Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 460 - 479)



  460. Nevertheless, I think Lord Dearing found that the numbers from the poorest homes going into higher education had doubled in the previous decade without all these programmes and yet, in the last three years, there has been a standstill. Do you think the reason why perhaps non-completion rates have not gone up in the last three years is because the less well off students are simply self-selecting before they even go to university and deciding they are not going to be able to make it through, however wrong that decision might be?
  (Baroness Blackstone) There has always been an element of self-selection as far as university entry is concerned going back 30, 40 or 50 years. One of the things we have to tackle is raising the aspirations of any young person who potentially could go. That has not been done anything like enough in the past. The big expansion that took place in the 1990s did lead to some increase in the numbers of young people coming forward from-non-traditional backgrounds and that is very good. At the moment, we have not been going in for a very big expansion. We have a smaller, very carefully constructed expansion, again to make sure that we maintain quality and standards. Our policies have to be given time to work their way through.

  461. The Prime Minister's aspiration of expansion up to 50 per cent is no longer on the agenda? That seemed to be a very big expansion plan when I heard it at the time.
  (Baroness Blackstone) You will remember that it is 50 per cent by the time a young person reaches the age of 30. We are not talking about 50 per cent of school leavers. We have got to about 32 per cent as far as school leavers are concerned, but if we look at the figure for the numbers who have gone into higher education by the time they are 30 it is now at about 44 per cent. We think that is a sensible, reasonable aspiration to get to 50 per cent over the next five to seven years.[1]

  462. Can I turn now to the Secretary of State's letter of 29 November on higher education funding, which presumably you had something of a hand in?
  (Baroness Blackstone) Yes.

  463. In paragraph 11 of that, he says, "The evidence shows there are unacceptable variations in the rate of drop-out which appear to be linked more to the culture and workings of the institution than to the background or nature of the students recruited." What is the evidence you think he was referring to there?
  (Baroness Blackstone) There is evidence from HEFCE which has looked in some depth at student drop-out, but there are some institutions which seem to have broadly similar intakes but have a much higher level of success in terms of retaining students right through a course than some other rather similar institutions. It is really based on those findings that the Secretary of State thought it was important to see whether we could reduce the amount of drop-out in those institutions with a slightly less good record.

  464. We had the director of policy of HEFCE and the senior data analyst come and give evidence to us yesterday evening and they told us that in their view these benchmarks and measures were, in their words, a rough and ready measure. Do you think it is a good idea, based on rough and ready evidence, to make an assertion about the rates of drop-out being unacceptable variations? We all want to see the drop-out rate reduced. Do you think it is a bit harsh on the institutions concerned to accuse them of unacceptable variations, based purely on rough and ready measures?
  (Baroness Blackstone) We have to go on the evidence that we have. Measures of this sort are quite difficult to construct and make absolutely perfect from the point of view both of reliability and validity. The government felt it had enough evidence to ask the Funding Council to have a look at ways in which we could narrow the disparity that does seem to exist between the best performing institutions and the least well performing institutions. I think that is a very reasonable thing for the government to do in order that we can reduce the amount of drop-out. Whilst the United Kingdom has a pretty good record in this respect—I think we have the second highest level of retention across the OECD countries at 83 per cent—for the 17 per cent who do not get through that may represent very considerable personal failure and it is something that we should try to work on and make sure it does not increase and, if possible, we can try to reduce it a bit.

  465. I agree we want to try and reduce the drop-out rate, but when the Secretary of State talked about bring pressure to bear on those institutions whose performance falls significantly below their benchmark, bearing in mind the comments of the statisticians involved that the benchmark was a rough and ready measure, can you clarify what sort of pressure that is? Is it moral pressure or financial pressure? What sort of pressure does the Secretary of State have in mind there?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I think it is pressure to have a look at every aspect of their programme, their pastoral care, the advice and guidance they give that I was talking about earlier. It is pressure to make sure that their teaching is of the highest possible quality. Poor teaching does not help as far as student drop-out is concerned. Also, careful and sensible selection. Selecting students for a course for which they really are not suited would also be a failure on the part of an institution.

