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CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 885-iii
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
BUSINESS, INNOVATION AND SKILLS Committee
THE FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
Tuesday 5 April 2011
SALLY HUNT, MIKE ROBINSON and jon richards
daryn mccombe and rebecca watson
Evidence heard in Public Questions 151 - 264
Taken before the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee
on Tuesday 5 April 2011
Mr Adrian Bailey (Chair)
Mr Brian Binley
Mr David Ward
Examination of Witness
Witness: Aaron Porter, President, National Union of Students, gave evidence.
Q151 Chair: Good morning, Aaron, and thank you for agreeing to speak to us. We have just an hour with you. I have brought you in well on time because we have a lot of questions for you, so if you could be admirably concise in your answers I will try to keep the Committee equally admirably concise in their questions. Before we start, just for the purposes of voice recognition, could you introduce yourself with your title?
Aaron Porter: Thank you, Mr Bailey. I am Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students.
Q152 Chair: The first question is slightly philosophical to set the framework. What do you think universities are for?
Aaron Porter: I consider the purpose of higher education to be threefold: first, the pursuit of knowledge; second, research and pushing the boundaries of research and, third, teaching. Clearly, there are economic and social benefits that are derived from higher education, but I see them as positive consequences. The core purpose is the three factors I have just outlined.
Q153 Mr Binley: I am a secondary modern school graduate who is a businessman. I have always been concerned at the academic view of universities, which I welcome, but not in its entirety and not separate from the needs of the business world. How do you feel in that respect?
Aaron Porter: Clearly, I appreciate that while higher education remains in receipt of considerable public funds, and I am sure we will come on to the ratio of those public funds shortly, there is an important role for joined-up thinking between the research conducted in universities to help stimulate the economy and the skills provided for the future work force. I think that has to be constructed alongside the pure academic reasons why higher education exists, but the two need to co-exist comfortably alongside one another to justify those public funds.
Q154 Mr Binley: I have two supplementary questions. First, do you therefore have an understanding that some degree courses-the ones that more specifically verge upon the world of work rather than pure academic intellectual activity-need to be built with that in mind? The second question I would like to ask is because of a particular interest of mine: in the world of research, how happy are you about the involvement between universities and the world of work in terms of that research? It is the old hoary chestnut about Britain not developing very well the stuff that comes out of our universities but relying upon other nations to do so, to our detriment.
Aaron Porter: In terms of the first point and the construction of the curriculum, certainly with regard to the vocational end of the spectrum of qualifications I perfectly accept the need at times for there to be not just a close relationship but almost a uniform relationship in the construction of the curriculum, particularly where courses are professionally accredited-like engineers, doctors and so on. Of course, that needs to be done in parallel. So, yes, I perfectly accept that. At the other end of the spectrum there will be subjects like philosophy, English and so on, where the relationship with industry is much less important.
On the second point about research, it is worth pointing out that despite the fact the UK has 1% of the world’s population, it punches considerably above its weight in terms of its research. It has excellence internationally in terms of high-end research. There remains an ongoing challenge for the UK, if you consider where its competitive advantage will lie in future, as to how it ensures it is pursuing areas of research excellence, which is not necessarily based on a preconceived idea of which institutions historically have done the research well but rather which institutions, departments and ultimately which academics really excel in their field. When I consider the distribution of research funds at present, there has often been a historical distribution of where the research goes, based sometimes on the perceived prestige of certain institutions with perhaps not enough emphasis on where the real world-class academics are. If they happen not to be in one of the Russell group universities, I am perfectly comfortable with that. If they can prove that they are leading internationally in their field, they should be getting research funds to pursue the area of research that they are currently undertaking.
Q155 Chair: The NUS has been virulently opposed to tuition fees. What is the basis of your objection?
Aaron Porter: I should start by saying that at the introduction of tuition fees and then their increase in 2004-2005, which came into effect in 2006, NUS opposed any kind of graduate contribution whatsoever. However, recognising at the launch of the 2009 review that both of the parties likely to be the major player in any Government were wedded to some kind of graduate contribution, I think it was right that NUS changed its position to accept some form of it. We put forward a costed version of a graduate tax. We do not accept that there needs to be a market in tuition fees. I will perhaps go on to explain why I consider that to be problematic.
I do not think that as yet we have seen any evidence that a market in higher education delivers any improvements in the quality of teaching or the undergraduate experience that students are able to enjoy. Indeed, I would go further: the impacts of a market where variable fees exist under the system proposed by Browne and taken forward by the Government could have some damaging implications on student choice. In evidence we have seen from prospective students, there is concern that student choice might be shaped equally by the price that an institution or department is charging, and not necessarily the quality. I have not seen any substantial link between the price that an institution will charge and the quality of what the undergraduate will experience. While I believe that price will be set largely as a proxy for quality, it will actually be based on the institution’s perceived prestige, its league table standings and history. League table standings are largely about research performance and not anything to do with undergraduate experience. I am happy to elaborate on why I think that a market in fees is not, therefore, the most helpful way to secure a graduate contribution.
There is a secondary issue about how I consider that a graduate tax would be a more progressive solution to the collection of the graduate contribution. I think there are limits to the way a market can be progressive, and I am happy to elaborate on that if Members of the Committee would like me to.
Q156 Chair: Do you not think that the market approach has some merit in so far as it gives universities greater flexibility to use their fee-charging system to attract undergraduates to courses that they want to develop, or maybe even courses for which there is a national need but that hitherto have not been provided for within HE?
Aaron Porter: I do not believe that price should be the way in which students are attracted to or put off from studying a particular programme. Since the introduction of fees, we have seen choice increasingly determined by factors other than the academic content of the curriculum. I am of the clear opinion that choice should be determined by the curriculum on offer and the academic provision that a student should be entitled to receive on a particular programme. I am worried that as institutions start to charge different prices-not necessarily linked to the actual quality on offer or because the information is not there to get under the skin of the prices being charged, either to justify them or otherwise-there could be some unintended consequences of the market coming into place without the information properly to allow prospective students to navigate that market. There could be some perverse consequences.
Q157 Chair: But the Government hopes to counter that with a range of information support systems for students to prevent it. Do you not think that will act as a counterbalance?
Aaron Porter: I accept that successive Governments have talked almost relentlessly about the need for improved information, advice and guidance. I absolutely accept that and would wish to work with Government to try to provide better information and guidance to prospective students, but it is worth noting that one of Browne’s recommendations that we thought very important, although the National Union of Students was largely critical of them, was about the provision of information, advice and guidance to those currently in our schools. If we want to give applicants informed choices, it is not good enough to wait until they are 17 or 18. These things start much earlier, from 11 onwards.
Q158 Chair: I would say pre-11.
Aaron Porter: I would agree. But for reasons that were perhaps motivated by finance or other things, those recommendations about information, advice and guidance have not been taken forward by the relevant department, which is the DfE.
Q159 Mr Ward: Would you say that the rejection of the Browne proposals for uncapped fee levels largely removes the accusation that a market was being created in higher education?
Aaron Porter: Had Browne’s recommendations been taken in full, we would certainly have seen considerable variance in the fees offered. My prediction would be that the average fee may well have been lower had there not been a cap in place. But where we have seen the cap introduced, as we did with the 2004-05 reforms and now with the 2009 reforms, the vast majority of institutions will head towards that limit. So the variability will be somewhat constrained. That said, we will see real price variability for the first time, but I accept that because of the introduction of a cap, the level of variability will be less than it would have been.
Q160 Mr Ward: To follow up something in NUS’s own document Five Foundations for an Alternative Higher Education Funding System for England from 2009, you say there are five key principles. One is that, "Students should be provided for according to their true needs while they study, and should make a contribution to the costs of higher education according to the true benefit while they work. We would define this as a progressive approach." Would that not apply to the proposals as now agreed?
Aaron Porter: We supported a contribution linked entirely to earnings. This is still a contribution where you receive a debt on graduation and you repay it for a period of up to 30 years afterwards. The contribution is still largely derived from your choice of institution and subject, and then you repay it at 9% over £21,000. There are some problems with that in terms of it not being linked entirely to the benefit obtained. There are two reasons why I consider this to be a regressive system overall, even though the repayment mechanism is a progressive one. First, the fact that the contributions of top earners are not capped at all means that their total contribution is less than the middle earner as a percentage of their earnings over their lifetime or the 30 years.
Q161 Mr Ward: In your document Funding our Future Blueprint there is a table showing the repayments under your proposals. There would be no tuition fees under your proposals. Presumably, these figures do not take into account any debt incurred by a student, so that would be on top of these figures.
Aaron Porter: Yes. The blueprint we put forward, which was a version of a graduate tax that we asked Lord Browne’s committee to consider, was for a graduate contribution to replace tuition fees. A maintenance system would need to be supplementary to that.
Q162 Mr Ward: It could not be compared on a like-by-like basis with the proposals now because they are inclusive of the debt incurred, but these are not.
Aaron Porter: Yes. Ours should be considered alongside a replacement for tuition fees.
Chair: I was going to ask whether you had put your proposals to Browne, but you have anticipated that in your response.
Q163 Nadhim Zahawi: Thank you for coming, Mr Porter. What are the basic standards students should reasonably expect from any university in terms of facilities, teaching, etc? What do you think those basic standards are?
Aaron Porter: Clearly, it varies from subject to subject and institution to institution. That said, I think the threshold that any prospective student should expect is one that allows them to maximise their academic potential within a particular course or institution. I think that increasingly there are concerns about elements of quality in higher education. For some students there are concerns about lack of contact in terms of either its quantity or quality. There are secondary long-standing concerns, borne out by the annual national student survey, about the quality of feedback on assessed work, where satisfaction is much less than in other areas of academic activity.
Q164 Nadhim Zahawi: I was asking you what the basic standards are. Give me the mean of what the basic standards should be?
Aaron Porter: I do not know how you can quantify standards.
Q165 Nadhim Zahawi: I am referring to facilities, teaching quality and so on. I understand what the concerns are, but is there a basic standard?
Aaron Porter: I think that because institutions and courses are so varied, it is very difficult to put forward a model that would not be wholly inappropriate for another subject. The standards that need to be met as a basic threshold are ones that allow a student to pursue a particular field of study to the best of their ability.
Q166 Nadhim Zahawi: Do you think that the Government’s proposed funding model will deliver that, or not?
Aaron Porter: I think that for some institutions the new funding settlement absolutely allows them to continue to provide world-leading higher education. One of the consequences of the market, though, will be that institutions that are already historically richer will become richer still, because they are the ones at the top end of the market and therefore will be able to charge a higher price. These are incidentally the institutions that tend to teach the more well-to-do, middle-class students. There is a slight concern that with the seismic change in the way higher education is now funded, the institutions that have lost a great deal of public funding because they concentrate on arts, humanities and social sciences, coupled with the fact that they may not be able to justify a higher fee-not because they are bad institutions but because their perceived prestige or history does not allow them to charge a fee of perhaps more than £6,000-could experience relatively substantial cuts in the order of 20% or 30% in real terms. That I think raises some real questions about whether they will be able to provide a standard that is good enough.
Q167 Nadhim Zahawi: That would make sense if there was no cap, but if you talk to somewhere like the University of Cambridge, the real cost of a student per annum is about £19,000, yet, obviously, we know there is a cap of £9,000. That does not seem to follow your model, i.e. the richer universities will just get richer, because they cannot charge an open-ended amount.
