Examination of witnesses (Questions 440
WEDNESDAY 31 JANUARY 2001
BEKHRADNIA and MR
440. And despite their being under-represented
(Mr Bekhradnia) Yes. I am afraid there is a pretty
clear relationship between A-level achievement and social class
and whatever your social class you are less likely to drop out
the higher your A-level points score is.
Chairman: Is that not in direct contravention
to what Claire Callender told us in her research?
441. I was just going to come to that. In some
of the work that has been done for you by Mantz Yorke it puts
another possibility. It says that working class students cited
financial problems as influential on their departure more frequently
than other students and that these students were less likely to
return to higher education at some point in the future. Students
who regarded themselves as working class tended to a greater extent
than others to admit they had made the wrong choice in the field
of study than elsewhere. When the responses about social class
were divided according to self-reported social class there were
marked differences relating to finance. Working class students
reported more often than middle class students that financial
problems had exerted a moderate or considerable influence on their
withdrawal. And finally, on page 7 of a later chapter, it said
that as far as full time sandwich students were concerned working
class withdrawals cited significantly more than others financial
difficulty in influencing their decision, but analysis showed
that financial difficulty was more likely to discourage working
class students from returning to study. Certainly in terms of
the qualitative findings of that research, which is also gone
into further with different analyses in this pamphlet, which is
your booklet for December 1997, there is data to suggest that
finance is a factor.
(Mr Bekhradnia) Yes, you are quite right. What you
need to do is interpret the two sets of information alongside
each other. As I said in an earlier answer, we cannot provide
the richness and the detail that some of the interview analyses
provide you with, but we do have data, and you need to interpret
the data. The data certainly do seem to indicateand they
can only be taken to indicate; you cannot draw hard and fast conclusions
from thisthat there are academic considerations that seem
to lie at the heart of drop-out. There may well be second order
financial considerations but you can explain a large part of drop-out,
it seems, by reference to academic considerations.
442. Clearly the fact that people from poorer
backgrounds do less well at A-level is understood and therefore
a smaller proportion of them will get into higher education, but
I would still have thought that they would at least approach those
that get in, the average points score size, but given that it
is going to take some time to improve that situation and your
research was done in 1997 and finance may well be a factor, do
you think if it is a factor then the withdrawal of grants from
students in social classes four and five makes that more of a
factor or less of a factor? It is a key question.
(Mr Bekhradnia) No, that is speculation.
443. I am inviting you to speculate based on
(Mr Bekhradnia) But I have no idea, and nor have you,
whether the drop-out has actually gone up since then.
444. Regardless of whether drop-out has gone
up or down, because there may be other factors involved, isolating
the issue of finance being a factor, particularly for poorer students
who may be on the brink anyway, substituting loan for grant or
debt for grant, would that be more or less likely to make finance
a key issue?
(Mr Bekhradnia) If finance becomes more difficult
then it may well have a bigger impact on drop-out, but until 1997/98
(and it is, I agree, tantalising that the data stop; next year's
data will begin to go into the period when the finance arrangements
changed), on the basis of the analyses that we have done it seems
that you can explain drop-out to a very large extent by reference
to academic factors. Admittedly finance might be a second order
445. Can I invite you to send us the tables
for three D's, because choosing three A's, they have very low
drop-out rates anyway and it makes it more difficult for us to
(Mr Thompson) Yes.
446. As I say, it is strange that you chose
to look at three A's.
(Mr Thompson) Going back to what Claire said, and
also Mantz Yorke said and the other researchers, they pointed
out that the decision to drop out is a complex one and untangling
the different factors is very difficult. The other thing that
Claire mentioned was, what do you say about the people who struggled
on possibly with financial difficulties? As you say, Mantz Yorke
said 39 per cent cited financial difficulties as one of the contributing
factors. I suppose what we are unable to get at is, if you like
with the ideal experiment. If we were to take a group of students
and we were to remove those financial difficulties, what difference
would it make? The illustrative calculation we provideand
we will do some moreattempts to answer this. We will get
at this question when we do the modelling properly. One of the
problems of course is that we really have insufficient data about
the entry qualifications and we are trying to build on what we
so that we can untangle these.
