Welcome to our afternoon sitting. We will now hear oral evidence from Which?, the Confederation of British Industry, moneysavingexpert.com, and the chair of the teaching excellence framework panel and vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.
Would you like to introduce yourselves? The session is quite informal. Colleagues will ask you questions—already about six colleagues have said that they are interested in doing so. Obviously, we have not got a lot of time, so I ask for brief answers. I will leave it to you to decide, as a question is asked, which of you wants to answer it. Would you like to introduce yourselves quickly?
May I say at the beginning of this sitting that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward?Q 55
Let me turn to our colleagues. Can I start you off with a question about the issue of students as consumers? Obviously, the language of the Bill talks, significantly—as the Government have—about boosting the rights of students as consumers, yet the paradox is that, in the past few months, some of the main controversies have been about the way in which students as consumers seem to be getting a raw deal from the Government, who have moved the goalposts in certain areas. With that in mind, would you like to comment, first, on whether the Government are right to put so much emphasis on students as consumers and, secondly, on whether there are practical measures in the Bill that strengthen their position as consumers?
I am happy to start. The fact is that universities have been covered by consumer law for some time—that was further confirmed by the passage of the Consumer Rights Act 2015—but the Competition and Markets Authority, partly as a result of research that Which? conducted, has demonstrated that, on occasion, some universities have failed to comply with consumer law. That has gone across a range of issues, including the information that they made available to students, whether prospective or sitting; their terms and conditions; their complaints handling; and a whole range of other issues. We welcome the fact that as a result of the Bill we will have, hopefully, a proper regulatory structure to deal with that issue.
We very much welcome the creation of the office for students. We think that there has been an issue with regulation of this sector. Clearly, we now need to ensure that that regulator works effectively and has the powers to take action because, although we have seen some improvements from universities, in the way that they are complying with consumer law, we are still finding too much evidence from students around problems that they are facing. Therefore, action needs to be taken by regulators when that is found, so that students who are, obviously, now paying an awful lot of money are properly protected.
I think that raises lots of things. Students as consumers is a difficult one. It is a difficult to be a consumer where we should not automatically give a good consumer full choice: they should not choose what the make-up of their course is and what the academic standards are. The subtext to this question is the abominable and disgraceful behaviour of the Government in the retrospective hike in student loan fees. Looking at students as consumers, if they had borrowed money from a commercial lender, the Financial Conduct Authority would have struck out in a second the idea that, five years after announcing that the repayment threshold would go up from £21,000 in April 2017 with average earnings, that would be frozen.
Let us make no bones about it: that is a hike for students. They will pay more each month and the vast majority of them will pay more in total. In fact, the only ones who will not pay more in total are the very high-earning ones who will pay off their loans more quickly. There has been a lot of debate about whether the Government actually promised this or not. It was not in the terms and conditions, but the FCA regulations are quite clear: if your major marketing states that you will do something, whether the terms and conditions have an exemption for it—we have seen it with shared appreciation mortgages and others—it will be ruled out.
I am very pleased that last week—which was rather wonderful timing—I finally got my hands on this letter that I would like to submit as evidence, if I may. It is from David Willetts, the former Minister for Universities, and is written to a parent telling them that the rate would go up in April 2017 with average earnings. If I were sitting in another forum I would be here lobbying you, if a company had done this, for mis-selling and for compensation for the students who have been affected. We have a higher education Bill, which touts throughout, and goes on about, equality and fairness. It is built on a lie if the Government and the state itself are not behaving fairly to students.
This is a retrospective hike. It breaks all good principles of good governance. It breaks all good principles of good finance. Moreover, not only that, but this breach of trust makes it more difficult for people like me who have been trying to say to students, regardless of the political spittle generated—forgive me—by you people when you argue over these issues, that students can still afford to go to university. I get asked the question, “Can we trust what you say?” Well, how can they if the Government will retrospectively change terms?
Let us not just treat students as consumers; let us treat them as voters and citizens. The danger here is that, when you retrospectively change terms, when people have signed a contract with the Government and you breach that contract, you knock not only the faith in the student finance system, but the belief in politics as a whole. It is absolutely wrong and until that is sorted out, until student finance is put on statutory terms and until the Minister—who it is nice to see sitting there, and we have discussed this—gets his Government, in this new era of fairness and equality for all, which we hear about, to turn this abomination around, then no, students will not be treated fairly as consumers and this whole thing is a bloody farce.
The point that you touched on, Mr Lewis, is about the spirit of the proposals, as well as the letter of the proposals. It is in that spirit that I want to—
Q Thank you, Sir Edward. Moving on from the consumer issue, I want to ask about where the panel sees the role of skills in the Bill. Mr Carberry, you have waxed lyrical on this issue on a number of occasions, but the fact of the matter is that the skills issues that affect us are, I would suggest, relatively untouched in the Bill. Are you concerned by that? Do other people have concerns?
