MPs versus v-cs: university heavyweights parry blows

The Select Committee fails to draw blood in its probe of the state of higher education. John Gill reports from ringside on the feints and footwork

February 5, 2009

They threw a left, they threw a right, they threw the kitchen sink, but the MPs on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee struggled to land a punch.

They were in the ring with four higher education heavyweights for the first evidence session of a wide-ranging inquiry into universities and students, held in London last week.

Committee chairman Phil Willis started carefully, asking the assembled vice-chancellors what matters most to students.

Intimacy with tutors, they replied, or perhaps the chance to improve their job prospects. Our satisfaction levels are among the highest in the world and the National Student Survey (NSS) proves it, they said.

Mr Willis was unimpressed and flicked a jab: "You paint a picture of a perfect world, where every university is wonderful and all students are happy. It is not the real world you are talking about."

Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, and representative of the 1994 Group representing smaller research-intensive universities, parried that "well over 80 per cent of students are satisfied with their education".

But Mr Willis hit back: "They don't know anything else; they've nothing to compare it with."

The questions came thick and fast, but the vice-chancellors ducked and weaved like professionals.

Why, the MPs asked, don't universities publish information about contact hours, and tell students which academics will teach them?

Rick Trainor, president of Universities UK, complained that it was "unfair" to suggest that universities are opaque, and again cited the NSS as evidence that all is well.

Gordon Marsden MP changed tack. Could the panel justify the horse-trading of top academics by universities keen to do well in the research assessment exercise?

After all, he said, most students see "neither hide nor hair" of the expensively recruited research stars that their institutions employ.

Malcolm Grant, president of University College London and chairman of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, fended off this attack with aplomb. He insisted that things were "not as bleak" as suggested, and that a focus on research did not necessarily mean that teaching was neglected.

Maybe so, Mr Willis said, but wouldn't a greater spread of research funding improve teaching? Was it not the case that if a university was weak in research, its teaching would also be weaker than that of its research-intensive rivals?

Professor Crossick, pressed for a yes or no answer, instead replied: "It would be different."

With the clock ticking, Evan Harris MP moved on to admissions, highlighting the problem that universities face when selecting between the multitude of students with straight As at A level.

How, Mr Harris wondered, could universities level the playing field for students from poor backgrounds who may be just as intelligent as more expensively schooled peers?

Widening participation, Professor Trainor said, is the sector's "most urgent agenda", but added that where students end up is of secondary importance.

"The important thing is for universities to have flexibility," he said, warning that pressure on institutions to be mechanistic in their approach to A-level scores was dangerous.

Brian Iddon MP entered the fray with a shot at the Quality Assurance Agency, which he said "lacks teeth" and does not have the power to police standards.

But Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and representing the post-1992 institutions, countered that this was just as it should be, with universities as self-regulating beasts.

"When you are dealing with highly intelligent people, they will always find a way around a policed system," he said.

At least the question of degree classification put the vice-chancellors on the defensive.

Yes, Professor Ebdon said, the system is antiquated and should be replaced with something like a higher education achievement report that reflects everything students do at university.

Pressed on whether degrees were comparable across the sector, Professor Trainor agreed that "a first in history from the University of Poppleton" was not the same as "a first in tourism management from Poppleton Met". But he had the presence of mind to defend the sector against allegations of dumbing down by insisting that "both fully uphold standards that fulfil the purposes of their courses".

With that, the bell rang. The evidence session was over, without a bloodied nose in sight.

A frustrated Mr Willis observed: "It would have been wonderful just to hear that there was some slight flaw in the higher education system this morning. It has been quite remarkable."

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