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Degree Validation (University of London)

Volume 516: debated on Wednesday 13 October 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

To my great surprise, I have just discovered the only joy of being on the Opposition Benches—the wrong side of the House—for an Adjournment debate: I can actually look at the Minister, rather than just seeing his back.

May I declare two interests? One is a formally declarable interest and the other a more personal one. The formally declarable one is that I am an unpaid member of the board of the university of London’s international academy. The other one is that I hold a law degree, which the university of London awarded under what in those days was referred to as the “external system”.

I must relieve the Minister’s anxiety, because despite this debate taking place a day after the Browne report and a week ahead of the comprehensive spending review, I am not asking for money. I thought that I would take away that worry, so that he might relax a little. I am genuinely trying to be helpful, because we need a higher education system that is open, diverse and accessible. Why did I request this debate, and what do I want the Minister to do? I want to put forward a few suggestions. If we all agree that we need to expand the number of people who benefit from quality higher education, we have to do a number of things, some of which Lord Browne pointed to yesterday.

First, and most importantly, we have to stop assuming that the only way in which one can acquire a degree is by being campus-based and studying for three years. Browne is quite clear that we need to move towards a more flexible system that responds to the needs of students and the economy. Secondly, on perhaps a more unpopular point in the current climate, we have debated what the top level of fees should be, but we should stop and consider what we get for those fees. The conclusion that higher fees are either good or bad is too simplistic, because the question is what do universities offer in exchange for the fees that they charge. Thirdly, an even more difficult point is that we have to move away from the belief that there is a magical solution, because at some stage or another someone, somewhere will have to pay for it all. The question is how we raise the money, because nothing comes for free nowadays.

We need to face up to the fact that, first, some degrees from some institutions are of a higher quality and standing than others; they are not all the same. Let us stop pretending that they are. Secondly, some degrees and qualifications offer a better prospect than others of future employment. Thirdly, some people—I suggest an increasing number—will require greater flexibility of access to higher education than traditional universities can offer.

As a result, I want the Minister to face up to some of the perversities that—quite unintentionally, I think—have arisen over the past few years. We have seen universities fined for taking on additional students and given disproportionately little support for part-time students. We will have to encourage institutions such as the university of London and the Open university to provide more high-quality degrees at an affordable price, and with the highest possible flexibility for students.

What is so special about the university of London? People may not be aware of it, but Charles Dickens—well ahead of Alastair Campbell—referred to it as the “people’s university”. Established in 1838, it was the first university in the United Kingdom to open its doors to women, and in 1858 it launched the external system. For more than 150 years, the university of London has offered students the opportunity to sit its exams without having to attend the university itself. Its alumni include seven Nobel prize winners, such as Nelson Mandela, who studied while imprisoned on Robben island and, more recently, Charles Kao, who received the Nobel prize for physics in 2009 for groundbreaking work carried out in the UK on the science of fibre-optic cable.

The strength and reputation of the university of London is based on the fact that irrespective of how a student acquires the knowledge and where they are based—that is very important—academic standards are not compromised. The present-day mission statement of the university of London’s international academy is still faithful to its 152-year history:

“To provide worldwide access to the internationally renowned academic programmes and awards of the University of London and its colleges.”

The enormous breadth of academic resources within the federal university of London enables a range of collaborations within the university to deliver the programmes. The basis of the collaboration between the colleges and the central university is that the academic expertise is located in colleges, whereas the central university undertakes administrative support for the students and other agencies here and abroad.

There is no comparable university offering flexible and worldwide access to degrees of such high international standing. There are currently some 45,500 students in 180 countries studying by distance and flexible learning, with another 6,000 in the UK. The university receives no teaching grant for its external students, and UK-based students are entirely self-funding. The university of London’s international academy may already be well adapted to the new realities to which Lord Browne’s report is pointing us.

Fees are identical across the 180 countries. For example, the largest individual set of programmes—those provided in collaboration with the London School of Economics—cost in the order of £3,500 for the entire degree. That includes materials, access to an online library, and all examination fees. Globally, some 70% of undergraduate students also pay fees to local third-party providers to obtain learning support, but the majority of UK-based students study on their own. If one compares that with an annual fee for a traditional English campus-based degree of £3,290, one can see that the university of London’s international programme offers remarkably good value for money for unsubsidised provision.