You are right to raise it. Clearly, we live in different times from the last time we regulated universities. Participation at higher levels is much higher, and necessarily much higher now. Our key concern regarding skills is, first, making sure that the diversity of our university base is protected through things like the teaching excellence framework, and what it recognises as good provision. To ensure that diversity of provision is encouraged, we would very much like to see more focus on a statutory basis for the promotion of part-time learning, which is something we need to be thinking about, as most of the people who will be in the labour market in 2030 are in the labour market now. Broadly, the approach of the Bill is one that we support.
I will put one other thing on the table, which is around research and engagement with business on the research side. A lot of focus goes into things like the higher education innovation fund and knowledge transfer, which helps businesses to develop their skills and production. We would like to see more focus on knowledge exchange and protection for the Innovate UK role so that that remains business focused and we get some really genuine business engagement out of the new system.
I want to move on to the alternative provider of student finance, which some of the panel have talked about heavily. Given that, over the years, a large number of religious students are not necessarily able to access that fundingQ , I was wondering in terms of the Bill itself whether you support what is being detailed and outlined here, or is there anything that should be enhanced or improved?
Certainly on sharia finance, I think it is a very good move towards having an alternative. The provisions need to make sure that there is no benefit or disbenefit in doing so, and that it works on the same basis as for other students. I think that is important, because having been out there talking to people, there is often a question from non-sharia students, “Does this mean that they’re getting a better deal than us?” We do not want to get involved in that type of social division. On a straight basis, certainly having given many, many talks on this issue over the years, every time I go there and there are members of the Islamic faith there, if they are more religious they are disengaged from the student finance process and looking at parents funding them. That is not often possible, because we are talking about large amounts of money and, generally, it is bad finance for anyone to be funding up front—it does not work with the way our system works. Therefore, they are disfranchised from the system, so I wholeheartedly support it—it is something I have asked for in the past. I need to do more work on the exact structure, but presuming it is a sharia-compliant mimic of the existing system, I think it is very good news.
Since tuition fees were trebled in 2012, there is no evidence to suggest that there has been an improvement in either teaching quality or student satisfaction. Do you have concerns that we are tying in TEF to fees and that we could have a situation where there is no benefit for the students involvedQ ?
Professor Chris Husbands:
To answer that from a TEF point of view, it is worth putting this into a slightly longer term context. Since 1986, when the research selectivity exercise became the research assessment exercise that became the research excellence framework, there has been a performance management regime around research, which is a critical function of universities but only one function. What that has tended to do at some institutional levels is focus attention on career development through research. The bulk of university income, for virtually all universities, is from teaching. What the TEF is designed to do is provide a framework that encourages universities to focus on teaching quality, in much the same way that the REF has encouraged them to focus on research quality. The fees issue is absolutely critical. What the tripling of fees for students did in 2012 was not to shift the amount of resource going to universities, because the fee backfilled the loss of T-grant. At some point, we as a sector are going to need to look at fee increases, because if there is a fixed fee against rising costs, essentially fees have been falling since 2012. What we are interested in the TEF doing is providing a mechanism for focusing attention on quality at a time when we need to look at the way in which the fee increases to meet rising costs.
Professor Chris Husbands:
I will take that on two levels. It seems to me that the broad core metrics, which are about teaching quality, learning environment and student outcomes, are absolutely the right places to look in a mass higher education system. There is more work to be done on how you drive that out in terms of precise metrics. We have some indicators in there, largely from existing datasets. My assumption is that, as the TEF develops, pretty much as the REF develops, so the nature of the metrics will develop over time.
If I may step back for a moment, picking a higher education provider is one of the most important decisions any of these younger people—or, indeed, older people—can take. Do you think that students have sufficient information at the moment on which to make such a life-changing decisionQ ?
No. From our perspective, we think an awful lot has been done over the years to make information more available to students, but we think that a lot more can be done with that. One of the things that Which? does in the university space is provide Which? University: a website that prospective students can use to find the right course for them. That is really important. The critical thing that needs to be done is ensuring that more people and organisations such as Which? have access to a rich dataset, which they can be taking, analysing and presenting to students and parents, so that they can make the right choice. I think that more can be done in the Bill on that. There could be an amendment to clause 59, which could explicitly state that third-party information providers such as Which?—but not just us; there are plenty of other organisations that do it—could have access to this information so that we can make it more readily available to prospective students. Also, the office for students will need to look quite carefully at the range of information that is provided. We have a long list that we would be happy to provide to the Committee around a whole range of information that we think should be made available.
Professor Chris Husbands:
May I gloss that with one sentence? I think that the issue is not so much about the range of information available but navigating that information. There is a vast amount of data out there; it is navigating it that is difficult.
There is a secondary issue, in that universities do not yet present themselves in the way that one would expect of large corporate entities. I have been to open days where grand professors of a subject have come and spoken to the students. Once some clever students picked up and said, “How many contact hours do you have?” and the professor said, “Actually, I don’t teach undergraduates.” That was the person who was doing the talk on undergraduates, set up to sell. In other categories that would be a mis-sell; I think we have to be careful about that.
