Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 223 - 239)




  223. Can I welcome, I never know what to call people, guests, or interviewees, or whatever we call you, but our witnesses today, and say it is a pleasure to have Professor Diana Green back again, it was only a few months ago that she was here before; everyone knows, I think, she is Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University. Again, Professor Geoffrey Copland, from the University of Westminster; welcome back. But nice to have a new face, and that is Professor Geoff Peters, from the Open University. And as at least two of the members of the Committee used to work for the OU, you will always get a warm reception, I do not know how out of date we are with that OU, probably very out of date; but anyway, welcome indeed. And, as I have said previously, this is a reasonably informal session. You will know that we have been conducting an inquiry into higher education, and when Geoffrey and Diana came before it was in respect of our inquiry into access to higher education, and, with luck, tomorrow, that will be complete and it will be ready for publication early in February. I do not know whether there were any smiles on any of the Committee members' faces when I said that, but that is what we are hoping for tomorrow. But we thought, given the rumours of a general election, that we wanted to get a second bite at the higher education inquiry, and that was into retention, and we are particularly interested in, as we have expanded into very much a mass-based higher education system, how we are doing in retention. We know, and evidence presented to us already suggests that, although drop-out rates are rising, in comparison with almost every other country with a large higher education sector, we are doing quite well, I think Japan does rather better, but we are doing quite well; but there are some concerning trends. We are really trying to get to the bottom of what makes a more successful system in the university for retention. And so can I open the questioning really by asking you what are the main factors leading to non-completion in your institutions, or any institution, what do you think are the main factors?
  (Professor Green) I think it is generally known that the factors affecting non-completion are extremely complex. And, really, I suppose, a way into this is, it really depends on where you start from and what particular assumptions you make about what students anticipate their student experience is going to be, what is the model of higher education that we are actually working to, and is there a difference between the perceptions of the higher education experience from the point of view of this Committee and of people outside, and actually what some of our students think about it. And I suppose the fact that Geoff is here is a very good example of the fact that many students do not have, when they think of higher education, a model which is about going into sort of a big school at 18, staying there for three years and coming out at the end. Very much, we are finding that, as part of the lifelong learning approach to higher education, people are using higher education institutions in a very different way, facilitated by credit accumulations, dropping in and dropping out, and getting a handle on what we mean by retention in that context is actually quite a difficult thing to do. Nevertheless, we are all measured against the conventional model, and in my own institution, if I look at the HEFCE bench-mark figures, we perform round about, and perhaps slightly better than our bench-mark and round about the national level.

  224. What sort of level is that?
  (Professor Green) Eight per cent. When I unpick that, it is actually quite complex, and it is quite clear that there are differences and there are different tensions for different types of students. Their retention is much easier, if I use that language, for those students in my institution who, very much like the students of some of the other witnesses that you have talked to, are actually following professional or vocational courses, where they have a very clear view about actually what they are looking for from the higher educational experience. Retention is much harder if students are a bit tentative about higher education, in terms of what they expect and what they may get out of it and actually what they find when they get there, how well they are prepared. My experience, in my institution, is very similar to much of the research that has been done, in terms of it is a very complex mix of factors that actually determine whether a student, once they have arrived, stays; some of these are socio-economic, some of them are about the kind of qualification they are taking, some of them are about finance, and geography enters into it as well, if you look not only at my institution but if you look at differences from different regions. So, I think, getting a handle on it is actually quite a difficult thing to do.

  225. Do your professionals, say, in the sociology or social policy departments, actually do research on trying to break down the causal factors in drop-out?
  (Professor Green) We do; it is not that department, it is actually our student services department and our registry that are doing that analysis, and it is actually part of our normal annual quality monitoring, in terms of whether or not we are meeting the needs of particular groups of students.

