Select Committee on Education and Employment Fourth Report


The Education and Employment Committee has agreed to the following Report:—


Section 1:Introduction

   1. It is twenty years since an Education Committee of the House of Commons undertook a major inquiry into higher education.[1]

Then, universities and polytechnics were separately administered and funded. Now, all are universities, subject to common funding and regulatory regimes.

Then, there were 475,000 full­time and 175,000 part­time undergraduates in the UK.[2] Now, there are approximately 1,028,000 full­time and 373,000 part­time undergraduates.[3]

Then, most entrants came straight from schools or further education colleges, and studied full-time for three years for a degree. Now, many enrol after experience of employment, and a much larger proportion study part-time.

Then, tuition for full-time undergraduates was free, and student support came in the form of means-tested maintenance grants. Now, undergraduates pay flat-rate means-tested tuition contributions, and borrow for maintenance at favourable rates from the Student Loans Company.

Then, there were 62,000 full­time and 38,000 part­time postgraduates in the UK.[4] Now, there are 153,000 full­time postgraduates and 204,000 part­time postgraduates.[5]

Then, many features of higher education provision and student support were common to all parts of the United Kingdom. Now, devolution is giving greater scope for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to determine their own higher education policies

Then, few academics and even fewer students had their own computers, and the now ubiquitous Internet was still in its infancy.

Then, there were no league tables. Now, league tables are a prominent feature of the higher education scene.

2. These are only some of the most obvious features of the transformation that has taken place in higher education over the past twenty years. They reflect more fundamental changes: in the role of knowledge and communication in a globally competitive modern economy, in the importance of education in determining individual life chances, and developments in technology. And they give new emphasis to familiar questions. What are universities for? Who should benefit? Who should pay? How should the system be structured, staffed, regulated, made accountable? How can quality be assured? On what basis should funds for research and for teaching be distributed?

3. The sheer scope and scale of higher education, and the limited resources available to the Education and Employment Committee, inevitably constrain the coverage of an inquiry such as our own. But it offers an opportunity to take and to publish evidence from a wide range of interested parties, to formulate conclusions and recommendations which reflect our interpretation of that evidence, and to require a response from those in Government responsible for higher education policy.

4. The Education Sub-committee announced in July 1999 its intention to undertake an inquiry into higher education.[6] Detailed terms of reference were announced in October 1999 [see Box 1].[7] We appointed a number of distinguished specialist advisers to assist the Sub-committee: Professor Janet Beer of Manchester Metropolitan University, Professor Davina Cooper of Keele University, Dr Eilis Ferran of St Catharine's College, Cambridge, Professor Alan Smithers of the University of Liverpool and Professor Sir William Taylor CBE. We are grateful to all those who have given evidence so far in this inquiry, whether orally or in writing.[8]

5. This interim report focuses on access to higher education. In a further stage of the enquiry we shall be examining the extent to which students' experience of their higher education is being affected by finance and other pressures and the implications for retention and attrition.

Box 1: Terms of reference

The Education Sub-committee is to carry out an inquiry into higher education. The inquiry will take as its starting point the quality of the student experience after 10 years of progress in developing a mass higher education system, and with the prospect of further increases in participation: for instance, the Prime Minister's aim of a 50 per cent take-up, over time, of higher education by young people. The Sub-committee is interested in the following issues:

1. How is 'quality' in teaching and learning defined?

2. How is teaching quality measured and assured? (The Sub-committee welcomes comments on the work of the Quality Assurance Agency; the Teaching Quality Assessment; and the nature of qualifications in higher education.)

3. The extent to which teaching quality varies between different disciplines and institutions (and types of institution); how quality of teaching has been, and is likely to be, affected by the continuing increase in participation in higher education; the impact (benefits/drawbacks) of employing graduate and undergraduate students in teaching ; and how developments such as the new Institute for Learning and Teaching might improve teaching quality.

4. Institutional arrangements, and their contribution to the quality of the teaching and learning experience. For instance: the balance between research and teaching; 'traditional' universities as opposed to 'non-traditional'; HE outside universities.

5. How does the way in which funding is allocated to higher education affect the nature of teaching and learning? What is, and what should be, the role of the Higher Education Funding Council for England in this respect?

6. How do different modes of attendance affect the quality of the teaching and learning experience (eg full-time, part-time, distance learning via ICT and other forms of flexible learning, including credit-based systems)?

7. The effect of changing patterns of student support and student income on the quality of learning (loans, fees, the continuing increase in the time students spend in employment—part-time jobs—during courses).

8. How accountable are universities for the quality of the student learning experience? How will it change as students become more demanding?

9. To what extent are universities involved with their local communities? Would more work in this area have an impact on the nature of the student experience?

