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The Vice-Chancellor submitted the following comments on the White Paper 'The Future of Higher Education' to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on 23 April 2003. The White Paper is available at the following URL: http://www.dfes.gov.uk/highereducation/hestrategy/pdfs/DfES-HigherEducation.pdf.
The Council are grateful to those members of the University who submitted views on the White Paper.
We welcome the White Paper, now published, after a prolonged period of gestation. It is an important document and we intend to work closely with Government, our colleagues in other universities, and HEFCE to ensure that it can help in providing a stable framework for a robust and dynamic higher education sector. Such a framework has been overdue since the publication of the Dearing Report in 1997.
We are pleased to see the recognition of the need for additional resources for universities, especially those like Cambridge which are strong in research, and the recognition that such universities need greater freedom. We strongly endorse the continued recognition of the need for diversity of mission among higher education institutions. We welcome the decision that a selective RAE approach should continue to apply for research funding, and the funding consequences which flow from this. The creation of an Arts and Humanities Research Council is welcomed.
However, the White Paper adopts a rather narrow utilitarian statement of the purposes and value of higher education. The basic values on which university work is based - the advancement of education, learning, and research, the pursuit of truth and new knowledge, and its dissemination, the encouragement for all individuals to develop their full potential - are fundamental to the life of a free society. The economic benefits arising from university work are significant, substantial, and important, but must not obscure the broader principles for which universities exist.
Cambridge is a university with a long-standing commitment to excellence in teaching in all disciplines as well as in research. We therefore strongly welcome the new emphasis given by Government to teaching and learning in the White Paper. It is important that this is backed up with resources: the recent further reductions in the HEFCE unit of resource for teaching are not encouraging in this regard, and could lead to distortions in the balance between underfunded home and EU students on the one hand, and full fee paying overseas students on the other.
Many of the measures set out in Chapter 4 of the White Paper will have positive effects, although some doubts have been expressed that competition for funds to reward good teaching and for the establishment of teaching centres of excellence may dissipate resources better devoted directly to teaching itself. QAA subject reviews in many of our Departments over recent years, have confirmed our conviction that teaching and research nourish each other, enhancing the learning experience for able undergraduates.
Cambridge is committed to seeking and admitting undergraduate and graduate students of the highest potential, irrespective of race or nationality, or financial or social circumstances. In relation to students from the UK we have been hampered in this work by the failure of successive governments to ensure that sufficient opportunities and aspiration are delivered through maintained schools and colleges, and by unjustified ministerial criticisms which serve only to set back the University's own outreach to school and college students. We therefore welcome the recognition in the White Paper (paragraph 6.3) that the single most important cause of UK social class division in higher education participation is differential attainment in schools and colleges. This is a matter which is primarily for schools and colleges, LEAs, and the DfES to deal with. We look forward to significant improvements in an area the Government acknowledges to be particularly its own responsibility.
In relation to admission to demanding undergraduate courses, we note the highly significant comment in the White Paper that students from lower socio-economic groups with good A levels are as likely to go to university as students from better off backgrounds.
Cambridge is committed to broadening access, and backs this commitment with substantial financial resources believed to be significantly greater than that of any other British university, including the Newton Trust Bursaries which provide £3,000 or £4,000 to each eligible UK student (£1,000 per course-year) - and not as described in the paper on OFFA a total of £1,000 only. Our commitment is to admit students of the highest potential, fairly assessed, and irrespective of their financial circumstances. It is vital that the financial arrangements determined by the Government do not make this more difficult. We are particularly concerned that anticipated high levels of debt will deter potential students from going to any university.
The White Paper recognizes the efforts of the University and Colleges in Cambridge, but implies, wrongly in our view, that it is more difficult to achieve fairness in a collegiate admission system than in a departmental system. In fact, a collegiate system permits careful individual assessment of applicants, especially through interview, and comparisons between students across different subjects. It provides a large and committed group of experienced, and trained selectors. It is highly significant that Cambridge admission practice is in many respects in advance of the broad assessment practices commended by the recent UUK Report 'Fair Enough?'. In particular, our carefully controlled interview procedures help selectors to identify students of potential even if their preparation hitherto has placed them at some disadvantage. We keep the admissions system under constant review and have in place a programme which includes university-wide assessment of applicants by discipline.
We strongly endorse the statement that it is not for the Government to prescribe university admission systems.
The development of more appropriate and sensitive performance indicators is of great interest, but there is a danger that there will be too many benchmarks, and that old and new benchmarks will be inconsistent with one another. There is a real possibility of confusion and ineffectiveness as a result. We will consider any proposals for new benchmarks very thoroughly to establish that they would be compatible with our fundamental belief that applicants should be considered on the basis of talent and potential, without regard for social or financial background.
