Examination of witnesses (Questions 380
WEDNESDAY 31 JANUARY 2001
and MS LINDSEY
380. Did you find differences between universities?
Given the same socioeconomic background, do you have any data
on the difference between universities or the types of universities.
(Professor Callender) There was no analysis done by
old and new universities because the DfEE wanted that.
381. I want to ask one final question, which
I did promise Lindsey I would give her an opportunity to respond
on. I am going to the quote Claire's statistic, so she may wish
to comment as well. In the executive summary of your report, Claire,
you say about expenditure by students, I am quoting now from the
executive summary: "The average expenditure on accommodation,
food bills and household goods and course related expenditure
all fell in real terms between two surveys. As a result this essential
expenditure overall fell for both young and mature full-time students.
However, other expenditure, ie expenditure on clothes, entertainment,
alcohol, tobacco, holidays and non-course related travel and consumer
goods, etc increased on average". Now, if I was Jeremy Paxman
or if I was a nasty journalist from a less reputable newspaper
I might say, this means that students are working for luxuries
rather than necessities. What statistics or comments would either
of you be able to produce that would, perhaps, counter that view?
(Ms Fidler) The NUS accommodation survey, which is
done annually, with co-operation with institutions, ie the institutions
provides the information, has shown that accommodation costs are
rising year-on-year for students. From 1996 to 2000 accommodation
rose by 17 per cent, which is higher than the student support
rose. This years's accommodation cost survey showed that on average
students are spending three quarters of their student loan on
their accommodation. In terms of essential costs I know that does
not sit with Claire's data, maybe more work needs to be put into
that. There is evidence that some of the essential costs have
risen, particularly in terms of accommodation.
382. This is Claire's data, would you say, Claire,
that the interpretation that I have, as it were, put into the
air of your data is correct or incorrect, if so what is wrong
with that interpretation?
(Professor Callender) I think that MORI are some really
interesting data about costs on accommodation, in particular.
There is an argument that actually since our study was conducted,
accommodation costs have risen considerably. Back to my study,
there are some important points to look at. When you compare students
with other young people basically the proportion of money spent
on these different item is very, very similar. What we are talking
about is not necessarily a student life-style but a young person's
(Professor Callender) Students are no different from
any other young people in the terms of the proportion of money
they spend on entertainment.
384. It might be that the amount of money young
people spend on entertainment and on the other things here has
risen over the last ten to 15 years but you are not saying that
the students within that framework are particularly consumerist
or feckless compared with their counterparts.
(Professor Callender) I am saying that, and I am saying
something else too. When we look at changes in expenditure over
time, this is where the DfEE did make a strong point in their
press release, the idea that, for example, students are spending
in absolute terms more money on entertainment is correct. However,
the price of entertainment, which includes alcohol and tobacco,
have risen way above inflation rates. Some of the increase in
expenditure that we are seeing, that was very prominent in the
press release by the Department of Further Education, is as a
result of the cost of these items rising way above inflation between
1996 and 1998/1999.
Mr St Aubyn
385. I am sorry that I was not here for the
early part of your evidence; I will read it carefully afterwards.
I want to ask you a bit about student debts. There is a lot in
your report about that, saying that, even before the new system
cut in, the student debt level was rising rapidly. Do you think
that raising the threshold before student loans have to be repaid
would make this less of a burden on students' shoulders, that
they would feel, "At least I will not have to repay this
until I am earning a fairly decent wage"?
(Professor Callender) Yes, I think there is a strong
argument for that. The reason why I am particularly in favour
of raising the threshold is as follows. I think it is very important
that students start repaying their loan, when they can afford
to start repaying their loan and when they are benefiting from
the higher education system. In this country underpinning the
entire loan system is the idea that because students benefit in
the long term, in terms of job opportunities and the wages and
incomes that they will get as a result of these job opportunities,
they can afford to borrow money to pay for that outcome. What
I would like to see is a higher threshold because it is at that
point that they are indeed benefiting from the advantages of a
higher education degree.
386. Lindsey, would you like to add to that?
(Ms Fidler) I will add support to what Claire said.
I think it is about repayment once they are benefiting from higher
education. Ten thousand as a threshold is not that different from
387. Do you think that students are dropping
out because they worry that they may never make that grade and
therefore the debt is forced on them and they think, "I have
got this to pay back already and it may be a long time before
I am on £20,000 a year", if one decides to put the threshold
at that level eventually? Is that going to be the reason for them
not being retained on their course?
