Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Can I start by thanking Professor Mantz Yorke for coming today. We have had a rather busy session so far, but we are just about getting to the stage where we are dusting off our inquiry into one part of higher education, that is access, and, of course, we are now moving into this other, matching part of that inquiry into retention. And, Professor Yorke, at short notice, we were delighted that you were able to come this afternoon, and you actually look a bit of a solitary figure there, normally we have two or three witnesses, but you are all on your own; and, as you know, this session is going to be televised, we are warned, on the days that we are going to be televised, that we are under the spotlight. Can I, first of all, start straight into questioning, because time is limited and we want to get the best possible benefit from your expertise. And I want to start the questioning by saying, in terms of the work, you are very well known for your work on student retention, and, on the one hand, the Committee, whilst it is looking at retention, is aware that in retention, historically, this country does very well, I think it only comes, in the OECD countries, behind Japan, in terms of retention; can you give the reasons for that? And can you also perhaps suggest to us, is this a trend that is going to continue, or are there factors that are emerging now that could put that reputation for high levels of retention at risk?

  (Professor Yorke) I think the situation will, broadly, remain the same. Different countries have very different policies as regards access, and there is a very strong link between access and non-completion, or, the obverse, retention. So I think the first thing is to look at that issue. And, therefore, the position of the UK in these so-called league tables will be influenced very much, I think, by the way in which the access policy actually works. If you look at the performance indicators from the Funding Council, you will see, if you analyse them, that actually access and maturity on entry both load very heavily into issues about non-completion; quite a large amount of the non-completion is explained by those two things. Now there are other things, of course, that are mixed up in that, that I do not have the data for but the Funding Council does, and those are the issues to do with entry qualifications, and so on. But if you look at the divide between just, say, the old universities and the new universities, which I have looked at particularly, the rates of non-completion in the new universities are much higher, but then that correlates very, very strongly with the kind of students they get coming into them. So, I think, if the Government's intention, as it is, is to widen access, it needs to look at the way in which access might actually impact on non-completion. And there are two angles here, I think, governmentally, that are in tension; one is the desire, obviously, to be as efficient as possible and not waste public money, the other one is actually to open up access, and there is a bit of a tension between those two.

  2. So the Government is successful in access, we are bringing in the marginal student, is this what you are saying, or the more difficult student, or the student under the greater stress, or more mature students that have more demands on their time; what exactly are you saying there?
  (Professor Yorke) I am saying that, if we bring more students in, and if you look at, for example, the socio-groups IV and V, the participation rate on that, I gather, is 17 per cent, or it was recently, compared with much higher figures in the other groups. Now, if that is an underrepresentation, which it clearly is, and the Government wants to bring those in then there are implications, I think, for the way in which that might actually impact on non-completion. Because the work that I did did show that students from working-class backgrounds, as self-reported, tended to leave at a greater rate than students from other backgrounds, so that there is an issue here, and then it compounded by when they withdrew they were less likely to come back in, on the sample that I worked with. So I think there is a potential for a vicious circle there.

  3. I think you have worked out some figures for how much this costs the country, or how much it costs the education system, this non-completion; could you confirm what sort of ballpark figure that is?
  (Professor Yorke) The figures that I used were those based on about 1995, so they are a bit historic, and they were based on institution databases, which were of varying quality. The Funding Council's work more recently would suggest to me that the ballpark figure for the UK as a whole might be of the order of £200 million.

  4. We have a figure here which is only £90 million?
  (Professor Yorke) That was on the earlier calculation and was restricted to England.

