Select Committee on Education and Employment Fourth Report


Performance indicators in higher education (continued)

25. HEFCE make a number of caveats about how the benchmarks should be used. The Council stressed that no single indicator could adequately describe an institution and that all the indicators should be viewed within the context of each institution's mission. An institution's performance indicators may mask both 'better' and 'worse' performance at departmental level within the institution. Care should also be exercised to ensure that two institutions which are being compared are sufficiently alike to allow meaningful comparison. Therefore, if the adjusted sector benchmarks are significantly different the two institutions should not be directly compared. Once these caveats are taken into account, HEFCE argued that institutions whose performance indicator is significantly worse than their benchmark should look carefully at their figures to determine why the difference has occurred.

26. The performance indicators for 1998-99 calculated by HEFCE indicate where the difference between the institution's performance and its benchmark is considered to be large in both statistical and practical terms. This is defined as greater than three times the standard deviation and greater than three percentage points. Table 1 below shows the 21 institutions who performed significantly below their benchmark in 1998-99, and Table 2 shows the 23 institutions who performed significantly above their benchmark in 1998-99.[27] We welcome the work undertaken by HEFCE to establish a common system of measuring aspects of performance of higher education institutions. We recommend that higher education institutions should consider these performance indicators regularly, and any other indicators which become available, as a means of examining their own performance and setting new targets.

27. During a visit to the USA, members of the Education Sub-committee were told that some universities noted whether applicants to their undergraduate courses were 'first generation' students, that is, students with no family history of participation in higher education. In the UK these data are not collected as a part of the applications process. We recommend that the UCAS application process for undergraduate courses should identify applicants with no family history of participation in higher education, so-called 'first-generation' students.

Improving staying-on rates

  28. There is a very close correlation between social background and educational achievement prior to university entrance. Equally, there is a very strong correlation between previous achievement and the likelihood of success in higher education.[28] This presents particular challenges for universities and Government. We are nevertheless keenly aware of the role that schools and colleges can play in addressing these problems. Widening access is not an isolated issue which can be addressed satisfactorily by any one part of the education sector. Increasing the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds is in HEFCE's words "only partly in the hands of higher education institutions. Prospects for widened participation will be transformed when schools succeed in persuading students from poor backgrounds to stay on in school beyond the age of 16".[29] We agree.

29. The Government has established a pilot scheme to test whether a financial incentive to young people from low­income families will encourage more to stay on in education beyond 16. Young people living in the pilot areas will be eligible to receive an Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), depending on parental taxable income, if they attend full­time courses at school or college. Four different models are being tested to assess what factors affect levels of retention and attainment among recipients. The pilot EMA scheme started in September 1999. Students receive a maximum of £40 per week during term­time, depending on the pilot area the young person lives in and parental income. Payments are generally made direct to the student. Young people qualified for an EMA if:

  • they were aged 16-19;
  • they were in Year 11 and stayed on in full­time education after September 1999;
  • their parents' annual gross parental income was below £30,000 (if it was below £13,000 young people received the maximum EMA award for their area);
  • eligible students were those starting a full­time course (12 hours or more a week) at school or college leading to a qualification up to and including level 3.

30. We welcome the introduction of the pilot scheme for Educational Maintenance Awards. We look forward to the evaluation of this pilot scheme to determine whether this form of financial incentive has a significant effect on participation rates of young people from low-income families in further and higher education.

Improving the University Entry Qualifications in the State Sector

  31. The Minister described the scale of the challenge facing Government and the education sector:

32. We were told by Dr Philip Evans of the Independent Schools Council that while only 20 per cent of A Level candidates were from the independent sector (albeit including some from disadvantaged backgrounds on assisted places and other scholarships) those candidates obtained 30 per cent of top A Level scores, increasing to 40 per cent in some subjects, and indeed, 50 per cent in a few.[31] The corollary is that, with 80 per cent A Level students, the maintained sector is not producing proportionately as many qualified potential university applicants. In the context of his university, Dr Colin Lucas, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, stated that "what is really relevant is the number of people getting three As at A level".[32] This suggests that part of the answer will be continuing the drive to improve performance in the maintained sector. Regardless of the amount of university outreach work or additional targeted access funding and student financial support, it would be easier for applications (particularly to the more selective universities) to reach proportionality with the number of pupils in each sector if results in maintained schools approach those in independent schools. This would create more proportionately sized qualified cohorts of potential applicants to these universities.

