2.1 From our first meeting we recognised the scale of the task facing us. Our terms of reference were extensive and the problems we had to address were complex.

2.2 The last such review, by the Robbins Committee, took two and a half years to report on similar issues. In contrast, we had 14 months to complete our work. The way in which we approached the task was conditioned by that constraint: many people, both within and outside higher education, told us that it was important that we should keep to the timetable. This chapter outlines our process: Annex B gives more information.

2.3 One of the problems we had to resolve was the balance between depth and breadth in our work. This mirrored the debates we had about the balance between depth and breadth in higher education programmes. For programmes of learning, one option we identified for combining both depth and breadth in a constrained period of study was to offer breadth across a subject and its related disciplines, and depth in only a limited number of areas of the main subject. That is, in effect, the approach we adopted for our own study. Although this report is wide-ranging in its coverage, we have made a deep examination leading to detailed recommendations in only a limited number of areas. For example, we have not, in general, made a study of individual subjects (such as chemistry or mathematics) although we do have observations to make about certain subjects, where we think this is helpful in illustrating a particular point.

2.4 We made an exception in the case of school teacher education because the Secretaries of State who commissioned this report have special responsibilities for it; teaching is still the single largest employment destination for graduates; and the quality of the teaching force in schools has an important influence on the capabilities of those who subsequently enter higher education. We commissioned a report on teacher education in England and Scotland (Report 10 ‘Teacher education and training: a study’) and have used this material as the basis for some observations and recommendations.

2.5 Across much of the field, however, we have offered a broad outline of the way forward, but have left it to others to advise on how to achieve it.

The proceedings of the Main Committee and the Scottish Committee

2.6 To promote freedom of discussion, we decided that our papers and our meetings should be confidential during the life of the Committee, but we were committed to listening to the widest range of views and to reviewing as much external evidence as we could.

2.7 Our papers are being passed to the Public Record Office, to be made available to the public on 1 January 2000.

Working Groups

2.8 To make rapid progress, and to allow us to tap into a broader range of expertise than we possessed collectively, we established a series of Working Groups, each chaired by a member of our Committee. The Working Groups’ memberships are shown in Annex B. We are extremely grateful to all the external members of these groups for the time and thinking they devoted to the task which, in many cases, went well beyond what they had signed up for at the start. The Working Groups were charged with clearing the ground for the Committee, identifying the issues and analysing the options, but not with making recommendations. Their contributions were invaluable, but we take full responsibility for the content and recommendations of this report.

Secretariat

2.9 We were supported throughout our work by a Secretariat which varied in size from three to twenty staff from a variety of backgrounds. We are grateful to the organisations who were willing to second key members of their staff to us.

Gathering the evidence

2.10 To fulfil our commitment to hear the widest range of views we decided to consult interested parties in a number of different ways. The outcomes of those consultations are reported in the volumes published with this report, and the way in which we carried them out is described in Annex B.

2.11 Our consultations included:

  • a major written consultation resulting in 840 responses;
  • formal oral evidence from 37 organisations;
  • seven consultation conferences;
  • a written consultation with major employers resulting in 110 responses;
  • seminars with employers from small and medium sized enterprises.

2.12 We commissioned major surveys of 1,270 students currently in higher education and 809 academic staff in higher education. We also arranged small focus group discussions with other staff in higher education. As others were already embarking on relevant studies of graduates, we joined forces with them rather than duplicating their work.

2.13 We were concerned that our work should be as firmly grounded in evidence as possible. We were fortunate that we had a much greater wealth of statistical data and other recent reports to draw on than had the Robbins Committee, although there were some areas where we would have liked better information. We commissioned a number of literature surveys and original pieces of research, and collaborated with other organisations on research projects. We ran several seminars at which experts in various fields informed us about latest thinking and helped us to test the evidence presented to us. The resulting reports are published alongside this report. In publishing the reports we commissioned, we do not endorse every conclusion and recommendation in them. Their contents are the views of their authors, but we wanted the advice and evidence which was available to us to be available to a wider audience as well. Some of the reports contain ideas for further work which might usefully be undertaken. Some also address matters which go beyond our remit: we have not followed these up in our main report but we will draw them to the attention of those with the relevant responsibilities.

2.14 Given our belief that our higher education system needs to match the best in the world, we examined a good deal of evidence about the strengths and weaknesses of alternative approaches. Small groups of members of the Committee visited Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States in order to examine aspects of their higher education systems. In the course of those visits we had discussions with policy makers, representatives of higher education institutions, employers, academics and students, and we visited a range of different types of higher education institution. We are grateful for the help we received from those who organised our visits, and for the warm welcome we received wherever we went.

2.15 We made enquiries about practice in a wide range of other countries through their embassies, and gathered much published material on overseas experience. We were able to read the recent thematic study of the early years of higher education by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including its analysis of higher education in the United Kingdom.

2.16 We visited 33 institutions which provide higher education across the UK and benefited from many informal meetings and discussions with interested organisations and individuals.

Acknowledgements

2.17 Throughout our work, we received tremendous support and commitment to our task from those within and outside higher education. Many gave considerable time and effort to ensuring that we were well informed about the strengths and weaknesses of the present system, and the advantages and disadvantages of options for the future. We cannot name all those who have helped us, but we are greatly indebted to all of them.