Aaron Porter: Fortunately-or perhaps unfortunately, depending on your perspective-a great deal of cross-subsidy goes on in a university like Cambridge. It receives a considerable amount of research funding that often crosssubsidises other areas across the institution. Coupled with its endowments and ability to raise alumni donations, in contrast to other institutions, I do not have an ounce of concern about Cambridge University being unable to provide a world-class education.
Q168 Nadhim Zahawi: Nor do I, but that does not apply to your argument that having endowments or the ability to raise money does not necessarily mean they will get richer because of the system that the Government is introducing. Do you see what I mean? There is a disconnect between the two arguments.
Aaron Porter: The reason I make that case is that Cambridge will be able to charge £9,000 and another university that may have a similar cost base will not. Cambridge is a bad example because it still provides one-to-one undergraduate tuition.
Q169 Nadhim Zahawi: But you get my meaning? They will not get richer because of the system.
Aaron Porter: Relatively, they will become richer. Universities that charge towards the top end will be relatively richer compared with those that cannot.
Q170 Ian Murray: Is there a danger in this system, therefore, that if there is a differential in long-term funding for institutions, many of them will charge at the top end of the scale essentially to buy them prestige, even if the quality of the course or teaching is not there? I do not necessarily agree that the quality of the teaching will not be there, but we have already seen universities charging up to £9,000 and it appears that they are doing it essentially in order to try to be in the top bracket of the Russell Group.
Aaron Porter: Clearly, there are universities making strategic decisions about where they wish to place themselves in the market based on what that will look like to prospective students. Until there is a comprehensive relationship between the price being charged and the quality on offer, I am not assured that the price being charged is a fair reflection of what the undergraduate is likely to receive. In my private conversations with university vice-chancellors they have said that they do not want to be considered the Ratners equivalent of a university by setting their price low, and therefore considered to be offering a worse product, as it were, to prospective students.
Q171 Paul Blomfield: Aaron, you chose your words carefully in responding to Nadhim’s point about quality. You said you had no doubt that some universities would continue to be able to offer high quality. The Browne review set itself six key principles, the first of which was that there should be more investment in higher education. Do you think the Government’s proposals will achieve that objective?
Aaron Porter: I do not consider that all universities will be in receipt of more funds; in fact that will patently not be the case. Those that have lost considerable public funds for teaching and are unable to fill that with increased tuition fees will be worse off under this system. That said, the total amount of money flowing into higher education could be greater if the fees end up being higher than £7,500 on average, but that requires two factors to come into play: first, that the Government chooses not to withdraw the additional funds from BIS if tuition fees end up being higher than they had budgeted for, which presumably is a decision for BIS and the Treasury and, secondly, that total student numbers are where they are, because you need to take that into account alongside how many there will be in the system.
Q172 Nadhim Zahawi: To go back to the idea of minimum standards, what do you think universities will need to charge just to maintain them?
Aaron Porter: The university leaders I have spoken to suggested that anywhere between £7,200 and £8,000 allows them largely to stay where they are. As Mr Binley and others have pointed out, some universities believe they have larger historic costs.
Q173 Nadhim Zahawi: Currently, which factors do you think are most influential in the decision by students to go to university and the institutions they choose?
Aaron Porter: One of the good things we have seen as a consequence of the expansion of higher education over the past two decades, really since 1992, is that the choices students make are quite varied, but the key things that keep coming back are their ability to gain employment afterwards and their earnings linked to that. For some students it is the academic quality on offer; fortunately there are still some students who make a choice based on the academic robustness of the curriculum and so on. There are others who do it simply to reskill, either because they wish to change profession or are looking to move in another direction. There are others who go into higher education because it is part of their career plan-essentially to gain additional skills.
Q174 Nadhim Zahawi: Do you think the majority of students are in a position to make informed and rational choices between universities based on value for money and quality of degree course?
Aaron Porter: I trust students in terms of using the information available to them to try to make informed choices. That said, I do not believe that the provision of information at present, or indeed as proposed, is quite good enough. Let me illustrate that with a couple of examples. Lots of students go into higher education for career earnings and so on. As yet, the only information that really exists on a national level for earnings is six-month destination data after graduation: the DLHE data. That is not good enough; that is not a sufficiently accurate reflection of what your earnings might be five or 10 years down the road.
Over the past couple of decades, universities have become increasingly interested in glossy prospectuses. There must be at least 50 universities that describe themselves as being in the top 10 in terms of the quality of what they provide, so clearly something does not quite add up. What we would like to see is more impartial information about both the academic content and equally the graduate destinations of different students based on courses and institutions.
Q175 Nadhim Zahawi: The Mission group has described a general failure on the part of the Government and media to explain the new funding system in words that people can understand. I ask you to put yourself in the position of the media or the Government. Can you explain to students in a 20-second sound bite what the new system is about?
Aaron Porter: If I was trying to describe it, it is a graduate contribution based on a percentage of your earnings afterwards. Fortunately I am not in the game of having to describe it; I am in the game of having to critique it.
Nadhim Zahawi: That is very good, I have to say. I might steal that.
Mr Binley: It’s called getting on the front foot.
Q176 Nadhim Zahawi: We also heard from the Mission group that it is clearer, simpler and less confusing to students and fairer in the end for each university to charge the same fee for all courses. Do you agree with that?
Aaron Porter: In truth, I see the arguments on both sides. I certainly do not have a problem with markets per se, but I do have a problem with a market in undergraduate fees because I do not think it is linked to quality. Therefore, to an extent I would much prefer a system where there was a flat fee across institutions. Of course, you can hit that by asking how it is fair to a student who perhaps goes to a particular university and gets a couple of hours of contact a week and is unable to gain employment, compared with someone who pays the same price who gets 20 hours a week and is therefore able to earn considerably more. That is why I believe that the contribution should be linked to your earnings. That is the only way to have a truly progressive system.
Q177 Nadhim Zahawi: What research has NUS conducted into the number of graduates who will completely repay their loans? What proportion of graduates do you expect still to be in debt at, say, age 50?
Aaron Porter: We have looked largely at research done by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on what the outcomes might be for graduates who go through the system. We have also looked at the work of London Economics. There is conflict between the two sets of economists in terms of how progressive the system might be.
Q178 Nadhim Zahawi: That is no surprise.
Aaron Porter: The research we have done has looked largely at what the deterrent effect or otherwise might be of variable fees for students likely to go into higher education. We really do not have the kind of economic capacity properly to model what might happen in terms of earnings tracks and so on.
Q179 Paul Blomfield: We have talked a lot about fees for full-time students. Much has been made in the public discourse of the Government’s proposals about additional support for part-time students. What do you anticipate will be the impact of the proposals on part-time fees?
Aaron Porter: We welcome the fact that two thirds of part-time students will now be in receipt of a loan rather than an upfront fee; there remain about one third who will not. However, in the pricing put forward by universities for 2012 that I have seen it looks as though part-time student fees are now more than doubling as a consequence of those students being able to receive loans. Certainly, any system that means you can repay once you are earning is better than one where you have to pay an upfront fee, but we should accept that as a consequence of that, the total contributions being made by part-time students are likely to increase considerably.
Q180 Paul Blomfield: Looking at those full-time fees, you will recall that when the Government made its announcement to assuage concerns, there was a very strong message that fees of £9,000 would be charged only in exceptional circumstances. What did you understand "exceptional" to be at that time? Did you expect that to be the outcome?
Aaron Porter: On the same day I said that it would be at least 50%, and I stand by that; indeed, I might have offered a conservative prediction, as it seems that somewhere in the order of 80% have gone straight to the maximum. I have to say I was utterly astounded by what I considered an incredibly naïve assumption on the part of BIS. Without any new disincentives being introduced, why on earth would the majority of institutions not go to the top end? I am concerned not just because it is a poor prediction but because of the Treasury implications afterwards. In the media over the last week suggestions have been made that there could be a black hole of the order of £1 billion if the average fee ends up being £8,500. I am concerned that there will be pressure to take that out of the university budget, which has already suffered considerable cuts, not least a £3 billion cut in teaching.
Chair: We shall be investigating the implications of that in the near future.
Q181 Paul Blomfield: Clearly, there will still be some universities that charge below 9k and some may choose to pitch their courses significantly below that level. One or two have already given that indication. What do you expect would be the difference between a university course that charged, say, £7,000 in terms of the quality of experience and teaching and one at £9,000?
Aaron Porter: Let me look to history to try to offer an informed answer. Since fees went up from just over £1,000 to £3,000, as far as I can see there has been no demonstrable indicator as to how quality has improved in that time. Student satisfaction has remained approximately where it was; contact times remain roughly where they were. The areas where there were improvements were to do with capital investment on campus and expenditure in other areas of the university, but as far as I am concerned there was no demonstrable improvement in the quality of what an undergraduate received. To extend that to its logical conclusion, I suspect that unless information is really transparent and probing, you will not necessarily see an obvious difference between someone paying £7,000 in one lecture theatre and another student paying £9,000 elsewhere.
Q182 Paul Blomfield: Do you think that universities that choose to pitch courses at the lowest level, say those on 6k, might be taking a risk with quality and the experience they are able to offer?
Aaron Porter: Certainly, one university, London Metropolitan University, has publicly suggested that it will have fees of largely around £6,000. Where some of its courses have a cost base that is greater than that, there will have to be cuts. I struggle to see how that will be done easily without potentially compromising the quality of what is on offer. I suspect that the model of London Metropolitan and others that choose to charge a lower fee might be one that moves to a system of poorer staff/student ratios, so there will be larger lecture theatres, and also perhaps a restriction in the amount of direct contact, either in terms of one-on-one personal tutors or indeed contact time. I do not believe that is in the interests of the student.
Q183 Paul Blomfield: Moving to a different point, in your written evidence you raise concerns about hidden and additional charges imposed by universities over and above course fees. How widespread do you think that problem is and what can such charges amount to?
Aaron Porter: There is considerable concern among existing students about what some of their additional costs are, and it is not just because they are not particularly well advertised or documented pre-arrival. The biggest concern for students is the amount of money they have in their pocket while they are there, if you fully understand the nature of the repayment system for tuition fees. There are some courses, particularly concentrated on certain subjects like the creative ones-photography, fashion, design and so on-where the responsibility is on the individual to go out and buy the camera, process the film, buy the materials and so on, which can easily amount to several thousand pounds over the course of a year. That often exceeds the maintenance loan that is provided to the student. There is an issue about access to fulfil your academic potential if you are unable to buy the resources. I have heard of instances where fashion students, for instance, have had to foot the cost of hiring out halls to put on their end-of-year shows, or art students having to pay for the construction of their installations and so on. These costs are sometimes prohibitive.
I accept that there is an extent to which the individual will have to bear the cost of those things, but the least that I think should be afforded to them is that institutions are transparent about the expected fee upfront. In the White Paper process, we suggested to the department that the quality agency, as part of monitoring standards in institutions, should monitor the additional costs that are passed on to additional students. Potentially, they could include that in their audit if they believe that the institution is not giving due consideration to particular students on particular courses.
Q184 Paul Blomfield: That is a useful point we can take note of, Aaron. Under the current system do students have access to any significant support on these additional costs, and what is your understanding of what might happen in the future?