  5. Oh, I see; right. That is most useful. Then are there institutions, within that, that are relatively more successful at retention than others? I understand what you say, in terms of one category of university doing better; are you saying that the universities who have a higher percentage of students who are the classic 18, 21, sort of students, students coming out of school at 18, they have higher retention rates? I can understand that; but what about, in terms of sort of hot spots and cold spots, similar universities, say, the new universities, some are having a far higher achievement in terms of retention than others, is there evidence of that?
  (Professor Yorke) The performance indicators published by the Funding Council show that; there is some quite detailed statistics work, far more detailed than anything I can do, that is in that, that shows that some are exceeding their benchmarks, which are based on roughly equivalent types of institutions, by quite a bit, in terms of retention, others are doing less well. And I think the critical issue is to try to find out exactly what is going on in the institutions. This is where the data that has been produced is useful for a kind of benchmarking facility, because that will enable institutions to ask themselves the question, "Well, if that institution down the road, which is broadly similar to us, is doing so-and-so, and we're doing worse, why should that be; what can we do about it?"

  Chairman: I think that gives us a good entry point, and plenty more to go for. Gordon, would you like to follow that up?

Mr Marsden

  6. Yes. Perhaps we could move on to talk a little bit about the student experience of higher education, and, obviously, picking up particularly on the report that you did. We have a sense, I think, that students, probably because of all the changes with loans and fees, are more discriminating, or more demanding, customers, as it were, than students were perhaps ten or 15 years ago. Would you say, from your research, that that was the case?
  (Professor Yorke) I would infer from the research that that is the case.

  7. Right; but there is a sense that students are thinking more of themselves as consumers of things that, in one way or another, they are having to pay for, and, therefore, perhaps being more demanding. And that then leads me on to a question about the teaching experience that they themselves experience, and a couple of things that I would like to ask you to comment on. First of all, with the payment of tuition fees, do you get a sense that there is a concern about the quality of teaching and the level at which students are taught? And what we heard when we went as a group to the United States, for example, is that the long-standing practice there of employing teaching assistants to do the bulk of the teaching work was beginning to be challenged by students and by parents because of the cost of tuition fees. So I would like some sort of steer from you on that. And, more specifically, on the issue of teaching ratios to students, again, I think, there is a quotation that comes from your report about students who had dropped out, and you said that one student had said, "Tutorials have 25-plus students only, enabling the very self-confident to dominate the proceedings." And that highlights the whole issue of the student/teacher ratio, particularly in the new universities; and I would be interested in your comments on the extent to which that affects the quality of teaching and the factors behind non-completion?
  (Professor Yorke) Your question actually has opened up a whole range of issues, and I will try to deal with some of them. I think the student experience is key to all of this, and the first year student experience is key of keys, because we lose about two-thirds of our students in the full-time regime at the end of the first year; so the first year is important. Which then talks to me about transition between wherever students have come from and higher education and their expectations of that; and, quite clearly, some are thrown by it, they do not experience what they expect, and they may find it difficult. And one of the things that has bothered me really since I did that report was to think about the way in which programmes are constructed in higher education, whereby, certainly in institutions of a kind that is similar to my own, former polytechnics, where you have an extensive modular scheme, you will find that many have got summative exams for modules at the first Christmas, or thereabouts, or January. Now that creates problems for me, because if we have got students coming in from various backgrounds who need to get up to speed, rather than hit the ground stumbling, then I think there is a need to provide an experience that actually inducts them properly into what higher education is about, and I think we may well not be doing that as well as we might. If you look again at the HEFCE performance indicators, notice that, mature students in the first year, the withdrawal rate is about twice that for the younger students. Now why should that be? I do not know the answer, but I would hazard a guess that people come in and have difficulty, are discouraged, certainly I have had some anecdotal evidence to that effect, that they are discouraged by not doing well, and say, "Well, perhaps it wasn't for me after all." And we are losing on that ground. So, in one sense, I think, the student experience is absolutely crucial. And then you touched on the issue about resourcing and student/staff ratios, and I think the question is rather like the old BT ad., you know, `working smarter, not harder', can we actually use the resources that we have, in higher education, better to deliver that first year student experience, where I think it is crucial, so that the students can be, by the end of their first year in full-time, and let us leave it at full-time for the moment, where they are flying to such a point that they can then take off with much less guidance, need for tutorial support, and so on, later on. It is that first year that I think is the crucial one.