If I could go back to the earlier point for a second, I think that the language of the trebling of tuition fees is a rather dangerous one for institutions, because it makes the public perceive they have had three times as much money which, as we all know, is far from true. It was just a shift from the state paying directly to the state giving the burden to the student to pay and to pay back.
There is a bigger point regarding the increase of fees that comes with the ratings up to £9,250. I do not have much of a problem with that, because when you do the maths, only students who start on £35,000 salaries and who have above-inflation pay rises afterwards will pay any more from the increase to £9,250. The rest will not clear within 30 years anyway, so it does not have any increase.
The problem with this whole system—and this is an opportunity for me to say this—is that it is time for all of you to change the name. These are not student loans. They do not work like any other form of loan. They are paid through the payroll. It is somewhere between a loan and a tax, and the fact that we call it a loan scares people from non-traditional university backgrounds from going because they are scared of debt. More so, it also inures students to other forms of debt—credit cards and payday loans—because we have educated them into debt with the student loan.
Other countries call our system the graduate contribution. If I call the system a graduate contribution it is much easier to explain, because that name actually fits the product. When we start to talk about tuition fee rises and we have this hideous language of “You will be £53,000 in debt,” this is a meaningless figure. Some people will pay nothing back while others will pay hundreds of thousands of pounds back, with the interest on top.
It is time to change the name for the benefit of our future generations so they understand what they are getting. Call it a graduate contribution. Of course, some parties are suggesting a graduate tax. It is not that dissimilar, except a graduate contribution stops and a graduate tax does not. This is a good opportunity to start looking at the language.
I know politicians are scared of this, especially those from the parties that introduced it, because they fear it will look like they are trying to spin, but we have a duty to our future generations to start calling the product what it is.
Can I probe Chris a little bit more on the teaching excellence framework? WhenQ we conducted an inquiry on the Select Committee into teaching quality, there was uniform agreement that it is good for the Government to focus on teaching excellence, but concern about the metrics. It is welcome that Government thinking has been evolving and did so during the course of our inquiry. You were suggesting there is room for further evolution. I am thinking particularly about how satisfied you are with the pretty crude metrics around employment retention and the national student survey. There is also the balance between the quantitative metrics and qualitative assessment.
Professor Chris Husbands:
My brief is to deliver the TEF in a transparent, robust and reliable way. What I said and what I would defend is that the three broad areas—teaching quality, learning environment, student destinations—are absolutely the right place to look. I am also comfortable with the fact that we have started with already existing datasets: essentially, the national student survey and the destination of leavers from higher education. That gives us a purchase on what are some really difficult issues.
My professional judgment is that, as we go forward, we will refine the metrics within those broad indicators. The TEF will work by getting the initial fix on institutional performance from the core metrics. There is then a providers’ submission, which allows providers to draw on a range of quantitative and qualitative data that will allow them to gloss those data or throw further light on them in ways that paint the institutional picture.
I am broadly comfortable that this is a very difficult task that we have started in broadly the right place. As ever in these things, as you take the logic of applying this technically, bringing professional judgment into play, we can deliver this in a way that does what it is intended to do—providing better information for students; encouraging an institutional focus on teaching quality; and drawing all that together in a frame that looks at student outcomes.
Professor Chris Husbands:
At the risk of giving a slightly technical answer, the REF always began with peer review and it has increasingly supplemented that with metrics. Given the range and amount of data we now have across the sector, the TEF is doing this the other way around, starting with metrics and supplementing it with peer judgments.
We have a published timetable. We look at institutional judgment in year 2; judgments that we will reach in the early part of next year. We will then work with the sector to work out how we can most effectively move that to institution level and probably at a slightly later date move that to incorporate postgraduate teaching quality as well. I am broadly comfortable with the timetable, while accepting that these are technically difficult questions.
Higher education is a critical part of our industrial strategy. We support the TEF. As Chris has just said, we favour an element of narrative alongside the metrics to allow for acknowledgement of things such as student entrepreneurship and engagement with careers. These are really important things for universities to be thinking of alongside pure teaching and student experience.
I come back to the point I made earlier. We need to make sure that the Bill works for students on all parts of the life span and not just those who go at 18. We need to make sure that the office for students is looking at making sure that part-time and later life learners—
I think broadly that is the case. We would like to see a move on part-time. We would also like to make sure that the development of the TEF is an inclusive process that includes business throughout its development. As Chris has just said, it is a long path. I think broadly business feels we have got to a very positive place on the REF now. We would like to go in the same direction on this.
ReturningQ to the TEF, do you think it is going to raise teaching standards or is it going to provide a mechanism to increase fees? Could we end up with a very complicated system of fees, where the levels are changing from one course to another or from one year to another, leaving quite a difficult situation for students to comprehend?