Aaron Porter: Above and beyond the maintenance loan, which has been marginally extended under the new arrangements, every university has some form of access-to-learning fund or hardship fund, depending on how the institution is set up. I fear that those funds will come under increasing pressure, so there is a prospect that they might have to stretch further if institutions do not supplement those funds sufficiently.
Q185 Mr Binley: The kinds of subjects you are talking about suggest that there might be real opportunity for sponsorship and the connection with industry that I talked about before. Do you see enough energy being put into that, or do you expect it to emerge? Do you see it as a possibility?
Aaron Porter: I think that often relationships between institutions and employers have been sluggish, and not enough effort has been made for both institution and discipline-wide relationships to be struck up, whether that is with the creative industries, financial services or other professions. That is partly because the responsibility often lies with the individual staff member. Very proactive staff, who have a considerable number of other pressures on their plate, are expected to go off and deliver those relationships, when I do not think they necessarily get enough support from the institution centrally, and to an extent there are no regional or national fora for that to be pursued.
Chair : That is worth noting.
Q186 Paul Blomfield: The Government has not yet published its policy on early repayment of loans for graduates with high incomes. What do you hope to see on that issue?
Aaron Porter: It is a difficult issue with which I appreciate the Government has to wrestle. At this stage I offer a personal preference. My instinct is that those who can afford to pay upfront should be subject to some kind of additional penalty if they come from families that are sufficiently wealthy to be able to do that.
Q187 Paul Blomfield: Is that a view NUS will be pressing?
Aaron Porter: As a president who likes to consult with my members, I would have to seek a wider endorsement for that.
Q188 Margot James: I want to start by asking a supplementary to Paul’s last question. GlaxoSmithKline have said that they will repay all loans for graduates on their graduate training programme. Do you think that might become quite a widespread phenomenon? Presumably, you would wish to apply the same kind of premium. Do you feel that your idea of charging those students a premium might disincentivise employers from making that generous gesture?
Aaron Porter: Certainly, I welcome the moves by GlaxoSmithKline and others who have decided to strike up links with particular institutions because they are confident of the outcomes of the graduates from certain institutions. If those companies are sufficiently confident about the skills that those graduates would bring, the likes of GSK are probably in a position to withstand a 5% tolerance of early repayment, if that is what the Government plumps for.
I would just put a rider on that. While I welcome these schemes, it would be something of a disappointment if largely middle-class graduates who ended up in relatively well paid jobs were the ones who benefited from them. I have been assured so far that GlaxoSmithKline and others in their relationships are trying to provide internships and work experience to students from poorer backgrounds, in a quest to try to give them opportunities they would not otherwise have. That is a positive move, but if it was just middle-class students who were likely to get those benefits, that would be a missed opportunity for some.
Q189 Margot James: The noises we are hearing about widening participation are that it is a quid pro quo for charging the top fees. Presumably, if that was working successfully, the kind of graduates who would end up applying to companies that would repay their fees would have a wider selection of income backgrounds.
Aaron Porter: What we need to see are more effective outreach programmes from universities to genuinely ensure that they are recruiting and then supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some progress has been made over the past 10 years. Certainly, the participation rate for students in the bottom 20% of socioeconomic backgrounds has increased substantially. That said, their participation is still disproportionately skewed towards more modern universities. That is not to say that more modern universities are not providing a high standard of higher education; they absolutely are, but in terms of destination there is a disadvantage for certain institutions. If you are able to get into the more elite universities you are more likely to get into certain industries. That is where we need to see real progress. I should say at this stage that the Government has talked a great deal about its focus on participation, access and so on, but as yet we have not seen any detail or any concrete suggestions about how universities will have to change their behaviour. The letter from the Secretary of State to the Director of the Office for Fair Access used tougher language but afforded that office no new powers that are not currently in existence.
Q190 Margot James: What powers and concrete proposals for widening participation would you like to see the Government come up with?
Aaron Porter: I believe that if universities fail to meet the targets for access, which they set themselves, they should be prevented from charging the highest fees until they are able to show they are making progress towards those targets. There has been a historic problem where universities have said they will offer a certain amount of money in bursaries and have not offered all of it. That should be made publicly available and those institutions should be compelled to ensure that the money they said was going towards bursaries actually ends up in the pockets of the poorer students. That has not always happened historically.
Q191 Margot James: Are you suggesting fines for universities that do not achieve their targets?
Aaron Porter: Not quite fines, but they would be prevented from charging the highest fees in future years.
Q192 Margot James: Do you think there are ways to improve access that do not involve reducing standards ultimately?
Aaron Porter: Absolutely. I think the area of outreach by institutions in terms of the effectiveness and economy of every pound they spend is sometimes not as efficient as it could be. Under the previous reforms lots of money went into bursaries and fee waivers. If you are serious about widening access, you need to put the money in earlier. That means you need to get the money to those who are 11, 12 and 13 to get them the experience of a higher education institution and genuinely improve their experiences of HE. The evidence suggests that if you target the money earlier you get a greater return on investment. I also consider that money that goes into fee waivers is one of the least effective ways to spend it, because you are not repaying it until you earn £21,000. If you get a £3,000 discount on your tuition fee, the fact is that you are not repaying it until you get to £21,000. I would rather see that £3,000 go into the pockets of students from the poorest backgrounds while they are in higher education, so they do not have to do as many hours of part-time work whilst they are there, or alternatively see that money goes to ensuring universities go into some of the schools with students from poor backgrounds and so on.
Q193 Margot James: In your written evidence you talk about flexibility to enable students to move between universities during their courses. Is there much need for that? What stops it from happening at the moment?
Aaron Porter: In any market environment-this is not the language I would use but rather the language that I imagine universities will consider-if the consumer is unhappy with the service that they receive and are paying something for that, they will move to another provider. If you are unhappy with what Sainsbury’s offers, you will go along to Tesco. Unfortunately, the same principles will probably need to be established in higher education. If you are paying £9,000 a year to go to a particular university and can prove that what you receive is not what was promised to you, I believe you should be able to take your £9,000 and go to another institution. Clearly, there are limits. I respect the fact that universities remain responsible for their admissions and they will need to ensure that prospective students meet their entry requirements, but if we are to put power into the hands of students, which is what the Government says it wants to do-I believe that will be the thrust of the White Paper in terms of their intentions-we need properly to deliver it. I think that would be a critical way to ensure that can happen.
Q194 Chair: Earlier you quoted GSK. It was an interesting observation. Given the huge influence that potentially GSK has over the design and content of courses, do you not think that it could use its influence to compromise academic freedom? If you do, is that necessarily a bad thing anyway?
Aaron Porter: If I were a student and graduate. I would want skills that would be useful for prospective employers, so in many respects I would be reassured that if an employer like GlaxoSmithKline was in a relationship with a particular institution, that would probably stand me in good stead not just for prospective employment with them but, most likely, with other employers as well. Clearly, it is for institutions to design and sign off their curriculum, but if that is done in relationship with companies like GlaxoSmithKline, I do not consider that necessarily to be a problem.
Q195 Chair: Interesting. I raise a slightly different angle to do with access. You mentioned what is effectively a fining process for universities that do not meet their targets. You did not mention the problem that could arise with a number of universities who already have a high proportion of lower income students and, if you like, the difficulty they would have in raising those targets. Therefore, they have greater difficulty and are more liable to that fining process. How do you see such universities being able to get round that?
Aaron Porter: I know from personal experience. I have gone to the University of Leicester. Leicester is a university that is pretty successful at recruiting students from relatively poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, partly because of the demography of the city but also because of its successful outreach. I perfectly accept that if they are already quite successful it is harder for them to improve yet further. That is why I think they should be judged on benchmarks compared with similar institutions. Leicester should be judged alongside similar institutions like Loughborough, Exeter and so on. If they are already meeting their benchmarks they should be assured that they will continue to be able to charge the fee they want to set, whereas institutions that fail to meet their benchmarks would be the ones that perhaps faced penalties of some kind.
Q196 Chair: Perhaps "benchmarks" is a better word than "lower targets", but effectively that is what it is.
Aaron Porter: Yes.
Q197 Mr Ward: You mentioned fee waivers, Aaron. I agree with you, but that is because we both understand the policy; if I was on free school meals, I would go for the most expensive university I could possibly find. But we are also told that the perception of debt, even though it is income based, is a deterrent to would-be students from low-income families, so there is a benefit in fee waivers, is there not, in terms of dealing with that perception?
Aaron Porter: Basic economics would suggest that there has to be price elasticity of demand. Just because demand did not fall under the previous reforms-although it did fall by 5% in the first year of capped variable tuition, it subsequently increased-I suspect that we could be looking at a 10% or 15% decrease in the first year of the introduction of this new system. I would like to see institutions taking decisions that ensure that every pound is spent most effectively in terms of what has a genuine impact in terms of widening access and outreach. That is why I believe a discount on something that you are not repaying until you get to £21,000 is not as well spent as something that can put money in the pockets of poorer students while they are there.
Mr Ward: I agree.
Q198 Margot James: You said in your written evidence that the traditional university model was not suitable to supply the rising numbers of people we need with the higher level skills that the economy will require in future. Can you expand on that and also comment on whether you think we are therefore oversupplied with traditional universities?
Aaron Porter: An interesting observation I would make is that despite the significant increase in participation in higher education since 1992, we have slipped from third to 11th, at least since 1997, in terms of the percentage of graduates in the adult population of OECD countries. I am concerned that as a percentage of the adult population we do not have sufficient high-level skills in the economy to remain internationally competitive with some of the countries that we would like to be seen alongside.
That said, I think there is too much focus on the full-time undergraduate experience. We do not have a system that allows people to feel comfortable enough to decide to go into higher education for the first time at 25 or 30, or indeed later on in life. There is not enough opportunity to study part-time alongside full-time study to genuinely reskill. Linked to this there is an issue about access to postgraduate education, because if we are really interested in stimulating the economy going forward, our performance in those highest level skills is where we are dramatically falling back, particularly for UK-based students. We are heavily reliant on non-EU students in some of our STEM fields particularly, so I have concerns both about overall participation and, more importantly, when and how people are participating, and making informed choices about what they are studying in terms of how it relates to the economy.
Q199 Mr Binley: I completely welcome your remarks, but again is there not a real opportunity to work with the commercial and industrial world? It seems to me that there is a massive benefit in this respect. I can see the ability of forming relationships in that way as highly beneficial. Am I being idealistic, or do you think that is relevant?
Aaron Porter: What I would like to see as part of this improved information for prospective students when they are 13, 14 or 15 is somehow a sense of where the skills gaps are in the economy 20 years hence. It is difficult to capture that information and to predict the trends of the economy and where investment might fall in future. But there has been a historic problem, for instance, in some obvious areas like chemistry, physics and engineering, where not enough UK students have chosen to study those subjects. Lots of them have chosen other subjects. If someone wants to choose those subjects because they are interested in them, that is absolutely fine. There is a huge cost associated with it and that is their prerogative, but equally if they are making that decision because they do not know that there are gaps in the skills economy for the future in physics, engineering and chemistry that is a missed opportunity.
Q200 Margot James: My last question is a follow-on from what you said about the need for a more flexible model of provision across the age range. Do you want to add anything about what would be a suitable model of provision, bearing in mind the skills shortages? In the blurring of the line between the further education sector and the university sector, have we got the balance right between those two structures?
