Quality Assessment in Respect of Institutions without Degree-Awarding Powers

Orders of the Day — Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 5th February 1992.

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—The Council shall secure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education provided in institutions without degree-awarding powers by maintaining—

  1. (a) Control system for credit rating courses and training;
  2. (b) A national access courses recognition scheme; and
  3. (c) A service for C.N.A.A. graduates and employees to verify awards, replace certificates and provide related information.'.—[Mr. Ernie Ross.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mr Ernie Ross Mr Ernie Ross , Dundee West

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) has just left the Chamber to have a cup of tea. His absence should not be taken as a lack of interest in the new clause on his part. He invited me to come forward to the Front Bench, but I think that that gesture would he to exaggerate. I have never had a need to stand leaning on a box, so I shall stay where I am. That is not meant to show disrespect to the Minister or the Secretary of State.

We thought it important in Committee to discuss the decision by the Secretary of State for Scotland, in conjunction with the Secretaries of State for Wales and for Education and Science, to end the function of the Council for National Academic Awards. It was incorporated in 1965 and has played a significant role in helping to develop within the polytechnics and centrally funded institutions in Scotland a type of education similar to the provision found in all our universities. Its mission has been directed more towards industry than pure research. We are worried about the ending of its role and want to know what the Scottish Office believes should fill the vacuum.

8.15 pm

In Committee, we discussed quality assessment, but we did not get round to discussing pages 26 and 27 of the Government's White Paper, "Higher Education: A New Framework", which refers to the need for a quality audit. What provision will be made to ensure that there is an organisation with responsibility for assessing the quality of education provided in institutions without degree-awarding powers by maintaining—

  1. (a) Control system for credit rating courses and training;
  2. (b) A national access courses recognition scheme; and
  3. (c) A service for CNAA graduates and employees to verify awards."?

We raise the matter to find out what the Minister thinks about this and to express some of the CNAA's concerns which we could not discuss in Committee. I know that our colleagues will discuss this on the Floor of the House when the Bill that applies to England and Wales returns from the other place.

I should like to depict the specific relation that the CNAA has had in developing the central institutions in Scotland. That is important because they have developed similarly to, but differently from, those in England and Wales.

It should be noted that there has never been a formal polytechnic sector of higher education in Scotland. For 20 years, from the inception in England and Wales in the late 1960s of a polytechnic system involving the amalgamation of colleges of art, commerce, education and technology to form large institutions, the Scottish Office Education Department prohibited the introduction of a similar system in Scotland, and instead insisted on a distinctively Scottish arrangement. That has resulted in the present family of 17 centrally funded colleges, comprising 12 central institutions and five colleges of education.

Those centrally funded colleges, which have been under central Government control for many decades, have been shaped by SOED policies and practices. A result is that they are generally much smaller than polytechnics in England, partly because of the absence of mergers, partly because SOED has limited the fields in which they have been allowed to operate and partly because they have not been permitted to make provision for the humanities in the courses that they offer. In that sense, there were no polytechnics in Scotland.

For two decades, it has seemed to central institutions that the Scottish Office was not minded to encourage them to gain the polytechnic title. About three years ago, there was a sudden change of stance. The SOED acceded to a request from Napier college to call itself Napier polytechnic of Edinburgh, and some time later it approved a similar application from Glasgow college. There does not seem to have been any rhyme or reason to that. Certainly there was no major debate in this House beforehand. Up until then, the SOED had driven the centrally funded institutions in a particular direction.

Within the system, the centrally funded colleges are divided into sub-sectors, each of which comprises institutions having cognate interests—the art schools, the colleges of education and the technological institutions. Those groupings have evolved in different ways, and they differ greatly in size. The five technological central institutions—Dundee institute of technology, Glasgow polytechnic, Napier polytechnic of Edinburgh, Paisley college and the Robert Gordon institute of technology—have become the closest analogues to the polytechnics south of the border.

Their origins and missions are similar to those of the polytechnics. They have a similar concentration on vocational higher education—it is even more pronounced in the Scottish institutions—and they all have similar links with industry, commerce and the professions. They make similar provision for many levels of study, ranging from certificates to higher degrees. They offer extensive programmes of applied research and provide consultancy services. In common with the polytechnics south of the border, those colleges are also responsible for managing their own financial, administrative and legal affairs.

Those characteristics are shared, to a varying extent, by the other sub-sectors into which the centrally funded colleges are divided. However, the technological central institutions have additional features that are not found in the other centrally funded colleges. For that reason, they are more like polytechnics, because those technological central institutions provide for a wide range of disciplines and have substantial programmes of applied research. They are the largest centrally funded colleges and together account for more than half the total students in the Scottish centrally funded sector.

At the moment, those institutions are accredited by the CNAA. In addition, their close affinity with the polytechnics is reflected in the fact that their principals are full members of the Committee of the Directors of Polytechnics.