Professor Chris Husbands:
The policy intention is to provide clearer information for students. The question some way down the track—I do not think the sector has begun to think this one through—is whether once you move to discipline level TEF you end up with discipline variability in fees. There is experience on this. If you look at the postgraduate or international market, which are unregulated in terms of fees, there tends not to be, with one or two exceptions, institutional differentiation—intra-institutional differentiation—on fees, so I think that is unlikely.
As I said earlier, at some point, the reality of higher education economics is that we have to have a framework for increasing the fee basis. We cannot be here in 30 or 40 years’ time on £9,000 fees when prices are considerably higher. The challenge for me and the panel is to make sure that as those fees increase, the institutions are appropriately focused on developing and further enhancing teaching quality.
Q At the risk of making this a TEF love-in, I would like to pursue a final point with Chris. The elephant in the room on TEF, which has not surfaced today, although it has at many other meetings, not least the meeting of vice-chancellors with the all-party parliamentary group, is the basis on which the TEF is produced. If we go back to the consumer conversations we had earlier, if you were a consumer, you would not just want to know whether chocolate was good or bad for you; you would want to know whether dark chocolate or white chocolate was. This inevitably raises questions about whether you do the test on the basis of disciplines, which would probably be hugely complicated, or perhaps by schools of humanities, et cetera. Have you any thoughts at the moment? Have the Government given you any guidance on where they want you to go with that?
Professor Chris Husbands:
I will make three brief points if I may. First, the Government did not need, I suspect, to appoint a serving vice-chancellor to chair the TEF panel. I have taken that as an indication that they want to work with the grain of the sector on this. The second point is that we have said that as we move beyond year 2 and from institution to discipline level we will be working as far as we can to co-design this with sector bodies—with individual institutions, mission groups and the sector. That is very important.
The third thing—I genuinely do not have an answer to this, and as this is a TEF love-in, I am very happy to come back for another one—is this. There are some challenges that we have to negotiate in relation to discipline level, because one of the things that Neil’s members value is the very broad variety of course provision in universities. There is a real danger—I am keenly aware that we have to avoid this—that you produce an assessment regime that leads institutions to make their offering less entrepreneurial and more small-c conservative, whereas what we need to be doing to meet the demand in a very dynamic economy is increasing the diverse provision at discipline level. We have to get that right and we have to work at it. There are a range of ways—I have had some discussions with civil servants about what it might look like, but we are not in a position yet to say what it looks like.
One has to approach employability with a certain amount of care, but to me, there are three things that would be a sign that universities were engaging with employability. The first would be that they have a robust careers framework placed around students and focused on destinations—not necessarily coming to one of our members, but maybe doing other things in future, including student entrepreneurship, which really matters.
The second thing would be business engagement. I am thinking back to the other parts of the Bill, on research, where our concern is making sure that the business-focused part of the Higher Education Innovation Fund and Innovate UK is not lost. We want to see that travelling across into the teaching side. Where there is genuine business engagement in courses, we see innovation; we see accelerated courses, which we have not seen since the fees reform. All of that over time ought to encourage businesses as and when they have apprenticeship levy funds—a subject on which I have many opinions. At higher level, the apprenticeship level, it ought to encourage businesses to lean in to work with universities more, to do more engagement.
The third thing—going back to the Wakeham and Shadbolt reviews on some of the science, technology, engineering and maths work—is this: how often are curriculums in universities being refreshed to match up to the needs of, the nature of, UK business and UK society more broadly?
Those things, I think, are good proxies for employability. I would probably also say that measuring students’ employment outcomes six months after they have left university is a little soon; we need a longer view than that.
Welcome to our fourth panel of witnesses. We will now hear oral evidence from the University College of Football Business, Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design, the Further Education Trust for Leadership, and Prospects College of Advanced Technology. Ladies and gentlemen, would you like to introduce yourselves very briefly?
I am afraid that I am bound by a programme motion which is quite rigid in its timings, so I will call for crisp questions and answers. The entire panel does not need to answer every question, so let us have perhaps one person answering each question. We want to try to let in all of my colleagues who want to ask questions. First, Gordon Marsden.
Q All the members of the panel are—I will not say not in the mainstream—not in the usual stream of what people think of as higher education. I want to ask two questions to two sides. To witnesses from what might broadly be described as the vocational and further education sector, do you feel that this Bill has enough for you? There has been a lot of talk about alternative providers, but there is not much detail in the Bill about skills or about how FE and vocational education can help with the promotion and expansion of HE.
To our other witnesses from UCFB and Condé Nast college, a further question. You operate at the moment as independent providers in a different field. Some of your fees, not least those of Condé Nast, are fairly eye-watering. How would you feel about your institution and others being brought into the central process, where you might be regulated more than you are at the moment?