33. The Minister of State, Baroness Blackstone, told the Sub-committee that in her view all higher education institutions should promote wider access to higher education. She did not believe that to do so would in any way jeopardise standards and quality.[33] The Minister thought that there was a general recognition on the part of the universities of the problem of under-representation by students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In her view some higher education institutions were more prepared to put a lot of time and effort into widening access than others, leading to "quite a lot of variation" in the performance indicators produced by HEFCE.[34] The Minister argued that higher education institutions not scoring highly on those performance indicators had "some obligation" to work out why and to take action to improve their performance on those aspects.[35] We appreciate that benchmarks are for the guidance of institutions and carry no funding implications.

34. All higher education institutions should promote wider access to higher education. We welcome the regular monitoring by HEFCE of institutions' performance in widening access, in particular the publication of performance indicators and benchmarks. We recommend that those institutions which do not reach the benchmarks established by HEFCE should come under particular scrutiny, and should be encouraged to learn from best practice elsewhere in the higher education sector. Where an institution significantly underperforms its benchmark it should be required to publish action plans on its strategies to widen access. We further recommend that key applied subjects such as medicine, law and performing arts should be closely monitored by subject for evidence of successful promotion of entry for candidates from broad socio-economic backgrounds.

Foundation degrees

  35. A major initiative in higher education qualifications will be developed from 2001-02, adding to the diversity of qualifications already available. In response to the Secretary of State's announcement in February 2000 that Foundation Degrees should be introduced, 21 higher education consortia will launch 40 prototype programmes for this new qualification. Initially, HEFCE will fund 2,000 student places. The Foundation Degrees will be vocationally oriented, taught in two years (or a part-time equivalent) and will also provide a route to an honours degree if students want to progress. The new qualifications will aim to attract students from a wide range of backgrounds and will equip them to meet intermediate level skills in a range of industrial sectors. The introduction of the Foundation degrees will be accompanied by HEFCE research to identify good practice emerging from the prototype awards. HEFCE will disseminate the results of this research to other providers of Foundation degrees.[36]

36. We welcome the introduction of Foundation degrees. We recommend that HEFCE should review the introduction of these new qualifications to measure the extent to which they contribute to widening access to higher education but also encourage and build on existing good practice in universities to widen access for further education students into higher education.

The importance of local action

  37. The Minister stressed to us that "we have to make sure that all of our higher education institutions, universities and colleges, do reach out to these young people and do so by a variety of different methods".[37]

38. UCAS is to carry out a major new project on widening participation in higher education. The two­year study, commissioned by the Higher Education Innovations Fund, will examine how the University of Birmingham, University of Central Lancashire, Queen Mary and Westfield College (University of London) and the College of Ripon and York St John recruit students from social and ethnic groups currently under­represented in higher education.

39. Another example of work relevant to the improvement of access is the University of Newcastle's 'Partners Project', which involves working with a number of state schools and colleges to identify students who have potential but who because of their backgrounds lack confidence in applying to universities. Students identified by the schools and colleges undertake extra academic study during summer schools before applying to university. This involves work related to their chosen subjects, plus maths at an appropriate level. The second summer school is followed by a subject­based project marked and assessed by the university's academic staff. If the students pass the elements of the summer school and complete the programme they are given credit in the form of six A­level points which they can use if they need to as a supplement to the A­level and GNVQ results achieved. Students are still required to meet the standard offers for admission to the degree courses. Those offered places via this programme are in addition to the university's regular places for students funded via HEFCE.

40. The Sutton Trust sponsors and runs a number of university-based projects, independent and state school partnerships, projects for highly able children, support for two specialist schools and an open access scheme for an independent school in Liverpool. We note that this latter scheme, if expanded with Government funding, might be seen to represent a return to the assisted places scheme. The use of charitable funds (including those from the Sutton Trust) to expand the scheme would make it equivalent to a typical independent sector scholarship scheme. However, the Committee welcomes schemes to improve diversity of provision for highly able children. We recognise that there is a risk that the above approach merely creams off the brightest from the state sector to receive the benefit of private education. It is not clear that this solves the problem of the under-representation of state school students in higher education.

