Select Committee on Education and Employment Fourth Report



Members present:

Mr Richard AllanMr Gordon Marsden
Ms Candy AthertonMr Patrick Nicholls
Mr Derek FosterMr Stephen O'Brien
Mr Michael FosterMr Ian Pearson
Dr Evan HarrisMr Nick St Aubyn
Helen JonesMr Barry Sheerman
Judy MallaberMr Stephen Twigg

Resolved, That, for the remainder of this day's sitting, Mr Barry Sheerman do take the Chair of the Committee, in place of Mr Derek Foster.—(The Chairman.)

Report from the Education Sub-committee [Higher Education: Access] brought up and read.

Draft Report, proposed by Mr Nick St Aubyn, brought up and read, as follows:


1.  The Education Sub­committee announced in July 1999 its intention to undertake an inquiry into higher education. Detailed terms of reference were announced in October 1999. We are grateful to all those who have assisted this inquiry, especially our distinguished specialist advisers and those who have given oral evidence.

2.  This interim report focuses on access to higher education. On 25 May 2000, the Chancellor of the Exchequer provoked a storm of protest with an outspoken attack on alleged privilege in the way some older academically elite universities select their students. While not dwelling on the specific case which appears to have prompted his remarks, we took evidence from a wide range of witnesses in the light of the debate sparked by this controversy.

3.  The higher education world is changing rapidly. Many global companies employ more PhDs than the average­sized university. The number of undergraduates who learn to earn has never been greater. Yet Britain still shrinks from the proposal that students whose studies may set them on the road to riches should pay their way. The proportion of tertiary education funding we spend on financial aid to students is twice the level in the USA and four times the level in France, leaving significantly less resource to reward the academics who teach them.

4.  Despite this level of public support, students from poorer backgrounds are still "badly represented in universities" (Ev.p.87, para 10). About 80 per cent of the children of professional and managerial families enter higher education, but only about 17 per cent of those from lower socio­economic groups. Access to higher education by women, mature students and part­time students is much greater that it was 20 years ago (viz. The Guardian, 26 May 2000). The number of school leavers from poorer families entering higher education approximately doubled in the ten years to 1997 (viz. Dearing Report 6, Table 1.1). Yet the more recent picture has been one of standstill:

 Numbers accepted for Degree courses by Social Class


Source: UCAS Statistical Bulletin on Widening Participation

5.  This is only an interim report. It seeks to affirm sixteen pertinent conclusions in the field of access, based on the evidence we have accumulated not only in session at Westminster and in written submissions, but also from our visit to the USA in October 2000. The full text of evidence received to date is being published at the same time as this Report.

Commitment to widening access by elite universities

6.  The evidence from our witnesses clearly showed that our best universities are keenly aware of the need to attract the top talent, irrespective of background. In the words of the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Dr Colin Lucas:

"It is quite clear that the only way in which Oxford will keep its place in the university premier league is by continuing to attract the brightest and best students of each successive generation. ... regardless of where they come from" (Q. 720).

7.  He told the Education Sub-committee that over the past five years really, the ratio of offers to students from independent schools compared with state schools has reversed from 53 per cent to 47 per cent, to 47 per cent to 53 per cent in favour of state schools.

8.  About 800 people are involved in making access admissions decisions at Oxford. About 450 of them have received training so far and the need for all to be trained is fully recognised (Q. 728).

9.  The social fairness of the system of admissions is born out by the fact that the results achieved by students from independent and maintained schools are remarkably similar :

Per cent gaining degree class by school background (Q. 730)

Independent schools
Maintained schools

10.  The genuineness of Oxford's 'open access' policy was fully endorsed by all those who gave us evidence, not least other leading universities. For example, Professor Kenneth Calman, Vice-Chancellor of Durham, told the Education Sub-committee:

    "The key thing for all universities, and certainly for Durham, is to remain a first class university, to attract the best students, irrespective of where they come from and we have no entry rules. We just want to take the best students that we can" (Q. 796).

11.  The allegation that there is an institutional bias in our leading universities against those from less well off backgrounds may of itself have deterred potential applicants who had the right attributes to win a place. The Committee cannot stress too strongly that we have heard no credible evidence that such a bias exists.