  226. So what is the most common cause for dropping out?
  (Professor Green) It is difficult to say. It depends very much, again, in terms of, it is a hugely complex issue, I am not ducking the question. And the other factor, as all the research proves, and I think we can demonstrate, that finding out really why students leave, even if you ask them the question, is actually quite a difficult thing to do, sometimes they do not always tell you. We do know that certain students are more at risk than others, and one of the things that we have learned, and one of the reasons why, I think, we have managed this successfully is because we have tried to put in place appropriate student support systems for the students who are most at risk. That does not mean that we are confident about having cracked it. If I can give you one particular example, students on sub-degree level programmes are more likely to not complete their studies the first time round, and I will come back to that in a moment, than students on degree programmes and post-graduate students. Men are less likely to complete than women, in my institution, which is interesting, particularly taking again the cross-cutting things. The other thing which I think it is important to remember when addressing this issue is that, and going back to the first point I made, students do, and they have some performance indicators, show this, and my institution shows it, that the fact that a student withdraws one year does not mean that student is lost for ever; they come back. In fact, my figures are about the same as those found by HEFCE, about 21 per cent do actually come back again. If I look at students who in 1997-98 withdrew, they came back again a year later, 21 per cent of those came back again. So there are complex issues here; sometimes it is to do with student choice, sometimes it is to do with finance, sometimes it is other pressures, sometimes they have made the wrong choice. I think it is very difficult to generalise.
  (Professor Copland) I would agree with what Diana said. It is complex, there are many reasons, and I happen to have had a particular interest in this, in another institution, 20 years ago, and many of the reasons that we are finding now are exactly those that we were finding then. Finance obviously has a higher profile than it had. Lack of preparedness for what higher education actually means and how it operates is a serious problem for us, particularly, I think, with students who are returning to education, having had some period of time out; we have to help them manage the transition into higher education perhaps rather better than we thought we had to in the past. And just poor decision-making, picking the wrong course, or picking an institution which actually people do not feel at home with because it is the wrong sort of environment, can have a big impact on students.
  (Professor Peters) I was going to make the same point as Geoffrey. I think that all the research we have done shows that the issues for the Open University student are the same as for the rest of the sector, that the initial mismatch between the individual, the subject they have chosen, the qualification, the institution, is the major cause of concern and the major issue. After that you get into some more detailed things. Obviously, all of our students are part-time, mainly mature students. What we find with them is that every time we research it you find that it is issues around the rest of their lives which are problematic. To some extent, there may be an element of students reporting that because they do not want to admit some other reason or to blame the institution, they say it is their fault that they are dropping out. But that is, I think, a major issue. I think both of those begin to point at some things where one could do more. I think the first point, and just to tie it into the rest of the sector, our experience is that young people are more likely to have problems and are more likely to drop out, and I think that ties in perhaps with an issue about maturity of decision-making, or the way in which decisions are made. What we see as key ways in which one could move forward would be, firstly, to begin to have a lifelong learning agenda in relation to this, to begin to accept that students will be moving between institutions and moving within an institution between subject areas, so that if they have not made the correct decision they can, within the institution, move on, or move across. And, I think, as you saw, in the Universities UK evidence, the OU is getting about 7,000 each year who are coming with credit from other higher education institutions; and when we last looked at that, in 1991, for the DES review of the Open University, we found a similar number moving from the Open University to the rest of the sector. So there is quite a traffic within the sector. And lifelong learning ought to mean that that is the way we go forward; and, certainly, I think, linked to lifelong learning, one has to think about intermittent learning, as Diana was suggesting, people coming back later on.

  227. Some of my colleagues want to come in. One last one, before we open up the questioning, is something we did not ask, we have not asked so far, in our retention inquiry, which is a bit remiss; how many people go out, drop out, of their own accord, and how many actually fail? What percentage go because they just are not up to the standard, they fail their exams, or do not complete the coursework, and are deemed not to have the ability to carry on? Do we know a percentage; that is a percentage of part, is it not?
  (Professor Green) This is going to be contentious. I think it is slightly more complicated than that. The figures that I asked for from my own institution, I can do a proxy, in terms of looking at non-completions within a year, which will cover students, primarily those who did not complete for academic reasons, but I will come back to that, and those first-year students who drop out, if you look at that, and depending on when they drop out, if they have made a wrong decision they learn pretty quickly and they will drop out fairly quickly; so the only way you can find that out is to look at the point in the year when they do disappear, or disappear and withdraw, sometimes they take temporary remissions as well. The other factor, which is the contentious bit, is the new factor which enters into the equation, which is where students are excluded, where they are excluded because of their inability to pay; and the number of students who are excluded is now beginning to rise, and that is a different reason why people are not completing and another factor in the whole complexity of retention.

