University's Response to White Paper on Future of Higher Education

Supplement (1) to Gazette No. 4660

Wednesday, 28 May 2003


Note: the White Paper can be found at http://www.dfes.gov.uk/highereducation/hestrategy

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Funding and Fees
  • Research Funding
  • Organisation of Research
  • Investing in Researchers
  • Higher Education and Business
  • Admissions and Access
  • Pay and Staffing
  • Teaching and Learning

Introduction

1. The University of Oxford welcomes the White Paper's recognition of the structural under-funding of the Higher Education sector and its search for the means to remedy that on a stable and predictable basis together with an overall increase in budgetary appropriation. We welcome also the statement that `universities must be free to take responsibility for their own strategic and financial future'. We note, therefore, with concern that the cumulative outcome of the White Paper is to reduce the proportion of the HEFCE grant that is unhypothecated, to increase the number of special initiatives in funding, and to extend the reality of prescription and regulation in the conduct of university affairs even if there is a promised reduction in bureaucratic detail.

2. We recognise the importance of Higher Education in giving access to opportunity for individuals (and thus giving society access to the broadest range of available talent) and the importance of its actual and potential contribution to the economic well-being of the country. At the same time, we are concerned that the White Paper seems based upon a somewhat restricted view of the functions and purpose of universities. Universities exist to create and disseminate new knowledge and also to preserve and transmit to future generations a whole body of knowledge inherited from the work of earlier generations. They need to do this across a very broad front of the exploration and understanding of human beings as individuals, of their collective social relations and exchanges, and of the natural and physical world. Taken as a whole this work shapes much more than just the material matters of the time. It is a powerful element in the maintenance of stable and humane societies, increasing over time in their knowledge of themselves and their understanding of patterns of thought and social organisation elsewhere.

3. We believe that government policy should not ignore this crucial purpose of universities that lies beyond the particular attributes of individual disciplines. It should not assume casually that this broad social benefit will arise irrespective of the regimen of universities or their funding, nor deprive universities of the real freedom to use their long experience in judging the means to produce this important general outcome.


Funding and Fees

4. There is a significant uplift in the level of funding for the higher education sector as a whole, through HEFCE QR and T funding, and through enhanced funding for research through the Science Vote and the DTI. However, as noted above, this general increase masks a number of areas of hypothecated funding (for example additional funding for the retention of students) within the HEFCE T grant. Such funding initiatives in pursuit of specific policy outcomes are drawing money away from the core unit of resource, and in the case of many leading universities, including this one, are leading to a net loss of teaching funds. The result will be the further depression of these institutions' ability to undertake the level of high-quality teaching that they manage currently. It should be noted that every UK institution currently subsidises both the teaching of home/EU undergraduates and the cost of publicly funded research activity. For example, the figures for the University of Oxford for 2001–2, returned to HEFCE for the Government's Transparency Review, indicate a cross-subsidy of £23m for publicly-funded teaching, and of £51m for publicly-funded research. Almost half of the institutions in the sector are in deficit.

5. It is clear, then, that there is much more to be done in terms of making up the funding gap that has been estimated by Universities-UK to be of some £8bn for England. The White Paper makes steps in this direction, both through the provision of additional government funding, and through its proposals to increase the level of private contributions from students by granting universities the ability to set their own tuition fees at a level up to £1,900 greater than the current maximum. The University, in principle, welcomes the ability to raise much-needed revenue through this route, but it has a number of concerns which it would be appropriate to raise in this consultation response.

6. The first of these is a concern shared by senior and junior members of the University alike: the impact on the Government's stated aims of increasing participation in higher and tertiary education from currently under- represented socio-economic groups. These groups are, on available evidence, more susceptible to debt-aversion than other groups, and will be less aware, particularly if they do come from non-traditional backgrounds, of the advantages—financial and otherwise—to be obtained from a good university education. Given the possible scale of debt for those graduating from university, the proposals for enhanced support or fee remission for those from low-income backgrounds should be revised. We would advocate consideration of a substantially increased level of maintenance grant from that proposed for students from such groups, and of enhanced Government systems of fee remission for students who benefit from this currently. All such mechanisms should be as straightforward as possible.

7. In the meantime, the University and colleges will continue with their own very significant bursary support for students from poorer backgrounds. For example, the Oxford Bursary Scheme makes available to all students on full fee remission under the current funding model a sum of up to £2.5k throughout the course of their studies. In the first year of the Scheme, applications to Oxford from the maintained sector increased by 24 per cent. If a graduate contribution scheme is introduced by the Government, Oxford will examine ways of enhancing its bursary support.

