Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 70)



  60. If you were to have that relatively short gap for those going straight on to university, would you not then also knock on the head the prospect of what might be called the traditional gap year because this now becomes such a long period that very few students will think it is appropriate for them.
  (Dr Higgins) I do not see why not. They would do their gap year and they could either apply at the end of their gap year, because that would be the application process, or they would make an application as per normal and then just take a year out.

  61. So you do not think it would have any impact on the gap year student.
  (Dr Higgins) No.

Dr Harris

  62. In your evidence to us, I asked you: "This is institutions other than Oxford and Cambridge, if people have put Oxford or Cambridge on that form higher, are less likely to give them an interview." You said, "That is correct" and that is one of the reasons for you moving to anonymise, as far as each university is concerned, the other choices in a number of years. I asked you: "That has very worrying implications for people who feel they might be marginal for Oxford or Cambridge and do not want to limit their opportunities elsewhere," and you said, "Precisely." I asked: "That might deter them from applying to Oxford and Cambridge," and you said, "It is not a universal practice by any means but there is some evidence that it happens." Do you stand by that?
  (Dr Higgins) There is some evidence that it happens.

  Dr Harris: Because Sir Kenneth Calman said that there was no evidence for these concerns; indeed, he said it was a crazy proposition.

  Chairman: In respect of Durham.

Dr Harris

  63. In respect of Durham. "So you are putting it on the record?" the Chairman asked. "Absolutely. That is a crazy statement to make." If it is not Durham, where is it and what is the evidence?
  (Dr Higgins) There are two bits of evidence I would allude to. The first is a copy of a letter which was sent to me, sent by a university to the teacher of a student. It said, "Sorry we could not give you a place on our course in history because it was in heavy demand but when we see you put us down as a substitute reserve choice anyway." Then you draw your own conclusions. That student had applied to either Oxford or Cambridge (I cannot remember which).


  64. Did they make that university?
  (Dr Higgins) No. A colleague of mine had always been against anonymity until last year, when his son applied to either Oxford or Cambridge (I cannot remember which) and he began to feel rather appalled by the sorts of letters he was getting from the other places to which he had applied. So there is some evidence. It is not universal practice but there is some evidence.

Dr Harris

  65. And obviously teachers might well pick that up.
  (Dr Higgins) Yes.

  66. And say, "Well, if you are marginal for Oxford or Cambridge it might hinder your opportunities at the one you are more likely to get into."
  (Dr Higgins) But, as of 2003 entry, there will be blindness of decisions and blindness of choices, so nobody would know where else you applied to.

  67. I am grateful to you for reiterating that. I have one last question, which is on another topic but it is an important one, this issue of access by the universities to early results. In a pre post qualification application world, where there is strong evidence that some people are not applying to universities which they do not think are "for them". In the United States most selective universities reach out and write to people saying, "Apply to us." Students who might not have thought of it, who are bright and who have got good early results—GCSE, perhaps AS results in this case—see it as an option: "I had never thought of that." They are interested: "I ought to apply." It is not possible at the moment, you indicated in your evidence. Has any progress been made in making that possible?
  (Dr Higgins) I hope so. We have written a paper and sent it to the examining boards to ask them if they could make available the pool of GCSE results for just those purposes which you suggested. We do not yet know what the answers are in relation to that but I understand the exam boards management committee (as I think they call it) is meeting either this week or next week to discuss that possibility. We will press them hard.


  68. We are coming to the end of this session, for which we are very grateful for your usual frankness and your knowledge and information. Can I just come back to something that was asked at the very beginning? If your Board do make the decision of having a common system, a common date of entry for all universities, how soon could that take place?
  (Dr Higgins) I do not know what you are driving at but I suspect in one case it cannot take place at all simply because we have one particular cohort of applicants who are applying to do the studio based part of design courses which they can apply for on the basis of their diagnostic foundation and therefore they do that quite late in the year, much later than the rest; it is in March. That apart, if we can solve the Oxbridge problem it could be done in a couple of years, I would have thought. Whenever we have a major change in the system we have to give the universities and colleges 18 months' notice.

Dr Harris

  69. Medical schools and veterinary schools have interviews as well.
  (Dr Higgins) That is right. I should say by the way that we are at the moment hoping to sign off the questionnaire tomorrow about a survey of students who applied to Oxbridge to see whether they would like to apply to both if they were given the opportunity, to see if they are bewildered or confused by the fact that they have to fill in an additional form, to see whether they feel that the 15 October closing date is the wrong one for them, to see whether they would prefer to be applying to the university rather than a college, to see whether they really know the intricacies of applying to particular colleges.


  70. You know that the majority of the board was fundamentally of the view that all universities would be seen as the same. We reiterate in the report that we have over a hundred excellent universities in this country and we are very keen for the whole university sector to be seen on the same basis. Is there anything that you have not been asked this morning or have not had the opportunity to say that you would like to say before we close this session?
  (Dr Higgins) Just one thing, and that is that the universities and colleges (perhaps a little bit later but none the less are now doing it) are really getting to grips with, as you mentioned in the report, the implications of AS. Instead of saying, "We are going to ask for three A levels", they are beginning to say, "We want so many units", say 18 units which is equivalent to three A levels, and they are also beginning to say how those units can be made up with splits of perhaps two A levels and two AS levels or a 12-unit vocational certificate and one A level. There is one medical school, who actually declared quite early, who said they wanted 21 units, which is more than three A levels, and they wanted good grades at A level in two science subjects which they would need for medicine, and then, to use their words, they said, "We strongly recommend that you do two more AS levels in completely non-science subjects. Your key skills could actually count towards those grades", so I do think that the universities and colleges are now getting to grips with this and in my view it is very encouraging.

  Chairman: When the retention report hits the light of day you will see that that is music to our ears. Thank you very much.

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