Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Welcome to our Committee again. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since we last met. You would know, Tony, very well that not only have we produced a report on access to higher education but also, I have to say with some degree of satisfaction, we completed yesterday our Retention in Higher Education report, which will be published next week. We are providing some interesting meat and drink for you from the Committee. When we had an away day, just before I became Chair of the Committee, one of the things which came out very strongly from the deliberations was that the Committee should not just do a report and then walk away from it at that stage; the view was that the Committee should see through the reported recommendations and come back to them. In a sense this is the process we are going through today. The dust has settled a little bit on our report, there were some pretty strong recommendations that affect your work. We had an informal discussion with Chris Price this morning on the ongoing process in terms of post qualification access, but we thought we would have a more formal discussion with yourself on the implications of some of the recommendations that have been made and the feasibility of introducing them faster rather than slower. I wondered if you would like to say anything in terms of how you have reacted to our first report.

  (Dr Higgins) I thought it was an excellent report, and indeed wrote to you and told you so. I think this session comes about four or five days too early because I have a meeting with my Board on Friday, when we are going to have a first look at the two specific proposals you made to us about trying to harmonise the applications dates and asking a question on the form about "first generation" applicants to higher education. Also, we have approached the validating bodies, the awarding bodies, to see if they will release the GCSE results, which is one of the recommendations in the report. They have a management committee—I think it is this week or the beginning of next—when they are going to consider that. I hope the signs are positive.

  2. Could you follow through the first point, in terms of the question on the application form about first generation applicants.
  (Dr Higgins) The application form gets a bit cluttered. It is there to be used as an application form rather than necessarily to collect data. On the other hand, increasingly applicants are applying electronically, in which case the size of the form does not matter and the data can be collected quite easily. My only personal fear about the possibility of answering the question, whatever the question might be—and that is the second issue—is that we must be careful not to offend the Human Rights Act. Under that Act, everybody has the right of education and if you were seen to be, in some way, shape or form, favouring one group rather than another, you might then get attacked by another group saying, "It's not fair, favouring those from certain post code areas" or those who are first time applicants or whatever it may be.

  3. But you make that strong point about the benefit of being able to identify students from postal code area.
  (Dr Higgins) Yes, indeed.

  4. Is that any different from knowing whether a student is a first generation student?
  (Dr Higgins) No. You need to know where your students are coming from. You need to know, in particular, where they are not coming from. Then you can market successfully in those areas where they are not coming from. But I just think sometimes that if you start going for quotas—which I know the Committee said it did not want to see—but if you start going for what is apparent positive discrimination, then it is just possible that somebody might be open to some accusation of some bias under the Human Rights Act.

  5. Could I say that I thought we had pretty much nailed that on the head. Certainly I think some of this Committee were surprised by only a couple of reactions to our access report, that came from one or two journalists and one or two academics, that seemed to link the recommendations we had made, which we believed allowed universities to identify and follow through talented students from non-traditional backgrounds, to a view that that meant a reduction in quality. In the report, as you remember, we said we believe that what we have failed to do in this country at the moment is to find talented people with high ability and get them into appropriate higher education, whatever that may be. So the Committee was adamant that we did not want any reduction in standards, we did not want quotas, but we did want an ability to get across this final frontier of finding talented people who have the potential for higher education but do not have that moment arrive. I do not think, in terms of the Human Rights Act or any other Act, that really can be seen as a problem, can it?
  (Dr Higgins) No, and—if I may volunteer some information about some planning that we are doing—we are planning to put together a careers advice package, delivered electronically, which will help young people and not so young people make crucial decisions where they need to make them. One clearly is, on entry to higher education. What would be your choice of GCEs or VCEs? and what would be your choice of GCSEs at the age of 13 or 14? One of the reasons we would like to go out and give them advice on that is that they do not muck up their choices at 16-plus or going into higher education at 18-plus. We are going to try to see if we can alert young people at the age of 13 and 14 who would not normally be thinking of going to university, but they might well do so. That is the whole point of what we are trying to do. Also, as part of the work we are doing, we are issuing them all with a smartcard which contains all their education details, which can be updated, and all their subject interests and so on and so forth. We can then begin, we think, to enthuse everybody of that age about the possibility of going to university. There is talent there which does not get drawn on.

Charlotte Atkins

  6. Should we be starting earlier than the age of 13/14, long before they start looking at the GCSE options?
  (Dr Higgins) I think you probably should, actually.

  7. What about that gap year that we have in year 8.
  (Dr Higgins) It could be early readers in Primary school, where you are learning to read at a very young age and So-and-so's brother or sister has just gone off to university.

  8. But you were talking about blocking off options and not blocking off options. Given that some people, or even most people, choose their GCSE options in year 9, when they are 13/14, but many of them have already started thinking about what those options are, what you really should be looking at is when they enter secondary school or, indeed, before they enter, in middle school. Perhaps you should be looking at an earlier time.
  (Dr Higgins) I take that advice. We are in the planning stages and we are trying to get it resourced.

  9. You talk about the Human Rights Act, do you not think at the moment we block off certain groups of people? In terms of higher eduction, how would you consider that that is affected by the Human Rights Act in terms of a right to equal access to higher education?
  (Dr Higgins) I do not know what the answer to that question is.

  10. Is that not equally valid to you saying you are worried about systems which might encourage groups to go, somehow disadvantaging previously advantaged groups?
  (Dr Higgins) Yes. I mean, there will have to be some case law and it may well be that the first case brought falls.

  11. The Human Rights Act could work either way then.
  (Dr Higgins) Well, it does give you the right to education. It is non age specific and it is life-long.

  12. We were talking about first generation students. How would you define a first generation student?
  (Dr Higgins) I think it would be those who are applying neither of whose parents have been to higher education before or whose brothers or sisters have not been in higher education before. To get a sensible answer to the question, it is going to have to be quite a tight question.

  13. How would that be complicated by the fact that we have so many more mature students in our system than they have in the United States.
  (Dr Higgins) I do not see it more complicated or less complicated. We have been asking the same questions of young people as well as mature people. I am just thinking about the size of the form now, but it might be an interesting question to ask of mature candidates whether their sons or daughters have been to a university or college or not, and whether perhaps they have been inspired by their sons and daughters.

  14. How would you handle those students perhaps who had started a course, had dropped out, and then several years later, as mature students, have decided that they want to apply again and go through the whole course. How would that be affected?
  (Dr Higgins) I think the questions would be there on the application form and they would answer them truthfully. Where on the form it says: "Previous Educational Experience" they might want to say, "Well, I did a year at so-and-so and I dropped out, but I might have passed the year." They might have dropped out because of financial reasons.

  15. Therefore, that would suggest you would like some sort of accreditation for years completed in higher education.
  (Dr Higgins) Personally, I would, yes.


  16. There is no penalty for lying on the form, is there?
  (Dr Higgins) Yes, there is.

  17. If you were the son or daughter of a barrister and you said he was a plumber and had never been to university—
  (Dr Higgins) I do not think they would find that out. But if you said you had grades at A level or whatever that you did not have, then you would be guilty of fraud. And there is a lot of it around.

Charlotte Atkins

  18. Do you see any barriers to UCAS introducing such a system of monitoring first generation students?
  (Dr Higgins) No, I do not think so. It is for the Board to decide—and we shall be consulting our admissions officers at our meeting next month -but I cannot see any barrier to that.

  19. So we are really talking about something that could be done quite quickly quite soon.
  (Dr Higgins) It could be done for the year entering in 2003, because the current form is now being printed (even as we speak, actually).

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