8. The other concerns that the University has pertain to the detail and timing of the introduction of the proposed graduate contribution scheme. The introduction of the new fees regime in 2006–7 will do nothing to address the levels of deficit projected for the sector from the current year through to 2005–6. It is not clear in the proposals whether the new regime will be phased in by cohort from 2006–7 (requiring universities to operate two systems of student contribution and delaying the full financial benefit of the proposals until 2008–9—or 2009–10 in the case of four-year degrees). In addition, it is absolutely imperative that enhanced levels of private contribution should not result in further decreases in levels of public funding for teaching, thereby exacerbating the financial problems faced by the sector.

9. The White Paper advocates increasing reliance on endowment funding, on the North American model. Recent research conducted by the Sutton Trust shows that only two universities in the UK—Oxford and Cambridge—have levels of endowment which would place them within the top fifteen of North American universities in terms of this indicator (there would be no other UK universities within the top 150 US institutions). As we noted in our response to the Department's earlier Higher Education Issues paper, unlike in the United States, there is no tradition of general endowment giving among alumni of UK universities. Hence, although the Sutton Trust report indicates that several US universities have established their endowment funds only within the last twenty years, it is inconceivable that alumni giving or other endowment funding, even with imaginative and well-publicised backing from Government, will provide the scale of financial support required by the UK sector. In addition, endowment income, because of fluctuations in the stock market, is by no means a reliable funding stream, as a number of US universities have discovered over the past year.


Research Funding

10. We welcome recognition in the White Paper of the importance of research and scholarship in all subjects, and the contribution they make to the economic, social, and cultural life of the country. Research and scholarship, as well as bringing immediate and longer term economic benefits, are also a fundamental component of an open, pluralistic, and innovative society.

11. The emphasis in the White Paper is on the organisation and funding of research. Successful research does depend in part on how it is organised, and more particularly on the level of resources and facilities available to support it. But there is more to success than the application of textbook models. Successful research is not the outcome of any single organisational model, but depends on a complex series of interactions between individuals and groups, and the environment in which they work. One of the advantages of conducting research across many disciplines within a university environment, alongside high-quality teaching, is that such interactions are fostered.

12. We welcome the increased investment in research funding which was initially announced in the Government's July 2002 publication Investing in Innovation, and we strongly support the continued operation of the dual support system. At the same time, universities have their own role to play in seeking to recover the full economic costs of research wherever possible, and in developing more sophisticated approaches to the costing and pricing of research, and this University strongly supports the work at both local and national level (for example, through the Joint Costing and Pricing Steering Group) which is underpinning this. In particular, we welcome the emphasis on investing additional research funding in areas of strength and proven potential. However, adequate levels of public investment funding remain essential, and we have concerns that one unintended consequence of increased concentration of QR funding will be to deprive research groups and departments, which are successful in winning contracts from charities and research councils, of their structural support from HEFCE.


Organisation of Research

13. Given present constraints on public funds, selectivity in research funding (para. 2.6) is essential if the UK's best institutions are to maintain their international competitiveness in research. However, we do not support the contention (para. 2.7) that `the connection between an institution's research activities and its teaching is indirect'. Rigorous high-quality teaching, aimed at the most able undergraduate and graduate students, is underpinned by the research and scholarship undertaken by its practitioners. Imparting an attitude of questioning inquiry to students, and enabling them to experience a research environment, is a vital component of high-quality teaching. We would repeat the comments made in our response to the earlier consultation, that young people of high ability should be taught and stimulated by those working at the cutting edge of their subjects, so that they are exposed to problems which have not yet been solved, and are trained to innovate and think with originality. We would also draw attention again to the strong correlation between those institutions receiving the highest RAE quality ratings, and those receiving the best teaching quality assessment outcomes.

14. Furthermore, and notwithstanding the benefit in terms of research output of targeting limited research funding on the best institutions and departments, we are concerned that this policy, if pursued more rigorously, will have a detrimental effect on research-intensive universities in general. All but a very few such universities will experience a decrease in their QR funding, and this, coupled with the real-terms decrease in T funding, will have a significant impact. It will hamper attempts to increase collaboration between institutions and research groups, and also militate against migration of researchers between institutions. Although we do welcome the White Paper's recognition of increasing differentiation, it is possible that further separation of research and teaching will demotivate staff in many institutions, and again, have an adverse effect on their mobility and the ability of research-intensive universities to recruit staff from other institutions.

