HC Deb 16 December 1991 vol 201 cc31-3W
Mr. Anthony Coombs

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the outcome of his consultations about degree awarding powers.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

My Department is today writing to all higher education institutions in the following terms:




1. The Department's paper "Degree Awarding Powers and University Titles" consulted on the Government's proposals concerning:

  1. (a) criteria for the extension of degree awarding powers beyond the present polytechnics;
  2. (b) arrangements for the Secretary of State to secure advice on whether institutions meet those criteria; and
  3. (c) criteria for extending the university title beyond the present polytechnics.

2. This letter sets out the Government's conclusions on the first two issues in the light of comments received on the consultation paper. It also sets out the Government's views on the related issues of future validation arrangements for institutions which do not receive degree awarding powers, and on whether there should he further polytechnic designations. The Secretary of State will announce his decision on criteria for university titles shortly (although this letter confirms one of the criteria in paragraph 17 below). These conclusions are subject to the passage of the FHE Bill currently before Parliament.

Criteria for Degree Awarding Powers

3. The Government's proposal was that the criteria for taught course degrees should be those recommended by the CNAA and the Academic Audit Unit of the C'VCP, and which are essentially those used by the CNAA now for the purpose of considering whether to grant institutions accredited status. The principal criterion would be that any institution seeking degree awarding power for taught courses would need to be a self-critical, cohesive academic community with a proven commitment to quality assurance supported by effective assurance and enhancement systems. Characteristics of institutions which met this general principle were that they would have:

  1. (a) a commitment to quality assurance and a demonstrably successful system for defining objectives and safeguarding standards. The system would be sufficiently rigorous to respond to changing circumstances including changes in senior staff;
  2. (b) systems for the identification and transmission of good practice. Staff would be exposed to developments and innovations in the work of others inside and outside the institutions;
  3. (c) appropriate external academic and professional points of reference so that standards were judged against those of the wider academic world. This was especially important in smaller and monotechnic institutions where limited breadth or volume of work would otherwise be a significant disadvantage;
  4. (d) suitable administrative systems supporting an institution's academic work.

4. This proposal has been unanimously welcomed. In the light of that, the Secretary of State has decided that it should he confirmed.

5. The consultation paper proposed additional criteria which would need to be met for an institution to be empowered to award its own research degrees. These were that any such institution would need to demonstrate that the arrangements for the supervision of research students and the management of their programmes, and the extent to which students were exposed to a research environment, would need to he broadly comparable with the position in universities which already have such a power.

6. In the light of a generally favourable response, the Secretary of State has decided to confirm this proposal as well. He does, however, attach considerable importance to the criteria being judged robustly. It should not be assumed that having research capability within an institution is a sufficient condition.

7. It was drawn to the Department's attention in some responses that Clause 72 of the Further and Higher Education Bill as published restricted the power of the Secretary of State to confer degree awarding powers on institutions which are to be funded by the new Higher Education Funding Councils. A Government amendment to the Bill has been tabled which extends the Secretary of State's powers so that it covers all institutions providing higher education.

Arrangements for Considering whether Institutions meet the Criteria

8. The consultation paper proposed that during the period up to the formal dissolution of the CNAA. the Government would look to the Council to advise on whether institutions validated by it meet the degree awarding criteria, and would in parallel appoint Ad Hoc Committees to look similarly at institutions which are validated by universities. This approach was widely welcomed in the responses and is now confirmed by the Secretary of State.

9. CNAA is already working on an accreditation programme. An announcement about the arrangements for the DES Ad Hoc Committees will he made early in the new year.

10. As to securing advice for the Secretary of State in the longer term after the dissolution of the CNAA, some respondents supported the proposal that the Ad Hoc Committee approach should he retained if it works well. However, others saw this as a job for the Quality Audit Unit, while some other respondents considered that the Higher Education Funding Councils should have the main responsibility. This is not a matter which requires an immediate decision and the Secretary of State will reflect further on the options with a view to reaching a decision in the spring.

The Dissolution of the CNAA and New Validation Arrangements

11.The DES intends, in line with the CNAA's Strategic Plan of October 1991, that the CNAA will continue to operate until 30 September 1992. After. that date it will concentrate primarily on winding up its affairs in preparation for dissolution, which is likely to he at the end of March 1993. This means that the CNAA will not he able to register any students for taught courses or programmes of research after 1 September 1992, although it will confer awards to all successful students whose courses of study or programmes of research are completed in the 1991/92 academic year. Alternative arrangements for the making of awards and the validation of courses will therefore need to be put in place in time for the 1992–93 academic year.

12. The Secretary of State has considered carefully the representations made that the CNAA should continue in existence until all then students presently registered with it have completed their courses of study. To achieve that, the CNAA would have to continue for at least three more years. Given that its other functions will have transferred elsewhere. the Secretary of State does not consider this to be a practical proposition. The Secretary of State does not believe it would be practical to transfer the CNAA Charter to another institution.

13. Ministers accept that it will be essential for alternative arrangements to be made for thosc students to be able to continue on the course of study on which they enrolled, in the institution at which they enrolled and with the expectation of receiving a degree or other award at the end of that course of similar standing to the CNAA degree or award for which they initially registered. The Secretary of State expects that to be achieved through institutions not empowered to grant thier own awards entering into a validation agreement with institutions which are so empowered, and awarding their qualifications. It is for institutions which arc not presently assured of receiving degree awarding powers to ensure that a suitable agreement is in place by next September.

14. There are many current examples of university validation, and there arc now more potential validating institutions. The CDP and the CVCP have indicated their readiness to help in identifying suitable validating institutions in particular cases. In addition, the Open University is intending to offer a validation service for those colleges without degree awarding powers which for various reasons, do not wish to become associated with a local institution. I understand that the Open University expects this to operate broadly on CNAA lines. The Secretary of State recognises that there may be other degree awarding institutions which will also wish to offer a similar service. For its part, the CNAA has given an undertaking to assist all of the associated institutions needing to transfer validation from CNAA to another degree awarding body, whatever relationship they eventually choose.

15. Against this background, the Secretary of State is satisfied that the necessary arrangements are capable of being made within the planned timetable.

Polytechnic Designation

16. At present. an institution which meets certain student numbers criteria, and has received CNAA taught course accreditation, may apply for polytechnic designation. The Secretary of State is advised by the PCFC whether an institution meets the criteria, and if so advised would normally expect to approve the application. The White F'aper announced that all polytechnics would be allowed to adopt the university title.

17. The consultation paper included proposed criteria for extending the university title beyond the present polytechnics. These included the requirement that such institutions should have the full range of degree awarding powers. Powers to award taught course degrees will not be sufficient. In the light of the Government's plans for a new framework, Ministers do no expect to approve further applications for polytechnic status."