research assessment
exercise there is not going to be any money, is producing a fairly
sort of frenetic response, I think, in a number of people that
the research assessment exercise is attracting a very large amount
of management time within institutions. Coming back to Gordon's
point about the balance and the opportunities that are provided
for staff and the pressures on their time, I think that more could
be done by institutions to help people manage their time. I think
that there is a bit of a culture in some parts of higher education
that does not like anything that looks like managerialism, but,
actually, when you have a job that inherently has within it a
number of different strands that have to be balanced, people do
need to manage their own time and it is a responsibility of those
in management positions, heads of departments and elsewhere in
the universities, to help, particularly their junior staff, with
the management of their overall time, so that overall it is used
158. Are you worried with the difficulty of
recruiting into academic posts, because of the labour market more
than anything, and the relatively low pay compared to the comparable
professions for graduates? Are you worried about the quality of
teaching in the sector?
(Mr Randall) Some disciplines clearly do have problems.
But I do not think that pay is the sort of thing that attracts
people to a career in higher education.
159. Clearly not!
(Mr Randall) There are other benefits. I mean, I look
at my own past involvement. I previously worked for the Law Society.
There are some very high salaries available for high-flying lawyers
in the City but there are also still people who choose to work
in academic law in university departments. I think there will
always be people who make a choice that includes factors other
than salary; but, at the end of the day, there is a mortgage to
payfor most peopleand it is bound to have some influence.
Chairman: John, Julie, can I thank you for your
attendance. This has been a pretty short session and thank you
for answering so many questions. There are areas that we have
left untapped. Perhaps you would not mind us furthering our deliberations
by writing to you.
Valerie Davey: Good idea.
160. Indeed, there were one or two areas that
were not just to do with staying on retention rates and all that,
and, indeed, we have been contacted by one or two institutions
who are concerned about their inability to gain university status
which they think you are holding up and we would like to correspond
on that. Some members of the Committee were particularly interested
in learning from you how you view IT skills and how universities
are preparing students for their courses in terms of the level
of IT skills that they were requiring. If we could correspond
on those, but just put them on record, that would be most useful.
(Mr Randall) Yes. May I say one sentence on university
titles. It is a big subject, but the legislation that Parliament
has put in place provides for university title to be granted;
it does not provide for university title to be withdrawn other
than by an individual Act of Parliament to remove that status.
The same applies to any grant of degree awarding powers. For that
reason, there is a properly rigorous process that is gone through
where we advise the government departments and the government
department advise the Privy Council. I think, given the legislative
framework, it would be wrong for it to be anything other than
Chairman: Thank you.