Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 161 - 179)




  161. It is strange being back in the Palace of Westminster proper in the sense that at least over in our new meeting room in Portcullis House we now have the ability to see our witnesses. I can see you, Howard, as you are on your own. Can I welcome you here most warmly.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Thank you very much.

  162. The Committee all know that I got great value out of a very late night journey back from Dorset fairly recently when you and I were the only people, I think, on the train to London which was much delayed.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) We resided in Eastleigh Railway Station for a very long time.

  163. Thank you very much. Congratulations on your new role which you will be taking up when?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) On October 1st.

  164. Excellent. We have got you in terms of wearing all three hats, I think, today. You have worn one in the past, one at the moment and one to come.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is right.

  165. No, four, University of Southampton Vice Chancellor.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is the day job.

  166. Three national, that is the day job. Okay. President of Universities UK, if anyone does not know that was formerly CVCP and, of course, Chief Executive Designate of HEFCE. If we can get straight on. You will know that—God willing—this afternoon after your departure we will complete entirely our Report on Access to Higher Education. We, thinking there might be some event that will curtail our investigation of higher education sometime in May, thought the only thing we could do justice to is something pretty tight and complete on its own and that is retention. Retention goes very well with access, as you will agree, I think. Today's session is on retention. We opened earlier this week meeting the QAA and had quite a good session I thought there. With your experience we would like you, in a sense, to start off the meeting by asking you, are you concerned? We look at the figures, we are rising perhaps pretty gently up the student loss curve, if you like, but it is a time of great expansion of higher education. We are up there in the high teens now. We visited two universities only this week, one the University of Surrey and one at Kingston, around about ten per cent in terms of student loss, two thirds in the first year. Do you think this is a problem we should be very concerned about? How do you evaluate it as an area?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think certainly it is a problem we should be concerned about because any student who withdraws from university before they have completed their course, it is usually—not always but usually—something of a setback, if not a tragedy, for the student personally. Of course there are resource implications of that and if they leave without any qualification whatsoever that is a setback for all concerned. I think it is something we should be concerned about, yes. I would remind the Committee that by international standards, however, retention rates are very good, very high. I think only Japan, internationally, has a lower drop-out rate than we do. I would suggest, also, that as the sector has expanded over the last couple of decades, and as we have taken in more students with a much wider range of social backgrounds and academic qualifications, universities have taken more risks at admission, I think it is right they should do so but if we have not dropped our standards—and I do not believe we have—then the outcome is likely to be some gentle rise, as you put it, in drop-out rates. However, I do think that there is more we can do and I agree that the problem lies mostly in the first year. For all the efforts that universities have made to attract students from non-conventional backgrounds into the sector, I think that cannot be done at the expense of paying much more attention to those students once they have arrived at university in order to retain them.

  167. What sort of thing works? When we were at Kingston, I think, and my colleagues will correct me if I am wrong, they said there did not seem to be any discernible difference between what background the student came from in terms of the wastage in the first year. What do you think?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is not my experience, I have to say. I think there is some evidence to suggest that there are higher drop-out rates amongst those students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. If you are asking me what needs to be done, I think first of all a great deal more needs to be done in conveying relevant and meaningful information to students before they even arrive at university and before they are even contemplating entering higher education. It is a question, if you like, of managing expectations. We need a rather judicious mix, I would suggest, of raising aspirations so that more young people in schools at an earlier age can begin to aspire to go into university but, having done that, then convey meaningful and sensible information to them so that they know what to expect. Once they have arrived at university they often need more support, more mentoring, more counselling, especially in the first year. I think as we extend deeper and deeper into, as I said, students from non-conventional backgrounds, they are likely to experience more of a culture shock when they arrive.

Mr Foster

  168. You mentioned relevant and meaningful information, could you give us an example of what you mean in practice? What practical information are we talking about?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes. I had the salutary experience of watching my son apply for university a couple of years ago and as a family—and I am someone who works in the sector—we submerged ourselves in prospectuses and CD roms and information over the internet and it rapidly becomes very bewildering, I have to say. Some universities are beginning to do this but I think we could do more in conveying clear summary information which deals with some of the broad brush stroke issues about what students could expect to find and what they need to think about before they go to university, before we induct them into detailed information about course selection and matters of that kind. At the moment I think students tend to be thrown in rather at the deep end with a pile of prospectuses and other forms of information. A lot of information they pick up by word of mouth actually, in my experience, not all of it terribly accurate. So I think a lot more can be done and a lot more can be done, I think, through universities reaching out more into the schools and colleges at an earlier age, 13 to 14 rather than 16 to 17, so this is a more managed process from the age of about 13 years onwards.