  Chairman: Let us now press on, and let me ask Charlotte to come in.

Charlotte Atkins

  228. First of all, I would like to take up a point that Geoffrey made, about having to settle students in, once they had taken a break from education. Does that mean, therefore, that you are not terribly much in favour of gap years between school and university; what is your feeling about that?
  (Professor Copland) Quite the opposite. I am actually a great believer in gap years. No, I am talking about people who may have had five years out of education, mature student returners. Though, I have to say, we have also difficulty settling in students who come straight from school, who are not always attuned to the study skills and the way of working and the style of teaching and class sizes and expectations, particularly of independent study, that we might have hoped they would be.

  Charlotte Atkins: You have raised the point there about mature students; obviously, we have a much more diverse student body than when I went to university. What strategies are your universities using to recognise the needs both of mature students, who clearly will have other responsibilities, and so on, and also part-time students?

  The Committee suspended from 4.17 pm to 4.30 pm for a division in the House

  The Committee suspended from 4.30 pm to 4.43 pm for a division in the House

Charlotte Atkins

  229. As I was saying, before we were rudely interrupted, I think I was talking about the diversity of the student body and what sort of strategies you use to recognise the special needs of both part-time students and mature students, particularly among the non-traditional range of students?
  (Professor Copland) Many and varied, I think.

  230. And do they differ? Also, what do you find is the most successful strategy, not just necessarily for part-time, mature students, although I suspect they may have greater needs, in some ways, because maybe they have come to education from a less privileged background, but one assumes that those strategies will also be just as useful for other students?
  (Professor Copland) Yes. The sorts of activities that we will get up to, and I am sure other universities do too, first of all, where you have got mature students or part-time students, and particularly mature returners, it is quite important to have some pre-entry counselling and assessing of their level of particularly literacy and numeracy skills appropriate for higher education work; they may have good skills but they may not have been honed to the sort of work that we need. So some early assessment of their ability to handle the sort of academic literacy, numeracy, that are going to be required for report writing, for assessment of data, for independent study. The most important thing, of course, is to provide a tutorial network and also a peer support network for the students, so that others who have been through that hoop and have got over the initial transition into university, and how to study and how to interpret how university works, because that can be quite complex at times, if we can have a system where students can be matched up and mentored, or peer support.

  231. And are those mentors paid? I seem to remember seeing something in the press, at some point, I know it is not a huge income, but to encourage continuity those mentors are often paid something to support other students; is that right?
  (Professor Copland) It depends on the nature of the mentoring, certainly in my own institution; we will make small payments, where we can, to students that we use as mentors, to go out into schools, which is back into the widening participation and access agenda.