10. The terms of reference centre on the student experience, which begins with the decision about whether to apply for admission to a higher education course and the process of applying and being accepted for admission. A generation ago, means-tested maintenance grants and fees paid by local education authorities for the great majority of what was then a much smaller number of students made the student experience of higher education relatively affordable without having to run up significant debts. The student experience today is commonly one of a significant level of debt, much of it in the form of subsidised student loans, and also commonly a requirement to take part-time paid work in term time. For between 40 and 50 per cent of students there is a requirement to pay a contribution towards the cost of tuition—currently £1,050 a year for those paying the full amount—which falls to students or their families to pay.[9]

11. In 1997, political discussion of higher education was largely absent from the general election campaign. The Dearing Report was then pending and there was a tacit understanding between two of the main parties to await its outcome. Early in this Parliament we looked at some funding issues arising from the report of the Dearing inquiry, namely how HM Treasury treats spending on student loans for accounting purposes.[10]

12. Looking forward to the next general election, we expect that student fees/university funding, access to higher education and student financial support will be more important issues for the public than has previously been the case. We intend this Report to make a contribution by helping to set the agenda for debate and to ensure that these and other key issues in higher education are considered properly in context.

13. In the 1998 elections for the Scottish Parliament, student fees were an important issue. Finding a compromise on that issue was the key to forming the coalition Scottish Executive. Most of the Cubie Committee's recommendations on student funding in Scotland and the Scottish Executive's response are matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament over which we have no jurisdiction. The issues considered by Cubie and subsequently by the Scottish Parliament are highly relevant to the debate in England on the future funding patterns of higher education, however, and we have drawn on the Scottish experience in this report. A report on the series of hearings the Education Sub-committee held on these issues in April 2000 is at Annex 1.

14. Student finance, which forms a significant aspect of the modern student experience, is linked to the whole question of how higher education should be funded. For example, although the proportion of public expenditure on higher education in the UK is broadly comparable with other large international economies, a far higher proportion of Government spending in the sector in 1993 was on student support than in the case of other large international economies.[11] We intend to report later in this Session on a range of factors, including student finance in the context of funding for the higher education sector, which influence the retention of students in higher education. An account of the evidence taken in April 2000 on student finance is at Annex 2.

15. On 25 May 2000, the Chancellor of the Exchequer ignited a wide-ranging debate on access to higher education by describing it as "scandalous" that the University of Oxford had turned down an applicant "using an interview system more reminiscent of the old boy network and the old school tie than genuine justice in our society... It is about time for an end to that old Britain where what matters more are the privileges you are born with rather than the potential you actually have... it is now time that these old universities open their doors to women and people from all backgrounds. We are determined that in the next ten years, the majority of young people will be able to get higher education".[12] We decided not to examine in detail the individual case of the young woman cited in the Chancellor's remarks. We welcomed the opportunity for public debate on the question of access to higher education that this provided. The most recent evidence from Oxford University indicates that the number of applications made from state schools increased after the Chancellor's speech, and the number of offers made by the university to state school pupils also increased, dispelling any notion that the Chancellor's remarks were unhelpful.

1  Fifth Report from the Education, Science and Arts Committee, Session 1979-80, The funding and organisation of courses in higher education, HC 787-I. Back

2  Data for 1979-80, Education statistics for the United Kingdom, 1982. Back

3  Data for 1999-2000, Higher Education Statistics Agency, Statistical first release, May 2000. Back

4  Data for 1979-80, representing 11.8 per cent and 19.2 per cent of the population of full-time and part-time higher education students respectively. Education statistics for the United Kingdom, 1982. Back

5  Provisional data for 1999-2000, representing 12.9 per cent and 35.5 per cent of full-time and part-time higher education students respectively. Higher Education Statistics Agency, Statistical first release, April 2000. Back

6  Education and Employment Select Committee Press Notice 37 of 1998-99, 28 July 1999. Back

7  Education and Employment Select Committee Press Notice 41 of 1998-99, 28 October 1999. Back

8  See List of Witnesses; &c. Back

9  HC Deb 8 Nov 2000 vol 356 col 243W. Back

10  Third Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 1997-98, The Dearing Report: some funding issues, HC 241. Back

11   Public expenditure on tertiary education as proportion of GDP, selected OECD countries
Total public expenditure as % of GDP
% of tertiary education funding spent on financial aid to students
Total public expenditure as % of GDP
% of tertiary education funding spent on public subsidies to households

Source: Education at a Glance 2000, and earlier editions, OECD.
OECD Education Statistics 1985-1992, OECD. 

12  Press reports in for example, The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph on 26 May 2000. Back

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