  8. Can I just press you on that and give you a concrete example. Is it not the case, for example, that if you have, as you do have, particularly in the humanities, large numbers of introductory survey courses in the first year, where a typical teaching experience, so I am told, can be anything between 100 or 200 students, plonked in front of a tutor, of perhaps a fairly junior status, and those students themselves coming from the very different backgrounds which you described, that, inevitably, in that situation, those students who have not been through, as it were, the hoops of pedagogy beforehand, are likely to feel alienated and disaffected?
  (Professor Yorke) It is possible they may well be disaffected; they may not be, but they may not realise what they could be doing, and therefore not do as well as they should be doing. The question, I think, is whether that particular type of induction is an appropriate one for students coming in at that particular point.

  9. And would you have a view whether it is or it is not?
  (Professor Yorke) I would have a view that it is not.

Dr Harris

  10. The work that you have done stems from 1995/96, the fieldwork, that is correct, is it not?
  (Professor Yorke) Correct.

  11. Because I noticed that Gordon asked a question about tuition fees, which your data cannot really—unless the students you interviewed were particularly foresighted and thought they would see tuition fees, despite its absence from a manifesto, was unlikely to feature in their decision-making. But I do want to ask you about financial issues. We know that from the early paper that you did, from Keele, I think it was, that HEFCE did, it says that financial hardship was frequently cited as an influence on withdrawal, and that they also found, and I think you confirmed this in your introductory remarks, and I think I have seen these in the HEFCE figures, that students from lower socio-economic groups, that is those that are the target of the Government's recruitment and retention aims, are more likely to withdraw because of financial difficulties than students from socio-economic groups I and II. That, in a sense, is logical. Now your casework was done at a time when those students did, on a progressive basis, have more funding in the form of grant than other students, and tuition fees is a somewhat different issue. From your work, what effect do you think the withdrawal of grant will have, that has happened subsequently, on the ability of those students to complete, and, indeed, the frequency at which financial pressures, particularly for those target students, might be one of the factors involved in non-completion?
  (Professor Yorke) Finance certainly is. Whatever position you actually take on fees, I think, if you do the sums, about what you could do by remitting all the fees,—

  12. I am talking about grants. Sorry, I want to be clear. Tuition fees, as I understand it, are means-tested and paid, in the main, by wealthy parents. I am talking about the maintenance grants to poor students that they use to eat, rent and drink?
  (Professor Yorke) Yes. The issue is one of, I suppose, creeping debt. One of the things that was apparent, certainly when I was doing my work, was that students found themselves in debt and they had not really expected it. I think that the change in regime may well have caused students to think rather harder about the implications of going into higher education. So I think there is a two-way cut on this, and I do not know how it is working out, it may be too early to say. Because, on the one hand, sharpening up the choice will make things a bit more like America, where students will actually work out whether they can deal with the cost aspect of going into higher education, or not, but for those that come in they may well find themselves still with increasing amounts of debt, given that the maintenance award has been phased out.

  13. My question was, do you think—and I think the point you are making is that the abolition of grant, the increase of debt, may actually reduce the base from which people will then drop out, because people who would have dropped out may never have applied, and one would think that we would be tackling that in our access strand. But, nevertheless, for a student that nevertheless decides to go on, compared to a student that in 1995/96 was in, do you think the withdrawal of grant is going to make it more likely, across a range of students, that the poorer ones are going to more often cite financial problems as a cause of non-completion and be less likely to complete?
  (Professor Yorke) I think that is likely. I think that it has to be set against the increased tendency of students to work during their higher education experience now, and that is another issue that comes into this. And my colleague, Craig McInnis, from the University of Melbourne, has just produced some figures on this, which may be of interest, where he has shown that, in surveys of first year experience between 1994 and 1999, the percentage of time spent on employment while studying has gone up by 14 per cent for those who are actually engaged in it. And I suspect that is the same over here, but I do not think we have any data to that effect.