15. Collaboration between individuals and research groups in different HEIs, and across international boundaries, has for long been an integral part of research culture. Many exciting developments in scientific and other subjects take place at the interface of traditional disciplines, and we welcome the stress on promoting new and emerging areas of research which cross interdisciplinary boundaries. Proposals to increase collaboration between university researchers and amongst the institutions on a systematic basis, and across traditional disciplines, and to concentrate certain expensive resources in certain places, all have much to commend them. However, it is essential that common facilities, to be used by individuals from outside the host institution, are properly funded, and that appropriate indirect costs are provided. A recent study undertaken by JM Consulting on the breakdown of Oxford's library costs shows that approximately 45 per cent of costs are being incurred in support of users and researchers from outside Oxford University, but the bulk of these costs have to be funded from the institution's own resources.

16. The proposals for research collaboration set out in paragraphs 2.11–2.13 are in principle welcomed, but it is essential (as noted in para. 2.12) that a flexible approach is taken to these developments, and that the `precise shape and formation of...collaborations' are not circumscribed.

17. We warmly welcome the decision to create a fully fledged Research Council for the Arts and Humanities. These subjects have suffered considerably in recent years from grossly inadequate funding opportunities, and this development is long overdue. However, given the AHRC's proposed location within OST/DTI, appropriate safeguards should be put in place to ensure the continued growth of its funding streams, which include current HEFCE provision for museums and galleries.


Investing in Researchers

18. We support moves to improve remuneration and working conditions for those undertaking research in UK Higher Education Institutions, but (as we set out below) the most pressing need is for across-the-board increases in pay levels, as much as selective targeting of additional resources on particular individuals. In many subject areas, academic pay levels are not adequate to attract a reasonable proportion of the ablest young graduates into the profession, and this will become an increasingly serious problem in terms of sustaining research excellence if measures are not taken very soon to improve academic pay.

19. We seek clarification of the Government's intention to `encourage institutions to establish more research only posts' (para. 2.28); as indicated above, we do not see the further separation of teaching and research as desirable.

20. Like many institutions, Oxford devotes considerable priority to the recruitment, retention, training, and career progression of junior researchers. We welcome further initiatives in this area, both those undertaken by Government and by other bodies, including the Wellcome Trust.


Higher Education and Business

21. The emphasis within the White Paper is clearly on the contribution which higher education can make to the development of regional economies, and in particular to knowledge transfer between HE and small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Oxford accords high priority to this, and it makes a very substantial contribution to the economic, social, and cultural life of its region: for example the University is a member of the Oxfordshire Economic partnership, creates direct employment for 8 per cent of the county's workforce, and plays a crucial role in developing innovative science based enterprise in the region.

22. However, the UK is fortunate in still having a small number of universities such as Oxford which are competitive with the best in the world, and the national and international dimension to our links with business is vital: one reason we can contribute so much to the regional economy is precisely that we are a world-class university, offering business knowledge and skills which are of the highest quality. This aspect of the relationship between leading universities and business is of enormous importance to the UK, and must not be neglected.

23. We fully understand the importance of a synergy between local or regional universities and SMEs for local technology transfer. At the same time, however, the best UK universities are themselves deeply engaged in a considerable effort of knowledge and technology transfer directly with business and industry. This interaction will continue to be of vital importance to the UK economy, and we can see no need for the intermediation by other universities proposed in the White Paper. Such a proposal would needlessly complicate and even negate a dynamic and sensitive process which requires the evolution of knowledge and product over a number of years. Oxford shares the belief of other leading universities that the best companies at least would wish to continue to work directly with cutting-edge researchers and their institutions.


Admissions and Access

24. The University endorses the White Paper's statement that admissions criteria should be as easily understood as possible, and admissions criteria for each of its different subjects will have been published on its Web site by the end of April 2003. However, it is important that it is realised that entry to all subjects at Oxford is highly competitive, and it is therefore inevitable that some very able applicants will fail to win a place. Meeting the admissions criteria cannot guarantee an offer, since tutors are likely to have to differentiate between many candidates who are well qualified. In this highly competitive environment, the University selects those students who show the greatest achievement, ability, and potential to benefit from its courses. The University believes that these decisions are best made within a clear set of criteria, by those staff who will have subsequent responsibility for teaching these students. Currently, we use interviews and, for some subjects, additional tests, and we are developing aptitude tests.

