Select Committee on Education and Employment Sixth Special Report


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



The Education and Employment Committee reported to the House on Higher Education: Access in its Fourth Report of Session 2000-01, published on 8 February 2001 as HC 205. The Government's response to that Report was received on 22 March 2001. The response is reproduced as Annex I to this Special Report. We also annex a copy of the Summary of Conclusions and Recommendations from our Report.


Letter to the Chairman of the Education Sub-committee from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment

23 March 2001

Dear Barry,

I am responding to the Committee's Fourth Report about Access to Higher Education which was published on 8 February 2001.

I welcome a large number of the Report's recommendations. As you know, widening participation is key to our higher education policy and we believe that everyone who has the ability to benefit from higher education should have the opportunity to do so. I have also made it plain that this must be achieved without any drop in standards and agree that quotas would be inappropriate.

Several of the recommendations are already addressed by the Excellence Challenge. The most striking of these is the proposal to create Higher Education Action Zones. From April 2001 the Excellence Challenge will create new partnerships between secondary schools, FE colleges and HE institutions in 47 Excellence in Cities areas and 45 Education Action Zones. These partnerships will be part of a programme, which is worth more than £190m over the next three years, to work with young people from the age of 13 to create pathways into higher education in some of our most disadvantaged urban and rural communities.

The Committee is right to point out that raising attainment at 16 and 18, and encouraging young people to stay in school, is central to widening participation in higher education. By 2001/02, this Government will have increased overall funding per pupil by £500 since 1997/98. In addition, the proportion of students gaining 5 good GCSEs (or equivalent) has risen from 45% in 1997, to 48% in 1999, and again to 49% in 2000. The proportion of students leaving school with no qualifications decreased from 7.7% in 1997 to 6.0% in 1999, and again to 5.6% in 2000.

The Committee also recommended that institutions who do not reach their HEFCE benchmarks should come under particular scrutiny. I agree. Whilst there is room for improvement in the robustness of the benchmark data there is no doubt that every HE institution should carefully consider the data which informs it about the profile of its intake so that questions can be asked and action taken where necessary. I believe that the HEFCE will demand greater accuracy in planning and greater accountability for expenditure in this area and that progress by each institution will be monitored annually. The Excellence Challenge will provide HEIs with funds to increase their outreach activities and to employ additional admissions and recruitment staff. I hope that this combination of better information and increased scrutiny with increased funding will lead to a real change in the importance that institutions attach to widening participation.

The Report provides a constructive agenda for modernising the admissions process. I agree that higher education institutions must manage their admissions process professionally and fairly, with clear principles for interviewing, and criteria for making decisions on admissions (including decisions on "near misses") made as transparent as possible. It is vital that institutions respond positively to the new AS qualifications and the new UCAS tariff. My officials have been working closely with the sector to achieve this. As far as post­qualification admissions is concerned, as you know, the LGA is consulting on changes to the school year.

I welcome ideas to encourage young people to think seriously about the option of higher education at an early age, such as your recommendation for passing on the names of successful GCSE students to institutions. The awarding bodies are considering this with UCAS. I will also watch with great interest the outcome to the recommendation that all institutions should have the same closing date for applications.

The agenda for change must of course be underpinned by future research, including research into the comparison of degree success by school type and A level grades, the possible identification of first generation entrants and a thorough evaluation of existing policies. I know that HEFCE, UCAS and others are engaged in research and I would encourage any gaps in our evidence base to be filled.

I was pleased to note that the Committee did not find the current system of financial support excessively complex. We believe it is fair and works well. We recognise that some students have additional costs on entering HE, and that these students are usually from precisely the groups that we would like to see better represented. That is why we have increased funding through Access and Hardship Funds more than fourfold since we took office and it will reach £93m in 2001/02. We are also introducing a new Childcare Grant in September this year, which will be based on actual costs. And, as part of the Excellence Challenge, we are introducing Opportunity Bursaries this September of £2000 each, to give young people from lower socio­economic groups the confidence to enter HE. The Committee referred to the student loan repayment threshold. This was introduced in April 2000 but is being kept under review. We are committed already to a review after the first year of operation of the impact on small firms of collecting the repayments through PAYE. The Report also looked forward to the evaluation of the Education Maintenance Allowances. I am pleased to say that the evaluation of the first year of the scheme has now been published. The results are very encouraging and show an increase in participation of 5% among eligible young people. We will continue to monitor the HE student support arrangements more generally.

I would like in addition to address some of the other particular points raised in the Report.

Postcode premium and rural areas

We have already agreed increases in postcode premium funding. Last May, I announced an increase in funding from £20m to £24m, and since then I have increased it by a further £6m per year through the Excellence Challenge. The postcode premium is intended to be a reimbursement to institutions for the additional resources they have invested in recruiting and retaining students from lower socio­economic groups. It is not intended as an incentive payment to institutions and I see our major investment in this area as being the Excellence Challenge which will drive forward greater recruitment of young people from lower socio­economic groups. HEFCE and others are evaluating the effectiveness of the postcode premium. It would be sensible to wait to see their findings before committing more funds through this route.

I recognise the Committee's concerns about rural areas. This concerned us too, and it is one of the reasons why I have now included Education Action Zones in the Excellence Challenge.

Scholastic Aptitude Tests

We are aware of the useful work Peter Lampl has done and welcome the contribution made by the Sutton Trust to the debate on assessing potential for higher education. I do however believe that further evidence is needed and so continue to study their research with interest.

I appreciate the commitment which you and your colleagues have put into this Report, and your ongoing interest in the issues it raises. UUK have agreed to lead a group to review and modernise admissions to higher education and will be meeting with other interested parties in the near future. I expect the agenda to be taken forward with all possible speed.

Best wishes,


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