I can speak for Condé Nast college as its principal. I feel that we are already pretty regulated. Yes, we are operating as an independent, but we have already had to adhere to QAA and all of the other normal bureaucracy that everybody else is facing, so we are already in a highly compliant and regulated industry as part of the HE field. I believe that the idea is to bring in more streamlining and more ease for people such as us, so that we do not have to depend on HEFCE, QAA and everybody else. When we have a tiny team of 10 people it is quite hard to deal with the multiple systems of the HE pattern, so in principle that streamlining and ease of the OFS might help us. I do not get the impression that we are about to get a new fee structure imposed upon us, because we remain a private provider.
Q That is perfectly true, but it is also true that one of the aims of the Bill is to widen access and participation. The fees for your school are £27,000 per year. Clearly, at the moment you are probably not in a very good position to do that. If you come into a mainstream system, how will you be able to address that particular aspect of the Bill?
The way we do it now is to offer three full, free scholarship places. Out of 100 students that is not a bad proportion. We are also interested in looking at projects beyond the bricks and mortar college in Greek Street, and earlier somebody mentioned the apprenticeship levy. There are all sorts of things that we could do beyond our building. We also only set out to be a very—we give incredible value for money, and that is what all of our students say.
Professor Philip Wilson:
We very much welcome the new HE Bill opportunity. Again, we are very highly regulated. We proactively subscribed to QAA oversight four years ago, and we are looking to start the TDAP—taught degree awarding powers—process in the next six to 12 months, hopefully with the university title following that. So we are very much conforming to the checks and balances of wider higher education. We charge a £9,000 fee through our validation partner, so any fee changes would be in line with any public provider.
Dame Ruth Silver:
There is lots to welcome in the Bill in relation to further education colleges. Neil and I represent the college sector and the independent sector. The college sector, of course, has its roots in Victorian mechanics’ institutes, so we have long been around in this field. The Bill does much to lift lots of parts of the college sector.
I welcome the plans for regulation, though I am concerned about its fairness, both in terms of costs and data. If we look at the numbers of what is going on in colleges, 220 colleges offer HE provision, and 70 of those have more than 500 learners, but a lot have much smaller groups of learners, and for them to be paying the same fee as everybody else is really prohibitive. So, fairer regulation that is fit for size, context and purpose is what we are looking for in the FE sector.
We are the first new college of advanced technology to be established since the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. We have been established to try to address a fundamental problem within the skills system, because we think there is a fundamental faultline that runs through it. On the one hand it unhelpfully channels people between an academic and vocational route, while equally a significant skills gap exists, particularly at technical professional levels 3, 4 and 5, which we need to solve. The UK economy is not going to be globally competitive unless we have people with the right skills to respond to that challenge.
We approach this not just from the point of view of the student, but from the problem we are trying to solve, which is that, in the engineering sector alone, we need 80,000 new technicians at levels 3, 4 and 5 in order to support businesses. The faultline has occurred because, after the 1992 Act, polytechnics became universities and a whole gap opened in HNC and HND level of provision. Further education colleges saw part-time participation in HE decline dramatically and the consequence is a gap between apprenticeships that are high volume and low level and an HE system that is high level but remote from the needs of business.
Q But what do you see in the Bill that is actually going to change that? Is there much read-across from the Bill and, for example, some of the proposals from the Sainsbury review? When you look at the forecasts in the technical documents that go with it, the number of FE colleges that are guesstimated to be providing HE courses in 10 years’ time is more or less exactly the same as at the moment. The concerns of many people are that this is a Bill that is predicated for alternative providers, but the FE sector does not really seem to be at the table.
Dame Ruth Silver:
I have been both surprised and shocked at two things: first, the lack of mention of skills generally in the Bill, and secondly, the lack of knowledge or appreciation of what colleges do. To give some figures, 10% of HE graduates in 2014-15 came through colleges—180,000 learners every year. Those learners are different from the traditional, rather “boarding school” model of universities. They are part-time working while they have families, they are women returners and so on. Colleges widen access in crucial areas and areas where there is a cold place for communities. They are local, they are everywhere, and they are actually well used to the coming challenges, too. Neil talked about the polytechnics, which came from colleges of advanced technology, but the CATs came from technical colleges, so we have a long tradition of moving in, challenging and enriching the spread and fairness of offer to all in our communities, especially those in cold spots.
We are nearly ready. Look at the number of colleges that award higher education qualifications. I am hoping you will look, too, at thinking further about colleges having degree-awarding powers as well, again fitting employers’ and local community needs. This could be rather like the Olympic legacy planning. Start early and work with local communities; bring them in and bring them on. Go downstream and give people a fairer chance in the way that local colleges and local training providers can.
Q Good afternoon. I want to take a slight step back. Could you outline some of the barriers and challenges that new providers face in entering the market? How do you feel the Bill and the reforms will address these?
We have just been through the whole process of finding a validating partner for our degree, and it was really difficult. There was no one place to go. There was no guidance. It was just a case of trying a few different bodies and trying to find some place that would support us. There was nothing central—no one that you could go to and say, “This is what we are looking to do. Can you advise us and help us through that process?” For us, the idea of an office for students in a central place to go and be supported through that process is very helpful.