Aaron Porter: I would have liked to see essentially a credit-based model, whereby if you choose to do 60 or 120 credits of accountancy or engineering, you are funded for those credits; it was disappointing that Lord Browne’s review did not give enough attention to that. You might not need to study a full three-year undergraduate programme-a full degree. If you already have a degree and you are 40 years old, in order to secure a promotion you might need to upskill in your statistics or physics. I would have liked to see a model genuinely based on lifelong learning and credits linked to learning, rather than our ongoing obsession with qualifications rather than learning.
Q201 Mr Ward: I was interested to read about the idea of the accumulation of credit points and additional contributions. Would that be a disincentive to progression?
Aaron Porter: No. If anything, I think it might be an incentive to progression, because you would view education in a different way. At the moment, if someone drops out after two years they are seen as that-a dropout-rather than someone who has successfully undertaken two years of higher education and picked up certain skills if they have passed the modules. For instance, in Europe they are much better at also accrediting prior learning, so if you have been in a business or public sector environment and have picked up certain skills and can prove that you have met those requirements, in some respects you should be credited for those achievements. You might realise that your skills deficiencies are in certain areas, and you just pick up the modules that provide those particular skills and then garner a qualification in that way.
Chair: There are a couple more questions. If Members depart it is because business is about to start in the Chamber. I know that some Members have questions that they have to ask, so do not take it as a reflection on anything you have said.
Q202 Ian Murray: I just want to pick up the interesting discussion about credits and a full degree course, and where people would choose to do stuff maybe to advance their careers. But the difficulty is that it is not really a university or further education problem, is it? If you look at any structure of business in terms of what they are looking for, the very first thing they say is that at a certain level there is a need for a degree of a certain grade in various subjects. Therefore, we do not really need to model the university sector as such to change attitudes; we need to alter the business sector and employers themselves. That has to be governmental, doesn’t it? Otherwise, people will still just say they want a first-class honours degree from Cambridge and nothing else.
Aaron Porter: I completely agree that there is narrowness among many employers about what they look for in terms of the skills and experiences of potential graduates who work for them. I find it very disappointing that lots of our top companies simply choose to screen graduates by the institutions where they studied. That is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the graduate. I have seen some pretty poor departments in some of our supposedly world-leading universities, and the same goes for graduates. Equally, I have met some outstanding graduates from universities that might fall outside the top 20, but I would argue that the fact that perhaps they have come from a deprived background, got into higher education at all and secured an impressive final degree classification means that they are often much more suitable for the place of work than the ways in which some employers screen. I appreciate that in an environment where there are tens of thousands of applications, you need to find a system to do it, but I am not sure that is the most sophisticated one.
Q203 Margot James: What are the top three things you would like to see in the forthcoming White Paper?
Aaron Porter: I would like to see proper protections for students in so far as if they have been mis-sold something in terms of information, those individuals get the chance either to take their education elsewhere or get a proper refund or reimbursement for what they have undertaken, if they can prove that that has been the case. I would like to see the new system have strict requirements on access. If those access requirements are not met, institutions should be prevented from charging the top prices. Thirdly, I would like to see a responsibility on all institutions to have to engage with their student union on academic-related issues to ensure that there is a proper strategy on student engagement on teaching and learning issues in every single institution.
Chair: That is admirably concise. We have got through a lot of questions within the hour. Thank you very much, Aaron. We appreciate your contribution.
Q204 Mr Binley: May I ask just one more question? What is your career choice when you leave your present job, Aaron?
Aaron Porter: Give it 10 years. No, I finish with the NUS in three months and currently I am weighing up my options.
Q205 Mr Binley: You have not yet decided.
Aaron Porter: Not fully.
Q206 Chair: My observation is that that is a very political answer.
Aaron Porter: You would know.
Chair: Thank you very much.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Sally Hunt, General Secretary, University and College Union, Mike Robinson, National Officer Education, UNITE the Union, and Jon Richards, Head of Higher Education, UNISON, gave evidence.
Q207 Chair: Good morning, and thank you for agreeing to speak to us. As you will gather, business in the Chamber is about to commence. Members of the Committee have questions to put, so there will be a degree of coming and going during the course of the interview, so please do not take that as anything personal or a reflection on you. It is not a matter of discourtesy on the part of Members; it is just a reflection of the difficulty of being in two places at one time. Before we start the questions, could you just introduce yourselves for the purposes of voice recognition?
Jon Richards: I am Jon Richards, Senior National Officer for UNISON and head of HE.
Sally Hunt: I am Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union.
Mike Robinson: I am Mike Robinson, National Officer for the education sector of UNITE.
Q208 Chair: Thank you very much. If you feel that a question has been adequately answered by a colleague, do not feel a pressing urge to add to it. We have only one hour. First, what is university for, very briefly?
Sally Hunt: I think it is very simple. For the individual and country it is an economic, cultural and societal benefit. What we are doing within a university is something that has to be recognised as a benefit both for the whole and for the individual. It also has to be seen to celebrate stretching the human being to the extremity you can; in other words, the intellectual rigour that it enables us as individuals and as a society to embed in our lives is something that is absolutely epitomised by university regardless of the subject area. When it is done well that is what it should aim for.
Q209 Chair: Do you have anything to add?
Jon Richards: I don’t think we could.
Q210 Chair: Good. Let’s move on. If you had been in the room earlier you would have heard about the impact of the reforms on students and universities as organisations. From your perspective, what do you think will be the direct impact on staff working in HE?
Mike Robinson: I think there will be a long period of instability in universities from the changes, particularly affecting staff. I know from speaking to many vice-chancellors and senior management in universities that they cannot predict the exact outcome of the change to the fee and funding regime. Therefore, they are not able to predict with any certainty what staffing levels would be. The concern for me is the great degree of uncertainty. Management use the phrase "the valley of death" when talking about the 2012-13 funding arrangements, because they see all 160 of them-not 600-riding into the unknown and they do not know how many will come out on the other side and survive. For staff working in those institutions, that gives them great uncertainty, inability to plan and a lot of concern about their future and jobs.
Q211 Chair: Do you wish to add to that?
Jon Richards: We ought to start from where we are. We have a hugely successful higher education sector and what the Government seeks to do sets up risks. For me, the big issue is the unknown risks, how we are to progress with them and measure them and whether the Government has made a proper risk analysis. In the financial future, we are really gambling with a successful model. That is not to be complacent. I think there are areas where there is potential for improvement, but you need to be very careful what you do when dealing with a very successful model.
Sally Hunt: The point about instability is well understood, so I will not go over that ground. Academically, I think it is already having a real impact. In the planning that is taking place both within individual institutions but also at departmental and research institute level, staff are now very mindful that there is a cut of approximately 10% in real terms over the next CSR period in terms of research, added to the 80% teaching cut that is coming through. That means there is real anxiety about how and where they plan their academic work, set against not really knowing what the benchmarks will be. For individual staff members, that has real insecurity about it. In terms of what that means for their decisions, it is a potential narrowing down in the scope of blue-sky work that will take place. I think there is also a risk of drift of those in the top flights looking outside this country in terms of where they will base their work. Therefore, it is job security for all, but in terms of outcomes, choices are already being made in a way that judges security or insecurity in this country, and it is coming down in a very negative way.
Q212 Mr Binley: Isn’t the concern, however, that the nation has wanted to expand higher education but never really got down to the business of financing it, so finance has always chased the number of people involved? Is that not the fact of the matter? Do you think that we still have not got down properly to deciding how we should finance higher education?
Sally Hunt: Gosh, Brian. How long have we got to answer that question? That is moving slightly from the question you were asking.
Q213 Mr Binley: Yes, it is, but it is important, I think.
Sally Hunt: I think that in this country there has been, quite rightly, an expectation and commitment from Governments over a number of generations to expand the higher education sector. With the changes that came through under the previous Government, we started to have a slight stuttering, if I may put it that way, in terms of how funding from Government and the balance between industry and the family would underpin that expansion. What has never been in question-I would question whether it should be-is the necessity of funding for the system, because I think it is accepted that for this country economically, socially and culturally in the decades to come it is a fundamental for us.
Do I think that the funding systems that have been put in place to address what has to be a mass expansion in higher education are right? No. I agree with you, Brian, that a range of sticking plasters have been put on in a way that has not recognised the needs of the system, or our expectation that we have to have access to higher education, and our need for it. It seems to me that what we have at the moment is a policy that struggles between the two. It seems to be going down on the side of it being almost a privilege as opposed to a need for the country. If you know it is a need, you have to fund it, and you cannot do that with the system that is in place.
Q214 Paul Blomfield: Sally, I wonder whether I could follow up your answer to the Chairman about what university is for. Do you see a difference between a university and other higher education providers? If so, do you think they should be recognised differently within the system?
Sally Hunt: I would start by saying that we have to be incredibly careful of the name university. I think the brand of the university system in this country should be protected and nourished, because the quality it is rightly known for is based on some very clear benchmarks, for example the need to have at least four years’ experience before you can call yourself a university; the not always welcome interventions from the QAA and other agencies to make sure that the standards are there; and the embedding of higher education with academic freedom. All those basic things have protected the brand. Within that we have already some pressure points. If you then add to what is taking place, particularly with the White Paper coming through, we have to be very careful, because the notion of higher education that will be coming through the private provider is one that is in real danger of diluting the brand, unless it is given exactly the same kind of quality test and protections.
In further education, there is fantastic provision of higher education. That is something that is not always recognised and understood, but it goes on quietly in a way that we should be very proud of and gives opportunities to many people who would not otherwise necessarily go on to a higher education institution. Within that, though, the pressure points are where because the incentive is often that it is cheaper, that can mean fewer and less qualified staff, fewer resources and less ability to develop the necessary research that goes alongside good quality higher education. I think there are pressure points coming into the system now, and ones that I genuinely worry will dilute what is one of the great success stories of this country. I think that to call yourself a university in this country is something you should have to work very hard to do.
Q215 Katy Clark: I know that one of the concerns of the various trade unions in terms of the proposals is the use of private providers, and institutions that perhaps traditionally would not have been considered universities being called universities, and that some of the private organisations that already exist operate in quite a different way, particularly in relation to issues such as academic freedom. When you are looking at the proposals that are likely to come forward, what would be your warning to the Government in terms of some of the issues to do with academic freedom?
Sally Hunt: For me the main concern is that if you are looking to expand the system through the use of private provision, you have to incentivise the private provider to come in. The theory ought to work in that it enables higher education to be delivered more cheaply in terms of the state and the individual student. The experience we have had of providers in the States has told us that that is exactly the opposite of what happens, particularly for students coming in, because you find that the drop-out rate is massive compared with public sector universities in the States. The level of complaint has been far higher, to the extent that now there is far more regulation being introduced. I would be extremely worried if we did not learn the lessons from the United States that have been shown to be needed.
The second thing is that if we are to have private providers-to be quite honest with you, I and my union are very opposed to that, and I suspect my colleagues will also have comments about it-and we go down that route, which I think the Minister has made very clear is his preferred one, we must have exactly the same kind of protections for the academic staff and students as we have for our institutions now; namely, the statutory provisions within their own constitutions that say academic freedom is absolutely enshrined. It seems to me we must have contracts of employment that enable academics in particular to work in a way that is independent of what the parent company might do.
I say that very carefully because I think there is a misunderstanding of how someone like BPP, who may have quite an experience in higher education, is not bound in the same way that the University of Sheffield might be bound by its statutes. It is bound by its parent company and has to make certain provisions. We have to think that one through because those are very different influences and pressure points.
