Standards: MPs upbraid sector

Nine months of evidence-gathering came to this: on 2 August, the IUSS Committee published its state-of-the-sector analysis of higher education. Times Higher Education staff report on its findings

August 6, 2009

THE QAA AND EXTERNALS: REFORM IS NEEDED

The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee's report, Students and Universities, accuses the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) of taking an "unduly limited view" of its role by declining to judge academic standards. It should either be abolished or transformed and given new responsibilities, the report says.

It also criticises the watchdog's reluctance to use "cause-for-concern" processes to investigate allegations of dumbing down, and says that its remit should cover reporting on academic standards, including teaching quality.

It suggests that a reformed QAA should review universities' degree-awarding powers at least once a decade, and withdraw such powers when necessary.

Flagging up concerns about the comparability of degrees across the sector, the report states that a new-look QAA should also define the characteristics of each class of honours degree and "ensure that the standards that each university draws up and applies are derived from these classification standards".

Half of the reformed body's funding should come from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and half from levies on institutions, the report suggests.

The committee is also critical of the external-examiner system, which needs "refurbishing".

It wants the QAA to accredit a UK-wide pool of examiners to work to a national remit in an attempt to clarify which documents examiners can access, the extent to which they can amend marks and the matters on which they can comment.

Currently, examiners' reports are often insufficiently rigorous and critical, and their recommendations are not always acted upon, the report says.

It adds that the appointment of externals is "generally not transparent".

In future, their reports should be published without redaction, other than to remove material that could identify an individual's mark or performance, the report states.

WHISTLEBLOWERS: BEEF UP PROTECTION

Better protection is needed for academic whistleblowers, the MPs recommend.

The IUSS report warns: "The pressures within the system to protect the reputation of the institution are so strong that they risk not only sweeping problems under the mat, but also isolating and ostracising unjustly those raising legitimate concerns."

It calls for legal protection for those who expose failings within universities, recommending that existing legislation should be strengthened.

A chapter of the report is dedicated to Walter Cairns' treatment at the hands of Manchester Metropolitan University.

Mr Cairns (pictured), a law lecturer at the institution, was removed from its academic board after making allegations about grade inflation to the inquiry.

The report says the committee "deprecated" the action of the university and its vice-chancellor, John Brooks.

But the MPs stopped short of referring the matter to Parliament's Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Mr Cairns was disappointed by the decision.

"This is a legal matter. It should have been referred," he said.

TUITION FEES: INDEPENDENT SCRUTINY REQUIRED

The Government has been advised to commission independent research into the effects of the introduction of variable tuition fees in 2006 and the likely effects of any further fee increases on the participation of poor students.

The MPs want this research to be published in time to inform the review of fees, which is due to start its investigations this year, although its work will not be concluded before the next general election.

During the review, the Government should also "indicate as part of its vision for higher education over the next 15 years to what level it wants to see tuition fees reach, if it is to persist with the current fee regime", the report adds.

If the Government plans to allow fees to rise significantly, the MPs say it will need to explain how it will ensure that deleterious effects are avoided.

RESEARCH AND TEACHING: EVIDENCE FOR LINK 'AT BEST MIXED'

The "assumption" that undergraduate teaching quality is better in universities that have strong research agendas is challenged by the report.

The IUSS committee questions what it says is an assertion that has "pervaded the sector", arguing that the evidence for the link is "at best mixed". There is "no interest" among universities to test the assumption, it adds.

The nature of the relationship is "crucial" to dispensing quality-related (QR) research funding, the report argues. If there is a link, it makes sense to spread research funds widely so that all students experience the best teaching; if not, it would be more sensible to concentrate funds.

"If good teaching does not need to be underpinned with research, the Government could - as an example - ... focus investment in research in science- related subjects in fewer universities," it says.

The MPs' report also suggests that the forthcoming research excellence framework should give "greater weight to the impact that research has on teaching", with a new category recognising teaching staff who undertake pedagogic research in their own disciplines.

Universities also need "clear and effective criteria" for appointments and promotions based on teaching, it says.

It recommends that all staff who teach should be required to have training and be encouraged to obtain a pedagogic qualification.

The report is also critical of the Higher Education Academy, which it says has failed to prove its value.

UNFAIRNESS: 'ALL STUDENTS MUST BE TREATED THE SAME'

The report identifies a level of "unfairness" in the British higher education system that it says must be eradicated.

It adds that there is a "disparity" in the current funding system, which still favours young full-time students.