How does it work? Let me describe how I took my degree; this may explain why the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston, who has Birmingham university on her patch, is making a pitch for London university. It was the early ’90s, I was in Worcestershire, and I had two small children. I wanted to go back to university to kick-start my brain, and I thought that a law degree would be a very good way of doing it. There was no way, financially or practically, that I could have done a campus-based degree, but I could take two years to do year 1, studying tort, contract law and the English legal system by attending lectures at Worcester college of technology, franchised from the university of Worcester. For year 2, studying land law, tort and trust law, I could find local lectures, but for European Union law I attended weekend courses in Cambridge. For year 3, I went down to London on a Friday night to attend lectures on contract law. Incidentally, an exceptionally good lecturer at the time was someone called Nick Bourne, who is now the Conservative leader in the Welsh Assembly Government. For private international law and jurisprudence, I was essentially on my own. That extraordinary mixing and picking of attending courses, doing things on my own and going to other places gave me the flexibility to acquire a degree within a four-year period, at a cost that I could handle, that no other system could have provided.

There were two highlights. One of those was winning the Convocation prize for land law, which meant that I was invited to Senate house and, for the first time, met other external law students. In those days, in the early ’90s, there were quite a number of police officers who would have joined the force without a degree but had to acquire one in order to get promotion. They were men in their early 30s, or even late 30s, who could not have achieved that in any other way. It was extraordinary that even though we were from the hard-nosed ’60s generation who thought that prizes were rather pathetic and we were not going to rise to them, we all had to agree that we had a remarkable sense of achievement. The degree ceremony at the Barbican centre was extraordinary, too, and I knew that my 2:1 would stand up to scrutiny from any other institution. There was a meritocracy of commitment and hard work, but the course was diverse, socially mobile and accessible. We should learn from that system.

London university’s infrastructure and global scope is also important. It has 550 examination centres worldwide and has local relationships with the British Council, national examination authorities and other organisations. That not only provides flexibility for its students in the UK but gives internationally mobile postgraduates access to its courses. For example, a large number of postgraduates are registered in programmes resulting from the collaborations with the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the School of Oriental and African Studies. Those students are often practitioners of international public health and/or international development who undertake part of their studies in the UK and part on assignment overseas.

I wish to say a brief word about the Open university. Like the university of London it cannot—nor should it—compete with campus-based universities. The latter provide a tremendous benefit and learning experience. As I said, Birmingham university is in my constituency and I know its importance. However, institutions such as the Open university, with its very good online teaching material, and the university of London add to the available learning provision. Distance learning is an important part of that. The Minister is quoted in the October edition of Prospect as saying that he has proposed that

“it should be easier for new colleges to set up as teaching institutions with degrees externally awarded by another body, such as the University of London—which is how higher education expanded from about 1850 to 1950. It’s a way of bringing in new providers and giving students greater choice.”

He is absolutely right, and I want to make it clear that London university is not about franchising, which offers opportunities but has inherent dangers. The key thing about the university is that assessment is undertaken by its college-based boards of examiners, to the same standards that are applied to its internal students. That is how it ensures and maintains quality.

I should like the Minister to examine what the university of London’s international programme has to offer, ensure that the vested interests of universities do not hamper the diversity of provision, and above all accept that what matters are academic standards, which can be upheld only if there are rigorous examination boards. It will be a success to me if, in five years’ time, London university has 50,000 students based in the UK, as it did in the 1950s, as well as its international students. Let us not reinvent the wheel, but let us examine what we already have, see what works and build on it.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) for raising this important issue in the way that she did, because it is of great interest. She began by saying that although it was regrettable that she had to stand on the Opposition side of the House, at least she could look Ministers in the face. I agreed with so much of her speech that she would have been very welcome to deliver it from our side of the House and look at my bald head from behind. It was an excellent speech, and I fully endorse her analysis.

The hon. Lady is a knowledgeable speaker on universities and, as she described, earned her own bachelor of law degree through external study at the university of London.

As the hon. Lady will know, since becoming Minister for Universities and Science, I too have talked about the validation of degrees and external study as a way of realising a more diverse higher education sector. Such arrangements will enable us to enhance and reward good-quality teaching and allow students from all sorts of backgrounds to benefit from a university education, exactly as she eloquently described.

The hon. Lady kindly referred to my comments in Prospect. Of course, in a speech at Oxford Brookes in June, I first tried to set out the argument that the university of London external degree-awarding model could be an important way forward for our HE system. The coalition wants a sector that is open to any provider capable of delivering a high-quality learning experience to students, and one in which the many and varied demands of students are well catered for, and in which providers who are innovative and offer good value for money can thrive.