25. The University notes the recent launch of the consultation on Widening Participation in Higher Education. We welcome in particular the statement that the Government recognises that admissions policies are the responsibility of the universities rather than of the Government, and that admission to a university should be `on merit—irrespective of class, or school attended, based on a student's achievements and potential'. We will respond more fully in due course.

26. Oxford University is used to scrutiny of its admissions process by candidates, schools, parents, the media, and politicians. Part of this process has been an increase in central co-ordination. We believe our procedures are rigorous and robust, driven by fairness and transparency. Moreover, we keep them under regular review, and we are constantly evolving ways of ensuring, within a collegiate University, that, as numbers of applications continue to rise, we admit the best students independent of college choice.

27. We welcome efforts to develop more sensitive indicators than those currently used to measure access. It suggests that, given the increasing tendency for students to attend a local university, consideration might be given to the inclusion of an additional factor in the construction of the new indices, namely `proximity'. Oxford is a relatively small city within a rural hinterland, and home to two large universities. Hence, this university's actual intake is bound to reflect, in some respects, a willingness to study away from home. Any new indicators should be capable of taking these sorts of situations into account.

28. The University has consistently supported the Aim Higher initiative, and both the central admissions office and individual colleges have been working with Excellence in Cities co-ordinators throughout the country. We play a leading role in our regional Partnership for Progression, and are entirely supportive of schemes and activities which seek to raise aspirations and promote Higher Education in general.

29. Although the White Paper does not address specifically the issue of graduate education, we feel that it is important, given the increased emphasis on regional provision of undergraduate education, and the potential need for further differentiation following expansion of the sector, that as much as possible is done to encourage migration of good graduate students to universities of national and international standing. Especially at the taught graduate level, leading research-intensive universities can provide further opportunity and choice for good graduate students from other institutions, many of whom will have been drawn originally from non-traditional backgrounds.


Pay and Staffing

30. The University welcomes the Government's recognition of the importance of human resources issues, and endorses the need to respond to recruitment and retention problems, to invest in the reward of excellence of contribution across the range of duties within an equitable framework, to develop talented researchers, and to promote individual leadership and management skills.

31. However, we are disappointed that the funds which will be available in the foreseeable future do not provide either for the significant general increase in pay which is required for its staff (and particularly its academic staff), or for sufficient targeted increases to meet the range of pressures this University is experiencing. The need for an overall uplift in pay and for the adequate reward of individual contribution is now recognised not only in the sector but in Government and in public opinion.

32. Oxford faces particularly significant problems in meeting these challenges. We are experiencing considerable difficulties in recruiting staff across many categories and disciplines due not least to the very high costs of housing in the city, set against the level of salaries which we can offer in our current financial position. We face particular difficulties in rewarding very many academic staff at the level they deserve, given the very wide spread of excellent performance in teaching and research. We face severe problems in individual cases in retaining staff in the light of the much higher salaries available from our American competitors. If we wish to remain in the global front rank of universities Oxford cannot afford to suffer any diminution in the quality of its new appointments, and it must be able to retain its top staff on the international stage. In this area it is the quality rather than the quantity of the `brain-drain' which is significant. This goal cannot be achieved without significant additional funding beyond that now promised.

33. While we welcome the continuation and expansion of HR Strategy funding, this will be insufficient to address the situation set out above. The HR Strategy funding will also be insufficient to cover the costs, identified in the Bett Report, of truly modernising pay systems by moving to a new salary structure underpinned by job evaluation (the assimilation costs of which are conventionally estimated at between three and six per cent of the pay bill, whatever the sector).

34. The base-lining of phase 1 of the HR Strategy funds, and the intention to baseline phase 2, are important indicators of the success of this initiative and of the way in which institutions can be trusted to manage their resources wisely in pursuit of their particular HR strategies. It will be important that HEFCE streamlines its requirements on institutions to qualify for the additional HR Strategy funding, leaving them with sufficient autonomy to respond, for example, to market pressures and the need to reward teaching excellence in locally appropriate ways, subject to annual operating reports. It will also be important to ensure that the base-lining of the previous funding stream into the teaching grant does not result in discontinuity as to the actual level of resources received by this University from 2004–5 from that stream.