We got a very different response from different universities. We started our own piece of research into the places that would suit us. We shortlisted five different universities that might work with us on the validation of our BA, and the responses that we received were wildly different. Some people just did not want anything to do with us; with some people we could not even find the information, despite them doing it as part of their business. Finding the partner initially was the biggest challenge. Anything that can address that for alternative providers is very important.
Professor Philip Wilson:
We have been through the same process with finding a validation partner. The fees quoted by vice-chancellors for a validation partnership are very different. Because these agreements are often for a four to five-year period, business planning in the long term, particularly around capital expenditure on buildings, staff recruitment and staff planning, is very difficult. It almost encourages a shorter-term view of your business strategy, rather than something longer term. I totally agree about having a centralised place where there could be a list of universities that would be prepared to enter the validation market. That has become more difficult since the student number controls came off, because universities do not necessarily need the income. We have seen a number of institutions pull the ladder up from colleges on validation powers with pretty much no notice, which has caused a number of issues—it filters down to the students and causes disruption.
Can I pick up on Gordon’s question? We as an organisation provide a whole range of high-level HE provision, but it is all delivered in the workplace context. All of our students on HNCs, HNDs or indeed our new degree apprenticeship in embedded electronics are employed by the businesses we work with. Our relationship with those businesses is extremely close. We support them in all their workforce development. We will be applying to have our own awarding powers because of our concern about the ability and capacity of universities to deliver degree-level programmes in a workplace context.
We spoke to two universities about our degree apprenticeship. One wanted to deliver it over six years and the other wanted to deliver it over four years. All of them wanted the apprentices to spend a whole year at the university, which is not what businesses want. Businesses want a responsive way of training their workforce up to degree level, and universities either have to become much more flexible and much more responsive or they are going to face competition from other organisations that are prepared to do that.
Q One question that came up a number of times earlier today is about social mobility. We often hear in the media that we should be focusing on the red brick and Russell Group universities. We hear a lot about that, but obviously organisations and institutions in the same sectors as your own have a responsibility to do that, too. What I would like to hear, further to your reading and understanding of the Bill, is how that is going to be enhanced within your sectors as a result of this Bill being introduced.
One of the ways that is enhanced is that colleges are much more responsive to their local communities and much clearer about the needs of the local community and those areas of disadvantage. In our own college, 53% of our students come from disadvantaged areas, and we target those areas deliberately to try to encourage mobility.
The other issue is that if someone comes to us and does an advanced apprenticeship over four years and then goes on and does an HNC, they are earning from day one. On one of our advanced rail apprenticeships, they are earning £18,500 in year one; they are earning £40,000 by the end of a four-year apprenticeship; they have no debt, and they have four years of employment experience. That makes it much more accessible for young people to follow a higher education route without having to take on debt, live away and all of that. It is a much more responsive approach to linking the needs of individuals to those of the economy.
Dame Ruth Silver:
The FE colleges, of course, have the long tradition of the dual mission: widening participation into education and widening participation onwards into economic life. Doing that at a local level, and with local employers, we offer part-time short courses and full-time courses flexibly to people who have needs other than learning needs—social needs and support for care. Colleges too are closely linked to employers in order to enable links for job offers. You will find employer days in colleges: employers coming down to offer opportunities to people.
The benefits of colleges are that we are local, we are everywhere, and we do evening classes, part-time classes, weekend classes and short courses. We are responsive and offer a variety of entry points.
Q I am glad you are but social mobility is not just about socio-economic factors; it is also around the public sector equality duty. In terms of BME for example, and in relation to women within STEM as a prime example of under-representation, do you see this Bill presenting new opportunities to enable greater participation in other areas, not just in socio-economic terms?
Dame Ruth Silver:
I think it is what I meant when I talked about cold spots. My own college was in downtown Deptford and we had a high percentage of all that you mentioned and a long tradition of engineering and construction down in docklands as well. It opened up all sorts of opportunities: good relationships with universities and with local authorities, for example, made movement and change much more available. Also working with people in work, with employers—a different stage from Neil—we were able to work out special compact programmes as the area needed, and as people like the planning authorities decided. That flexibility and the fact that most of the members of staff there—and I am concerned about how you get staff ready for this increased participation in vocational education—of course, had come through the vocational route and its strong contacts.
I just wanted to pick up on the gender issue as it is a real issue. We always start by asking, “What is the problem that we are trying to solve?” As a practical example, in the rail industry there is a huge shortage of technician engineers, partly the result of having an ageing workforce that is about to retire without the investment in training over the last decade, and they are finding it extremely difficult. Yet at the same time there are no more women working in the rail industry than there were at the end of the first world war: only 4% of women are technician engineers. We need to be saying to employers, “You’ve got to play your part. There is 50% of the workforce that you are largely ignoring.” We can do some of that work in producing those pathways for young women to go through into that industry because we are connected to the local economy.