  169. It has been a few years since I have been giving advice to students in that sense. Do you think something like a DfEE guide to what you have to know, what you have to look at, something which is very simple to follow but maybe down in that flow chart process, would be useful?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It would not do any harm but my experience is that students on the whole do not pick up what I would call intelligence rather than information from that kind of source. I think we could do a lot more at Universities UK by providing protocols for universities so that we can say "This is the kind of information that our experience and our research has shown that students need before they get to the course selection stage." I think we would be happy, I am sure, to take it up with the Department about how we might establish some of those protocols so that universities could provide some information in fairly standard format which students would find much easier to read across and read through.

  170. That covers the process of course selection and the application side of it. What about advice on the first couple of days, weeks, months at a university, are we looking at that area?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think that is something, in fairness, that universities do reasonably well. All students, and increasingly I have to say their parents, are normally invited to visit universities, and most of them these days do, well before they actually arrive at the beginning of the new year. When they do arrive at the beginning of the new year I think all universities take three or four days, sometimes as much as a week, before formal tuition starts in inducting the students across a whole range of things. That works quite well, I think. Yes, of course, some students feel completely dislocated when they first arrive, they may have left home for the first time, they may feel rather lonely, they are establishing friends, but I think universities are very aware of that and we do an awful lot, and our students' unions I have to say do an awful lot, to mitigate that kind of sense of loneliness and isolation. I do not think that is quite the issue, I think it is more in terms of ensuring that students know what to expect in terms of the styles of teaching and learning they are going to encounter when they get to university which can be quite different in some cases from what they have encountered in schools and in colleges.

Charlotte Atkins

  171. I very much want to agree with the comment you made about universities starting early in terms of encouraging students to attend university because I have been banging on about this, and the Committee have got pretty bored with me going on about year eight, which is when people are 13. It seems to me a gap year in terms of their academic development. It is the time when those young people could be interested in university before, and crucially before, they take their GCSE options. Could you let us know of any universities which are, in fact, focusing on young people at that age, first of all?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think quite a number of universities do. They do it in a variety of ways. First of all, increasingly universities are compacting with schools and colleges, not just locally but often some distance from the university. Obviously, we have all traditionally done a lot of things in our immediate locality but, as you know, still students on the whole do not go to university in their immediate locality, they still like to move away from home. Another area which is being explored, I think, is in the field of school teachers fellowships so that we build up increasing links with school teachers and get the teachers in to the universities in their inter-departments in which they have a background so that teachers take messages back into the schools as well. Now that is only beginning to take place but I think a lot of work is going on in doing that sort of thing. In all parts of the sector, whether it is Oxford and Cambridge on the one hand, or some of the new universities on the other, I think again a lot more could be done there to extend that. That is the kind of thing I am thinking of. In terms of actual examples of universities, I do not want to keep quoting Southampton but we could certainly allow the Committee to have some examples of what is going on.

  172. The other thing, I was interested in what you said about the protocols perhaps that universities should adopt in terms of information before students attend. I had the unfortunate experience of one of my local constituents who gave birth while she was at school not being able to take up a place at university because they could not guarantee her a child care place. Now obviously if child care breaks down, as we all know, whether we are at university or in a job, that really does lead to drop-out, whether out of a job or out of college. What is your experience of the sort of support universities give in terms of child care, whether to mothers or fathers? Does this illustrate the sort of support that universities give to both mature students and part-time students? It seems to me we can look at the whole area of finance but crucially child care is one of those aspects which has a financial aspect and, of course, is very, very important in terms of students being able just to physically get to the course and survive three or four years.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think I would add also to that, it is not just students who we need to offer child care support to, it is also our staff.

  173. Sure.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) All universities do this and all universities have an integrated child care support system, nursery provision and so forth, which covers both staff and students. All universities in my experience also charge differentially between staff and students and also ensure that it is affordable to students. Students, of course, can apply to universities for hardship grants to cover the cost of this where it is necessary. Again, my experience is that over the years demand for these facilities has risen. We in turn had to quite rightly ensure that the quality of the care that we are offering is of the best. There is no indication in our block grant for the cost of this so essentially we are under some obligation to ensure that it is self-supporting in terms of cost, which has not, I think, provided universities with the best of incentives to expand their facilities and ensure they are up to the quality they require. Affordability, I have to say, even with the way in which we all subsidise it, still does remain a bit of an issue with students, not so much with staff but with students.