I have outlined the way in which the centrally funded institutions, in particular the five technological ones, operated until the Bill was introduced. Under the Bill, the Secretary of State has given directions that the five technological institutions will have full degree-awarding powers. He has also said that four of them will be allowed to take the title of university. The one technological institution outside that grouping is the Dundee institute of technology.

In Committee, I discussed with the Minister what would happen to the Dundee institute of technology once the CNAA no longer existed. I wanted to know to which club that institute would belong. It is not a university, but it has full degree-awarding powers and, obviously, it would want to market itself in those terms. That institution needs to be part of a club to which it can relate.

In the past all the technological institutions could relate to the CNAA. If a person who had been awarded a degree at one of those central technological institutions wanted to prove where that degree was lodged and recorded, the CNAA was able to assure existing employers, future employers and others in industry that that person's degree had the proper accreditation.

The mission of those central technological institutions was specifically directed towards industry. That was reflected in the make up of those institutions' boards of governors. Their courses were also assessed by a much wider grouping than that which assesses a university's degrees. The CNAA is concerned about the proposed changes and we want to know from the Minister whether he has thought them through.

As I understand it, some central institutions in Scotland will still be regarded as designated institutions, and their degrees will have to be accredited either by former central institutions that now have the title of university, or by one of the existing universities. If those institutions seek to meet the criteria laid down by the Government for the award of university title, there will be no drive and determination to do so, because the CNAA will no longer exist. Therefore, there will be no body to which those institutions can relate other than the institute with which they have an association for the accreditation of their degrees.

I know that discussions have taken place between ministerial officials and the Dundee institute of technology. We should like to know whether that dialogue has achieved any progress, or whether we are still where we were prior to the 29 January discussions. It is important to know the answer, if only because the board of governors of Dundee institute of technology, its previous students and those now engaged in academic study there want to know what status will be attached to the institution that will award or has awarded their degrees. To which club, or organisation, will that institute be able to attach itself'? Will there be a central institution in England and Wales which has a similar role to that of the institute—an ability to award degrees without the title of university?

It is unfortunate that we did not debate in great depth the content of the quality audit section of "Higher Education: A New Framework", because concern is felt by many, not just the Dundee institute of technology. For example, the director of the Glasgow school of art, Dugald Cameron, wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie: Glasgow School of Art is an associated institution within CNAA and its students in Art and Design are currently registered for degrees validated by this body. With the effective ending of CNAA in September 1992 what is the position of the bulk of students who, properly enrolled by GSA, had expected to graduate with CNAA degrees after that body's dissolution? … It seems rather odd that the 27 years experience of quality assessment which the CNAA possess should be airily dismissed in favour of what may seem to be, at best, rather 'ad hoc' arrangements.

What are those ad hoc arrangements? Given that we were unable to discuss the quality audit section within "Higher Education: A New Framework", it is important to learn from the Minister how he believes that quality audit will he established.

From paragraphs 67, 68 and 69 of the document, it appears that the general intention is to establish a quality audit section for England and Wales. However, there appears to be no intention to establish a separate quality audit unit for Scotland. One assumes that there will be a separate quality assessment unit for Scotland, but I wonder whether the Minister can tell us if there will be a separate quality unit for Scotland. I appreciate that we are talking not just about former central institutions, but about universities and the new designated institutions that will have the title of university.

Paragraph 69 states: The Government will discuss with representatives of the institution the nature and development of such a quality audit unit. It will expect the unit's steering council to have industrial and professional as well as academic members and to admit assessors from the Funding Councils to its meetings. We must know what the make-up of that quality audit unit will be, especially with regard to the technological institutions that existed previously.

Paragraph 70 states: The Government intends to include reserve powers in the legislation to ensure the satisfactory establishment of the unit. Will that unit be in place by September 1992? The Minister of State seems to be nodding his head—

Photo of Mr Ernie Ross Mr Ernie Ross , Dundee West

If the Minister is not nodding his head, the question is relevant. If the unit will not be in place by September 1992, will the CNAA have a life beyond September 1992? Those institutions need an assurance about that.

The Minister should respond to that question to satisfy not only the present members of the CNAA but those institutions that have been associated with it and students who, over the years, have gained their degrees from it. Will there be an after-care service for CNAA graduates? The archive records of some 790,000 students must be looked after. Will resources be provided for that? Exactly what will happen?

It was with those questions in mind that I tabled the new clause. I hope that it will not be necessary to push it to a vote, but that the Minister will satisfy all those concerned about the matter. I look forward to his response.