Professor Philip Wilson:
One thing that alternative providers do very well is the recruitment of students from a very wide, diverse background. It is not death by UCAS points, because we are smaller. To judge an 18-year-old on 16 hours—which is eight exams on four A levels—is short-sighted, because they have been on the planet for 18 years, and we look at people with a holistic approach. In the same way, if you apply for a job your degree or your postgraduate qualification gets you in through the door but you are employed based on who you are as an individual, and that is what employers look for.
We do very well on that: we have got 94% employability for our graduates. On the day of graduation last year, 90% of our graduates already had a job. That is because we recruit people who are suitable for the industry because we ask the industry and then fold that back into the way we recruit the students, so we work on being work ready for day one. That encourages people from very diverse backgrounds.
I would probably also touch on the reporting of the ranking of how institutions are perceived. Take what is called “good honours”—first class degrees and 2:1 degrees. If we are going to look at wider participation, then the dichotomy is that we get clobbered at the other end by having students with lots of 2:1s, 2:2s and thirds. For me, the impact on an institution is: what does that institution do for a young person for three years in their building? If you have a good public institution that recruits people with straight As and they all go through an automatic path and get first class degrees, where is the impact? If you get students from a wider participation background and they get a 2:2, that could be the absolute pinnacle of their academic achievement, and will change their life. So the way that educational success is understood needs to be examined at the other end of the process.
Q You made a very powerful point, and contributed to the discussion that we have been having around the TEF and its metrics. I wanted to raise a different point which is around part-time students, because whatever the other impacts of the 2012 changes to fees and student funding, which we could debate, the consequences for part-time students have been devastating—I think everybody agrees on that. Do you see anything in the Bill that addresses that issue?
Dame Ruth Silver:
It depends on who else you let into the sector. The Bill is predicated on a very traditional model of HE. It is not systematic or systemic reform. So bringing in new providers, particularly colleges, is quite important. It is easier for FE students locally to manage some of the costs. There is quite a gap to be caught up with since 2012, and it has been difficult for part-timers to do this. Full-timers are much easier to serve. So there is a real catch-up there, but this notion of “local is easier, flexible is easier, part-time is easier” will, on the whole, happen in non-traditional HE.
I do not have the exact figures, but if you looked at participation at levels 4 and 5 in FE some 10 years ago, you would have seen large numbers of people who were in work, coming into their FE colleges in the evenings, attending twilight sessions to get their HNCs and HNDs and so on. That whole system evaporated as colleges were driven towards full-time students and away from workforce training. We are living with the consequences of that now.
Dame Ruth Silver:
May I comment on the disconnect between the skills world and the reforms going on there? There are 3 million apprentices to be trained: those are high-level, in great part. The Institute for Apprenticeships is about to start as well. That is not connected to this. It is a traditional model but it is also a very closed system of higher education, and it is in the other areas where you find a more flexible, responsive curriculum on offer. That responsiveness is key to dealing with the long problem we have had here relating to technicians in the economy and also high-level skills qualifications.
Q I wonder if it is entirely accurate to categorise universities as boarding schools, having no links with business and not having employability as part of their agenda. The picture of HE is actually quite diverse, and that is creating a bit of a problem for the TEF. I wonder whether some of the issues that you are raising could be addressed by making employability, for example, central to the TEF.
Dame Ruth Silver:
It depends which part of the UK you look at. I know you have got colleagues coming from Scotland where the third highest number of graduates come through the FE sector and come through a relationship jointly with universities called articulation at high-level skills qualifications. Wales is different as well. It varies; there are national variations in what is going on.
What has happened with all the reforms in universities is that today it is easier to take more and more bachelor degree, full-time younger people. There is an impact. It depends where you are looking for impact. I am very focused on access and social mobility and those are the things that universities are not strong at, certainly in England. They are very closely connected to employers in postgraduate roles and in research.
Q I want to ask the representatives of the independent sector here today how representative are you of the sector? How much bigger could the independent sector be once the Bill is enacted? Are you the tip of the iceberg, or are you just going to be able to grow a little bigger and do a little bit more than you used to be able to do?
Professor Philip Wilson:
The majority of the independent sector are specialist in a narrow field, in which case there is a glass ceiling of how many people want to work in a certain industry, whether it be in the arts or within our degree portfolio. I think there will be a natural point where, because employability will be everything, we as an institution have to be very careful of market saturation.
We have actually self-imposed a cap for the number of students we will take in the UK because of that. The majority of the independent sector have no ambition to become the University of Manchester with 30,000 students. With an independent HE hat on, anyone who says different to that is maybe not representative of what the independent sector feels.
Professor Philip Wilson:
It is about a level playing field, absolutely. We want to be considered and judged and monitored the same as everybody else. That then leads through to more informed student choice. I get frustrated at open days talking to parents who spend more time researching their summer holiday on TripAdvisor and look for more information than they will do on their university of choice. We need to educate the parents and the families on how they choose their institutions. It is not just based on longevity—how long an institution has been around.