The role of the collegiate system

12.  We did hear arguments that the complexity of the structure at Oxford and Cambridge ­ with the custom of applying through individual colleges, rather than through the university ­ acted as a deterrent to potential applicants. The witnesses from Oxford, however, were strongly of the view that their system contained many more strengths than weaknesses. Ms Minto told the Sub-committee: "It allows the applications to be dealt with on a certain economy of scale, so that we can give applications individual attention in the way they are not given individual attention in other higher education institutions." (Q. 741)

13.  The underlying case was that to remove the college's right to choose their candidates would undermine the independence of the collegiate system itself. In the words of Professor Marquand: "...there are certain advantages in not having a collegiate system but there are enormous advantages in having a collegiate system as well. There is a trade­off." (Q. 776)

14.  The problem of attracting more applicants from poorer backgrounds is not confined to collegiate universities. As Mr Peter Lampl told the Sub-committee: ".....Imperial is 18 per cent from its bench­mark, you find that UCL is 17 per cent from its bench­mark. I think the surprising thing about the analysis we did, or that HEFCE did, is that, if you like, the access issues are not related to the collegiate universities but are related to a whole range of universities." (Q. 344)

15.  One misconception is that the colleges are a source of resistance to change in the system of admissions. However, Ms Minto told the Education Sub-committee: "...the colleges on admissions have something called a 'disarmament agreement', so that if we take a decision—for instance, we took a decision five years ago to abolish formal entrance examination—if a majority of colleges support that decision, all the colleges go along with it. It is absolutely collective." (Q. 739) The recent HEFCE funding given to improve access "is being spent and being used in a very co­ordinated way...all colleges are involved." (Q. 740) The Vice Chancellor (Dr Lucas) also assured the Sub-committee: "I have not had any resistance from the colleges to the proposals we put out on the Access Working Party." (Q. 739)

16.  We believe that the present college­based system at Oxford and Cambridge is part of the diversity of our higher education provision. Clearly, the right of colleges to select their entrants is integral to their independence. The ability of colleges to target groups and to form close relationships with maintained schools is a proven benefit of their system. Those not familiar with the system may however feel at a disadvantage in the application process. It is therefore essential that applicants who apply through the university be given an equal opportunity to those who apply through a college. We recommend that the relative success rate of university and college applicants be carefully monitored and the aggregate results be published.

The reliability of A levels and the UCAS tariff

17.  A number of witnesses cautioned against a mechanistic approach to A level results. In his introduction to the new UCAS tariff system last year, their Chief Executive Mr Tony Higgins stated: "Achievement at A level was never meant to be used for allocating university places, still less for performance tables." He told the Sub-committee that it would be a mistake to read too much into a crude analysis of the distribution of A level results and the then allocation of places at specific universities (Q. 698).

18.  Professor Dylan Wiliam also cautioned that according to his own research, "between a half and third of students might miss their true score by one grade. That is not a criticism of the A­level boards; it is a fundamental limitation of the technology of assessment." (Q. 975) He was equally critical of the US system of reliance on SAT scores: "The Americans have found the co­relation between SATs scores and the eventual grade they get from colleges extraordinarily poor. It is the same predictability as an interview, around about 0.4. It is very, very small." (Q. 928)

19.  Given the lack of consensus on a single measure of talent in the course of our enquiry, it is perhaps not surprising that the UCAS proposal for a tariff system was itself only accorded a lukewarm welcome. The higher education Minister, Baroness Blackstone, told the Education Sub-committee: "I do not think that using or not using the tariff itself may be an impediment to access." She went on to explain:

    "I can certainly envisage a situation in which a university decided that the tariff system, where you tot up points and then reach a total and see how students compare, might not be the one that they would want to make most use of. They might want to look at a whole range of individual qualifications, plus other qualities that students might want to possess to do really well in particular courses that they are offering." (Q. 1105)

20.  Professor Wiliam explained that the difficulty with the tariff system is that it is not clear whether it is just measuring achievement or whether it is measuring potential. "There is no point in admitting somebody who has clocked up a large number of tariffs over a large number of years just by sticking at it. That is not the kind of flair that elite universities are looking for." (Q. 929)

21.  The Committee welcomes initiatives which serve to de­mystify the applications process to our elite universities. Yet we see no merit in imposing new systems, which provide simplicity at the expense of accuracy. Selecting the very best qualified students for a course is a complex process. There are no prescriptive solutions across the board. We do however value the input of additional relevant information. In this context, we believe that the use of the new AS level results in admissions will be a useful adjunct to the selection process, especially for able students from schools with weak experience of applying to elite institutions.