(Ms Fidler) I think the debt in itself can be a reason
for drop-out in terms of the worry and stress and the financial
hardship. I have personally no data to say that it is about projecting
in terms of the repayment system, but there is certainly an issue
in terms of the worry and stress for those who are debt averse.
This is the issue that we have. We do have some students who are
not debt averse, for whom debt is going to be less of a problem,
but we do have a large amount of students for whom debt is a significant
concern. I think that in itself can promote drop-outs.
(Ms Callahan) There is a recognition that the great
majority feel that the money they spend on education is an investment
in their futureeight in ten say this. Certainly over half
are not worried about their loans at the moment, that they can
pay them off when they start working.
388. In relation to debt aversion the Cubie
Committee said, and the Scottish Executive I think backed this,
that, given the high level of debt aversion among low income groups
they also favour a move towards larger support for higher education
students, also on a means tested and non-repayable bursary or
grant basis. Do you think that conclusion of theirs on the basis
of your work was evidence based, that there is more debt aversion
amongst poorer people and that may have bad effects on participation
through access and retention and that therefore a decision to
give more money to those groups by the re-introduction of some
form of grant is evidence based? I am not asking you to comment
on its affordability or anything like that, but whether it does
at least set out to meet the aims of improving participation?
(Professor Callender) Certainly there is evidence
of debt aversion in the study I did this time and previously,
and certainly that debt aversion is highest amongst the lower
socio-economic groups and definitely data from the States supports
389. We have to wind up the session. With three
excellent witnesses this morning the time really does not allow
us to use you as well as we should. Can I ask you all finally,
if there were three things which you think should be included
in a report that tries to tackle retention, coming out with the
different kinds of experience you have all had, what are those
three things that you think we should be aware of and highlight
in a report on student retention? Shall I start with you, Caroline,
as I feel we have neglected you today?
(Ms Callahan) Certainly the issue of financing. That
obviously is a key concern to the students and, although they
see it as an investment, certainly it is something that does need
to be addressed. Even the qualitative work we carried out, the
money there, the borrowing and debt, is a key issue. Also, whilst
we looked at all the different up to date courses there are certain
issues in terms of the facilities at universities which need to
be addressed. For example, a quarter felt that there were not
sufficient course books in the library, certainly with the funding
and the money they are spending. Perhaps there could be a better
availability of course books. That is the second issue, and certainly
the facilities within the course. Thirdly, there seems to be with
accommodation a proportion of students who have certain issues
and problems with various aspects of accommodation, whether it
be repairs, maintenance or whatever, so that is another area.
(Professor Callender) I am going to wear my academic
hat. I would say that one of the things that we need is to be
able to do rigorous research on this subject area, and we can
only do that if we have the data. The sort of data that is required
is longitudinal data and that demands an investment to make sure
that we have the correct data so that we can properly answer these
questions that the Committee is addressing. At the moment, hand
on heart, we cannot. We cannot have the evidence based policy
that I as a social policy analyst would like to see. That is issue
number one, and that applies also to the role of finance in access
to higher education. Needless to say, a very close watch needs
to be kept on the impact of the changes on overall access and
drop-out. Finally, one last issue which we have not discussed
at all, but I think is an important issue, is part-time students.
The study also looked at part-time students and I am very aware
that we have focused exclusively on full-time students.
(Ms Fidler) Firstly, the role of funding, not just
in terms of debt and hardship but in an area again that we have
not covered today, which is present funding gaps for students,
for example, tutor inter-collating. A hard look at finance and
the impact on retention is important. Secondly, there is a need
for support for the transition into higher education for those
for whom it is a first time experience or for those who are struggling,
so the mentoring, the buddying, the money management counselling,
the pastoral care, the role that they perform in terms of retention,
which again we did not touch much on. Thirdly, to echo Claire's
point, there is a need for a better understanding of what retention
is and how we define it. Do we talk about it in terms of you have
one shot and if you drop out that is a drop-out, or are you talking
about those who come back into the system and how long that takes?
With regard to the probability of drop-out and the monitoring
of students in the system we need better monitoring and we need
better performance indicators, as they have in America and in
Australia. As Claire says, we need a better research base to understand
the experiences that lead to drop-out.
Chairman: Lindsey, Claire, Caroline, can I thank
you. It has been a fascinating session. As far as I am concerned
we could have gone for a lot longer. I hope, as you go on your
way, if you do think, "Why did I not say this to the Committee?",
you will drop us a line. Thank you very much for being with us.