My suggestion would be that in the White Paper this Government needs to look very carefully at why, within the terms that are coming through, we could not learn the lessons from Scotland and introduce something very clear linking academic freedom to what we expect of institutions in the country. It is a simple way of doing it. Set that benchmark high and, at the same time, protect institutions like the QAA and say that they have to go in and the inspections have to be there. Do those two things and you will probably go a long way to making it credible. I suspect that it might put off a lot of providers though, because the benchmarks are tough.
Jon Richards: There is also an issue about funding. There is not a read-across to the funding model in the United States. There is a completely different culture of alumni-giving; they have a completely different role of investment structures, and that brings additional risks to the model. Harvard, where we have quite a few links, not too long ago took huge hits on the investment market as a result of the amount of money it had put in. Again, if you are involving private providers you introduce new risks in the market, which I think people need to be very careful about, especially the culture of giving, which just is not here in this country. Huge amounts of money are pumped into the United States from alumni.
Q216 Paul Blomfield: I wonder if I could explore the same issue that Nadhim Zahawi raised earlier with Aaron about the basic standards that you all think students should reasonably expect from their university in terms of facilities and teaching. I realise it is difficult to quantify, but what is your broad understanding of what student expectations might reasonably be?
Sally Hunt: That is an impossible question, if I might say, so I will probably give you an unhelpful answer. I am not doing it deliberately. To talk globally about student provision is an impossibility, because it is utterly dependent on the type of institution, the course and the student. What ought to be the principle we start from is that if you have the ability, you should have access to a course of your choosing and the necessary support to underpin that. That might well mean that you need a university in your locality that has the full range of courses; it might well mean that within your first year in particular you have the necessary support structures around you to enable you to make the transition from a very different type of education into higher education, or from the workplace back into higher education, in order to enable you not to waste that opportunity.
You ought to have the basics, I think, of contact on a level that enables your tutor to know who you are. I think that is one of the things that has been lost in the last few years. You ought to be able to have feedback that enables you to know how you are progressing through your course, but you also ought to know that you will not necessarily pass your degree. That is the bit we sometimes forget. You ought to know that there should be a standard of rigour from your institution and those who are teaching you that enables you to know the standards you are trying to meet, but that you cannot necessarily expect to pass simply because you have paid the money. Linked to that is the need for good library systems. That includes good IT systems. That means you must have investment in the infrastructure, and you must know that you are in an institution where you can be surrounded by research of the highest quality, because all those things together are what I think a student needs to have the stimulus and change that higher education ought to enable them to have.
Q217 Mr Binley: Doesn’t that argument end up in a consumer market and doesn’t it relate to the information before a student makes the choice? We heard from the student union that there is simply not enough information and outreach, and that the universities are not doing enough to inform potential customers early enough in the process. What can we do to improve that situation?
Sally Hunt: I do not think it is just a consumer approach.
Q218 Mr Binley: I just wondered. It sounded like it.
Sally Hunt: I do not think we should just treat students as consumers, which is why I say there should not simply be the expectation that because you arrive, at the end you will get a bit of paper. There must be something much more complex within that. Do I think there is a need for greater support when choices are being made? Yes. Jon will probably want to comment on the fact that a series of cuts is going through at the moment in terms of career choices and the people there to support young people. This is exactly the time when that is not needed. You need that support right the way through the system, but simply to say it is the university’s fault-this is possibly where I disagree with NUS-is wrong. I think that at the end point, where universities start to influence, shape and help students, it is sometimes very difficult for them to unpick what has gone before. Sometimes I think they are blamed for something that is not all their fault.
Jon Richards: Perhaps I may expand a little on that and talk about the student experience rather than the consumer model. We are getting used to living with the phrase "student experience". I think it goes wider. What students also need are things like basics around security. You need a good security team in the sense that students get carried away sometimes; you need to have the ability for staff to do look after them. You need to have clean halls and clean and safe environments; you need decent catering. Therefore, the student experience is not just about teaching and education.
When I went to university, the first proper relationship I had was with the cleaner who came in to clean my room. I felt isolated; I was a working-class boy who came down from the Midlands. I was in Kings College just down the road. The first person, who was a bit like a surrogate mother for a short while, was my cleaner. There are examples of universities that have picked up on that, and taken into account the need to use cleaners to spot when people are ill. The student is not there, the cleaner picks that up. I think there is a role for the wider HE institution; it is not just about education.
Mike Robinson: There is also a lack of flexibility. Many students do not realise when they sign up for a degree what they are buying themselves into. They are being led into a concept, and when they arrive and see that sometimes it is not exactly what they were expecting, they are not sure how to react. They react like consumers and try to complain and start another one, just like you go to Marks & Spencer and change something. That is not something you can do. I think it is that lack of flexibility that Aaron Porter expressed. Having commenced down a path and found it was not for you, if there was more flexibility you could switch to something else. That must be a better way forward than keeping people stuck in a groove where they really cannot get out, or they drop out.
I think we need greater examination of the drop-out rate and why that is. Was it lack of flexibility or lack of delivery in the first place that did not provide students with the ability they were looking for? Once they are in, the university seems to be saying, "Well, we’ve got you now for three or four years."
Q219 Mr Binley: It is a bit like the Army.
Mike Robinson: Yes, it is very like the Army. Don’t volunteer to do things as well. But I think we need to look at more flexible models than just putting students in and not giving them the ability to change.
Paul Blomfield: Thank you for those answers. I have to say, Sally, with the helpful comments from Jon and Mike as well, that was a very full answer to an impossible question. It was very helpful.
Do you think the Government’s proposed funding model will help to deliver the level of standards that you describe, or not?
Sally Hunt: It is a disaster. I am sure there are polite ways of putting that, but you asked me to be succinct. I think that we are being asked as a sector to go blindly into a future with a number of the necessary props taken away. What I think will now happen is that a number of students, by which I mean hundreds of thousands, will not necessarily get places this year. We will quickly see a limitation in the range of courses available. That is particularly influenced by the teaching cut to the arts, social sciences and humanities, which I think is one of the most extraordinarily backward steps I have seen a Government take. If we look simply at the funding model we are putting in, to do that at the same time has in itself destroyed the ability of the new funding system to have any real chance of working its way through, because that 80% cut will take place at exactly the same time as the very rapid shift over the next three years to a very unpredictable funding model.
We already know that individual institutions are making the choice-not surprising; entirely what we predicted at the start of this process-to go for the highest fee. Frankly, I do not blame them for that, because if I was the head of an institution and looking at how I could mitigate all those unknowns, I would look to make sure I was maximising our potential income. I would also make sure that I looked as if I was a provider at the top of the tree. Therefore, I would go for the highest level. That means that the model expected by the department in particular has been holed below the waterline before it even starts. I would predict now that it will be universities that will be asked to pay the price for that lack of understanding of what was likely to happen. They will have to find the money from somewhere, and I suspect that means greater cuts coming through in higher education on top of those already taking place.
I think that for students a terribly damaging policy has been put in place, given the future that is likely to come through. I think that for the institutions and therefore the country as a whole, we have a very worrying few years. I often say that education is this generation’s commitment to the next generation, and that is what it should be. What we have now is a real step back from that, and shrinkage of the system is very likely in terms of both quality and range of courses available.
Mike Robinson: I do not think it was thought through at all, and the Government based its plan on an ideological reason rather than what the practicalities would be. When student funding first came in, it was new money in the sector, and we did see an expansion based on that. These student fees are money, but in place of money that is coming out of the sector. I do not think anybody has predicted how that market, if it is a market, will react. I think you will get some unexpected consequences from that.
The level of fee-setting worries my union as well. We would like this Committee to look at how fees have been set, because we do not think that the number of institutions that are going at the £9,000 level is an accident. We think it is deliberate. Whether it was planned between them is our concern, and I think that is something you need to look at. We have anecdotal evidence that institutions-I am happy to write to the Committee at a later date once I can specify exactly which institutions they are-are worried about acting in concert because they are having discussions between themselves. We are looking at institutions that have not taken a very transparent view of how they set their fees. The fact that there are so many institutions already at the £9,000 level changes the way the Government now has to deal with it. We understand that the Treasury is looking at cutting back on funding, simply because the amount of money they will have to set aside in terms of student loans is greater than anticipated. Therefore, it is contemplating reducing student numbers in order to fit the experience.
I do not think any of this has been thought through and it is the unintended as much as the intended consequences that are the real problem, because we really do not know how universities will cope with some of these demands and difficulties, or how the student population itself will react to it.
Jon Richards: I am a scientist and I look for the evidence. I do not see a lot of evidence-based reasoning. I look for risk analysis and I do not see a lot of it. I see potential market failure. To be fair to the Government, it has started to address that. In the Education Bill, John Hayes recently talked about the possibility of FE failure. He is a very good Minister; we met him the other day. I at least welcome the honesty, if that is what it is to be, but we have to think of the consequences of HEI failure. The consequence of HEI failure in London may not be as big as it would be in places like the University of Hertfordshire and the University of Bedfordshire, which have a huge role in the local economy and also have the highest level of widening access. I think there are wider issues about market failure.
Q220 Mr Binley: As you know, I have the University of Northampton in my constituency. Their response to that question was different. When I went to see them only two months ago they saw this as a challenge, as every business in the land has seen the recession as a challenge. My personal experience of my company is that we started to take action in late 2007 because we saw it coming. That is by the by; it is just an aside that is of interest, I think. But there are universities that do not see the doom that you describe. They see difficulties and challenge, but they believe that accepting that challenge can create a better outcome. Again, am I being too idealistic?
Sally Hunt: I would challenge anyone to say that efficiencies and limiting or changing the range of courses will mitigate an 80% cut in teaching funding and a 10% cut in research funding, and a completely unpredictable model in terms of where your students will come from. I think that would be a big order for any organisation or business if it was asked to do that. We are talking about that in a three-year period. I think it is almost impossible for any institution to look at that and say that they are calm.
When we have undertaken research, we have found a range of institutions that are at risk at a certain level, by which I mean that their ability to protect their long and medium-term planning is in jeopardy and they are having to make rapid changes. Not every institution will go to the wall. I do not think we should talk in that language. There are some institutions that will genuinely be at risk, because the level of funding they have from teaching is far greater than from research. The demographics they are dealing with are far more limited than others. I think that is something we should not simply say is okay.
We have an opportunity to pause and say that when Browne looked at his proposals he said you should do them all in the round. I and my union might not have agreed with them, but he was very clear: you do them all in the round or they start unpicking. That is exactly what this Government has not done. It has not said that it will take all those proposals together; it has put in certain proposals and put limitations on others. We already have evidence coming through to us from consultations and redundancy notices where we are being told specifically that as a result of the Browne proposals and Government cuts, universities are removing courses and staff because they cannot accurately and safely predict that they can fund those courses in the future. That is not the same as saying those courses are not necessary or successful and our country does not benefit from them. It is specifically saying that because of the proposals now on the table, which will only be made worse by the White Paper if it goes down the road of privatisation without limitation, we are seeing shrinkage in what is available in higher education and a shedding of staff. I think that is something we should be really worried about.