The case for an Access Regulator was not made out in the White Paper. As since outlined, the appointment, status, powers, and duties of this officer still need to be carefully considered. The regulator must be independent of Ministers. The extension of Government regulation to this area will raise the question of whether some universities should seek an entirely new system of financing teaching, with major state support for teaching going directly to students to support tuition, rather than to universities through a T grant with all the regulation and restriction which this method of funding implies.
The proposals in the White Paper are ingenious. Like all such schemes they have flaws and disadvantages as well as advantages. In particular the scheme is over-controlled by Government, especially as it will not bring in sufficient additional resource to solve the long-standing problems of under-financing of high value, high cost teaching in some universities. Already HEFCE has clawed back a significant element of the extra income which ultimately Cambridge might expect the Government to permit it to raise, subject to compliance with various conditions. This suggests that, unfortunately, the proposed new system will not reduce Government control, but rather increase it.
We are concerned about the access implications of high levels of potential debt. The UUK report 'Attitudes to debt' (2003) confirms that this concern is justified. More measures should be taken to provide mechanisms through which the debt of able students can be extinguished during their courses (e.g. by state, university, business, or philanthropically funded scholarships). We strongly support the reintroduction of maintenance grants, but believe the rates proposed are too modest and thresholds too low. We welcome the proposals for support for part-time students.
There are practical concerns:
|•||A graduate contribution scheme linked to repayment through the tax system will be unworkable in relation to non-UK taxpayers (e.g. large numbers of students from other Member States of the European Union) and to UK students who emigrate after graduation. It would be particularly unfortunate if the result was an increase in emigration of able UK graduates.|
|•||There may be a damaging increase in the deterrent effect of debt on the very able graduates who might otherwise do important postgraduate work, and embark on a career of university teaching and research.|
|•||There may also be some negative effect on the willingness of alumni to give philanthropically to their university.|
The messages of the White Paper in this regard are mixed. New regulatory measures are proposed, inconsistent with the rhetoric of freeing up universities; so is the implication that governance and/or management changes will be required if further funding is to be provided.
We would have been interested to see and to study the regulatory impact assessment, which was not in the White Paper. It is to be regretted that the assessment was not provided.
It is disappointing that there is little or nothing in the White Paper about the international dimension of UK higher education, or the place of British HE within the Bologna Process at a time when places in our universities are so eagerly sought in Europe and abroad and have become one of our most successful exports in services, with potential further long-term benefits for this country.
The remarks in the White Paper about the proposed Knowledge Exchanges, and the future of the third stream of funding, do not appear to be definitive. Conceptions of Knowledge Exchanges differ - some interpretations are of training organizations, and some of research or technology transfer, or both - but the implication in the White Paper that this activity should be limited to those universities without a significant research contribution is wrong. Major businesses, and many SMEs (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises), wish to collaborate directly with research leaders in such matters, and not to work with them through intermediaries.
We welcome the Government's recognition that philanthropic fund-raising from alumni and others has an important role to play in the future financing of universities. However, it is important to be realistic in this regard. Cambridge has one of the largest UK endowments, but at the university level it only provides around 10% of our annual income. Building significant endowments is important, but it cannot relieve the Government of making sensible and effective arrangements for investment in higher education by taxpayers in general and students (and their parents) in particular.
Cambridge has invested since the late 1980s in a significant fund-raising operation (before that the Government would have clawed back much income raised). Both the University and the Colleges have recognized that a professional approach is important and that long-term commitment is required. We welcome the establishment of a task force to examine ways in which barriers to giving can be removed and encouragement provided (including tax beneficial schemes). It is important that this task force draw on the professional experience already available in the HE sector in the UK and our own Development Offices in the UK and in the US look forward to contributing to the task force discussions.
We welcome the recognition that universities as multi-million pound organizations with distinctive and complex functions pose major managerial and leadership challenges. We support the creation of the Leadership Foundation but shall be concerned to ensure that leadership is not understood only in terms of top-management. Leadership is vital at the head of the university but the vitality and long-term academic health of a big university also require good leadership to be exercised at the levels of schools, faculties, and departments. We hope that the good work of HESDA in staff development for the whole range of HE staff in all categories will be continued and not lost in a more narrow concern for staff directly engaged in teaching support. In our experience effective learning and teaching, as well as research, depend in a modern university on a range of skilled staff in a wide range of roles.
We are not convinced that legislation is necessary to set up an independent reviewer of student complaints. We have supported the idea that there should be an independent reviewer. All that is necessary is for a Visitor to determine at her or his discretion that a student case should normally first be dealt with by the independent reviewer. There is no need for legislation in this regard. The role of Visitors of Cambridge Colleges is in fact generally much valued in providing a swift and effective method for the independent review of serious matters.
We note the reference to the role of the Privy Council in relation to University Statutes. We would welcome consultation if there were to be any proposal for an amendment to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1923, which affects the Colleges as well as the University.
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Cambridge University Reporter, 30 April 2003
Copyright © 2011 The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge.