Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 454 - 459)



Charlotte Atkins

  454. I would like to welcome Baroness Blackstone and Nick Sanders. I apologise at the outset for the late appearance of our Chair who is stuck on a train, a common experience for many people, I am sure. He will join us as soon as he can. In the meantime, would you like to make an opening statement?
  (Baroness Blackstone) Not really. I think I did when I last met the Committee. I do not have anything in particular to say now and I am happy to go straight into questions.

  455. As you know, we are focusing at the moment on student retention in higher education and we have been looking at the issues of access to higher education. We are just completing our report on that issue, so we are really addressing both those issues but particularly focusing on retention today. In relation to that, could I ask you whether you accept that, with an increase in non-traditional students, this will lead to an increase in non-completion rates?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I do not see why it should. First of all, in trying to widen participation, which is an objective of the government, and to reach out to more non-traditional students, there should in no way be a lowering of standards. Out there, there are a huge number of potential students who in the past have not had access to higher education for a whole variety of reasons, but these are students who have the ability to not only do well on a course but to enjoy the course and to complete it.

  456. Do you think that non-traditional students may have access to less advice in terms of parental support perhaps or access to other forms of advice to ensure that they make the right decision in terms of institution and course because from the DfEE evidence it is clear that those factors—the choice of institution and the choice of course—are important aspects of non-completion.
  (Baroness Blackstone) Absolutely. That is completely right. You have absolutely put your finger on it. If a student decides to go to university but does not really think about what they want to study, where they want to study, what is the right place for them, what is the right subject for them, there is a bigger danger that they will find themselves in the wrong place, on the wrong course and becoming unhappy and then leave. Some of them may come back again later, but they will still be a statistic of non-completion and deemed to have dropped out and in that sense been a failure. I think good advice and good information before they go to university is absolutely essential. I also think it is very important that there is good advice and good information when they arrive because sometimes a student who has not made the right decision and realises it very early on does not get enough support and then they leave when they could have been given the help to think again about what they really want to do and transfer to another course.

  457. Do you believe that non-traditional students should be given much earlier help? For instance, as early as year eight when they are just 12 or 13, so that they can consider much more fully what they can expect at university, perhaps visit universities and have much more time to consider financial aspects? The reason I mention year eight is because, before they take their GCSE options, it is in my experience pretty much a gap year and can be a year when many students or pupils feel a little bored and at a bit of a loose end. Do you believe universities should be looking much more at utilising that year, particularly for non-traditional students who perhaps have not even considered university at that stage?
  (Baroness Blackstone) Teachers and the careers service, to become connexions, have the primary responsibility for pupils at that age. There ought to be sensible discussions with them about what they are thinking about from the point of view of careers, what they are thinking about in terms of further study when they leave school, if only to shape their GCSE decisions and options. We should start to get youngsters thinking about higher education at that age and keep on discussing it with them throughout their secondary education. We also want universities to be reaching out very much more, working with schools, coming into schools, talking to young people about what they have on offer, what studying means. This is also an area where mentoring, involving students from universities at undergraduate level coming into schools. This would be extremely helpful. We are piloting schemes of that sort to see how useful they are. Sometimes 13, 14, 15 or even 16 year olds are willing to listen to young people who are a little older than themselves and they may not be quite so willing to take advice from people who they see as figures of authority.

  458. That is certainly my experience.
  (Baroness Blackstone) And mine.

Mr St Aubyn

  459. According to the latest figures I have seen from UCAS, the number of students coming from non-traditional backgrounds have not grown at all since the government came to power. Do you accept that?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I think they have remained about the same but it is very recently that we have started new programmes to try to raise the numbers of these young people. It is a little early to judge what the outcome is likely to be. I should be very disappointed if the sort of things that we are developing in the Excellence Challenge programme, including summer schools for young people when they reach the end of their GCSE year or sometimes in the first year of their sixth form studies plus the other things I have just been talking about—I must say, I do think they have huge potential to help to raise the aspirations of young people who come from non-traditional backgrounds from the university point of view. The more general improvements in the school system—raising standards, starting in the primary schools with literacy and numeracy and going through secondary education—as you know, there is going to be a great deal of emphasis on the 11-14 age group to raise standards there and have a consistent approach right through the transition from primary to secondary. That too should lead to an improvement in the numbers coming forward.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 14 March 2001