  232. Right; but not for mentoring an existing student?
  (Professor Copland) No. This is much more a sort of befriending, peer support approach; and making sure that students understand what the support mechanisms are, there often are good support mechanisms in universities, not everybody understands what they are and how to get access to them, trying to make those available to them, explaining the general induction process, to make sure that personal tutors are able to help to point people in the right direction to start to address some of the problems they may be showing. Those are the sorts of strategies that can help to get people embedded into the system.
  (Professor Green) Can I build on that and say that most institutions, I think, would do similar sorts of things to the things that Geoffrey was talking about, and my own certainly does. The additional bit is actually having the flexibility, internally, in terms of the way the models interconnect, the way the students are actually able to move around, the whole information base, in terms of actually what the experience is going to be like, is absolutely critical in terms of supporting students. There are two other things to say. One is, it is important to not always assume that mature students are necessarily those that need support; sometimes mature students are actually coming and doing something different, often many of our mature students have already got degrees but are doing something different, they are using higher education, it goes back to my earlier point, for a slightly different purpose. And so we are very focused in terms of what they are doing. So it is difficult to generalise. I think the other thing to say is that, in terms of the way we are beginning, in universities, to use modern teaching and learning techniques, and to recognise the different needs of students, Geoffrey used the word student-centred, learning-centred, and I think that means that you are better able to gear the teaching and learning experience to the needs of individual students. So I think we are getting much better at doing this, in terms of the diversity, to pick up your own word, recognising that even within a cohort of students you will actually have those who have very diverse needs, in terms of where they start out, and where they are moving to; and generally, I think, universities are getting better at doing that.
  (Professor Peters) Perhaps I could just say that, certainly, the two things I have written down, Geoffrey and Diana have mentioned, which are advice and counselling on the way in, quickly linking the student to a member of staff who is looking after them, and the second one is about flexibility. There are barriers to flexibility. If one is dealing with students who have got the rest of their life to manage then you need to be able to be flexible in terms of the rate at which they study and their progress and subject movement. I will give you some examples of the sort of barriers that there are to that. The first one is, despite recent efforts, there is still a binary line, a line between full-time and part-time students. So at an institutional level and at a departmental level there are incentives for having students "full-time", and if they want to change to be in part-time all sorts of things happen about student support arrangements, and so on, which make it a difficult transition, to a point where, if a student were to drop down from full-time to half-time then, actually, within that year, the institution would lose all its public funding in relation to that, because the Funding Council would deem that they were a non-completer, and all our funding is output-based, so we would not get any money. The same thing happens for a part-time student, which is, if they are working at a half-time rate and they want to drop down, for good academic reasons, we would lose money; also, now, they would lose money. Because the recent and welcome introductions of loans for part-time students, and disabled students allowances for part-time students, are only for those who are getting 60 points half-time rate or more. So there are big disincentives for the student to drop down below that, they lose all of that support at that point. And, equally, on the way in, there are incentives for the student to take on more than they might wish, because if they can get it up to half-time and start at half-time then all those benefits come to them. And I think that is an area where we are finding our way. But it is not the case, for example, in Scotland, that they have moved in that way. And I think that one could be a bit more open about that, in recognising what is a sizeable amount of commitment for a mature student and that they need support as well.

  233. It is barriers I partly want to explore further. I think it was Diana who was talking earlier on about one of the reasons for non-completion, they made the wrong choice, and therefore what I want to look at is the barriers for students actually to move to a totally different institution. And I would be interested to know, and I think you mentioned this earlier, Geoff, when you talked about that students could come to the OU with higher education qualifications, and indeed some might go from the Open University into other institutions, but how easy is it, across more traditional universities, to be able to switch either way, and are the barriers financial, or are they just bureaucratic, and what is your experience of that? Having said that, I could just add that I am delighted that the Open University managed to overcome a barrier faced by one of my constituents, who could not access child care in any other university, and, of course, was able to embrace an Open University course, with support from her old school.
  (Professor Peters) Perhaps I can just kick off by saying that we were discussing this in the corridor outside. I think that there are credit transfer barriers, and we have certainly had a sort of fallow period, in relation to that. If you go back to 1992, when the CNNA existed, then there were credit transfer arrangements amongst all of the CNNA validated institutions and there was a credit transfer arrangement between the Open University and the CNNA. So, effectively, you had, at an institutional level anyway, freedom of movement amongst the whole of the polytechnic sector and the college sector and the Open University. Since then, we have not made much progress. We have got regional arrangements, and Geoffrey has been chairing a group which is trying to bring that together, but it does not feel like we have made an awful lot of progress. My own view is that there has not been much encouragement to move in that direction; so, for example, suggestions, from various quarters, that the Funding Council might move to a credit-based unit of funding have been resisted by the Funding Council, on the basis that it would not be appropriate for them to lead the sector, and yet I think that the majority of the sector would welcome a move in that direction.
  (Professor Copland) I endorse that, absolutely. I think there are barriers which are financial to institutions. We have, in principle, a credit accumulation transfer system available in this country, but it is not used as effectively as it might be. Of course, for mature students, there are actual, real, physical barriers, in the sense that they would find it very difficult to study at a university far away from their home base. Now that is not a problem in a conurbation like London, but it could well be a problem in other parts of the UK. Academic barriers; universities, remember, are capped on their full-time undergraduate numbers, and so there is a limit to the number of students that a university could take in through transfer, unless they were replacing students who had moved out. So there are quite a lot of structural barriers.