For us it is about a change in emphasis away from research and into teaching quality and excellence because that is what we do and do well. We are providing an excellent environment for students to learn in and that is our focus. Higher education has always traditionally been judged on research output. If we are being judged against people based on research output, essentially we have to compete on a different level and the TEF is better.
Professor Philip Wilson:
I also think the QAA need to expand and broaden their assessment when they come into an institution. We have had some very successful QAA reviews but when they do not actually go into a classroom it beggars belief—I just do not get it, because that is what the student interaction point is; that is where the customer service interaction is. I really would support the QAA getting into the classroom, sitting at the back of the room and understanding what the teaching quality is like, so that students are not having PhD students doing the majority of their teaching. Institutions must be held to account of qualified people standing at the front of every room.
Q Both our colleagues from the FE sector have laid stress on the way that higher degrees can be delivered through very strong local connectivity. To be fair to the Government, the Government have banged on in the Bill all the time about higher skills but there are issues at the moment, I would suggest, around the implications of Brexit for funding. The figure that I had from the Government just before the referendum was in the region of £725 million of ESF funding.
We have heard from colleagues this morning about the support that the Government are giving to the university sector in terms of research. Are you concerned that a lot of that money that fuels the sort of work that you do will go west if there is not a renewed effort on that part by the Government?
Dame Ruth Silver:
It is a growing concern certainly in colleges, where European social funds come through local authorities and through universities. A lot of partnership work is funded by that, so it is a great concern. What will be removed would be those new initiatives that seem to have an impact on bringing people in, dealing with individuals but helping employers as well. Diversity of employers in Lewisham has certainly been helped by that. It is the loss of the layer below that will infect and affect progression for those communities. There is a concern that that money will be lost at the same time.
I would like to link this back to the previous question on why we are interested in offering degrees in our own right. Part of the answer to that is that we are not much interested in providing a traditional degree like the universities. We are not trying to compete with universities like that. We are trying to create a legitimate pathway for young people who do not want to go down the A-level, university and degree route, but who want to get their professional development, high-level skills and degree through a work-based route. Frankly, we are better positioned to be able to provide that kind of experience, through the College of Advanced Technology, than many universities are.
In our experience, the universities’ default position has been to go back to the traditional model and to offer that as the diet for people who want to do a degree. We are looking to do this in a different way. There is a mile of difference between the funding of a university compared with the funding available in FE. One of the real challenges for us is levelling that a bit so that we can actually provide the quality of experience that they would expect.
Q We have heard quite a lot already about a level playing field. For the independent sector, it is generally about regulation. Do you think that we should look at a level playing field in other ways? If a student goes to university, they have access to a whole range of cultural and sporting activities, they have intensive student support and they can exchange with other universities. Should not that be a set of demands that we also place on the independent sector?
I think they are getting something different, and that is the point. We do not do what big universities do. They come to us because they do not want to go to a big university. We can give them other experiences and arrange for other things for them to do that our small numbers allow, but our small numbers do not allow us, for example, to have whole departments to support student activities such as sports clubs and things like that. We do everything that we can to provide access to those things or point our students in the right direction. We have a really particular set of students and that is not why they come to us. They do not want those things from us. They have a different set of expectations and demands.
Q So is it not right then that you remain outside the main university sector and you are never categorised as that, and that it is clear to the students that, although they may be getting specialist education, it is not the same as getting university education?
I would not go so far as to see it that way. They are still getting a university education in the sense that they are getting a degree and a really high standard of education in the classroom. It is the extra-curricular things that are different.
Professor Philip Wilson:
I would agree but also disagree. Purely from a UCFB perspective, we provide all those additional services for students. We have very successful teams—male and female—in football leagues and other sporting areas. A degree means different things to different people. Some people just want to get a piece of A4 with the word “degree” on it. Some people want to have the specialist vocational experience and knowledge, particularly in the arts and music sector. For other people, it is about growing as a human being.
When I speak to parents at graduation, they do not talk about the great lecture their son or daughter had on gearing in their finance degree in year 2. It is more about how they have grown up as an individual, so our enrichment is different. I have created what we call the complementary curriculum, which runs parallel to the academic curriculum and is a three-year journey of personal and professional development. We give our students double the contact time of a traditional institution. That includes everything from essentials of public speaking certificates to food and wine appreciation—if you are in the business world, you need to understand those softer skills—media training and so on.
We try to create an all-round, holistic human being, not purely get people through to pass exams. This brings up the point that we are representative of the same sector and we would be in the same bit of the Venn diagram, so to speak, yet we have differences.
I would like to add something. The word “eye-watering” was used about our fees earlier. When we have open days, people have a choice. No one is sending them to our college with a big stick, saying, “You must pay £27,000 a year and go to that one.” They choose us, and all of the things we are talking about are the reasons why.
Dame Ruth Silver:
May I make a point? I think that the non-traditional sector needs to be represented at the Office for Students and the quality assurance committee. The Education Committee must scrutinise the student experience—not just the culture, but learning support for learners who may struggle in a different flexibility.