Radical rethink: MP Phil Willis on the frustrations of his inquiry into higher education

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The backbench Liberal Democrat Phil Willis is looking a tad battered and bruised. He has been hauled over the coals for his expenses claims and will be leaving Parliament at the next election. But he has one more salvo to fire as chairman of the Commons innovation, universities, science and skills committee.

In a few days he will be publishing a report on students' experience of higher education, which is expected to be highly critical of universities. It is the last report from the committee tracking the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Willis, a former headteacher, would like a royal commission to investigate higher education. "The whole system needs a radical rethink because it is not sustainable," says the MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough. "We require another Lord Dearing project [he produced the major report on higher education in the 1990s]."

The financing of higher education worries him deeply and he wonders how the demands by leading universities for higher fees – of £5,000 a year or more – can be reconciled with the need to cut public expenditure. Higher fees would mean the Treasury having to find more cash to subsidise students. He is also worried about what will happen to the research budget, which an incoming Conservative government might find easy to prune.

"Who out there on the Clapham omnibus would be going out with a placard to say this is a crucial time for higher education?" he asks. But the committee's report will have a lot to say as well about quality and standards in higher education.

The inquiry was established at a time when there was a lot of criticism about plagiarism, external examiners, pressure on academics to alter students' grades and grade inflation. Since the early 1990s there has been a virtual doubling in the number of first-class degrees and a 44 per cent increase in 2:1s. At the same time, a poll showed 77 per cent of academics felt under pressure to increase marks.

Peter Williams, the outgoing boss of the Quality Assurance Agency, told the committee the degree classification system was "rotten" as well as "arbitrary and unreliable" because universities decide who gets a first, a 2:1 and so on. So, Willis expected some evidence to support these claims, but they didn't come. The MPs had some spiky exchanges with vice-chancellors, in particular those at Oxford and Oxford Brookes, who maintained that their degrees were of the same quality (the students disagreed). Willis described their answers as "not being fit for a GCSE paper", a remark he now regrets. But the MP ended up feeling extremely frustrated with the answers he received from those who run British universities – so frustrated that he felt moved to write a blog about his experience.

MPs' questions, he said, were met "with suspicion, some hostility and the defensive crises of 'academic freedom' and 'institutional autonomy'. The system closed ranks. "Every institution was near perfect and the very organisations which put such store by 'evidence' appeared reluctant to examine what evidence appeared," adds Willis. "The Higher Education Policy Institute study which compared the amount of taught and private study time undertaken to gain a higher level degree from different universities was dismissed as having a flawed methodology."

The MPs' report looks at the thorny issue of contact time – the amount of tutorial, seminar and lecture time that students have in Britain (it stands at an average of about 14.5 hours) – and it doesn't compare very well with that on the Continent or in America, according to Willis. At Georgetown University in Washington DC, the committee met students who had experience of studying in England. "All of them said how light the workload was over the year they had spent here, and that includes Oxford and Cambridge," says Willis. "The Georgetown students had 40 hours of contact time a week and were being assessed on a weekly basis, so it was pretty rigorous."

Willis is careful not to say that universities elsewhere in the world are better than the British. In fact, he doesn't believe this is the case, mentioning more than once that Britain has an outstanding university system. But we need more evidence because questions have been asked and need answering, he says. Why can't the universities themselves do some of this work? Why can't the Higher Education Academy or the Higher Education Funding Council help here?

"We have in the UK a very high performing system," says Willis. "To retain this gold standard, we need to do the research."

Some vice-chancellors maintain that research is important for teaching; others disagree. In reality, there are a lot of PhD students teaching who have no training to teach and whose primary function is not to teach, says Willis. "We still produce some of the finest research papers in the world," he says. "We have four universities in the top 50 in the world, but the competition is going to increase over the next 10 years. Obama is saying he wants America to be the most research-intensive in the world. That's the competition. Somehow we're not prepared to ask tough questions."

In America, the MPs looked at how degrees are cross-referenced in different subject areas to ensure consistency of standards and were impressed by this model. They also looked at the US practice of examining institutions' ability to award degrees every five years and at the credit accumulation system that enables bright students to start off at a community college and transfer to a top university such as Berkeley.

So, expect recommendations on all these issues. But don't hold your breath that change will follow, or that anyone will be persuaded it is needed.

The CV: from teacher to head to Liberal Democrat MP

Age: 68

Education: Certificate of Education, Leeds Metropolitan University, 1960-63; philosophy degree, Birmingham University 1978-79

Teaching career: Taught economics in schools between 1963-77; After 1983, he was appointed to headships in Middlesbrough and Leeds

Parliamentary career: Became Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough in 1997, defeating Norman Lamont. Was his party's education spokesman from 1999-2005, having served as higher education spokesman. In 2005 he chaired the Commons science and technology committee, which became the committee tracking the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Low point: Got caught up in the MPs' expenses scandal by claiming thousands of pounds to renovate a flat where his daughter lives. Said she was never a "permanent resident".

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