Photo of Mr Dick Douglas Mr Dick Douglas , Dunfermline West 8:30 pm, 5th February 1992

I support the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) on that issue, and I declare a long-standing interest. I was involved, in the Dundee college of technology, in bringing the CNAA into the department of commerce and economics at the university. That must be 25 or 30 years ago. I have corresponded with the Minister on that matter. The points raised by the hon. Member for Dundee, West require specific answers.

To use the analogy of what happened when previous central institutions became universities, when the Scottish college of commerce and the Royal college of science and technology were merged to become the university of Strathclyde, the university offered students associated with either of those institutions an option of becoming graduates of the university. Instead of associateships with commerce or economics, they could obtain a BA. I hope that that covers the hon. Gentleman's point about bringing students into an on-going institution in terms of its archives and records of academic credentials for the future.

I am not as conversant with the matter as I might be, but I understand that the CNAA will disappear and that Dundee college will not become a university. If so, what happens to the quality assessment of its degrees? The Secretary of State cannot divest himself of responsibility. The college in Dundee was, so far as I can remember, the first in Scotland to make arrangements with the CNAA.

I speak only from a commerce and economics point of view, but I remember that the CNAA was stringent in terms of external examinations—and rightly so—before it gave its imprimatur to the lecturing in the college of technology. The Minister cannot leave Dundee college in suspended animation. He has some responsibility not just to the students who have gone there, which is an important factor, but to those who might want to go there because of its good reputation in commerce, engineering and other spheres.

The Minister cannot dodge answering the questions raised by the hon. Member for Dundee, West. Students who enter such an institution will be uncertain how industrialists and commercial enterprises will view their degrees. Will the Minister clear up the matter and try to set it at rest?

Photo of Mr Mike Watson Mr Mike Watson , Glasgow Central

I reinforce the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) and the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas). We require answers on the issue because it was not discussed in Committee. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to clear up a number of outstanding questions asked by previous speakers.

The Bill for England and Wales provides for the dissolution of the CNAA but the Bill under discussion does not mention it. The CNAA's tentacles stretch deeply into Scottish education and the knock-on effect is, therefore, obvious.

The quality assessment committees to be established by both Bills provide for quality assurances once the new universities have the right to award degrees, but a considerable gap remains to be filled and I hope that the Minister will go some way towards filling it this evening. What will happen when the Council for National Academic Awards is wound up later this year? That organisation has welcomed the proposals and the reforms contained in them but has expressed many anxieties. It has cautioned against the speed with which the Bill is being introduced, and that has been echoed by Opposition Members during Second Reading and in Committee. That will create concern among existing students and those applying for courses beginning later this year.

When the CNAA is wound up, many of the 300,000 students, UK-wide—some 10 per cent. of whom are in Scotland—will be some way short of completing their courses. They will be left in what has been termed the no man's land between being part of an institution with degree-awarding powers and a CNAA accredited course.

The proposed arrangements fail to cater for students enrolled in institutions which will not be given degree-awarding powers and which have been unable to forge a link with a degree-awarding institution before the start of the new academic session later this year. Also left high and dry are what the CNAA describe as the 500 research degree students registered by CNAA through non-educational establishments e.g. industrial, commercial or research laboratories and hospitals".

The CNAA has advocated that those students should be transferred to a national degree-awarding body such as the Open University. The Open University is ideally qualified to take on that role. The Labour party advocates that in the Bill on English and Welsh higher education. The suggestion is sensible and I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says about it. The Open University has the necessary expertise and range of courses. However, were it to take on that role, we would have to ask for what the Minister considers to be a dirty word-resources. It cannot be done without providing adequate resources. Many thousands of students deserve adequate accreditation for their courses and a clear idea of who will award their degrees. If that means additional resources, the Minister and the Government should face up to that throughout the United Kingdom.

It is estimated that there are about 40,000 students in the United Kingdom, a disproportionate number of whom attend Scottish institutions that will not receive degree-awarding status. Those students applied for and were accepted on courses to study for CNAA awards. They will now have no choice but to accept an award from whichever validating organisation the institution at which they are studying is able to find. That is a haphazard process—there is only a short time between now and September when the CNAA is to be wound up. Students applying for courses that start this autumn will enter a foggy area where there is no clear idea of what awards they can expect to gain, which is unsatisfactory and highlights the vacuum that will exist.

Attempts to find an academic partner to validate courses will be made more difficult by the unchallengeable fact that no existing degree-awarding institution has anything like the range of awards available through the CNAA, which relates to my remarks on the Open University. There is nothing like the spread of courses. Even our most esteemed academic institutions have nothing like the spread of courses that the CNAA offers.