  466. Lastly, we have had some estimates of the cost of non-completion which in 1997 was put by HEFCE at £90 million a year and it was more recently estimated by Professor Mantz Yorke as being in the region of £200 million a year. Do you have a departmental estimate of what the cost is of the non-completion rate?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I would want to rely on HEFCE figures in a situation of this kind. They will be the most authoritative and reliable figures that we can have.

  467. You do not think the figure has climbed from 90 million to 200 million in the last year?
  (Baroness Blackstone) No. I would be amazed if it had because the drop-out rate has not grown by that amount. It has not grown at all. In fact, if anything, it has come down a tiny bit over the last couple of years.
  (Mr Barry Sheerman took the Chair)

  Chairman: Can I apologise and thank Charlotte Atkins for holding the Chair. No discourtesy was intended. I left Edinburgh at seven o'clock this morning hoping to be here but the fog at Heathrow had other intentions for me.

Helen Jones

  468. You mentioned the importance of good pastoral care and we are particularly interested in support provided for part time students and mature students. I am particularly thinking of students who have family responsibilities. Do you think, from your experience, that universities are doing enough to recognise the increase of such students, both in terms of having to fit in work commitments if they are part time, but also in terms of fitting in their family commitments?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I have some personal experience of this from ten years at Birkbeck. I think it is extremely important, as far as part time students are concerned that universities are especially supportive about both work and family commitments. Part time students take longer to graduate and that is as it should be. There should also be some flexibility about that as well as teaching which fits in from a timetable point of view with their needs and requirements. Both part time and full time mature students—nearly all part time students are mature—have the advantage of experience and maturity in every sense of that word, which often makes them the most motivated students that you can come across, because their determination to succeed is often quite moving. At the same time, they can sometimes arrive at university with a strange lack of confidence, not about themselves so much, but about doing academic work after a long gap. I think it is really important that universities help students initially, when they are starting out on something which is new in the sense that they may have left school at 16 or 18, ten or twelve years ago. That kind of attention to detail is vital.

  469. I could not agree with you more. My experience when I went back to university for the second time—and that is increasingly the case now—is that there was a real problem in getting universities to recognise family responsibilities, particularly the needs of those who have young children. They would change classes without notification or cancel classes and reschedule them at a time later in the evenings so that people could not pick up their children. Do you think enough is being done to alert our higher education institutions to the fact that while that may have been feasible and acceptable when had lots of 18 year old, full time students, it is no longer appropriate for the type of student body we have now? In other words, are our academics being given enough training in the needs of the student body that they are serving?
  (Baroness Blackstone) In those institutions that have very high proportions of part time students, they are more likely to be sensitive and alert to that sort of problem. In some institutions where the numbers are much smaller, it may well be that they should be thinking a bit harder about this kind of issue. I do not know about training for individual academics. I think there should be a whole culture right across an institution of the importance of taking this into account. Sometimes things do get cancelled and rescheduled because somebody is ill and there is nobody else to do it at the original time. I would not want to say that you could never, ever avoid that situation, but if you are alert to it, if you are sensitive to it, you can and you should. It is up to individuals at universities to get this right. I do not think it is for the government to be constantly putting out detailed guidance of that sort.

Charlotte Atkins

  470. I had a young student with a baby—with increasing numbers of teenage pregnancies at schools, this will happen—who wanted to go on to higher education but she could find no university that would be able to guarantee her a child care place and, without the child care place, she could not accept the university place. I was rather surprised and disappointed that universities have not got themselves up to date in that respect. Luckily, she found a university place and had the support of her school to carry on with her studies, but she should not have had the situation where no university would guarantee her a child care place before she accepted the academic place.
  (Baroness Blackstone) I am surprised because most universities now have pretty good child care facilities. That was not true ten or fifteen years ago but there has been an enormous improvement and development. The government has encouraged universities to provide for decent child care. Some students do not want to use a university nursery; they want to use one closer to their home. We have improved hugely since we came into government the range and availability of child care provision generally, but universities have to try very hard to reach out to that sort of student, because it can make a huge difference to their entire lives and the extent and length of time that they are dependent on the state.

