Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 280 - 297)



Dr Harris

  280. The real increase in debt problems may, in fact, be bigger than that, if one considers that there is maybe an issue of a selected group, that some students that really could not afford now to go in, or were put off, at least, whether or not they could afford it, are not in that group to come in, in order to drop out; so that 70 per cent may be a minimum figure. Would you accept—17; sorry, I am being told by Valerie Davey, that it has risen by 17 per cent, in the last two years?
  (Professor Green) Yes; 17 per cent.

  281. Is there data on that increase in other universities?
  (Professor Green) Possibly.

  282. And do you see my point about that being a lower figure than it might be, had everyone come in who might have come in?
  (Professor Green) I think, counter-factual evidence is very difficult to find. And, if I can answer your question in another way, I think you know that Universities UK has commissioned a major piece of research, it is one of the sector working groups that I chair, which is actually trying to get a handle on the real evidence. What we have got is quite a lot of anecdotes, we have got examples from particular institutions, and I have quoted mine, but we really do not know enough, systematically, about what is happening across the sector as a whole. And the second stage of the research that we have commissioned will be looking at actually the impact of debt on different types of students, on retention, on progression, completion, and indeed performance. The only study that I know about that has actually looked at that is the Northumbria study, that took place about a year ago, which actually looked, in that particular university, for their particular students, but you cannot generalise from the experience of one institution. So we need more understanding about the nature of the problem and the risks associated with particular sorts of students, so we can start to support them.

  283. But the Keele work suggested that students from lower socio-economic groups, within the number that drop out, were far more likely to withdraw because of financial difficulties than students from the higher socio-economic groups. The point that concerns me is that, even if the numbers were stable, if that trend increases, that the drop-outs are skewed more towards the lower socio-economic group, that we are actually not going to get, as quickly as we might otherwise do, towards what I think are shared objectives of the Government and the sector to increase the numbers of people who currently are underrepresented, both in terms of applications and completion?
  (Professor Green) I think that is the point about understanding the problem, understanding where the tensions are and providing the appropriate support, so that we minimise the tendency for those sorts of students, if we have got them in, actually to withdraw.

  284. On the issue of providing appropriate support, do you think, given that that appears to be the finding, that the withdrawal of maintenance grants aimed at the poorest students would have helped matters, that we are talking about, or made them worse?
  (Professor Green) It certainly has not helped, and if you look at the situation, and this is where it gets back into the complexities, in terms of geography, for those students who are using most of their student loan to meet their accommodation needs, particularly students in London and the South East, then that is problematic, it does not actually help matters. If I can turn it round and continue my solution, so to speak, one of the things I think we ought to be doing is recognising that one of the ways in the current situation that we can help students, institutions can help students, is by recognising that they are working, many institutions already do this, they actually provide sort of employment agencies, which may range from facilitating employment for students to employing students directly. But, also, one of the things that we might consider doing more creatively is the sort of thing that Napier is doing, and I do not know whether you have taken any evidence from Napier, but they are actually giving credit to students for the actual work experience, and the reflection that they do on their work experience; so it is building it into the process.

  285. Can I ask Professor Copland if he has a view on my original question, because we will make our report to Government, not just to universities; and, this issue about making poor students poorer, would that help or hinder this problem?
  (Professor Copland) Making poor students poorer is certainly not going to help this problem. But I think one of the things we have to take note of is that, since the change of funding arrangements for students, there have been a number of sources of funding becoming available, targeted at particular groups of students; now that is, in a sense, helping to replace some of the money that the poorer students would have lost in the loss of maintenance grant. The problem with that is that there is a whole series of different pockets of money here, each of which has to be allocated out against certain criteria. It is difficult for the students to find their way through that, it is actually difficult for the institutions who have to manage this to find their way through that, most effectively, to help the students. And one of the things that would help enormously would be to bundle this money together, to make it into a much more coherent package to help people in real financial need. The other thing, if I can pick up the Chairman's point, I do not think we were relaxed about retention issues, what we were saying was that a lot of students who start full-time may discontinue full-time and continue part-time, and that is often driven by financial matters.


  286. That might be more appropriate for them?
  (Professor Copland) It may well be more appropriate for them; they are making a sensible decision from their own personal circumstances.

Dr Harris

  287. Mature students are a particular group of concern, and the Government commissioned some research, which was presented to them in February 1998, and to the Central Office of Information, showing that mature students may well be put off if grants were not available any more. And I went to visit a college in my own constituency, which is 100 per cent mature students, from non-conventional backgrounds, that is Manchester College, in Oxford, and they told me that they had had a significant drop-off rate of applications per place, and an increase in drop-out rate, based on financial factors. Have you found that, amongst mature students, that has been a particular issue, compared with undergraduates, undergraduates of school-leaving age?
  (Professor Copland) Again, I have to say, this is a complex situation. We are finding fewer mature students wanting to come forward for full-time, three-year degree programmes. Now that may be because the demography is showing that there are fewer of those who want that. But we are finding that the market for part-time students, and they are almost always, by definition, mature, is holding up. So we think that what is happening, with the financial arrangements, is that the students are switching their mode of study.


  288. We had a very interesting session with Sir Howard Newby, on Thursday, as I think I said in our informal session, and we talked about some of these issues; but when I pressed him and said, "Okay, do you want to go back to the pre-reform of student finance, do you want to go back to the old days, to that system?", I thought we got a very interesting reply. Now do you want to go back to the old arrangements?
  (Professor Peters) Can I just make a point, to pick that up. My answer would have to be, definitely, no. Anything that you put in place which recreated the boundary between full-time and part-time actually would be detrimental to lifelong learning, detrimental for the mature students, in particular, and that, as Geoffrey reports, they are seeing increased mature students coming in part-time. We have had record applications to the Open University over the last two years. One needs to see the total package, and, from our point of view, we have seen dramatic increases in the support for part-time students, fee waivers. At the Open University this year, 35 per cent of new students were on benefit. Now that was because we could waive the fees, because there are loans coming in for part-time students, disabled students' allowances, as I said; so the total package is better, in terms of access and support for students. That may mean that some students are less well off than they were before, but the totality is a greater opportunity for students to come in and study higher education in the flexible way that they would wish.