447. I agree that data is a problem, and maybe
it would be a good ideait will take some timeto
compare Scotland, which has done a more widespread effort than
the efforts that have been done here to return money to poorer
students as opportunities, and maybe some comparative studies
in the years to come. It is obviously not a good idea in the first
year of grants now in Scotland. Would that be worth HEFCE investigating
in a comparative study because you could control for many factors?
(Mr Thompson) Yes, what we call a natural experiment
in social science.
448. You are going to investigate?
(Mr Thompson) Yes.
449. This is quite interesting in the sense
that Claire did put a great deal of emphasis on this link between
student financial hardship and dropping out whereas you have introduced
very strongly in your theme academic qualifications. We had previous
evidence that in fact when you interview a student they are not
likely, given human nature, to say, "I was a failure. I did
not make the grade. It was too difficult." They will give
a range of other explanations. It has been a very good balance.
Do you think that is at the heart of some of it?
(Mr Thompson) We are doing some research into employability
and we are getting at the problem by talking to graduates, to
their line managers and to their teachers to try and get a full
picture from the different points of view of the relationship.
In this case I would think that work which relies on the perception
or understanding of just the student is probably insufficient
and that we should do more detailed studies (the aerial photograph
work that I mentioned earlier and then we go and look in detail
at a piece of research) in order to try and get at the view of
the teachers or the lecturers and people that respond from that
side and try and get a more rounded picture of what happens. Certainly
that is what institutions themselves should be encouraged to do.
450. I want to round this session up, which
has been exceedingly useful. One of the points that came up when
we were discussing questions to ask you was this: is there a danger
that your decision to quote popular universities, saying they
can exceed their MASN by up to four per cent, will further weaken
other universities who are not going to get the four per cent,
and the knock-on of that will be to make their problems of retention
even more difficult?
(Mr Bekhradnia) The answer to that is no because if
we thought the answer was yes we probably would not have taken
that step. The evidence is that very few institutions breach their
MASN, let alone go up to four per cent above it. In reality, if
it had had an influence on some institutions it would have been
at the margins. The other thing to say is that this control on
student numbers, and it is only full time undergraduate student
numbers that we control, was never introduced originally as a
way of managing and planning the system. If we were to want to
manage and control the system in a way that protected some institutions
by holding others back, I think we would want to do so by looking
at rather more comprehensive instruments for doing that than this
one which is an accidental instrument. This instrument was introduced
as a way of limiting public expenditure rather than safeguarding
some institutions at the expense of others. The answer to that
really is that the evidence just is not there.
451. Just to conclude then, are there areas
in terms of this pleasant interlude (I hope it was pleasant for
you; it was pleasant for us) which you feel we might profitably
have asked you which we did not cover? Are there aspects that
you have come across in your work that we should address in terms
of retention that you have not picked up this morning we are not
(Mr Bekhradnia) No. I think quite honestly all the
issues that are in our minds are the ones that you have raised.
The only thing that I would want to emphasise is that of course
the evidence that we are presenting does pre-date the work that
was presented to you this morning and so we need to interpret
it in that light. I do think that the combination of quantitative
data and qualitative data is a useful one. The qualitative data
gives you an idea of where you ought to be investigating but they
need to be brought together.
452. Sitting where you are in HEFCE is there
a view that you privately talk about over coffee or whatever where
you share Claire Callender's obvious real concern that poor students,
because they no longer have a maintenance allowance, are tending
to drop out in increasing numbers?
(Mr Bekhradnia) We have not seen the evidence for
that yet, I have to say, but nor would we have done because the
data trails by a year or two.
453. It is too early. Can I thank you and congratulate
you for one of the best answers I have heard. If it was not in
a Yes Minister script it should be if they ever revive
the series. It was when you said, "We were already getting
on with this before the Secretary of State asked us to do it."
(Mr Bekhradnia) There was a subtle message there and
that is that drop-out and access and participation in particular
have been high on the HEFCE agenda for years.
Chairman: That anticipation of the wishes of
your master was wonderful. Thank you.