  14. And you found, I think, that one of the factors, along with financial pressure and the worry about debt, was the demands of employment while studying, and I think you report, in Chapter 4, that that is more likely to apply to what you call working-class students, but elsewhere you call students from socio-economic groups IV and V. You are aware, I think, of the association between non-completion and socio-economic background that has recently been produced by HEFCE?
  (Professor Yorke) Yes.

  15. Could you comment on whether those factors are the ones that make it most likely that that association is direct, or is it that those students just are not up to it intellectually, and more likely to be not up to it intellectually than students from better backgrounds?
  (Professor Yorke) I am not at all sure about it being a matter of being up to it intellectually.

  16. No, neither am I.
  (Professor Yorke) Because I think that it is actually more about induction and experience and kind of coherence with what is going on. And this is where I think the issue of access needs to be buttressed by developments in the higher education system itself that actually take this more into account. And I think you have then to look at this in the broader context of life-long learning and of students not necessarily doing everything all in one solid dollop. Because we are moving, I think, inevitably, towards the Australian and US type models, where students will buy in as they can, and that may well influence how we actually start thinking about the whole issue of non-completion.

  17. I think we are going to come on to that solution. I have got one more question on this. There is a problem of getting students from poorer backgrounds in, and, indeed, single parents and mature female students, and so forth. Is it likely, given the issues that you have raised, not just financial but mainly financial in regard to this group, that if we actually succeed in getting in more students from those targets groups, the poor students, then we might see, because of the factors that play upon those specifically, higher non-completion rates unless something is done to tackle the cause? In other words, there may be a process of diminishing returns, we may make progress but it will not be as strong as the progress on access unless we can tackle non-completion?
  (Professor Yorke) I think we need to tackle the access and non-completion issues together; if we do not then I think you could find what is being done in tension and not delivering the answers you want.


  18. But would not some people argue that it is a price worth paying, it is better to get the access up and the wider spread of people given the chance to go to university and then some people may decide it is not for them? Are we putting too much store on the fact that an inevitable part of this is non-completion, because people do decide that it is not for them, that they perhaps want to do something else with their lives?
  (Professor Yorke) I am much in favour of widening the access argument. I know there are others around who would say that we are letting too many into higher education already. I do not agree with that particular view. But I think the consequence of taking the view on widening access is that we have to look very hard at our own practices in higher education, to make sure that we maximise the potential of everyone who comes in, accepting your point that some may well choose, after a period, that perhaps this is not for them, or they may want to step out of higher education for a while, perhaps get an intermediate qualification and pick it up later on, one should not discount that. And that has implications for the way we actually choose to measure non-completion, and I think you might want to touch on that at some point.

Mr St. Aubyn

  19. Can I develop that inquiry in a different way. Based on the evidence you have collected, when students say they have decided to leave a course for financial reasons, is that a sort of crude problem, they have not got the rent cheque, they cannot see where the rent cheque is going to come from for the next six months, or is it a more in-depth analysis of the-learn-to-earn agenda, they decide that the value of a degree, a qualification, they may end up with at the end of the course, will not significantly increase their earning power, and actually they are better off going out there into the commercial world, or what have you, straightaway? When students cite financial problems, what level of financial problems do you think they are referring to?
  (Professor Yorke) I cannot answer that. I simply do not know, because I think it varies very much from student to student. The major theorist in this area is Vincent Tinto, who has done quite a lot of work in America on this, and he has a model, which I do not think maps entirely well onto our system but it is good enough as a first approximation, and he talks about students coming in and integrating, or not, into the higher education system, and looking at the outcomes of that, and making calculations all the while as to whether it is worthwhile carrying on or not, so there is a kind of cost/benefit analysis going on. And some students may well decide that the cost/benefit analysis does not work for them, and so they go off and do something else, and there are a number who left higher education go into employment, which is a kind of plus.

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