Quality Assessment in Respect of Institutions without Degree-Awarding Powers

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Ernie Ross Mr Ernie Ross , Dundee West 7:45 pm, 5th February 1992

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—