Mike Robinson: Is Northampton going to be a £6,000 or £9,000 institution? If it is a £6,000 institution, does that make it worse than institutions that are charging £9,000? You may say it does not make any difference and Northampton will still be a good university. I agree, but it is the perception of how it is viewed outside and how they view themselves. They now all want to be £9,000 institutions, because to be a £6,000 institution means you are not viewed as being as good.
Mr Binley: I understand that. My only point is that we are back to my original question about not sorting this out for years and years.
Q221 Paul Blomfield: Following up your point, Mike, we are certainly very interested in looking at the way fees are being set. I am sure we would welcome written supplementary evidence. On that specific point, when the Government announced their plans they said that £6,000 would be the norm and £9,000 would be exceptional. At the same time, I was being told by university vice-chancellors that they would have to set fees within a range of £7,500 to £8,500 to stand still. What does each of you think the level of fee ought to be to enable our universities to maintain current standards?
Mike Robinson: What universities are doing now is setting the fee in order to meet their financial obligations, so they are estimating where they will be and therefore realising that they cannot possibly survive on this level, and it has to be that level. It is the financial consideration rather than what the student arrangements should be or where the market, if that is where it is, is to be set. In the past few weeks there has been a change as a number of institutions have announced their levels. You would have expected a smattering of all ranges, but very few are below £9,000. I think three or four have set it below that level.
When last week Liverpool John Moores, which is a university I know, set its rate at the same level as Liverpool university, you could say that they are doing slightly different things, but I believe they were setting the rate because it was within the city, and therefore they are competing at the same level in order to try to be as good as one another. What John Moores is on record as saying is that it set the fee because it could not survive at less than £9,000. That is the driver for them in terms of setting fees. I think the whole issue of fees and how they are being set is something we need to look at very carefully. There is expected to be a market and there is not one; it looks as if everyone is going to the top end.
Sally Hunt: I do not think there is a set level. We have got caught up on the assumption that we can find a fee level that is adequate for the student and the university. I reject the premise. I think we have forgotten that university education and research is a money-earner for this country, if you want to be really basic about it, and that means it is worthwhile for the state to invest in it. My union has said repeatedly that it is opposed to the fee regime.
If you want to take the fee regime as it is, I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone assumes that most universities would charge less than £9,000. That is not wisdom after the event; it is what we have said over and over again. I do not believe that if you introduce a market into the system, you should at the same time put in all the regulations that are there. What they have done is make it an impossible market, because in higher education there really is not one; it is a false argument to say there is. Therefore, whether it is a cap of £3,000, £9,000, £7,000 or £12,000, it really does not matter.
What does matter is making ourselves aware of what higher education costs us as a society if we do not have it, not if we do. Understanding that means we have to fund it in a way that enables students to undertake those courses, regardless of whether they have the ability to pay. At the moment, as Mike says and as you have said, all that has happened is that students are being asked to fill the gap that has been left by Government cuts in funding. I think we should all be honest about that. We have not got increased funding going into higher education; if anything, we have a reduction.
Q222 Paul Blomfield: Perhaps I may ask you one specific question, Sally. In your written evidence to us, UCU propose a business education tax. Would you like to develop your thoughts on that briefly?
Chair: Very briefly.
Sally Hunt: Very briefly, we believe that there are three groups that benefit from higher education: the state, the individual and business. We believe that two of those groups have been asked to pay and the third has not. We believe there is a strong argument-we put this to the Browne review-that we should look very carefully at a business contribution. We argued very strongly that rather than look to reduce corporation tax, we should apportion it in a way that said that is the funding needed to go into higher education because that is what will provide the driver economically for businesses in this country. We still believe that. What has not happened at any point in the debates that have taken place in higher education for a number of years, not just under this Government but the previous one, is recognition that while business gets an awful lot of benefit from higher education, its proportionate contribution is minimal.
Q223 Chair: Perhaps we can move to wider access and participation. Do you think the cost of the various structures, processes and regimes for widening access will put up fees for all students?
Jon Richards: Not while the Government has a limit. I think the issue about access and widening participation is taking it further back from where it is. Sally mentioned earlier that my organisation looks after careers and Connexions staff, who give advice to people in circumstances when they are not in education, employment or training, and people who traditionally are not likely to come into the HE market. At the moment there are huge cuts in local authorities, so about 50% of those professional staff are disappearing, and about one third of the centres are being closed. Therefore, there is a whole question for us about where the information, advice and guidance will be for young people who are not the traditional market. I think that is a question for the Government.
The Government is talking about putting in place a new all-age careers guidance service, which is a model we welcome, but there is very little information on what resources will be put into it and how it will be built and delivered. If it is not delivered face to face, particularly to traditional students who do not go into HE, I think there are potential issues for building up problems for widening access in the future. There are also issues about fees in terms of how they will hit people. I am trying to think through the clichés we use. In a sense, the access agreements mean that the poorest students are likely to get funded; those at the very top will be able to afford it anyway. The squeezed middle, the middle classes, will make sure that their belts will be squeezed and make cuts to ensure their children go to university.
For us I think the real question is what is happening to the so-called aspirational working classes, in a sense the old Thatcherite classes that Thatcher appealed to in the 1980s. These are the people who traditionally have been a bedrock and have moved into the middle classes, and who traditionally have not seen debt as a helpful thing. I think there are real issues for this group about their ability to pay and how they will be affected by visions of debt and lack of access to independent advice and guidance. I went to college as a result of an outreach programme, so I find them really very important. I would not have gone to college if it had not been for that, so any wider issues that are not directly related to HE institutions need to be taken into account.
Q224 Ian Murray: Who should pay for widening access to education? Should it be the universities themselves, the Government, students or perhaps employers?
Sally Hunt: It is interesting to look at what has happened over the past few months. We have lost Aimhigher, which was one of the most important drivers for bringing nontraditional students into higher education. We have had a massive cut to the EMA, which was one of the major routes to further and higher education; we have now got tuition fees for access courses in further education. You have to bear in mind that 40% of students in higher education come through further education. When we ask who will pay, I think it is the people who are already paying, because they are being denied all of the links that they need for equal access to higher education.
Do I think that universities themselves are the ones that should be uniquely punished for not necessarily meeting benchmarks? No, I do not, because I think it is a false argument. As I have said previously, by the time you get to university, quite often the life chances available to you have been dictated. As Aaron said earlier-I am pretty sure we all agree-what you do with young people before they are anywhere near making a university choice, in terms of their development, education and aspiration, is as important as what then happens in terms of the access routes that a university is able to create. Despite valiant efforts by a lot of our members-I say that for UNITE, UNISON and UCU-we know that, for example, in the Russell Group the change in demographics has been minimal. At the same time, we know that some of the post1992 institutions have done exceptional work in bringing in nontraditional students, and I think they should be congratulated.
If we are to have a system that says universities have to justify their funding on the basis of sharing access, what I would like is transparency, as I think others have said, and real incentives so it is clear that if they are able to bring in those students, they will be supported in that. That is not just about financial penalty. I draw your attention to what happens about qualifications, and the criticisms often made of universities if they set a lower benchmark for one set of students than for another, for example. They have to be supported in that. There has to be recognition that if you are looking to make sure that there is good access, you start by saying, "How do you make sure that happens throughout the system?" Do not start by saying, "Here’s the penalty at the end; here’s what we’re going to do to whack you on the head if you aren’t able to achieve it," if at the same time the Government, as I have said, has itself removed all those stepping stones. I do not think that is a credible argument on the part of Government.
Mike Robinson: I am not sure about the cost, but in terms of access there are a number of staff working in institutions who cannot afford to send their own children to those institutions. We have tried to engage employers in the argument about whether they could encourage their own staff to send their children, or offer some incentive to do that. There was absolutely no response whatsoever from the employers in engaging in that. We are talking about UNITE members, who are on occasions in low income groups. They will not provide arrangements even for the children of their own staff to attend universities. It does worry me that the argument about access is not really being engaged in a serious way by many institutions, the Russell Group in particular, and they need to get their act together and start to address that.
Q225 Mr Ward: I am concerned by the constant reference to concerns about young people from low income backgrounds. I think that in one sentence, Jon, you referred to the ability to pay and visions of debt. The ability to pay under the new proposals will be much better than the existing scheme. Do you think that the actual mention of debt and visions of debt is a disservice to would-be students from low income families and future low income graduates?
Jon Richards: I think it is a description of the reality of what people think. If you look at surveys immediately after the Government introduced the proposals, the debt figure started to figure among their discussions. I do not think it is something we are doing to people; it is something people realise. It is tough out there. Huge numbers of people have been made redundant and are suffering under austerity measures. I think that in those situations debt becomes a big issue for people. Where I come from, debt has always been a big issue for people around me. When you are focusing on spending, just the vision of a long-term debt being owed by your children is seen as a bad thing.
Q226 Mr Ward: But the perception is worse than the reality.
Jon Richards: I said deliberately that it was a perception. I recognise that the Government has sought to introduce some progressive measures to deal with that. However, it is focused on the very poor. There is the middle group in between that I worry about and in a sense they form the middle class of the future.
Q227 Chair: You may have heard the earlier exchange between me and Aaron Porter about businesses and the configuration of academic courses and university and academic freedom. What is your view about universities developing graduates’ business skills as a key aim of degree courses alongside a core subject?
Sally Hunt: I was interested in that exchange, because it goes back to my concern that we are starting to narrow down the concept of what a university education is about. First, shock, horror, I do not think it is just about whether you will get a good job at the end of it. I think we have to be quite careful about that. Secondly, there is a very strong theme in any degree worth its salt of the qualities that then make you a good employee: your ability to think, make decisions and work in teams.
Q228 Chair: If I may intervene, surveys of employers show that a very high percentage of them do not think graduates have appropriate "employability" skills, shall we say? They may well have very good academic skills and so on, but in terms of the needs of their businesses there is now quite a substantial body of evidence to show that there is a low level of satisfaction.
Sally Hunt: At the same time, we have a university system that is ranked as one of the highest in the world. I think we have to be quite careful about how we start putting external influences into the composition of a degree programme. That is not to say there is not a need for universities to work with local businesses, larger businesses and multinationals in this country; it makes sense for them to do that, and they do it far more often than they are given credit for, but the moment you start saying that how a degree is constructed is to be dictated by outside forces, you put pressure on the concept of academic freedom.
Even to me, that sounds as if I am trying to say, "Hands off." That is not what I mean, but be very careful about the skill sets that come through on all of our degrees, let alone if we then go into the specifics of business in terms of commerce and the media, which have huge numbers of students going into the economy and produce billions of pounds for our economy. I think we have to recognise that it is a pretty good story, and what we are talking about is perhaps making it easier for business to work with universities. But I do not think universities are averse to that; quite the opposite. If you look at what is happening in terms of their governing bodies and boards and the development of access within degree courses so there are placements for students, I would say that the traffic was going in that direction rather than the other way round.
Q229 Chair: Perhaps I may quote the CBI report in 2010, which talks about 52% of companies being concerned about literacy levels and 49% about numeracy. That is not about designing a course or compromising academic independence; that is just the basics.
Jon Richards: Funnily enough, I was going to quote from the same report. It talks about employability skills. It talks about self-management. If you are a full-time student away from home, self-management becomes an important thing to learn. As to team working, again most courses deal with that. Business and customer awareness is quite clearly a separate issue. Problem solving is again fundamental, as is communication and literacy. The majority of skills that they are talking about are part of it. What students do not do is get it delivered in the way individual employers seem to want, as though they should be designed for them. I think there is a discussion to be had between businesses and universities about exactly what it is they have.