  Mr Marsden: And that is almost entirely as a result of the post-1997 initiatives of this Government.


  289. But Diana was the most worried about this, and I just want to press Diana a bit on this; does she want to go back to some sort of golden age, where 46 per cent of the expenditure on higher education went to student support?
  (Professor Green) No, I do not; but I do think that we have a problem, and I do think we need to be creative about how we manage it, which was why I was, in my stumbling way, trying to suggest that we might be looking at it in a bit more focused way. I do think that we do not really fully understand the extent to which debt and concern about finance is going to be a real barrier to achieving the Government's admirable objective of expanding participation to 50 per cent. We have some evidence, we need to know more about that, and if we can identify those kinds of barriers then we can start to address them, and I will be looking for imaginative ways of addressing them. Picking up the point that both Geoffreys have made, I am delighted that there is a much better student support system around than there was in 1997, but it is—

Dr Harris

  290. For part-time students?
  (Professor Green) For part-time and full-time students as well.

  291. There is not a better student package for poor, full-time students, because they have lost their grant, so they are about £1,500 worse off, and the student expenditure survey, that was commissioned even before the study, suggested that that would be the case. I do not see how taking money away, perhaps you can explain, how does taking money away from students who start poor make them better off?
  (Professor Green) I am correct, what I was saying, insofar as, for those students for whom we might not have been able to provide support before, like mature students, those who are particularly vulnerable, not necessarily part-time, and disabled students, there are better support systems now than there were, and I am grateful for that. But the support systems are complicated, and, for any student, if we really are serious about widening participation and then keeping people there once they get in, then we have to find ways of actually explaining ourselves, and this is a combination of institutions and, indeed, the Department for Education and Employment, so that students can make informed decisions; back to what we were saying earlier.

  292. I am still confused about how mature students are better off without the grant than they were before. Mature students who previously got a grant, means-tested, on the basis of not being well off, who now do not get a grant, combined with the information that there is, the Government figures showing a decrease in the number of applications from mature students, at a time when part-time students, who have never really benefited from a grant, have maintained their numbers, I do not see how that translates into a situation where those mature students are better off than simply making wrong decisions on their personal finance calculators about not realising that they are better off without the grant than they were before? I was asking Diana Green to correct it, if she wants to?
  (Professor Green) I think, not all mature students necessarily would have got a grant.

  293. No, but for those who got a grant, which were the people I was talking about?
  (Professor Green) But, again, in terms of their social circumstances, those students today, if they were studying part-time, would probably not have to pay the contribution to tuition fees.

  294. I have not mentioned tuition fees in any of my questions. I am really just talking about those mature students, who previously studied full-time, who, on the basis of a means test, received a grant, and applied, and the aim, I think everyone agrees, was to have more of them in, particularly if they missed out earlier on, and get them back, and lone parents, for example. How are they better off, now that the grant that the equivalent group used to receive has now been withdrawn, and is not the fact that they are worse off why they are applying in smaller numbers?
  (Professor Green) I am not saying they are better off, but I do not think you can make the logical leap that assumes that, simply because the current financial arrangements are different from what they were before, that is the reason why there are fewer applying. Geoffrey has already indicated, we do not know, because when I saw all the data on the DfEE study, on mature students, it was inconclusive, in terms of the methodology, it is very unclear whether the only reason why there has been a decline in applications from mature students is to do with finance; it may be one of the factors, but it—

  295. I did not say the only reason?
  (Professor Green) No; but we do not know. I will repeat what I said earlier. One of the reasons why we are doing this big study is to try to find out, in a more systematic way, what the reasons are and what the barriers are, so that, hopefully, Government can address those, and institutions can, appropriately.
  (Professor Peters) Can I say, one explanation, which I think we are all supporting, is that, previously, you had arrangements which were strongly encouraging mature students to go full-time, because they were, as you say, maintenance arrangements. There were not fees at that time, and so on, and if they went part-time they got absolutely no support whatsoever, and they had to pay fees. There has been some evening-up now, there are hardship funds, there are fee waivers for part-time students; therefore, I think one would argue that there may be an improvement in retention as a result of the changes, because some students will now go part-time when that is the appropriate thing to do, they will get a better, successful, first experience of higher education, as a result of an evening-up, in terms of the choices that they make.

  296. So it would have been sensible Government policy to say that we want to see that evening-out, a cut in the number of mature, full-time students, in favour of more of them taking what was a more realistic approach, which was to go part-time?
  (Professor Peters) Certainly, it was a very sensible move by the Government to improve the position of part-time, mature students.

  297. At the expense of full-time, mature students?
  (Professor Copland) I agree with my two colleagues. The situation has changed; there is now support for students who wish to study part-time, and it is often more appropriate for them to study part-time than full-time. They were forced into a full-time mode of study because of the support arrangements that were in place before. There are a number of funding streams that are helping to support these students, where they are in real hardship. My only plea is that we make those simpler, both for the institutions to manage and for the students to understand, so that they can make sure they get proper access to the funds that are available to them.

  Chairman: Can I thank all our witnesses today. You have had one rather trying experience, in the sense that we have had all these divisions, and you have been extremely patient and very good-tempered. Can I thank you. We have actually got a very good session out of this; we are very grateful. And we promise never to put you through quite this again. Thank you.

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