Teaching and Learning

35. The University welcomes the importance attached to high quality teaching but finds it difficult to relate this to its concern in relation to funding and fees, stated earlier, that the general effect of the funding arrangements will be further to depress the ability of institutions like Oxford to undertake the level of high-quality teaching that they manage currently. The overall purpose of a focus on teaching excellence must be to bring all up to the level of the best, but it is not clear how this is to be achieved by pursuing the developments set out in chapter 4. While supporting the overall aim, the University has a number of concerns about the practicability of what is proposed.

36. Thus the University naturally supports efforts to ensure that potential students have access to comprehensive and easily accessible information on opportunities in higher education. It has undertaken extensive work to ensure that this is the case in relation to its undergraduate and graduate courses. It is puzzling that this section contains no reference to Programme Specifications on which all institutions have been working towards a deadline of October 2003. Given the number of HE institutions, departments, and programmes, any guide of the sort described, and attempting to cover the range of factors identified in 4.5, is an ambitious undertaking.

37. We recognise the importance of exploring new ways to measure and record student achievement, and the development of sophisticated and widely accepted measures of `value added' would be of importance to all institutions. The complexity of the factors that influence `the distance travelled by the individual learner' should not be underestimated, nor should there be any doubt about the difference between the student perception of their working lives and the value of that experience. In our own Student Course Experience Questionnaire (SCEQ), students regularly emphasise the demands of their workload—and the pressures on time and work management that this involves. Extensive responses from employers indicate that it is the very capacities implicit in coping with such pressure to which many employers give high priority in their own selection processes.

38. The University has particular experience in the mechanisms of gaining student feedback, having piloted the SCEQ on two occasions. It has already collaborated with CHERI in the preparatory work on a national survey. However, we are concerned that any national questionnaire might be too generalised to reflect local provision, particularly within a collegiate structure, or to ensure that an accurate picture is created of individual institutional strengths and concerns. We are also very conscious of warnings from those involved in this area of the real dangers of feedback fatigue.

39. We have no doubt that all students have the right to good teaching, and the University endorses much that is said about professional standards and staff development. Nevertheless it needs to be recognised in all the thinking about nationally recognised professional standards for teachers in higher education that the teaching needs of the sector are extremely diverse, that the definition of good teaching is not straightforward, often depending on the composition of the audience and the purpose of the activity, and that the nature of appropriate professional development—encompassing both pedagogic and subject skills—will be similarly wide-ranging.

40. In this context it is unclear to us what measures are to be employed in recognising teaching excellence, and there is no detail on the mechanism to be employed in selecting the proposed Centres of Excellence in Teaching. It seems slightly perverse that seventy departments, out of several hundred with the highest possible TQA grading, should be chosen to receive additional funding, when they may already be very well-funded. Particular questions on selection arise: will they be located in research intensive or non-research intensive universities? (much of the best teaching, as discussed elsewhere, is informed by cutting edge research); will they be disciplinary departments or interdisciplinary departments?; will the centres be based on thematic issues rather than on disciplines? We are clear that much further thought needs to be given to these matters if such a large sum of money is to be made available to these centres at the expense of core teaching funding.

41. The National Teaching Fellowships Scheme was introduced in 2000 and the fourth round of awards will be given this year. The scheme was designed to `raise the status of learning and teaching in Higher Education...and celebrates excellence in teaching by recognising individuals who are outstanding as teachers and promoters of learning' (ILTHE Web site). It would seem to make some sense to evaluate its impact against these objectives before expanding or developing the initiative.

42. The University attaches considerable importance to the work which is undertaken on its behalf by external examiners and which members of its own academic staff undertake on behalf of other institutions. We have continuing concerns over the proposals for the publication of summaries of external examiners' reports, in case the high quality of detailed information provided by Oxford's own externals is diluted if publication of summaries is required. Above all we are concerned that a heavy-handed approach to the role of external examiners could be highly counter-productive. Under the new regime proposed, especially if it involves a significant amount of training or looks set to develop into a form of HE inspectorate, it may become extremely difficult to recruit suitable external examiners.

43. We are clear, as will be evident throughout this document, that the best teaching at all levels is informed by research activity. Therefore we share the concern across the sector that the proposal to make university title dependent on taught degree awarding powers only should be reconsidered. It appears currently that this proposal is little more than a device to allow the 50 per cent participation rate to be achieved more easily, and it would exacerbate the trend of marked heterogeneity in provision across the sector, despite the assumption, to the unwary, of increased homogeneity. In addition, the spread of such title might depress the present competitive advantage of the UK in attracting international students.