What was lacking from their list, which I would have been looking for in a graduate, were imaginative skills, critical thinking, lateral thinking, innovation and the wider skills that are being taught in universities, which will be the next generation of businesses. Sometimes I worry-I think we include it in our evidence-that businesses are focused only on their current knowledge and needs; but actually innovation and skills for the second generation, which in a sense universities ought to be building into them, are the sort of skills they ought to be looking for as well.
I will give you a very quick example. When I worked in the NHS for UNISON we wanted to introduce safer needle devices as part of a healthy and safety campaign. The businesses already out there were very much interested in defending their patch. There were new and innovative devices and high-tech products that would have enabled them to get bigger profits, but their focus was on defending their own market. There is a danger that if you get business focusing too much on the narrow current, what is going to happen in the future? I think it is the role of the institutions to deliver for the future as well as the current.
Mike Robinson: I have a slightly different view. UNITE’s submission makes an argument about university technicians and their age profile in the 45 to 60 group. It is becoming difficult to replace those skills because the basic levels of physics and mathematics to carry out some of those functions are not coming through, so I have sympathy with employers in that argument. One of the difficulties is that it then tends to try to channel people into particular occupational silos. What is wrong with a council house kid doing classics? Why should education as enlightenment not be a worthy cause rather than just education for occupational need?
Q230 Mr Ward: We all know that postgraduate activities have always been a very useful source of funding to universities. If we just take taught programmes first, obviously under the proposals there is no provision for postgraduate studies. Can we just look at what is currently proposed regarding undergraduate provision and its impact on postgraduate studies, taking taught programmes to begin with?
Sally Hunt: We know there is concern about the level of debt, because we have been looking at that from the provision of people who will be able to fill academic roles in future. We know that this is already part of people’s thinking, because once you get to the end of your undergraduate, first degree, can you go on to do your master’s and your PhD? I think that is the part that needs to be seriously thought through in the Government’s discussions and thinking, because if we cannot enable people to choose higher education as a career, we have a serious problem in terms of our delivery in future.
In terms of the taught courses themselves, the discussion that is taking place at the moment in a number of universities-I think it is an interesting one-is about the balance between international students coming in for those shorter courses and how they balance that against domestic students. I am not sure that people have really thought through what the balance is at the moment. A number of institutions teach those shorter postgraduate courses and are dependent on international students coming in. I think the balance in terms of how that will still make provision for domestic students is something we will have to look at very carefully. What I do not want to say at the moment, David, is that we have detailed analysis of it; we have not. It is something of which we have an awareness. We are looking at it in terms of academics and staff for the future, because those qualifications will be necessary, and we are looking at it in terms of income streams coming into universities and the balance between international and domestic students, but I suspect there will be pressure. It is something we have to keep watching.
Q231 Mr Ward: On research, for which there is funding, there is a discussion to be had about whether research funding should be spread thinly or concentrated in the elite research institutions. Do you have a view on that?
Sally Hunt: I think we have to start by recognising that there is to be a 10% cut over the next period in real terms, by which I mean over the period of the CSR, so whether you are a Russell or non-Russell Group institution I think you will have a situation where you have to make choices on research. I think there is a clear justification for the Government where it is putting in research funding to know that it will deliver against its economic or other objectives. I do not have an argument with that. What I do have an argument with is the way that is spread. If you are to look at innovation and creativity, it is not simply done by concentrating research funds in a small number of institutions. I think that completely ignores the fact that academic work and development happens right across the university sector.
That is really concerning at the moment, because we are heading very fast towards a two-tier system where research funds will be concentrated in a small number of universities; others will not have that and will be asked to become in effect teaching institutions. That will affect the ability of the sector to have the innovation we need. We cannot always predict; sometimes we have to make the commitment in order to have a potential future, as opposed to necessarily knowing the answer. I think it will also impact on the quality of student education over the range of institutions, because only those who are exposed to research will necessarily see it as a career or something to which they can aspire. On a number of levels that is starting to narrow down what is possible, and that is such a pity when you look at our world-class reputation in that field.
Jon Richards: I think there is a great opportunity for the forthcoming eighth European Union framework research programme to get involved in that; not to fill the gaps, because the reality is that there will be a funding gap whether we like it or not. Therefore, I think we should be piling in there. We have been working with sister trade unions in Denmark and Ireland looking at some of the bureaucracies that mean a lot of researcher time is spent on filling in forms rather than employing administrators and getting other people to do the admin work for them. There is still quite a lot of bureaucracy in the programme. We would be quite happy to join colleagues in trying to get rid of some of that bureaucracy, so the money comes more directly into the country.
Q232 Chair: Do you think universities will be able to continue to attract and retain highly qualified staff?
Sally Hunt: You have to be quite careful with the phrase "brain drain", but we have evidence already to show that choices are being made, particularly by those who are involved in research that they will undertake it elsewhere, by which I mean in the States or India. That is already happening. What is interesting to us is that where we have investment in places like Germany and the States to ensure that you have the research base and the facilities there, we seem to be going in completely the opposite direction in this country. There is no question that top-flight research will make choices based on what is available not just in terms of pay but infrastructure. I think this country will be found wanting in the very near future if we are not careful.
Mike Robinson: I think it is connected to remuneration. Before 2000 when remuneration within universities was not akin to what you could get in the private sector, clearly there was an imbalance and people were choosing private sector routes in order to pursue their careers. When they rebalanced university pay in about 2003-04 that consolidated it and meant people were more content to remain in a university environment. As that starts to be affected and fall in real terms, which is where we are currently, I think people will start to look again outside at other options rather than maintain themselves in the university sector.
Jon Richards: There is also an issue about utilising the staff that you have. What we know is that a lot of staff in universities are former graduates. We did a survey a couple of years ago of admin and clerical staff. Just under 30% of them had a degree, 10% had a master’s degree and 1.5% had a PhD, so there are huge numbers of other staff available with those skills. I think there is an issue about skills profiling within universities and also training budgets. The first thing that always goes in a time of cuts is the training budget, yet we have huge numbers of staff who have the ability to help and support academics in their work. I just do not think that universities have really understood re-profiling in the way it has happened elsewhere in parts of the public sector, such as schools, or in the private sector, where it has become a necessity because of austerity.
Q233 Chair: I should like to conclude by asking each of you, preferably within 30 seconds, to say what you would like to see in the White Paper.
Sally Hunt: I would like to see academic freedom enshrined in law.
Mike Robinson: I would like to see reconsideration of the student fee and how it is applied. UNITE’s position is similar to UCU’s, but it is not exactly the same. We think that you cannot keep burdening the student with the cost of higher education. The market eventually becomes over-burdened and collapses. We think that as, Dearing put it in 1992, it is a balance between the public purse, students and employers. We think that needs to be redefined and a better way found in terms of how student fees are funded. Our fear is that you cannot keep going to the well and to the same person too often.
Jon Richards: I wanted to say something about governance, but I have not had a chance. Therefore, I would like to see them say something about governance. I would also like them to address public investment for the future-Alan Langlands has said there is a need to revisit it, which I think is absolutely vital-and recognise the role of staff and investment for HEIs to remain the cutting-edge institutions they are.
Q234 Chair: I thank you for your contribution. I repeat what I have told other witnesses in the past. If you feel that you have additional information or points to make that we have not been able to cover today, please feel free to put in a further written submission. Obviously, if in retrospect we think we have missed something we may send you some supplementary questions for you to respond to. Thank you very much. It has been very interesting and helpful.
Sally Hunt: Thank you for the opportunity.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Daryn McCombe, Student Reviewer, and Rebecca Watson, Student Reviewer, Quality Assurance Agency, gave evidence.
Q235 Chair: Good afternoon and thank you very much for agreeing to attend this session. You may have heard my plea to the previous panel of witnesses. If one of you answers a question the other should not feel obliged to supplement it unless there is something specific you want to raise that has not been covered by the original response. For the purposes of voice recognition, I ask you to introduce yourselves and your positions.
Rebecca Watson: I am Rebecca Watson, a QAA student reviewer.
Daryn McCombe: I am Daryn McCombe and I am also a QAA student reviewer.
Q236 Chair: Thank you very much. Why do you think people go to university?
Daryn McCombe: There are probably a number of answers to that depending on who you are, where you have grown up and what you want to do with your life. I can tell you why I went to university but I cannot really speak on behalf of anybody else-certainly not in this capacity.
Q237 Chair: You must have a collective experience. You interact with others. What would be your perception of their motivation?
Rebecca Watson: Obviously a lot of people go to university for the graduate employability side, but also from a personal perspective, people, particularly those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, go to university for social and cultural enhancement as well as for employability. They see university as a place where they can understand citizenship, interact with people from different backgrounds that under normal circumstances they would not have had access to in their home town. It is a multi-faceted thing.
They go because of the employability but there is also the social and cultural side.
Daryn McCombe: For others it is probably just the next step in their educational career. It is what their parents did and that is what they are going to do.
Q238 Mr Ward: What are your views on the new proposals that have been introduced and their impact on the decisions that young people make about going to university?
Daryn McCombe: Specifically or generally?
Q239 Mr Ward: Generally to begin with, and then we can look specifically at fees later on.
Daryn McCombe: I think people will consider a lot more carefully whether in the first instance to go to university. Unless more information is made available at application stage people will have significant difficulties with making informed choices if they get over the hurdle of deciding they want to go and rack up circa £42,000 over three years.
Rebecca Watson: Fundamentally, it will also change what courses students decide to pursue. For example, I can foresee a lot of students thinking, "Why should I do an arts degree at the moment because in the way the Government is going about things it might not be as useful?" There might be an emphasis on students doing more vocational courses that they think will enhance their graduate employability.
Q240 Mr Ward: How do you suggest the Government can improve the way it gets across its message about the proposals to young people?
Daryn McCombe: People understand what £9,000 is. In that context schools, particularly secondary schools, need to do a lot more work with pupils all the way through from the beginning to the time they go on to A levels and national vocational qualifications etc. You can do a lot more work with people a lot earlier on in terms of things like careers advice. What is the right route for you? What are your options? How will those options impact on your later life opportunities and chances? To be honest, by the time you get to application stage essentially it is family background and experiences at school that will make those choices for you, so unless you have been able to impact people at a much earlier stage by the time you get to the application it is too late.
Rebecca Watson: I totally reinforce what Daryn says. The importance of communication and information to students should not start in college when they begin to think about university; it should be from the beginning of secondary school so they are aware of what their transition will be from FE to HE, if that is what they want to pursue. I think the information should be made available earlier to students-the implications in terms of debt and managing money at university and what the graduate market looks like should be communicated honestly.
Daryn McCombe: When I applied for university it was under the first set of fees, so it was relatively low compared with what we are talking about now. I was deterred at that point. It was only because my mum had been to university that she pushed me to apply. Until two weeks before the UCAS deadline I was not going to go. I did it because my mum took that interest in me and pushed me along. Obviously, the school was very keen because it helped their numbers and made them look good, but there is no real quality right from the getgo to push people through, if that makes sense.
Q241 Mr Ward: You say you were deterred by the initial fees at that time.
