Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. If I may interrupt there, it does relate back to your survey, because you say 37 per cent said that financial problems were a considerable influence on their decision to leave, but 23 per cent decided the programme was not relevant to their career, and 10 per cent said they were taking up employment; so if you add those two together, would it be legitimate to say, well, 33 per cent, if you like, were saying, "well, the influence is more about where my career or my job prospects were going"?
  (Professor Yorke) I do not think it adds up quite that way, I do not think you can make that direct connection.

  21. For those who do decide to leave to take a job, or because they decide to follow another career opportunity, has their university experience necessarily been a failure; the fact that they have left early to pursue something else perhaps might be regarded, in some senses, as a success, they have gone through this stage faster than some of their peers?
  (Professor Yorke) I think that is a perfectly legitimate view to take, and I would be inclined to take it. I doubt if any experience is totally useless. I think it depends on what basis you choose to make your accounting of that experience.

  Chairman: Moving on a little, we can come back to some of these issues, but I would like to call Charlotte to take us on to a new phase.

Charlotte Atkins

  22. We are still talking about the issue of, obviously, non-completion, and you have identified finance as being one of the areas and reasons for non-completion. I would like to look at some of the others, but also I would like to see how finance rates within the reasons for non-completion. But I would particularly like to look at and get some impression, because, obviously, your survey looked at just one point in time, whether you consider that different reasons for non-completion have changed over a period of time, and whether finance has become a more important issue, or whether other issues have become more important, as the student body has changed, but also as arrangements and increased access have changed?
  (Professor Yorke) We do not have any data on that. The only work that I know of, that is of any size, is the stuff that I did, and it really needs replicating now, now that we have got a rather different situation obtaining, so we can get a pre/post kind of view of it. So it is difficult to give you any sensible answer on this.

  23. So there is no-one else who has done any work which would help us in terms of identifying changes over time?
  (Professor Yorke) Not that I can think of. You can go back further, to work that Tom Bourner did, in about 1991, but I think that does not help, because it deals with an historical situation and does not deal with the flux of events as they are now.

  24. What is your impression, as we increase the number of people going into higher education, whether, the issue of choosing the wrong course, that is going to become a bigger issue, given that perhaps those students will not have the sort of level of support from their schools and FE colleges that perhaps they would have had, when you are talking about a smaller cohort?
  (Professor Yorke) I think the issue of choice is a complex one; whether that is influenced by students having to be more up front about the money side of things and sharpening that choice, I think may well improve matters. There is an issue about student maturity. I went through into higher education and I just drifted through because it was the expected thing, and, fortunately, I ended up with a degree, though I am not sure I was wholly entitled to it; but let that pass. But there were other students, many students, who reported back on the survey that I did and said much the same kind of thing, and perhaps they would have been better taking time out and deciding what they really, really wanted to do, or avoiding being just sort of rolling through without any deep thought about the matter; that would have been a much better thing for them to have done, to take time out and to think. And it may be that one of the things that the current situation has done may well be to increase that degree of reflection on the part of the incoming student, or intending student.

  25. Certainly, when we went to the United States, I think some of us were quite surprised how late students, in fact, decided on their majors, they could well have been there for two years before they finally decided what major to take, and, obviously, there, with a modular system. Clearly, there is much more scope for students to chop and change, rather than having to re-do the first year, or whatever, in our more sort of narrow system. Do you think that, perhaps, if we went towards the American type approach, we might end up having less of a drop-out?
  (Professor Yorke) I think we could do, but I think actually I would like to put it in a slightly broader context as well; because, if, again, one looks at it in life-long learning terms and says, actually, the first degree is not necessarily a full-time, three'ish-year experience, then one actually has a more staged approach, perhaps, to the choices. And, also, we have, in higher education now, the need for employability skills, and all that kind of stuff, coming in, and I think that changes the nature of the first degree, and I do not think higher education or the world generally has thought through the implications of what life-long learning is. Because, if the knowledge that one gets in subjects in many areas is changing very rapidly, actually learning that knowledge as you are going through is not a great thing, it is actually learning how to deal with knowledge, and get it, and all that kind of thing; which suggests a rather different kind of first cycle higher education ought to be on the agenda, more than it is currently. So my answer to you about the way in which students might choose and come in is actually coloured by a view that I have about the way that higher education is going anyway.