  174. This really should not be a problem, it was not so much a problem that the university did provide the child care—you say all universities do—but perhaps they may not have had the capacity to take on that particular student's child?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is correct. I think all universities are looking at various innovative ways. There is now, of course, a thriving private sector involved in supplying nursery and child care facilities and I think many institutions have been joining up with the private sector to see what we can do to expand the capacity for child care and other similar facilities in universities.

  175. You said that universities provide for staff and students. Also, as a Committee, I think we are very concerned that universities should be very much part of their community. Are there schemes whereby places are also offered to the community to try to link the university into its hinterland?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) There are cases but I would not for one minute wish you to believe that this is something which is common in universities. On the whole what happens is that if there is any spare capacity that is offered to the local community, but I think I would say, in my experience, there is something of a difference here between the way in which universities have opened up their facilities elsewhere compared with what they have done in the case of child care. If you think of other facilities, such as sports facilities or libraries and so on, they really have been opened up to the local community. I think in all honesty that has been less of a case with regard to child care, I suspect because of the cost implications concerned and because of the legal liabilities involved.

Mr St Aubyn

  176. School leavers are at a critical stage in their personal development, perhaps this explains partly why the drop-out rate is so high in the first year at university. There seem to be two views of this. One is that university should capture the school leavers before they go off the boil academically and keep on the straight and narrow to try and retain as many as possible. The other is that many of these school leavers would benefit from taking a year out from education, ideally in a structured environment, a year out from education, before they then make that commitment. The evidence is that those who take a year out have a far lower drop-out rate once they get to university. What is your personal view on that debate?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) My personal view is that taking a gap year is beneficial provided it is relevant to the course they eventually intend to study because I do also incline somewhat to the rather jesuitical view that you described as the first option, which is that students get into a rhythm of learning and working and they particularly, in my experience, as a former teacher in higher education, get into a rhythm of doing written assessments of various kinds. When they have taken a year out and they have got out of the habit of reading and out of the habit of writing, especially, it takes them a little while to pick all that up again when they do enter into higher education. I was pleased that you qualified your comment with "preferably in a structured environment" when you talked about the gap year because I think that is where it is of greatest benefit otherwise I am not entirely sure that the student's gap year is of direct educational benefit when they enter higher education. It may benefit them in other ways.

  177. There is a cost implication here because taking a year out, unless it is working in industry or something, tends to have costs associated with it. Would you be in favour, given we are particularly also interested in widening access and making sure that those from less well off backgrounds stay the course and go to university, of some resources being devoted to those from less well off backgrounds to take a structured year out rather than those resources being used in other ways to help retain them at university?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) If you are talking about the structured gap year to facilitate retention of those from lower socio-economic groups in the higher education system, then I am not sure taking a year out frankly is terribly relevant one way or the other. What I think will be preferable will be to take such students and give them a kind of fast start by bringing them in earlier into the system, perhaps through a summer school immediately before they start their first year, and get them accustomed, as I said earlier, to what the expectations are in higher education and what the styles of teaching and learning are that they are going to encounter and induct them into that before they enter the first year. I think if there were resources available of the kind you describe, personally I would not recommend they went into a gap year, however well structured, but rather into perhaps a three month fast track induction between the time they leave school or college and the time they arrive at university.

  178. Are there not various aspects to going to university, like being in control of your own life for the first time, having to organise yourself? These are skills which in a year spent in a job environment, if it is the right job environment, you may well pick up and develop so you then become more ready for the university atmosphere than you would otherwise be.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) You may, equally you may not. I agree there are a series of, if you like, domestic skills that one has to learn—cooking, cleaning, ironing—which the evidence is that many students do not have when they enter university, I have to say the evidence is that a lot of them do not have when they leave either. I just remain somewhat sceptical, frankly, that one requires a whole gap year to acquire those skills. I am more concerned, as you can guess, that a student from the kind of background we are talking about, from their point of view are often taking a rather risky step. They lack, often, academic self-confidence, their confidence is certainly very fragile. I think if we are talking about limited resources focused in ways which can best help them, personally I would go for a three month induction or something of that kind between school and university so that they can encounter what to expect at lower personal cost in terms of self-esteem and in other ways and they are better prepared for the hurly burly of the first year of academic life.

  179. You recognise that they could acquire that self-esteem and confidence by stepping out into the real world?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Absolutely. I am not against the gap year at all. I hope I was clear when I said that if we are talking about a gap year as something targeted towards dealing with this issue of widening access, I am sceptical that it would achieve that purpose. There are lots of other benefits about why young people need to take a year out but not, I would submit, that one.

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