Daryn McCombe: Yes. As a 17-year-old making that decision you are talking about what you perceive to be a lot of money. Without wishing to go into it in too much detail, coming from my background and from a state school, not being very rich, that was a deterring factor. The counter-factor was my mum’s experience of going through higher education and what she taught me about how that impacts on your life chances. You can then make a choice. She always said that if you want to be a dustman you can choose to be one and that is fine, but don’t force yourself to be one.
Q242 Rebecca Harris: Have you thanked her?
Daryn McCombe: Yes, very much so. I surprised her on Sunday.
Q243 Mr Ward: I am concerned because under the new proposals even with the increased fees it will be £45 a month less, so in terms of affordability it has improved. You mentioned the figure of £42,000 as an example of debt. Is there a message to be given to would-be students about the affordability of the monthly payments as opposed to the level of the debt?
Daryn McCombe: It depends. I graduated two and a half years ago and I am in my first job. It is fairly well paying largely because of my degree, so I am incredibly grateful for that experience, but if you look at what comes out of my wages at the end of the month-national insurance, income tax and student loan-the student loan is the second biggest portion largely because of the job I have. I am very grateful for it but it is the second biggest portion that comes out. In terms of looking at things like saving for a mortgage and getting married in September-that kind of thing-it takes a significant chunk out of your wages at a time when you probably need it the most. I do not know how you solve that. Do you have a 10-year or five-year break in loan payments after university? Maybe that is an option, but you are hitting people at the end of the month in their wages when money is at its tightest. You do not necessarily have any assets, own a house or that kind of thing at that stage.
Rebecca Watson: I think it is particularly difficult to sell the affordability of higher education to students when the fee has increased threefold or fourfold since Daryn and I went to university. Given the graduate market, I think it is incredibly difficult to sell affordability to students at the moment in college or secondary education.
Q244 Mr Ward: I move on to your reviews. I still carry the scars of the QAA visit at the university I worked at. Obviously, you have the opportunity to see across all universities. Do you have any suggestions about where universities could save money or be more efficient?
Daryn McCombe: I am not sure I am in a position to be able to offer that kind of advice yet.
Q245 Mr Ward: I guess that what you do have a good view on is value for money: the money going in and the outputs as a result of the provision.
Daryn McCombe: My own industry is transport. It is the same kind of thing. You are dealing with a sector that has been underinvested in for a significant period of time and bears the scars of that underinvestment. It is basically playing catch up, if you see what I mean. For example, some of the money that goes into new library facilities or IT means that they are just getting to the stage where I would expect them to be; it is not adding anything necessarily in terms of fantastic IT equipment or library facilities. They are just getting to the stage where I would expect them to be. Sometimes that money looks like it is not being spent well. I do not know; I am not a financial auditor, but it is largely because they are plugging holes. That is my perception of it at the moment.
Q246 Paul Blomfield: Conversely, can you say where you think universities might prioritise money to best enhance quality of student experience?
Rebecca Watson: I personally agree with one of QAA’s objectives, which is to make sure that students are the stakeholders in the university and that includes management of quality and standards. I think a lot of money should be invested in the way the university engages with its students and how much they involve them in their quality assurance processes. Again, I would say that resources are chronically underfunded in terms of library and IT infrastructure. A lot of money should be put into that, but I would say that students should be involved in the maintenance of the quality of higher education.
Daryn McCombe: I would add to that the link between research or scholarly activity, depending on the institution, and teaching because really higher education is to expose you to that environment both in teaching and research.
Q247 Rebecca Harris: Do you think that the increase in fees is likely to make students cast a much more critical eye on the value for money they are getting and demand more involvement in that?
Rebecca Watson: I think that is the case. When fees were first brought in we saw a fundamental repositioning of students as consumers of educational services. I think that the fact the fees have increased by so much will exacerbate that situation. Students already perceive higher education as a service and owed to them because they have paid for it, and I think we will see an upsurge in people being dissatisfied with the level of service they have received.
Daryn McCombe: And possibly unjustly to the institution. I would say that now most institutions see students as co-producers of higher education. I do not think they have really worked out what that means, but they certainly do not see students as consumers. It is almost as though the fee gets you through the door; it does not get you anything else in that sense. It gets you access to the facilities, lecturers, knowledge, research etc, but you are expected to put something else in once you are there, in developing and delivering higher education as part of your degree. What fees do is fundamentally change the student perception both at the point of application and probably all the way through. The student says, "Well, I’m not a co-producer; I’m just here to consume knowledge that is given to me."
Q248 Rebecca Harris: Is this a positive or negative thing?
Daryn McCombe: I would see that as a negative thing because it changes the nature of higher education.
Q249 Rebecca Harris: You do not think it will improve it?
Daryn McCombe: It will improve some aspects; maybe the physical estates will improve; you will get more lecture slides.
Q250 Rebecca Harris: It will have some tangible aspects?
Daryn McCombe: Yes. I cannot really put it into words, but probably the relationship with the core of teaching and learning, knowledge development and production in that sense has been altered. It is hard to put it into words, but at the same time it changes the nature of what comes out. Does that make sense? Perhaps it doesn’t.
Q251 Ian Murray: Let me probe that a little because I think it is one of the fundamental issues in this inquiry. If it is about quality and the changing relationship between the student and institution the amount of money that the Government has taken out of higher education equates to between £7,500 and £8,200 a year per student in terms of fees, as I think Aaron Porter told us. Unless organisations are to charge £9,000 at the top end of the cap-the Government is already looking at perhaps drawing back some of that or putting 10% of it into access-it will be very difficult to improve quality. Universities will have no more money in terms of their overall balance sheet. How can universities then take that fund in terms of the fee and make the experience better in the way you have just explained if they really do not have any more cash in real terms?
Daryn McCombe: I think it will pull it out of other areas that are not student facing. If that is the Government’s objective I suppose the market will-
Q252 Ian Murray: Would you clarify what you mean by services that are not student facing? You are not talking about R and D?
Daryn McCombe: Potentially. I don’t know. Universities individually will have to make that decision and balance their budgets. I guess what it will do is focus students on the more tangible issues and make them more vocal about them, as Rebecca put it, which may focus the minds of institutions on them and they will prioritise accordingly. I agree with you.
Q253 Ian Murray: But it is being done without any more cash essentially, so there would have to be a refocusing within the current envelope.
Daryn McCombe: Which is possible. You can change the way you spend money within a budget, but to do that something has to give.
Mr Ward: I return to the issue of what students were getting for their money but also how well informed they were before making that decision.
To some degree, the milk is spilt once they are there, but how informed do you think they are? Do you think improvements need to be made in that part prior to making decisions?
Rebecca Watson: From personal experience, at the moment I think it is quite hard to quantify how informed they are because we have gone through, but from my experience I felt relatively informed. Do you mean about what higher education can give me personally?
Q255 Mr Ward: No. I am referring to the institution.
Rebecca Watson: What information the institution provides?
Q256 Mr Ward: Yes.
Rebecca Watson: I felt very informed by the institution where I did my undergraduate programme but, again, it is very variable at the moment. That is an area that needs to be improved. I do not think it should just be, "Here’s what you’ll get on your course; this is what the student union offers". It should be things like, "This is what your graduate employability will look like when you leave the university, or at least what we want it to look like." I know that the university I attended was working on a programme that set out 10 key skills they wanted you to have. That should be adopted over the sector so that when students go there they can say, "This is the course I’m receiving; this is the level of support I’m receiving, but when I leave these are the skills I will have." You often think, "Well, am I really going to be employable after I have gone to university?" I think it is a matter of getting that journey right through the university.
Q257 Mr Ward: Would it be in terms of outputs and outcomes or destination statistics?
Rebecca Watson: I am not too sure. I would probably say it is outputs.
Daryn McCombe: The sector is becoming quite innovative. It has things like applicant portals. You can get access to a wide range of information in one place on a university’s website. I was really lucky. My parents and family would drive me around the country to visit institutions before I applied and also for interviews and stuff like that. If you do not have that I can see how you might not feel as informed as you would be if you had sufficient access to IT or internet and the school provided time to look in depth.
Q258 Mr Binley: You talk about assessing your employability. It is very difficult when you go into a university to make those kinds of decisions, but even so we ought to try to do it and be more successful at it. In your experience how much input is there from the private and public sectors in regard to available employment and so forth?
Rebecca Watson: At the moment?
Q259 Mr Binley: Yes.
Rebecca Watson: Again, at the university I attended there were lots of links with business enterprises, sending graduates on programmes after they had graduated.
Q260 Mr Binley: Are you saying that in that respect the information stream is good?
Rebecca Watson: Yes, I would say so.
Daryn McCombe: I would not say it is the same across the entire sector. I was very lucky and had a part-time job in the careers service, so I had access to some of that, but with a multi-campus institution the careers service was based largely on one site and I could see how people might miss it once they were at university. Before university I would not say there is really a clear line of sight as to where you might be employed afterwards. Maybe there would be a couple of graduate profiles on the website or something like that, but that would be about it.
Rebecca Watson: It is also quite common for universities to put emphasis in the second and third year on the importance of getting a job once you have finished your degree. I think it should start from the moment you walk through the door of the university. The careers advice and support is very visible. I thought the careers support at my university was fantastic, but, as Daryn suggests, it is quite variable across the sector.
Q261 Paul Blomfield: Both of you are in a very good position to assess students’ key concerns about their courses. When you are looking at student satisfaction what do you think are the main issues they raise as being important to them in terms of what they want to get out of their course and how they would measure their course?
Daryn McCombe: I think the main ones are feedback-timeliness and quality-access to resources, particularly on specialist courses and sometimes sufficient access to lecturers at the right time. Particularly in the case of part-time mature postgraduate students concerns are often raised about physical access to the campus at the right time. If the campus closes at 5 o’clock and you are working until 5 every day you do not get to see a lecturer, get to the library and that kind of thing.
Rebecca Watson: Building on that, it is quite common for students to say, after they have gone through college and have had quite a communal atmosphere with colleagues and tutors, that when they come to university they feel that they receive almost a faceless service and would like more of a community built up. A lot of people do not know who their tutors are and feel that their tutors do not know anything about them. Maybe that is not what should be going on in HE but quite a common complaint is, "I don’t feel that I have enough contact hours with my tutor or lecturers."
Q262 Paul Blomfield: Feedback on assessment and contact time has been a pretty consistent theme through the years, has it not, from the national student survey? Do you get any sense from your audit visits that universities are really beginning to address that issue?
Rebecca Watson: Again, it is variable from the audits that I have undertaken. Rather than them having any initiatives in place at the moment to combat that issue, they are conscious that feedback is an issue and they will have to start to do something about it. In another audit I did they were quite good on feedback anyway, which was quite rare from what I had seen across the sector, but it is almost as though they recognise that the problem of feedback is there and now they need to start working with students in order to combat it.
Daryn McCombe: One of the audits I have undertaken showed they were using very innovative ways of feeding back but they were still getting low satisfaction scores. I guess that it is about managing expectations as well as the actual delivery of feedback and assessment. Universities are not necessarily very good at doing that and do not tell people what they are doing to give feedback and assessment.
Q263 Paul Blomfield: Do you think student expectations are unreasonable?
Daryn McCombe: Never. The student is the customer and is always right.
Paul Blomfield: That is a very good answer, if I may say so.
Chair: That is very helpful. You have given us a different perspective on our deliberations so far. If there is anything we have not asked you that you think we should have asked you, feel free to write in with an answer. If there is anything that on reflection you think you might like to add to your existing answers please feel free to do so. Thank you very much.