Part-timers lose out, and the treatment of mature students is tantamount to "a form of discrimination".

"All students must be treated in the same manner. Any system that does not achieve this will discriminate against groups - in this case part-time and mature students - and this is unacceptable," the report adds.

The MPs also state that the current bursary system is "unsatisfactory and unfair".

Phil Willis, chairman of the committee, said the system failed students and taxpayers.

The report proposes a national bursary scheme for England, which Mr Willis said would be "anchored to student need".

David Baker, chairman of GuildHE, welcomed the report.

"We are still stuck in a mindset that assumes the majority of students are full-time and 18 years old. Life is simply not like that," he said.

But Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, disputed the need for an overhaul of the bursary system.

"We already have a 'national bursary scheme' in the form of a guaranteed level of support for disadvantaged students through government grants, subsidised loans, no upfront fees and minimum bursaries for institutions set by the Office for Fair Access," Dr Piatt said.

GOVERNMENT INTERFERENCE: LINES MUST BE DRAWN

Universities, students and Hefce should draw up a "concordat" delineating the areas where institutions have autonomy, the report states.

The report identifies a lack of clarity about the areas where the Government could legitimately intervene and those where universities' autonomy is supreme.

"(A concordat) could, for example, define the nature of both individual academic freedom and institutional ... autonomy, and the principles applying to the consideration of applications for admissions," it says.

More specifically, the report states that "only assessments meeting acceptable statistical practice will be applied to the marking of students' work".

But the principle of fair access to higher education should always override institutional autonomy, it adds.

"In our view, it is unacceptable for any part of the sector to cite higher education institutional autonomy as a reason to sidestep the requirement to ensure fair access," the MPs' report says.

WHAT THE PAPERS SAY

This week's IUSS report was seized on by the media as an opportunity to reignite the long-running debate about "dumbing down" in higher education.

The Observer suggested that universities were "embroiled in a furious row" over the MPs' allegations, adding that "amid the war of words, senior Tories vowed to publish data that they claimed would reveal the true value of degrees".

The Sunday Times, meanwhile, chose to have a dig at "lazy students" - highlighting the report's observation that British students work the shortest hours of any in Europe.

It also interpreted the report as saying that "universities engage in widespread grade inflation and try to crush whistleblowers who question standards".

In a leading article on the report, The Sunday Telegraph rubbished Universities UK's defence of the rising numbers of first-class degrees, which UUK said was down to the fact that more students are entering university with high A-level grades.

"This is nonsense and Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, should have been ashamed to suggest it," the paper said.

"We have known for a long time ... that an A at A level is not worth what it once was. The same is rapidly becoming true of a first-class degree."

Elsewhere, The Independent on Sunday led on MPs' criticisms of vice-chancellors, describing the report as a "swingeing attack on the running of universities".

And the Daily Mail ran with the headline: "Universities accused of dumbing down after number of first-class degrees doubles in a decade."

READERS' VIEWS

The content of the wide-ranging and frequently hard-hitting select committee report was met with mixed reactions from academics.

Readers of the Times Higher Education website posted their responses online.

One angry commentator, writing as "disheartened lecturer", claimed the tone of the report was "condescending".

"I must say it makes for a very unpleasant read," the reader said. "Complex issues are oversimplified. There are 22 mentions of the 'taxpayer'. Given the way MPs have been misusing taxpayers' money, that is rather hypocritical."

Another reader, an external examiner calling themselves "My hand is up because I have read the report", said: "I worked damned hard to maintain standards and the faculty of the host institution matched my commitment. Perhaps MPs should accept that after so many years of 'education, education, education', achievement is rising."

But others were more accepting of the committee's findings.

"At the former London poly where I worked, you were routinely encouraged to do whatever you had to do to get the students through, provide adequate help and support (tantamount to doing written work for them) and to reconsider marks," said one.

Another, "Dave", said the accusation in the report that there was a degree of defensive complacency in the sector rang true.

"A really rigorous external-examiner system would go through UK higher education like a dose of salts; but are we prepared for the carnage?" he asked.

"There is no shame in having high failure-low retention rates if one's mission is geared towards widening participation," added Howard Fredrics.

Walter Cairns, the Manchester Metropolitan University whistleblower who was kicked off the university's academic board after submitting evidence of alleged grade inflation to the MPs, was offered support by online posters.

One critic of Manchester Met's management said: "Their attitude is not unique. Given an opportunity, my current post-92 university management would do the same ... (they) are on the numbers game."

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