  234. But, presumably, you must, on average, a university will lose students. I cannot believe that you are 100 per cent full, and, "Sorry, we can't find a place for you;" that does not seem realistic. Unless you are a perfect university, you must lose students; and, therefore, to say somehow that you are capped, I just cannot accept that as an argument?
  (Professor Copland) Sorry, let me come back to that. If you take the total number of students, you are absolutely right, if you take individual subjects in individual institutions, you will find that there are very strict quotas that are difficult to overcome at times. It is not something, I have to say, that would be a problem in my own institution, but I would judge there is a problem elsewhere.

  235. And those quotas are set by a university, or they are predetermined by HEFCE?
  (Professor Copland) It is a combination. And, remember, some of the subjects that were talked about—

  236. I am looking for the guilty party here?
  (Professor Green) It will be a mix, will it not, in terms of the Funding Council rules; we are just talking at the moment about the Higher Education Funding Council, if you widen it out and talk about you may have the same problem with students who are actually training to become teachers, for example, you have got a different set of rules there, in terms of those types of students, or indeed NHS students. So it is actually slightly more complicated. But I think it is a mix, in terms of structural barriers that are set both by the funding methodologies of the particular funding agencies, but, again, how they are applied on the ground, and there will be differences, building on what Geoffrey said, in terms of the popularity of the subject area, so internally there may be some ceilings that have been set relative to the way the university is actually planning its provision.
  (Professor Peters) I am loathe to intervene on this, because the MASN[1] does not affect us; but, from personal experience, I know of some examples. An individual institution makes offers on the way in to students, on the basis of what it expects to happen to their A-level grades, and at a departmental level there will be a quota on how many students they can take, because the university is quota'd. You see, I am sure, from your constituents, examples of students who miss by one grade point, on the way in through their A-level grades, and where, in some cases, a university has to turn round and say, "No, we wont take you," because they have got wrong the judgement about how many students will get good A-level grades, and therefore they are closing their doors to anybody they have not got a contractual commitment to. And, therefore, credit transfer would be one of those cases where they would simply be looking for a reason to say "No," because the institution could not take any more students without falling foul of the funding regime.


  237. With respect, Geoff, the average taxpayer on the Huddersfield Omnibus might say to you, here we are, a Select Committee, interviewing, I think, both Geoffrey and Diana, from the modern group of universities; that is not normally the problem, as they see it. And some of the average taxpayers out there might say, one of the problems about retention is that you take on too many students because you want the money, and that you take the marginal student and the more marginal student, until you put yourself in the difficulty of facing real problems in retaining them because either you cannot provide the correct resources, or you have just taken on people that are not appropriate. Do you chance your arm on too many students? I know I am paraphrasing the argument and doing a bit of devil's advocate, but the taxpayer out there has got the right to say are you not taking on inappropriate students for the money?
  (Professor Green) Obviously, we would challenge that, for at least two reasons, and you have to be careful of the language here. Certainly, no institution would deliberately take on students whom it knew were going to fail, there is absolutely no point in doing that, it would actually be costly to the individual, it would be costly to the institution. We certainly do not take on more students than we should do, because we get penalised if we do, just picking up Geoff's point, in terms of the way the funding methodology works. The language is important because it depends where you are coming from. If you, to quote you, are thinking about the person from Huddersfield who does not actually know about these things, if you are measuring it in terms of appropriateness, in terms of where people start out, that might lead you to one conclusion. If we are talking about widening participation and giving people a benefit, who may not actually have high A-level scores but they do have the ability, in terms of their life experience, or whatever, to complete successfully and to have a successful educational experience, then is it wrong to admit those types of people, that is what widening participation is about. It does cost us more to support those types of students, as I have said before, on another occasion.

  238. You get more money for them?
  (Professor Green) You get marginally more money for them, and most of the institutions, like Geoffrey's and mine, have actually—

  239. Should you get more money for those sorts of students?
  (Professor Green) Of course, because it costs more to support those sorts of students, to support them appropriately. If you have a very simple model of higher education which is based on the old elitist model, where students are highly qualified before they enter university, the value that is added and the cost of adding that value is much smaller than actually in a university like mine, where a high proportion of our students, actually, we have to add a greater deal of value and it costs more to do that.

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