  26. Obviously, we have a tremendously diverse student body now, and it is becoming more diverse. I was alarmed by the experience of one of my constituents, let us call her Emma, who had a child while she was at school and then wanted to apply for higher education, and she was in a Catch 22 situation, that she could not accept a place on a course, rather, she applied to university, but they could not tell her whether she had a place for her child until she was accepted on the degree course, and, of course, she could not accept the place until she knew whether she had a place for her child. And, inevitably, despite a lot of support from the excellent school in Leek, she ended up not going to HE. Luckily, the Open University, with the support from the school, were able to provide her with that higher education experience. But, in your view, is this increasingly the sort of dilemma, given that we now have equal numbers of women going to university, these are the sort of dilemmas that students are facing and perhaps that universities are not catching up with?
  (Professor Yorke) I think that is true. There are anecdotes that I could give back to you of the same kind, where students have actually enrolled at university, on the grounds that the university operated an equal opportunities policy that allowed their children to be accommodated, and finding that things are arranged at various times that actually do not fit with their home and domestic commitments. So I think there are issues there about how this actually works and how institutions can be sensitive to the needs of the broad constituency.

  27. Do you think that some institutions are better at dealing with the needs of students than others, in terms of type of college, type of university, or is it universally a matter of the universities having the places and expecting students to fit in to the arrangements that they have introduced?
  (Professor Yorke) I can say, I think that is the case, but I do not know it is the case empirically. If you look again at the PIs, from the HEFCE, certain colleges stand out as being better on retention issues than others, relative to their benchmarks; so that raises questions about why is it these are better. And you may get some answers from our colleagues later, in the next session, about exactly how certain institutions are being more successful, and which it may well be that they deal with the issues that you have been raising.

  28. That is down to the institution, rather than the preparation, perhaps, that the students had before they left school or college?
  (Professor Yorke) Yes.

  29. Is there anything that the school or college could do to smooth the path of students going into higher education?
  (Professor Yorke) I think actually there is a lot, but I think the question is the crammedness of the school curriculum timetable does makes it difficult. Shelter, I think it was in 1997, came up with a pack of study for people leaving home for the first time, this was not particularly for university people but it could have applied to them. I would guess that very few schools were able to use it, because they had other things on their agenda. Now it may well be that, as one widens the A-level type curriculum and talks about Curriculum 2000, and things like that, opportunities for these kinds of things might be built in. And it seems to me to be an important precursor to the experience, because one of the issues that is important is obviously this transition from wherever into higher education and the preparation that can go on for it, and if you are already in a school or another institution then the potential for that ought to be higher.


  30. Professor Yorke, you are one of the leading experts in this area, and if you were the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what three or four, whatever number, things, what actions would you take in order to encourage people to stay on in university, what would be your policy advice on the things that really need the prime attention?
  (Professor Yorke) I think the first thing that I would do would be to deal with the issue of support for students coming into higher education, particularly thinking about the widening of access issues and the things that stem from that. I would put my money on supporting those institutions that were working hard with students who might need extra support in those early stages to get them up to the level at which they can then carry on through successfully, and I think probably we do not do enough at that level; that for me is perhaps the most important bit that I would do. Whether I can come up with three or four things that I would do, at the drop of a hat, I am not so sure.

Mr St. Aubyn

  31. Can I suggest an alternative, Chairman, because we talk about support for those coming in who need it, is this not signalling that a significant number of students perhaps are not mature enough yet, when they immediately leave school to go to university, to get the most out of it, and that if they were to take a year out before they went up to university they would be much better prepared for that environment? And during that year they could also perhaps earn some money which would help them with any potential financial difficulties, but that would also, of course, allow them to have more time to consider what type of course they are really best suited to and whether they have made the right choice of course. Have you considered that angle?
  (Professor Yorke) Very much so, yes. I would agree with you. If you read the book, it talks about that as being an option, which I think would be beneficial to many students; but I do not think it answers the whole of the question that Mr Sheerman put to me. The question, I think, was what would I do, and one of the things I would do would be to look at people coming in, some I might well say, "Don't come in so quickly," but those who come in, or those who go out into employment and sort of lose contact with the kind of rigours of studying, and all that goes with that, may well want time and extra support in those early stages to recover it, or develop it, or whatever. So I think that it is a bit of both.

  32. So that would argue for having a structured year between the school and university, where the eventual focus going back into academic study is not lost?
  (Professor Yorke) I am not sure it would be a structured year in-between, I think it may well be structuring that first year in university better. Bear in mind that the people who come in, if they have had more life experience, will have other things to offer, and we should not disparage those. I am just reminded of when I did the telephone survey, with this thing, employing the students from the Job Shop to do the telephoning, how much better they were than I would have been, in my callow youth, trying to do that, they really were, they were really impressive people; but you might not have recognised them as high-flyers academically, but, by God, they have got something to offer.

