Examination of witness (Questions 200
THURSDAY 18 JANUARY 2001
200. Who had no other sources of income. Would
you say that group, which is under represented in higher education,
was more they are just poor, the former category, or they really
ought to cut down?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, I would put them
into the former category. I think we have seen, have we not, since
the introduction of the fees and loans regime in 1997, that there
were some categories of students who may well have been suffering
unduly from this. I think there has been some introduction, as
you know, of some bursary schemes to try and mitigate their difficulties.
It has been rather ad hoc and I think what we would urge
from Universities UK is that in the future perhaps these schemes
could be grouped together in a much more coherent way to offer
a more comprehensive bursary scheme to those students who really
201. When you say a comprehensive bursary scheme,
do you mean a scheme like the grant system that was actually withdrawn
after the date of that data that I have referred to or would you
mean something bigger than that?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Broadly speaking, I think
we would argue from Universities UK that the real disincentive
for students from poor backgrounds to entering and remaining in
higher education has not been from the introduction of fees, because
they have not on the whole had to pay fees, it has been from the
abolition of the maintenance award. The more that could be done
to support them with their living costs, the better.
202. Would you like to go back to the pre-1997
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, because I have been
differentiating fees from maintenance awards. If we are talking
about the financing of higher education, there has to be some
kind of partnership between Government, through the taxpayer,
parents, and the students themselves who will benefit from their
higher education qualifications. I do not think, frankly, any
party is going to go into an election saying "Vote for us
and we will raise taxes so we can give more money to higher education".
Dr Harris: Our policy at the last election was
Chairman: Howard is talking about the next election.
203. And reported in a number of newspapers
was our launch of the next election policy which is precisely
that, to raise £3.1 billion, of which £750 million will
go into higher education to abolish tuition fees and replace that
funding at universities which they need and restore the grant.
Would you like to have another go?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I do not think I would
204. I think Howard said no major party!
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I would say that in terms
of public support for expenditure in different areas of the public
services, I think that the electorate may well vote for increased
taxes to support some public services but I have not seen any
evidence they would vote for increased taxes to support universities,
I have to say.
205. In my constituency I made that quite clear
and I did get a significant swing against the national trend.
If you have better research I would love to see it.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) It is not so much research,
it is what is going to be the outcome of the next election which
will be the best research on that.
206. I will move away from the Liberal Party
propaganda machine. To what extent are students discriminating
customers, particularly with regard to quality of teachers?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Increasingly, and so
are their parents.
207. How are they demonstrating that?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) By complaining more.
208. Has the introduction of tuition fees increased
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, it has.
209. You are saying that students are valuing
more highly perhaps the education they are receiving and taking
it more seriously in terms of the nature of the quality they are
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Very much so, and so
are their parents. I keep repeating that because we are finding
that parents are becoming much more involved in these issues that
you describe, including the choice that their children make. What
we are finding is that, if I can put it this way, the introduction
of fees is doing away with the large remnants of in loco parentis
as far as the relationship between universities and students is
concerned. Students are becomingto put it rather in an
exaggerated way perhapsless and less pupils and more and
more customers. I do think we have to respond to that. In addition,
we have to teach them to be intelligent customers.
210. Before we move away from financial aspects,
can I just ask one question. Do you think that it would be helpful
to students, given that we are unlikely to go back to maintenance
grants, that the preference loans which presently exist should
be extended? I have found certainly that low income students going
to high cost areas like London find that the student loan, which
they have available at preferential rates, is not sufficient and
they have to go to other areas if they cannot draw on parental
income for other monies which are not loaned at preferential rates.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think this whole area
is something which I hope that the DfEE and Government might have
another look at in the not too far distant future. As I said before,
a number of ad hoc and very welcome measures have been introduced
to relieve the most obvious cases of hardship, whether it is students
on unemployment benefit, mature students, single parents and so
forth. I think rather than have a plethora of ad hoc bursary
measures or preferential loan schemes, it would be much better
to tidy the whole thing up and have, if you like, more of a one
stop shop so that students have a much clearer idea of what their
entitlement is because my experience is that they do not. It is
not just the students who are in the sector, going back to where
we began, students at 13, 14, 15, 16 have the most remarkable
mis-information about student financing on both fees and bursary.
