Select Committee on Education and Employment Sixth Report


1.We recommend two strategies to tackle the problem of non retention. First, seeking to reduce the numbers not continuing with their course and, secondly seeking to reduce the disadvantages of non-continuation by enhancing the 'portability' of acquired attainment below final degree result (paragraph 13).
2.Improving retention is important, but it should not lead to a diminution of the challenge of successful completion. Our concern is to address the barriers which prevent students from benefiting from higher education, not to lower its standards (paragraph 14).
3.Universities and colleges must be careful not to accept candidates with no chance of successfully obtaining any credit for their higher education study. Proper advice at the admissions stage should be available for all students, including those who apply to their local institution and those who enter via clearing. We do not agree with the view that widening access and/or improving retention need lead to lower standards in higher education (paragraph 14).
4.We recognise that the UK has a strong record in the proportion of students who complete their higher education and achieve a qualification at the end of their studies. This is a matter in which the higher education sector should take considerable pride. Nevertheless, we look to the Government, HEFCE and to higher education institutions to take action to reduce as far as possible the number of students who do not achieve a recognised qualification (paragraph 24).
5.In the United Kingdom there is a greater deterrent to non-continuation because of the lack of portability of attainment below degree level. We should not be complacent about the low rate of non-completion in the United Kingdom compared with other countries, particularly the United States, where leaving a course of higher education after attaining accumulated credits is a more rational and less disastrous occurrence (paragraph 25).
6.The relationship between social class and non-continuation is not straightforward (paragraph 26).
7.It seems extremely likely that student factors, sector­wide influences and issues that relate to individual institutions all play a part in the question of retention. Government, the sector and the individual institutions, therefore, should each address the factors over which they have control (paragraph 28).
8.We recommend that higher education institutions should provide guidance to their students that they should not work in paid employment for more than 12 hours a week during term time. However, the Committee recognises that seeking to reduce non-completion by preventing students from working longer hours, if they are doing so in order to fund their living costs, may be self-defeating unless access to financial support for less well off students were improved (paragraph 49).
9.We recommend that HEFCE should, as a matter of urgency, audit the impact of casualisation of higher education staff contracts on the support and pastoral care of students, particularly those from a non-traditional background and part-time or mature students. If this audit highlights structural weaknesses in the support systems for students because of changes in patterns of staff employment, we recommend that higher education institutions should ensure that staff who are not on casual contracts, and who have sufficient time for student support activities, are responsible for support and pastoral care for students. We also recommend that HEFCE should investigate further the reasons why higher education institutions are employing more part­time and fixed­term staff, and in the course of doing so propose ways of tackling the underlying problems (paragraph 53).
10.We are concerned that the overall quality of teaching should not suffer as the result of emphasis placed upon success in the Research Assessment Exercise. We recommend that the DfEE should seek wide representations from higher education staff on the impact of the 2001 RAE on their work-load and responsibilities. In the light of this, HEFCE should consider the possibilities of a joint teaching and research quality assessment to reduce the bureaucratic demands made on institutions and to give a more balanced view of overall performance (paragraph 61).
11.We recommend that HEFCE and individual institutions should look carefully at earmarking funds for outreach activities and pastoral care, and ensure that excellence shown in these areas, especially by younger academics, should enhance rather than jeopardise career advancement and promotion (paragraph 62).
12.We recommend that the DfEE should urgently commission research on the impact of student debt on graduates' decisions on the feasibility of post-graduate study and academic careers (paragraph 64).
13.We recommend that HEFCE should urgently commission research on the impact of demographic changes and retirements among senior staff over the next ten years, with a view to further recommendations to the Government on funding initiatives for key subjects at risk (paragraph 66).
14.We welcome the additional funding from the Secretary of State to recruit and retain high quality academic staff in strategically important disciplines. We acknowledge that university and college staff and their organisations do not regard this as adequate in relation to the broader needs of the academic profession. We urge the Government to address the growing disparity in salaries between academic appointments and career paths for equally qualified candidates in other fields (paragraph 68).
15.We recommend that the Government should give very careful consideration to any further expansion in the number of places in higher education and ensure, before proceeding, that such expansion is fully funded and that existing places can be filled with students who are successfully retained (paragraph 69).
16.We recommend that the Government's priority of widening access and improving retention in higher education should be reflected by sustained overall increases on a per student basis in the level of funding for teaching (paragraph 70).
17.We recommend that HEFCE should give the highest priority to publishing their research on non-completion. We recommend that the HEFCE research on non-completion should be complemented by regular and more detailed studies of institutions where non-completion is significantly above the benchmark rate of comparable colleges and universities. We also recommend that HEFCE, working with other bodies such as the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and the Higher Education Statistics Agency, should establish more robust mechanisms to ensure sufficient data are available more swiftly, so that the nature, extent and causes of non-completion, and how these factors change over time, may be analysed (paragraph 72).
18.We recommend that HEFCE should give explicit guidance to all higher education institutions on the treatment for funding purposes of students who move from full-time to part-time study during the year, so that all concerned should be clear on the financial consequences for the institution of the individual student's decision (paragraph 73).
19.We recommend that HEFCE should refine and develop its work on benchmarks, so that universities and colleges can measure themselves against achievable targets in comparable institutions (paragraph 76).