41. The Sutton Trust's university projects include summer schools for both students and teachers to promote interest in higher education. Summer schools for students began in 1997 at Oxford University, and have expanded to include Bristol, Cambridge and Nottingham universities. Over 500 students attended summer schools during 1999. The DfEE provided summer school places for over 5,000 students during 2000, based on the model developed by the Sutton Trust. In 1998 the Sutton Trust also established summer schools for school teachers at Oxford University to provide enrichment activities in their own subject as well as 'demystifying' the university. The Trust supports other initiatives to promote access to leading universities. These include a Saturday School at the London School of Economics for students from inner-London schools aimed at improving A level results. The Trust also works with individual Oxford and Cambridge colleges to develop their access programmes. Before this can be expanded further, it will be necessary to provide evidence that (a) these students would not have applied anyway; and (b) even if they were likely applicants, whether their success rate on application is better than their peers.

42. We recommend that sponsors of summer schools which aim to widen access should monitor carefully whether these initiatives are reaching students who would not in other circumstances consider higher education. These activities must not act as enrichment activities for the most able, but should aim to create interest in higher education among young people whose personal and educational experience does not encourage them to progress to higher education. Initiatives should be targeted at school pupils as young as thirteen to ensure they can consider university well before GCSE options are chosen in Year 9. There is a danger that the limited number of places which are available at these summer schools could be 'captured' by students who already have a keen interest in higher education.

43. The Access to Medicine programme at King's College, London will forge links with a number of targeted schools in South London to widen the social and ethnic mix from which medical students are drawn. The programme aims to recruit up to 50 students, and will offer an alternative selection procedure to identify potential in students rather than basing selection on current performance alone. A course which provides extra support to students will be offered and will run for six years. The programme will merge with the standard five year medicine course for the final three years.[38]

44. The Government's Excellence in Cities scheme was launched in March 1999. Local education authorities with Excellence in Cities status announced in the first tranche were: Manchester/Salford, Liverpool/Knowsley, Birmingham, Leeds/Bradford, Sheffield/Rotherham, Camden, City of London, Greenwich, Hackney, Hammersmith & Fulham, Haringey, Islington, Kensington & Chelsea, Lambeth, Lewisham, Newham, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth, Waltham Forest and Westminster. Opportunity Bursaries were announced in January 2000 to provide additional support for full-time undergraduate students based in the Government's Excellence in Cities areas. Over the three year pilot for this programme, up to 24,000 bursaries will be available providing £2,000 over three years of study. The bursary will be profiled so that the greatest support will be offered in the first study when students are expected to incur the highest costs. A key aspect of this programme is to develop greater links between higher education institutions with Excellence in Cities areas.

45. The University of Oxford's initiatives to promote access by students from the state sector include the appointment of a Further Education Liaison Officer by Mansfield College, who will co-ordinate seven Oxford colleges to encourage more applications from further education colleges. Oxford also runs summer schools for students and teachers, including those in collaboration with the Sutton Trust. The University of Oxford has stated that "progress is being made to encourage bright students from [the state] sector to apply".[39] Cambridge University is also involved in a range of outreach programmes. Its Vice-Chancellor has said:

    "Cambridge knows that there are state school students who do not apply here because of their belief that they will not fit in, that it is too expensive or too prejudiced. We do not think the facts show that any of these worries are true. But because they exist, we will continue to make access a number one priority at Cambridge".[40]

46. Mr Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust told the Sub-committee that it was important to start university-school links when pupils were at a relatively young age. The Trust had instituted visits for Year Ten pupils (14-15 years old) to the University of Cambridge, where they spend a day and night at the university. He argued that such visits were very effective, and that therefore the Sutton Trust was looking to expand such Year Ten visits to other universities.[41] The targeting of initiatives is central to the eventual success rates. Mr Lampl told the Sub-committee that all state schools were informed of the opportunities for summer school placements offered by the Sutton Trust, but that the Trust had "a sort of wish list of the kinds of people we want on the summer schools" typically from schools that do not normally send children to leading universities.[42] Mr Lampl emphasised that the Trust looks for children where neither parent has been to university, and where students have the academic potential to benefit from attendance at the summer school.[43]

47. It is clear to us that many universities and colleges are making considerable efforts to widen participation, information about which deserves to be made widely known. Inevitably, however, there are differing views about the effectiveness of such efforts. The research by the Four Counties Group argued that "[students'] brief encounters with higher education through one-off talks and other such activities is not enough. More has to be done to provide closer links between all education providers".[44]

48. Members of the Education Sub-committee were told at first hand of the practice of several American universities of writing directly to students who demonstrate high levels of performance in the Standard Achievement Tests (SATs).[45] The names and addresses of these students are purchased by universities from the companies which administer SAT examinations. The level of professionalism and resource committed to the admissions process by American universities is impressive. There are clearly defined career paths for admissions staff. University alumni are also encouraged to meet and talent-spot potential students. We recognise a need for greater professionalism in the management of admissions to UK universities. We recommend the Government should provide where necessary additional resources to enable universities to recruit and train professional staff to manage the process of admissions.