Mr St Aubyn
211. Can I say the Conservative Party policy
on higher education will be announced in ten minutes' time and
draws very heavily on the evidence we have received over the years
in this Committee and our two inquiries on higher education. Could
I please follow up your comment about the students becoming customers.
It does seem to me your customers are coming to you in all shapes
and sizes. Is the response to that a one size fits all policy
is the best practice that universities should follow to ensure
that the typical student, if he or she exists, will be retained
on the course, or is the key to the response that there is as
diverse a sector for them to choose from as can possibly be achieved?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think the latter broadly,
provided there is a minimum floorand since you have received
evidence from John Randall you will know about thiswhich
ensures we can assure and demonstrate a minimum acceptable quality
of higher education. Beyond that I think the sector is so diverse,
our student needs are so diverse, that one size will not fit all.
212. Following that up, clearly the core funding
that HEFCE gives universities is enshrined in the Act. This is
without any say in what courses they teach, and which students
they choose to accept. Do you think if additional funding is going
to be made available to help universities retain their students
that HEFCE or the Government has a role in dictating how that
money should be used or do you think universities should be relied
upon to develop and use their own expertise and knowledge and
experience to develop their own strategies, i.e. give them money
and let them get on with the job?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I obviously incline to
the latter but I would say that because of the diversity of needs,
just in terms of geography apart from anything else, the needs
are quite different. Universities, quite rightly, need to be accountable
for how they spend that money. So I think Government's role is
to set some broad aims, as it does, through saying "We want
to encourage widening participation. We look to universities to
come forward with effective means of achieving that. We, the Government,
understand that this is resource intensive and here is some earmarked
money". Now it is a matter for the Funding Council to distribute
that money against proposals put to it by individual universities
and we would expect the Funding Council to report back on not
only how that money has been spent but how those universities
have achieved the aims they set themselves in spending that money.
213. Is there not a danger in that approach
that you then become very didactic in your approach, you become
very judgmental as to what universities are going to do?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, actually, on the
contrary, it was precisely to avoid that that I went down the
line I suggested. I think if one were to be didactic and operate
in a kind of Gosplan fashion on this matter, one would actually
say to universities: "You will recruit X percentage of students
from social classes C2, D, E. This is how you will do it. There
is the money and if you do not do it that way, we are not going
to give it to you". I do not think anyone is suggesting that
approach, and certainly I would not advocate it.
214. For instance, the analysis HEFCE did of
benchmark performance, there are very serious reservations about
the quality of that analysis and the assumptions that it makes.
Do you recognise those reservations?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) There are reservations,
I would not use the term very serious. I do not want to get too
technical about this, the social scientist again, but there are
issues about using postcodes on the assumption that everyone within
that postcode is from a homogeneous social background. I happen
to live in a rural area, there I am, the University Vice-Chancellor,
across the lane from me is an 82-year-old widow who has lived
in the village all her life, we are in the same postcode. If you
take the average of the two, you get a sum which is rather meaningless.
I have to say that empirically the number of postcodes where that
is a major issue is reasonably small, although I understand the
concerns in London about it.
215. You think the HEFCE benchmark is useful?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) It is useful.
Mr St Aubyn
216. Can I challenge that, for a moment, Chairman.
It seems to me the underlying assumption is that if you are a
college which teaches a lot of science and engineering courses
you are expected to draw more students from less well off backgrounds.
If you have gone out of your way to persuade middle class students
that they should be doing science and engineering too, somehow
the HEFCE benchmark says "You are not performing well".
It tends to take the status quo and apply it across the board
and that is your benchmark. Is there not a whole group of assumptions
underlying this analysis which are basically trying to entrench
the status quo that less well off kids at the moment tend to go
for the science and engineering more than middle class ones?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) No. I see what you are
driving at. The issue is is this useful or useless, not whether
it is true or false. For the reasons I have mentioned one cannot
defend it down to the nth degree in offering an absolutely accurate
representation of the benchmarks that we are all referring to.