Helen Jones

  471. Charlotte almost took the question out of my mouth. Is not the problem in the selection process? It is a problem that Charlotte highlighted. For students moving on to university, it is not good enough for universities to say, "We will offer you a place and, yes, we have a nursery and you can apply when you come here", they need to know before they go that that child care place is available. Ought we not to be moving to a situation where universities address problems like that during the entrance procedures, rather than hoping they might sort if out afterwards?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I am sure that is right. I suspect that some universities who have very heavy demand on their child care places are just nervous about making an absolute guarantee. They are not quite sure exactly how many students are going to graduate and move on or whether there will be some people who will stay on to do a Masters degree, keep their child care place and so on. I do not in any way disagree with you that more can be done to try to really help and encourage the young, single mother to get herself the best possible education that she can.

Mr Marsden

  472. I am not surprised to hear your strong support for part time and mature students because of your own background to which you alluded. The cutting edge which determines whether these things actually happen or not is the conversion of aspirations into detailed policy changes. I want to ask about two particular areas where it seemed to us, not least from some of the comments we had from witnesses yesterday, that HEFCE had perhaps been a little tardy. I want to take the first point about the institutional barriers that there are for full time students dropping down to part time student status. If I may, I will quote what Dr Peters said to us in evidence last week: "If a student were to drop down from full time to half time within the 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." Is that accurate? If it is, is it not a disincentive to the flexibility for part time and mature students that we are talking about?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I am going to ask Nick Sanders to answer that because, quite honestly, this is news to me.
  (Mr Sanders) It is news to me as well unfortunately, so I cannot give you a proper answer. We can give you an answer in writing afterwards, but it is clearly a sensible policy that the needs of individual students should be met and the institutional barriers or complications should be addressed, rather than historic, institutional arrangements coming first. That is our starting point for thinking about it, if that is helpful.

  Mr Marsden: It would be helpful to the Committee if we could have that defined in writing.


  473. If you look at some of the training programmes in our country like New Deal, there are very good premiums for trainees who finish the course. In a sense, if there was a back loading where you would get a substantial bonus for completion, especially for first generation students, that might be something to address non-completion rates.
  (Mr Sanders) Funding, by definition, encourages retention already of course.

  474. Is it generous enough?
  (Mr Sanders) The retention rate is very high. It is hard to know what happens if you make adjustments to the funding of a relatively modest sort.

Mr Marsden

  475. Can I move to another aspect which is very relevant to student retention, particularly in those groups? That is the whole issue of transferability and portability in terms of course work. Obviously, I understand not least with the development of modular structures in university degrees this is more and more important, but it seems from the evidence that we have received that this is not something which the Funding Council particularly gives benefit to by way of its funding process. Professor Geoffrey Copeland gave evidence to us and Professor Peters said, "We have been trying to get regional arrangements to break down the credit transfer barriers 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, so for example suggestions from various quarters that the Funding Council might move to a credit based union of funding have been resisted by the Funding Council." Is that accurate? If it is accurate, does that not act as a barrier in terms of encouraging the sort of transfer in and out which more and more part time and mature students need to do?
  (Baroness Blackstone) The whole issue of credit transfer has been on the agenda for 25 years. It is highly desirable but quite tricky in practice. We have autonomous universities. We do not have a national curriculum for higher education; nor should we. This means that individual academics who are responsible for the curriculum for a particular course hang on rightly to their academic freedom to teach what they think is appropriate. Different institutions teach slightly different, sometimes very different, programmes in a degree that might have a rather similar kind of name. You immediately have something of a problem as far as credit transfers are concerned, particularly if you have a linear type examination system with end of course exams that require a student to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding across the whole course. That however can often be used as an excuse for not being rather more open minded about taking people in, allowing them to catch up, giving them a bit of help, when they want for one reason or another to transfer out of one institution into another. On the whole, we should avoid the situation where people are moving from one university to another. We have short, three year courses for undergraduates, shorter than virtually every other country. Occasionally, there is a reason why this has to happen and then we should really work hard but I do think it is up to the universities to work together to come to sensible solutions, sensible, common sense, practical approaches to this. Perhaps there is a case for HEFCE providing through their resourcing a bit more in the way of a carrot for that to happen.
  (Mr Sanders) Clearly, HEFCE has to proceed with the consent of the institutions and that is at the heart of this issue and the issue about how fast the institutions wish to move in that direction and how far the Funding Council can and should give them incentives. That is what the argument is about rather than there being any suggestion from anyone, I am sure, that there should be a central dictum.