Mr Marsden

  33. The thrust of much of what we have been discussing in the last ten minutes, and I think Charlotte's example of her constituent highlighted it, is the inability, or perhaps the slowness, of universities to respond to the changing model of student that they are receiving, and it seems implicit in what you have said that you agree with that. And I want to ask you a couple of specific things. Do you think, in terms of what universities have as their standard teaching hours, for example, that they have adjusted enough to the needs of part-time and mature students; and, secondly, do you think that the balance, the emphasis that is put, in universities, between the ability of staff to teach as opposed to the ability of staff to do research, is lop-sided?
  (Professor Yorke) With the latter, yes, I think it probably is lop-sided. That may be being redressed by the requirement on institutions now to produce learning and teaching strategies, in a way that they were not required to do before, and to consider things like the promotion of teaching, in the institution, as part of that package. Now I think that probably there will be advantages in going just further than that, along the lines I have indicated, about the way one actually deals with one's intakes, because that seems to me to be utterly the crucial area to deal with.

  34. But the funding mechanisms at the moment do not exactly, in many cases, encourage universities and their staff to privilege teaching over research, do they?
  (Professor Yorke) It is perceived not to be that way, because people, I think, tend to overlook the fact that the bulk of the money to an institution comes in for teaching and not research, but it is research that is the one that is competitively awarded.

  35. That is what gets them the brownie points and moves them up the table, in terms of professorships, and all the rest of it?
  (Professor Yorke) That is it, yes.

  36. Can I ask you another point, which relates to strategies to reduce non-completion, and we touched on this earlier, I think, where I think the phrase you used was re-assessing the way in which we look at first degrees and that it is not necessarily going to be three years, bang, bang, bang, and then you get your degree. Is there more that could be done between universities and higher education institutions being flexible about course transfer, particularly with the modular structure that we now have? I am thinking, an obvious model is the way in which the Open University allows you to accumulate credits and then drop out. Is there enough that is being done by universities to reflect that need for flexibility, particularly, for example, if we have women students who may need to take a year out for child care reasons, or to look after—well, not just women students, male students as well, hopefully, looking after elderly parents, but those sorts of issues, which are structural issues, which, historically, the inability to transfer courses has not necessarily given?
  (Professor Yorke) I think the situation is considerably improved, latterly, on that, with the advent of modular systems in many institutions, that allows the capacity for transfer from one to the other much more than would have been the case, say, when I was at university.

  37. Can I press you on that though, because it may allow it theoretically, but I have heard, and I am sure other members of the Committee have heard, of a number of examples where students perhaps have done two years in one university and accumulated credits via various modules, and then perhaps have tried to re-apply either to that university or to another institution nearby, or perhaps had to move somewhere else in the country, perhaps to look after someone, or because of family reasons, and then found it very difficult, because of the internal autonomy of university acceptances, to gain credit into other institutions. Is that something that you perceive as a problem, or not?
  (Professor Yorke) I have no evidence on this, it would be silly to try to pretend that I do have. I suspect that it will be a problem in some cases, where some institutions take a more jaundiced view of the offerings at another institution, for example, that it may not fit, or whatever.

  38. Does the Government give, or does HEFCE give, enough incentive to universities to pursue a policy of flexibility and credit transfer?
  (Professor Yorke) I think there is enough potential in the system for that to happen, if the institutions were prepared to deal with that in the way that they should. I do not think it is a matter necessarily of HEFCE's further direction on it.

Dr Harris

  39. Can I take you back to the Chairman's imaginary promotion, if I can use the term, of you, to adviser to the Minister, and come back to this issue of working-class students, because that is the issue that I and I think the Government are most concerned about. You say, throughout this report, that, for example, a survey conducted by NatWest suggested a third of students felt their finances were going out of control, and there are several references to the problems that particularly poor students face in terms of financial circumstances. As you say, there is no, I think, academic research that has been done on the latest position, so we are back in 1995/96, this work is done, you report in 1996/97, and the Minister is discussing options around what happens to poor students. Would your advice to her be to make those students poorer, by abolishing their grants, as a means of improving completion, or make them better-off by increasing grants, or keeping them the same, based on the work you have done here?
  (Professor Yorke) I think I would increase, rather than anything else, because I would get some pay-off from that in national economic terms, I think.

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