Post-qualification applications

22.  The weakness of the present system is that error in the A level assessment of candidates is magnified by the need to predict the results a year in advance. Mr Tony Higgins of UCAS told the Education Sub-committee: "the last research I saw on A level scores showed that predictions were wrong in 65 per cent of cases... [of these] 52 per cent were showing predictions two grades higher than students actually got, 26 per cent showed one grade higher than they actually got and the remainder ... were predicted lower grades than they actually got." (Q. 612) There was no discernible difference between the state and private sectors' powers of prediction. "The worst predictors were the colleges in the FE sector. The best predictors, from memory, were sixth form colleges." (Q. 615)

23.  One of the reasons for the poor level of predictions was reflected in the problems of the assessors at university. Mr Peel of Oxford told the Education Sub-committee: "...we are taking a snapshot of the candidates at a certain stage in their development. We are seeing them in December of year 13 and they are going to arrive in October having taken their A levels in May or June. That gap between December and May is a big six months." (Q. 815)

24.  Mr Peel joined many witnesses in wanting a post-qualification system of application. For example, Mr Peter Lampl remarked: "I cannot stress how important this issue is, of having to apply before you know your A levels, and I think that is a huge issue which goes through all of this, whether you are applying to a collegiate university or to a subject­based­entry university, like Imperial or UCL." (Q. 344) Tony Higgins, in the context of far too few people from lower socio­economic groups going on to higher education, told the Education Sub-committee that if we could organise a system of application and access which was conducted after applicants had got their qualifying results, A levels, vocational A levels or whatever, young people would be much better served (Q. 597). Professor Halsey stated that "I think if it is practical, and I think it probably is, that it is better to take the admissions after the A­level results are known, rather than second­guessing in the admissions colleges the wisdom of the examiners which will be known later." Dr McCrum said it would be "ideal" if A level results were out when admissions were decided (Q. 966). Dr John Brennan of the Association of Colleges and Dr John Durnford of the Secondary Heads Association were both in favour of moving towards a post-qualification system, but warned that "we are locked into the present school year and we are locked into the present university year" (Q. 880).

25.  In the context of elite universities, where the precise A level grade may be critical to a candidate's prospects, there are clear advantages in post qualification application. The Committee urges an immediate expansion of structured year out opportunities for able candidates from less well off backgrounds, who would benefit from the maturity and certainty of applying post A level. At the same time, the Committee does not advocate wholesale changes to the school year, which in practice are only likely to benefit a small minority of school leavers. Candidates from less academic families whose performance is improving through sixth form will be among those most penalised by an earlier exam format. The long-term solution to the practical obstacles to post-qualification applications lies in the technology and the methods used to speed assessment of summer term exam work.

Funding Access Programmes

26.  In academic year 2000­01, funding available from HEFCE for programs to widen access totalled £160 million. Sir Brian Fender told the Education Sub-committee that there was no need to constrain the independence of university funding in order to promote the agenda of wider access, since the institutions were already taking action in that area. "The way forward would be in an open way to encourage universities to set their own targets against their own admissions to achieve their own objectives." (Q. 443)

27.  Yet many witnesses testified to the lack of resources available to attract applicants. Mr Peter Lampl told the Education Sub-committee: "... when you talk to these leading universities they all say, 'Well, we'd love to do more on the access and recruitment side, but, quite frankly, we can't pay our professors enough, and we can't buy scientific equipment,' there is a lot of other priorities." (Q. 362) He observed a feature of the US system which we had confirmed during our visit there, the extent to which alumni are prepared to contribute to the cost of widening access. He told the Education Sub-committee how contributions from alumni at Princeton "shot up" when they switched the focus of their fund raising from new buildings to new students. We heard how as much as a third of Princeton's running costs were now met by alumni contributions.

28.  We recommend that leading universities work far harder to attract financial support from former students for access programs to their alma maters. Those who currently benefit from the fruits of the knowledge economy should be encouraged to give back to the knowledge society. Enhancing the ability of their former university to attract the best candidates, irrespective of background circumstances, will enhance both its and their own reputation.