I should report to the House that the current situation is that any higher education institution with its own degree-awarding powers is free to establish partnership arrangements, including validation, with other institutions, which allows the latter to offer courses leading to the award of degrees. However, I fully understand that the hon. Lady set a rather more demanding test than simply franchising. She talked about people having the ability to sit external degrees and described a direct relationship, and I fully understand the significance of that.

When I have advocated the university of London external degree model, some have worried that it meant that existing degree-awarding powers would be removed from existing institutions, but that is absolutely not the intention. We also have no intention of micro-managing the exact way in which degrees are delivered. However, we want a sector that is open to a much wider range of delivery models, which certainly includes the kind of arrangements the hon. Lady described in the context of the university of London external degree.

We want to encourage degree-awarding institutions to expand their validation and other external examination arrangements with independent partners, including private providers and further education colleges. A course that is validated at a non-degree awarding institution should be subject to exactly the same quality assurance processes, and therefore be of the same quality and standard, as one taught at the awarding institution. Responsibility for the standards and the quality of all programmes and awards remains with the awarding body no matter the nature of the partnership arrangements. The Quality Assurance Agency ensures that by looking at how the awarding body manages its links with partners, which it does at home and abroad.

However, I take the hon. Lady’s point. She specifically wanted to focus on the university of London model. That university has a significant role in the history of the development of higher education in our country. For a century, the majority of English and Welsh universities offered university of London external degrees before they received charters to award degrees of their own. The universities of Wales, Liverpool, Bangor and Bristol—to name but a few—all began in that way. The process, therefore, of setting up a teaching institution that delivered external degrees from the university of London was fundamental to the expansion of higher education, but it retains genuine potential.

New institutions that are focused entirely on teaching could benefit from attaching themselves to established, well-respected university degrees and other qualifications. That is one means for them to build a teaching reputation of their own. That could include, for example, FE colleges looking to improve their HE range or wholly new entrants to the sector. Validation or other external degree arrangements could inspire confidence among applicants, as well as offering them greater choice and cheaper options. They could also help providers to gain traction among employers, who already support a range of externally validated qualifications such as HNDs, HNCs and BTECs, because they represent consistent, trusted standards.

I have already asked the QAA to look at any barriers or implicit assumptions within the quality regime that tie higher education to a model that requires institutions to award their own degrees. Similarly, degree awarding powers should not depend on directly delivering teaching. Any such assumptions should go. Another option is to deliver externally validated degrees online or through teaching centres, as the independent provider Kaplan has started to do. Kaplan is now offering 3,000 places across the country for students to study towards university of London external degrees.

London’s external system, recently rebranded as its international programme, is indeed one of the oldest and most successful distance learning delivery systems in the world. Today, there are registered teaching centres in 18 countries, including Bangladesh, Canada, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Switzerland, Thailand and of course the UK. The system offers more than 100 courses, all of which have been developed by the colleges of the university of London. Students are enrolled as university of London students and are graded to the same standard—the crucial point that the hon. Lady made—but they can access support from teaching centres independent of the university, as well as learning tools provided by the university. Graduates receive a degree certificate from the university of London, and a second certificate indicating the lead institution.

Like externally validated degrees, remote learning through the London international programme, or the excellent Open university courses, gives people more choice so that they can study at a place and a time that suits, often at home—and the hon. Lady gave some good personal examples of that. For new providers, collaboration with a world-class university can give them a foothold in the sector where a validation arrangement may not be practicable.

As well as the domestic challenge, to which the hon. Lady referred, delivery of British higher education qualifications overseas is a growth area, with the university of London and the Open university very much among the pioneers. More and more of our universities, in fact, are moving into what is known as transnational education, allowing them to teach a broader range of students and to work with more teaching providers than direct delivery alone would achieve. I am delighted that our universities are building their global profiles in that way.

The Government side of the House—indeed, on the evidence of this evening, both sides of the House—believes that external degrees and opportunities for new HE providers can be thoroughly debated in the wake of the Browne review and pursued as we get down to the business of supply-side reform. Both are promising ways of growing the sector cost-effectively during this period of austerity and of innovating while guaranteeing quality, because we would be applying proven methods.

After consultation, the Government intend to provide detailed proposals to which the sector can react. We will publish a higher education White Paper, leading—we hope—to a higher education Bill in autumn 2011. That will be an opportunity to consider the ideas that the hon. Lady and I have put forward in the past. It only remains for me to thank her once again for raising these important matters tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.