But is it a useful tool for a university to say to itself "Well,
hang on a minute, are we doing things rightly or could we improve
on this?" I think it is actually quite useful. I would say
from my own experience as a Vice-Chancellor, it has forced us
to ask questions, for example, about where we are drawing our
students from, where we are attempting to market and recruit students
from, not just in terms of socio-economic groupings but more regionally
in other ways. Are we trying hard enough to attract more students
from the North of England as opposed to the South, issues of that
kind. I think in broad brush stroke terms it actually is very
useful and, after all, it is not being used in any direct way
to substantially change the resources going into universities
one against the other. There is at the moment a small postcode
premium, as it is called, five per cent, that applies to those
students who are drawn from certain postcodes. Personally I think
that if we are serious about attacking the issue of attracting
more students into higher education from those sorts of backgrounds,
recognising that it is very resource intensive to attract them
and then retain them, there might be a case in the future for
looking at raising that premium.
217. And plus more fine tuning the method by
which you identify the student? I have a poor housing estate next
to the university in my constituency.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I have to say I think
there is a danger there. Ironically, the more you fine tune it
and the more you make it into an analytical tool of the kind you
are describing, the more tempting it is to go down the more didactic
route and that I do not think any of us would wish.
218. Can I come in on two specifics, if I can,
quickly in the time. First of all, we met students at the post-graduate
level who were beginning to be concerned about going on, given
the financial situation, to do their doctorate or to do their
post-graduate work immediately following a degree. Is that your
experience as well? That came up amongst conversation the day
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think there is a distinction
here between post-graduates, masters' students on the one hand
and PhD students on the other.
219. I think it was those who were looking to
do another two or three years as opposed to another single year.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is what I thought.
I do not know of any evidence that students are being put off
going on a masters course, quite the contrary. That fourth year,
as it usually is, the first year of a masters course, is often
something they use to fine tune their employability and they can
still see the return on that. There is more of a potential problem
in attracting students to carry on to do two, three, four years
on a PhD given that the science base and, indeed, universities
as their employers need to recruit more such students in the future.
I have to say that the OST, through the Research Councils, recognises
that problem and has done quite a lot to not only raise the student
stipend but also to make the career path of moving from under-graduate
to post-graduate on into a science based career much more attractive.
I think this is something we do need to keep an eye on, especially
if we are talking about public sector employment as opposed to
private sector employment at the end of the day.
220. It is very worrying if we are going to
get to a situation where there is a real dearth of serious post-graduate
students who are going to be the next generation of university
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is a problem that
has arisen in some selected subjects, yes. I think we could, on
another occasion, have a debate about whether we feel that the
total volume of PhD students in this country is too big or too
small. Certainly if we take the obvious case of economics, which
I think has been very well rehearsed, there is indeed an absolute
dearth of students coming into areas like that into other areas
where there is strong private sector competition for students
to move out of higher education before they become PhD students.
221. Is there a danger that we are getting less
good retention because of less good teaching because we are just
not paying enough for our university teachers? What is your view
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I do not know of any
evidence that teaching standards have declined in universities.
On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence to say that we are
facing increasing difficulties in a labour market obtaining what
I would call our fair share of the best and brightest of the present
generation that is moving out into employment. We are storing
up long-term trouble for ourselves. Coming from Southampton, I
have to say I really do hope that the Titanic does not have to
hit the iceberg before somebody realises there is a problem here
because we are talking in terms of generations here. The expansion
of the 1960s, the post-Robbins expansion in universities, that
generation is coming up to retirement over the next decade and
if we do not replace them sufficiently the intellectual capital
on which this country has drawn to retain its excellence in both
teaching and research in universities over the last generation
is going to decline. That is a serious medium to long-term issue
which we need to take steps now to redress and not wait for it
to happen and then rush around in a panic trying to do something
222. That is a good note on which to end. Indeed,
I was going to ask you what question would you like us to put
before the Minister when she comes before us next week and that
sounds like a pretty good one, unless you would like to add one?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think if we are looking
medium to long-term that is the key issue, it is how to attract
and retain not just students but staff, our fair share of the
best and brightest. It is very important, is it not? If universities
do not inspire another generation of young, and increasingly not
so young, people who, let us remember, are going to come in and
out of education more and more now in the era of lifelong learning,
if we do not inspire them then why are we doing this in the first
place? They have to be inspired by high quality, highly motivated
academic staff in universities. I used to say to my own students,
especially mature students, when they came to my department, "if
we have not changed you after three years I believe we will have
failed in our job".
Chairman: That is a good note on which to end.
I know you are on a short timetable, thank you very much for coming
and talking to the Committee. Thank you.