  476. I am not trying to unpick the 1992 Act. I am merely suggesting that in this area HEFCE might be a little more proactive. Can I move to broader issues, and this is where the whole issue of teaching quality and teaching support comes in, because we have heard evidence consistently throughout this inquiry of concerns about the staff:student ratio having an impact on the ability of staff to give the sort of pastoral care which you, Minister, quite rightly said should be part of the benchmark process. Specifically, we have also heard very significant criticism, not least from the vice-chancellor of Surrey University, of the way in which the assessment exercise, with the emphasis it puts on particularly younger academics focusing on research and the outcomes of that, may distort the balance in universities between teaching, between pastoral care and research in the amount of time that academics, particularly younger academics, are able to give to the sort of support which students need. Do you have any sympathy with that view?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I think it is up to the leadership of individual universities to convey to young academics the importance of teaching, from the vice-chancellor down to the deans of faculties and the heads of individual academic departments. They have the responsibility to say to everyone joining the profession, "Of course you are interested in research. You may want to make your mark in researching in a particular area, but you have a primary responsibility to your students." There is no reason, in my view, or in my limited experience, why you should not be able to undertake first class research and take your teaching seriously. I know sometimes when people are starting out getting the balance right may be difficult and they may need a bit of help, advice and guidance, but it is for the individual university to provide that. In that sense, I am not particularly sympathetic to whoever it was who said this to you. On the other hand, I know these pressures exist and you have to keep watching out for them and making sure people understand what their contractual obligations are and just how important teaching is.

  477. Where is the carrot in the system—I am talking now about funding carrots—that would encourage a young academic (I am focusing just on them because they are perhaps the most under pressure) to say, "Okay, I will spend 20 per cent of my time less on my own research, which may or may not translate into my teaching, and 20 per cent more in terms of perhaps taking up some of the excellence initiatives that the government is doing with the Institute of Learning and Teaching and doing outreach work with schools", which we have heard about previously and which we all believe is so important to not just widening access but retaining students in the system. At the end of the day, we can have all these grand aspirations but in the day to day, pressurised atmosphere of a university something has to give.
  (Baroness Blackstone) Virtually all research should translate into better teaching. Even if you are doing research on something quite narrow, it nearly always has wider implications and what you learn from your own research, particularly as a young academic, is going to be helpful to the quality of the content of the teaching that you are providing.


  478. You and I were at the London School of Economics at the same time. We knew some eminent professors who were brilliant researchers but could not teach to save their lives. We would not want to stop them researching, would we?
  (Baroness Blackstone) Of course not. Even people who are not good teachers because their communication skills are bad would almost certainly become somewhat better teachers if they were doing really fascinating research and they could pass on those results to their students.

  479. The fact of the matter is we have to address this question of: do we in the university system today give adequate bonuses and rewards, brownie points, whatever you want to call them, to good teachers? The evidence that we have had still is we do not.
  (Baroness Blackstone) I was about to come to that. The way in which you should encourage people to take their teaching seriously from the funding point of view is by promoting people when they can demonstrate that not only is their research of a high quality but so is their teaching. Similarly, where somebody is an outstanding teacher—and we should collect more evidence about the quality of people's teaching, including directly from students, because they are the people who tend to know usually about that—we should be giving additional increments. We should be definitely celebrating high quality teaching at our universities. I think there is a case for doing more of that than has perhaps been done in the past.

1   Note by Witness: The Government's aspiration is to get to 50 per cent by the end of the decade (2010). Back

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