What will happen to the institutions and students caught in that no man's land because the rules have been changed once the game is under way? That is not simply unfair, but unsettling for students and employers, who also need to know about the graduates who will be applying to them for posts during the next two years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West referred to an aftercare service, which will be of as much concern to employers as to students. The CNAA has brought together graduates and employers, but that role will disappear without any obvious replacement. The new clause provides a safety net to replace the ad hoc arrangements that appear to apply, at least in the intervening period. I hope that the Minister will answer the questions and be prepared to accept the new clause in the spirit in which it was intended so as to assist students, past and present, and the employers who hope to link up with them in the near future.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

I wish to express my support for my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), and to recognise that the representations of Professor Edwards and his colleagues are valid.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The clause covers a number of important issues on which I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words. First, I should emphasise that the Bill places an obligation on the new funding council to assess the quality of education provided in all institutions which it funds, whether or not they have degree-awarding powers. That assessment of quality will then be used to inform the funding provided by the council for teaching. All three territorial funding councils will undertake such quality assessment. In addition, there will be a quality audit unit run on a United Kingdom-wide basis by the institutions themselves. It may be helpful if I make the distinction between quality assessment and audit. Quality assessment will look at the quality of the teaching itself with a view to informing funding decisions. Quality audit will examine the quality control systems put in place by the institutions themselves to ensure that they are adequate.

The specific subject of credit rating for courses is an area where Scottish institutions can take some pride. The Scottish Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme—or SCOTCATS—involves all Scottish higher education institutions and covers courses from a higher national certificate to a full honours degree. I know that the institutions are very keen to continue that scheme and are looking at ways of doing so through the quality audit unit.

Photo of Mr Ernie Ross Mr Ernie Ross , Dundee West

The Minister mentioned quality assessment and quality audit—the two are quite different. If the Minister has said all that he intends to say, he has missed out on an important aspect. It was the mission of the technological institutions that was important within the quality audit. Their mission was technologically and industrially driven.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I was making the distinction between quality assessment and quality audit. I know that the hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned about the Dundee institute of technology. His constituency interests mean that that institution is rightly at the forefront of his mind. However, the circumstances of that institute, on which we have corresponded, are not related to the new clause.

8.45 pm

Wider access to higher education is a vital part of our proposals. Last year, 9,400 mature students entered full-time higher education in Scotland. That is an increase of more than 80 per cent. since 1979. That reflects particularly well on the Scottish wider access programme which we introduced in 1988. It will continue unaffected by our higher education reforms.

New clause 14 raises the position of graduates and employees of the Council for National Academic Awards after its dissolution. Perhaps I could take this opportunity to pay tribute to the CNAA. Too often in the past, public sector bodies have become self-perpetuating bureaucracies. The CNAA has avoided that—indeed, it has—[Laughter]—made a remarkable—

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

May I just try to finish reading this sentence.

The CNAA has scored the remarkable achievement of working itself out of a job by bringing the present non-university higher education institutions to their present academic maturity. Arrangements are already in hand for it to be wound down in an orderly way. We agree that there must be what might be called an after care service for its graduates and employees.

Photo of Mr Mike Watson Mr Mike Watson , Glasgow Central

The brief is perhaps not the best that the Minister has been given.

The new clause contains an error which I had not noticed until now. The new clause contains a misprint. The Minister has twice mentioned the words that appear in the new clause "graduates and employees", but we are talking not about employees of CNAA, but about employers.

Paragraph (c) should refer to employers with whom the graduates want to link up. I apoloigise for that printing error which may have misled the Minister and may explain why he is uncharacteristically unsure.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that elucidation. I agree that we also need an after care service to help employers.

Some of the CNAA's present work will fall to the new quality audit unit. The Open University is currently working on detailed proposals to assume the function of maintaining CNAA records, particularly the academic records of graduates. The Open University already has great experience of that function through its present work.

Hon. Members will have seen that work is already in hand to address the issues to which new clause 14 refers. Therefore, I invite the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) to withdraw it.

Photo of Mr Ernie Ross Mr Ernie Ross , Dundee West

With the leave of the House, may I say that we had some lighter moments in Committee, which usually occurred either when the Minister was not enjoying reading his brief or when the brief, for some reason, did not seem to fit in with what he was trying to say. Today we seem to have encountered that problem.

What we are trying to do is important. We are concerned about the mission of the central institutions. Their teaching mission has always been slightly different from that of universities, mainly because the Scottish Education Department deliberately did not allow them to diverge into the humanities but kept them on a narrow, industry-based system of teaching and degree awarding. We are concerned that the quality audit unit should be established quickly so that the new institutions, which will have university title, will not wander away and that we will retain in Scotland technology-based institutions.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps I stuck too rigidly to my brief. He asked me about the importance of establishing the quality audit unit and when it would be in place. I share his concern about it. I expect that the audit unit will be in place by September of this year.

Photo of Mr Ernie Ross Mr Ernie Ross , Dundee West

This brief debate has been important. Our colleagues in another place may want to return to the issue to clarify that we are all talking about the same thing. Given what the Minister has just said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.