29.  One alarming development is the cut back in the provision of careers advice to school children in year ten. The shift in resources to those with disabilities and learning problems away from the more able students is going to make the problems of many schools even harder. Mr Hopkins of Peter Symonds Sixth Form College told the Education Sub-committee: "I can only speak in terms of my own college and it has certainly been our experience already. We currently employ our own careers co­ordinator, qualified careers officer, because we do not feel we get sufficient support from our local Careers Service... we are experiencing a 50 per cent cut in the careers officer's time who is coming to my college from last year to next year." (Q. 891)

30.  Mr Fawcett, headteacher of Thurston Community School, remarked "we have benefited enormously in school from very professional, high quality, very specific advice based upon good knowledge" (Q. 891). But Dr Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association warned that "...the development of the Connexions [service] ... is putting at risk the universality of the Careers Service, and it is only through that universality that we will get good quality advice going into the younger year groups" (Q. 892). Dr Brennan of the Association of Colleges said "I can only endorse that ... I think there are worries that the degree of Careers Service support for this particular part of the agenda may diminish as a result of the shifts which are taking place" (Q. 892).

31.  The Committee is deeply concerned that the new direction of the Connexions service, however well intentioned towards disadvantaged groups, will impair the take up of higher education opportunities by more able students in a few years' time. It is essential that the Government redress this backwards step before more damage is done to the core aim of widening access.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer's attack on Oxford

32.  On 25 May 2000, the Chancellor of the Exchequer described 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" (Press reports in, for example, The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph on 26 May 2000).

33.  We decided as a Committee not to investigate the detail of the individual case cited by the Chancellor in support of his allegations. We should report on the substance of his allegations. If true, they would amount to a damaging verdict on our elite universities. If false, they would represent a grossly irresponsible abuse of authority by a senior Government Minister.

34.  This Committee has consistently laid emphasis on the need for senior figures to ensure that their statements on education are properly evidence based (see Second Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 2000-01, OFSTED Corporate Plan 2000, HC 34). Members of the Sub-committee therefore asked all relevant witnesses to its enquiry whether the Chancellor or his office had been in contact with them before he made his statement.

    -  None of the witnesses representing Oxford University had had any contact with the Chancellor's office.

    -  Neither Professor Halsey nor Dr McCrum had any communication with his office.

    -   The Minister for Higher Education, Baroness Blackstone, had no direct contact with the Chancellor prior to his outburst. She added: "I do not honestly think that internal discussions between different Cabinet ministers are something that I ought to be relaying to this Committee. I do not know what conversations took place between the Secretary of State and the Chancellor"(Q. 1114).

35.  The Committee disagrees with the Minister. Whether or not the second most powerful member of the Government, who has direct influence over the funding of higher education institutions, has consulted with colleagues before making a damaging attack on our leading institutions is a legitimate matter of public concern. The failure to provide any evidence of such consultation is itself a serious indictment of the Chancellor and his lack of judgment in this case.

36.  The Sub-committee did however in the course of its enquiry seek to establish whether these allegations had any merit:

    -  Three witness to our hearings were asked about "the old boy network" and "the old school tie" at work in the application process. Mr Peter Lampl told the Sub-committee: "I do not think these universities have ever deliberately discriminated."(Q.337). Dr Colin Lucas responded: "I think that the allegations are fundamentally untrue and it is counter productive" (Q.834). Sir Brian Fender affirmed: "All universities are committed to wider participation".

    -  Dr Philip Evans OBE, Headteacher of Bedford School, was asked about bias which might arise from the links at governing body level between independent schools and Oxbridge. He replied: "I do not think there is any evidence that networking produces any better results, absolutely none at all, if anything quite the reverse." (Q. 555) He cited a senior admissions tutor at Cambridge who told him that a candidate from an inner city comprehensive with identical qualifications to a Bedford School candidate would obviously be preferred.

    -  Mrs Sue Fishburn, Headteacher, Leeds Girls' High School, added: "I would actually say that colleges and universities at the moment are bending over backward to show that they do not use any such network and that their academic criteria and their general non­academic criteria are as transparent as they can be" (Q. 554).

    -  Sir Kenneth Calman, Vice Chancellor of Durham University, confirmed to the Sub-committee that he felt the attack against his institution by the Deputy Prime Minister which followed the Chancellor's outburst was unfair (Q. 998).

It is instructive that no oral witness gave evidence in support of the Chancellor's contention of bias in the application system and that so many eminent witnesses rejected his claim.

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