2 August 2009
UNFIT STANDARDS SYSTEM, 'DEFENSIVE COMPLACENCY' FROM THE TOP AND DISCRIMINATION AGAINST PART-TIME AND MATURE STUDENTS
MPS DELIVER WAKE UP CALL TO HIGHER EDUCATION SECTOR
The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee calls for urgent changes in the higher education sector, in a report published today examining students' university experience.
The report says the current system for safeguarding standards is out of date, inconsistent and should be replaced. The Quality Assurance Agency should be transformed into an independent Quality and Standards Agency with a specific standards remit.
The Committee also says that the culture at the top of the sector should change. The Committee found defensive complacency in the leadership of the sector and no appetite to explore key issues such as the reasons for the proportional increase in first and upper second class honours degrees in the past 15 years.
It is unacceptable to the Committee that Vice-Chancellors could not give a straightforward answer to the simple question of whether first class honours degrees achieved at different universities indicate the same or different intellectual standards.
Support for and treatment of part-time and mature students should be improved - the current system amounts to a form of discrimination. The Government's forthcoming review of fees needs to examine all aspects of support for part-time and mature students, both direct financial support and changes to allow universities the flexibility to attract and retain part-time and mature students.
The Committee also says the current bursary arrangements introduced to cushion the effect of top-up fees on students from poorer backgrounds need to be replaced with a national system. It is not fair that students from identical backgrounds with the same financial need receive significantly varying bursaries depending on which university they attend.
The report also says:
Further education colleges should play a larger role in the development of higher education. Following the model of American community colleges, a student should be able to start higher education in a further education college and then transfer to a university.
The Government should help create a credit transfer system which will allow credit earned in one institution to be transferred to another.
Schemes such as those run by Leeds University for students from disadvantaged backgrounds should be standard practice across the sector.
There is a lack of consistency across the higher education sector, despite excellent practice in places, and codes of practice applying to all institutions receiving public money should be introduced.
Elements of chance in the admissions process should be reduced so that students get a fairer deal on access to university.
Protection for whistleblowers should be addressed - current arrangements are inadequate.
Phil Willis MP, the Chairman of the Committee, said: "We do need to recognise that our higher education system is regarded as world class, and we celebrate that. But to remain competitive in the 21st century the complacency we detected must be addressed.
"We are extremely concerned that inconsistency in standards is rife and there is a reluctance to address this issue. The QAA needs radical transformation if we as a country are going to meet the needs of a 21st century higher education system with 2 million students.
"Much more needs to be done to help part-time and mature students. There has to be equal treatment for all students and a system that has the flexibility to take account of the needs of, for example, a mature student who has family commitments.
"The current bursary arrangements are not working. On any objective testwidening participation, meeting student need or fair access to higher educationthey fail both the student and the taxpayer. We therefore call for a national system anchored to student need."