49. Mr Peter Lampl told the Sub-committee that "if you are a bright kid in Brooklyn and you have got good SATs and a decent academic performance, you have got Harvard and Princeton and Yale coming to try to recruit you. I think that is terrific".[46] He suggested that the culture in some universities in this country was one of 'We are a leading university and it is the responsibility of schools to send applicants to us, it is not really our responsibility to reach out and recruit applicants'.[47] He argued that the problem of under-representation of some groups originated earlier in individuals' educational experience, but universities should become much more pro-active about going out and selling themselves to schools.[48]

50. While we welcome the development of summer schools, we recognise that many young people would not even consider taking part in events of this kind. Other strategies will be required to reach out to this group of young people. We recommend that examination boards should make available, with the consent of students via their schools and colleges, the names and examination results of students who have successfully completed GCSE and equivalent qualifications. This would enable universities to write to students, via the school or college where they sat their examinations, inviting appropriately qualified students to consider higher education as an option once they have completed their A levels or vocational A levels.

51. We considered whether one solution to the problem of under-recruitment of certain groups would be to establish quotas for admission from those groups. Professor A.H. Halsey and Dr Gerry McCrum drew the Sub-Committee's attention to Oxford's success in increasing the number of applications from female students over the past 25 years. They argued that Oxford's announcement of the progressive gender mixing of the colleges had sent the message that there were more female places on offer, and that subsequently more female students applied to and were accepted by Oxford. They suggested that social inequality at entry could be removed in a similar way by announcing a fair target for the state entry.[49] We found little support for such a move. Sir Brian Fender, Chief Executive of HEFCE, told the Sub-committee that he would not argue for quotas but believed that establishing targets for access would help.[50] Mrs Sue Fishburn, Headteacher of Leeds Girls' High School, did not believe that quotas had ever proved to be successful in positive discrimination in favour of particular groups.[51] Mr Peter Lampl argued against such an approach as students should be admitted on the basis of merit.[52]

52. We welcome developments in some universities to introduce outreach schemes to raise the aspirations of students who otherwise may not consider higher education. Such schemes are of particular importance for universities offering courses which are already over-subscribed with well-qualified applicants, who may not otherwise seek actively to recruit even more applications.

53. We agree with the many witnesses who argued that quotas for admission of certain students groups would be inappropriate. We recommend that all higher education institutions should establish and make public their targets for a range of access performance indicators. The benchmarks calculated by HEFCE for each institution could provide a model for the calculation of benchmarks towards which each institution could work.

27  Young (under 21) first degree entrants, 1998-99. First degree includes HND, HNC and similar courses as well as degree courses. Source: HEFCE, Performance indicators in higher education in the UK, October 2000. Back

28  Ev. p. 86.  Back

29  Ev. p. 86 , para 5. Back

30  Q. 1072. Back

31  Ev.p. 122; Q. 546. Back

32  Q. 824. Back

33  Q. 1103. Back

34  Q. 1073. Back

35  Q. 1073. Back

36  HEFCE Council Briefing, Number 32, December 2000. Back

37  Q. 1072. Back

38  HEFCE Council Briefing, Issue 30, July 2000. Back

39  University of Oxford, Briefing note on access, 5 June 2000. Back

40  Presentation to the Associate Parliamentary University Group/Sutton Trust seminar, Cambridge University, 11 July 2000. Back

41  Q. 308. Back

42  Q. 312. Back

43  Q. 312. Back

44  Eastern Region Four Counties Consortium of Higher Education Institutions, Participation Patterns in Higher Education in The Four Counties, para 11.8. Back

45  See also Appendix 6. Back

46  Q. 350. Back

47  Q. 362. Back

48  Q. 313. Back

49  Oxford Magazine, No. 152, 1998, page 2. Back

50  Q. 443. Back

51  Q. 566. Back

52  Q. 353. Back

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