20.We recommend that incentives for higher education institutions to widen access should include an element which is payable on the successful conclusion to students' higher education. This would provide an incentive not only to admit students from non-traditional backgrounds, but also to ensure they are properly supported until they have achieved a recognised qualification (paragraph 77).
21.We recommend that any new programmes or initiatives by the Secretary of State to encourage higher education institutions to widen participation should be funded for a minimum of five years (paragraph 79).
22.We would welcome a detailed study by the National Audit Office of retention in higher education (paragraph 80).
23.We recommend that the Regional Development Agencies and Learning and Skills Councils should seek to develop strategic partnerships between further education colleges and regional higher education institutions, in order to provide routes for mature students, and for students who have previously not completed a course of higher education, to be able to progress towards entry or re-entry to higher education (paragraph 81).
24.We recommend that higher education institutions should consider whether students who have been outside the formal education system for some time need additional support to face the challenge of assessment early in their course. We recommend that institutions should give serious consideration to ring-fencing a small proportion of teaching and research funding to support students at risk of withdrawal (paragraph 83).
25.We recommend that HEFCE should fund pilot schemes to offer institutions and individual students respectively financial support to provide and attend three-month induction courses over the summer months to prepare students from non-traditional backgrounds for their first year in higher education (paragraph 86).
26.We recommend that higher education institutions should recognise that parents have a crucial part to play in providing all kinds of support for the individual student—and not just means-tested contributions to tuition fees and maintenance for those who can afford to pay—and that taking the family into account from the outset can provide valuable reinforcement for increasing continuation rates in the longer term (paragraph 88).
27.We recommend that HEFCE and the Secretary of State should explore measures for encouraging parents to pay the means­tested contribution to tuition fees, since 20 per cent of students whose parents are expected to pay fail to receive the full contribution with detrimental financial consequences for the students concerned (paragraph 89).
28.We recommend that higher education institutions should be prepared to guarantee childcare places to potential applicants with children under school age (paragraph 90).
29.It would help students make better informed choices of courses of study if they knew at the time of application how many UCAS points (based on A Level scores) they had. We recommend that higher education institutions should actively prepare to adopt a post-qualification applications system (paragraph 91).
30.We recommend that higher education institutions should be prepared to respond to situations where students wish to continue in full- or part-time employment with an employer with whom they have been undertaking a placement linked to their academic course by offering flexible provision allowing the student a choice of ways to complete what would otherwise be the final year of full-time study (paragraph 94).
31.We recommend that the Quality Assurance Agency should help institutions work towards mutual recognition of first year level modules, so that students who have left an institution in their first year are not discouraged from returning to higher education at the same or a different institution by having to start all over again (paragraph 95).
32.We welcome inclusion in the QAA qualifications framework of outcome descriptors that enable achievement below the level of the honours degree to be recognised and which facilitate subsequent resumption of studies (paragraph 96).
33.We recommend that higher education institutions should carefully examine whether teaching arrangements for students in their first year of study, particularly the deployment of highly experienced teaching staff, fully reflect the importance of providing students with a firm foundation for their higher education (paragraph 98).
34.We recommend that the DfEE and the QAA should agree and publish clear guidelines for the Teaching Quality Assessment which will reduce the burden of paperwork and preparation on both staff and assessors. We recommend that the QAA should consider other forms of inspection—including possibly spot inspection—that might prove less stressful or time-consuming, and should spell out in detail how any lighter touch inspections would operate (paragraph 100).
35.We welcome the development of greater concern with the quality of teaching in higher education. We recommend that those universities and colleges that do not already do so should introduce clear and systematically monitored requirements for staff participation in appropriate teaching development programmes, not least in order to ensure that the needs of a more diverse student population are recognised and addressed (paragraph 101).
36.We recommend that the DfEE should conduct a review with the Department of Social Security and the Treasury of the interaction between tax, social security and student support with a view to providing the least well-off students with as seamless a service as possible to support their continuing in higher education (paragraph 103).
37.We expect the results of the research to be carried out by Universities UK into the effect of student debt on student retention to make a useful contribution to informed policy-making for future student financial support arrangements (paragraph 106).
38.We recommend that the Government should commission as a matter of urgency research on the effect of new arrangements for students' financial support on completion rates, particularly with regard to lower socio-economic groups (paragraph 107).
39.Some argue that the key features that need to be more widely broadcast to encourage wider participation in higher education are these:
  • undergraduate tuition fees are payable by those whose parents are means-tested as being able to afford them (approximately 50 per cent of students from 2001);

  • higher education is a good investment of time and money and worth borrowing for—within reasonable limits—because most graduates in general earn higher incomes in the long run;

  • student loans are subsidised; and are repayable only after graduation;

  • additional financial help is available for a few of the least well-off students.

We recommend that the Government should seek to tackle the problems of debt aversion and, where held, perception of student debt, insofar as they affect student retention by reinforcing its efforts to get across these messages (paragraph 108).
40.We recommend that the Government should tackle the consequences of student poverty for retention by improving access to financial support for less well-off students, raising very substantially the income threshold at which graduates have to begin repayment and addressing concerns about debt escalation (paragraph 109).

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