Examination of Witness (Questions 88 -
MONDAY 10 DECEMBER 2001
88. Thank you very much for coming to the Committee,
Professor Rees. Having, outside, established that your mother
worked in this Palace for a long time, and a very valuable contribution
she made too, I can say we know your mother but neither of us
knew Lloyd George. Thank you very much for coming and thank you
also for the work you have. I think I am the closest to a Welsh
politician here because, although I represent Huddersfield, I
did start in South Wales, so I know your institution quite well.
It is very nice to have someone from Cardiff here. Can we start
by saying that you heard the evidence we have taken from HEFCE
and I wonder if, hearing that evidence, you had the feeling of
frustration that we had missed something out. What would you have
asked them if you had been sitting here instead of sitting listening?
(Professor Rees) May I first of all thank you very
much indeed for giving me the opportunity to come and give evidence
to this Committee on this very important issue. I found the evidence
given by Professor Newby and his colleague absolutely fascinating
and agreed on a great deal of it, but it did seem to me that the
questions which to my mind are really important came right at
the end, and that is the issue of progression through FE and HE.
At the moment completely different funding systems pertain and
that really does create an awful lot of difficulties. While HEFCE
were putting a lot of emphasis on 14 to 19, and correctly so,
I have a great concern for mature age students. You can be mature
at 20 in some institutions and 24 in others. Certainly in an area
like Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom, where there
has historically been a low pattern of participation in higher
education, I believe we must try to find ways of bringing adult
learners back into the system and to make that transition from
FE to HE as viable and as feasible as possible, and at the moment
it is actually very difficult.
89. It seemed to me, reading some of your work,
you felt the present system was not that bad, you do a little
bit of this and a little bit of that, and you wanted a mixture
perhaps similar to the one we have got but it needed trimming
at the edges for particularly poor students. Is that a caricature
of your work?
(Professor Rees) I think I would say we have much
stronger views than that. We think the current system is deeply
confusing, particularly in terms of access and hardship grants.
There are up to about 27 different pots which potentially a hard-up
student could access. The rules are extraordinarily difficult,
some of them seem to depend on whether there is an R in the month
and whether you were born under a certain star sign almost, it
is enormously complicated. Some of them are means tested, others
are not, they are administered by different bodies, and we heard
a lot of evidence from support services in different institutions
who were pulling their hair out at the beginning of every academic
session because the rules would change on this one, there would
be a new system introduced there, and nobody really had a good
word to say about it. I would also like to emphasise that our
research found 60 per cent of the access and hardship funds were
spent on child care and transport, and this seemed to be absolutely
terrible to my mind, particularly for child care. It smacks of
the workhouse if you are having to feed your children on something
you apply for. Therefore we would like to see a really strategic
approach to the child care and transport needs of students in
FE and HE which would then take away the need for students and
support services to spend all the time they have to do on means
testing access and hardship funds to pay those kinds of bills.
90. Can you tell us what the other main recommendations
(Professor Rees) Some of the ones which hit us between
the eyes were that there is £26 million already in unpaid
fees, and this is in the first year or so of the operation of
this scheme. I was lucky enough to have a judge on the investigation
group and I asked him what would happen if an institution took
a student to court to try to recover unpaid fees, and apparently
what would happen is that the student would be obliged to pay
£1 a week until it was paid off. This does not seem to me
to be at all a sensible way of funding higher education. That
issue of unpaid fees was a very significant one. I think another
important point is the interface between the benefits system and
the student support system is very rough around the edges and
the group that are most affected by that are disabled students
where there is a lack of logic and consistency if you apply the
rules from the two different sources. We would really like to
see the Government look at that and try to get a much better interface
for disabled students. The third major point that hit us between
the eyes was the number of students doing paid work to support
themselves and the hours that they were working. Quite a lot were
working 35 hours or more.
(Professor Rees) Thirty-five hours or more and they
were signed up for full-time courses. This led to two things.
Lecturers told us that it led to a grade deflation, in other words
students got a grade lower than they would have done had they
not had to spend this time in paid work, but also some very exhausted
students, for the most part mature students with families, reported
to us what they described as a poverty of learning experience.
In other words, they had come to university with the idea not
simply of learning things and gaining a qualification but becoming
a more rounded person, being able to engage in perhaps voluntary
activities, civic activities, sporting and voluntary work, whatever,
and because they were having to spend every minute that they could
doing paid work to support themselves they were not able to do
that, they ran in, went to their lectures, ran off and were up
all night writing essays. That impoverishment of the learning
experience, of course, not only affected them but this was the
experience they were telling others about who were considering
coming back to education. I think that would be quite a deterrent
to them. There are lots and lots but I will just mention one more.
The fourth one is the accumulation of debt. Research we commissioned
showed that in FE there was a shortfall of about £958 a year
between income and expenditure for a full-time FE student. For
a full-time HE student it was rather more than that. The accumulation
of the debt, particularly for an HE student, meant to my mind
very few students would be persuaded to go on to do the masters
or PhD work. Graduates marry graduates, you are putting debts
together, trying to apply for a mortgage. These are the sorts
of tales that are being fed to people down the chain, if you like,
to people thinking about going on into higher education. I think
we need to unpick all of that very, very quickly if, instead of
reaching those targets that we have been hearing about, we are
going to start going down in terms of the supply chain.
92. I would like to follow up a bit more about
the issue of support for students. You have talked about 27 different
pots and a mixture of things. There are two things to explore.
You did propose two pots instead of 27, one called the Learning
Maintenance Bursary and the other Financial Contingency Funds.
I would like to know a little bit more about your thinking in
relation to that. If you can include in that why you think that
would make things better given we know getting messages out and
people developing their understanding of how the system works,
whether they are going to have to pay fees or not, is not particularly
(Professor Rees) First of all, it is much simpler.
It would be one means tested way of determining whether somebody
would be eligible for something or not. It would enable the potential
student to know right at the beginning what their financial situation
would be. At the moment we invite students to take a risk to come
to university knowing that there are Access and Hardship Funds
that you can apply for, you may or may not be successful this
year, next year or the year after. It removes that risk from potential
students, particularly those with family responsibilities. Because
it is means tested we think it would also mean that parents of
better off students could continue to support them. At the moment
parents of better off students pay less for their young people
going through higher education than they did under the old system,
they are the ones who have benefited the most from the new system.
93. Why is that?
(Professor Rees) Because in the old days there would
be no fees to pay certainly but because the maintenance grants
were means tested the parents of wealthier children would, in
effect, have to maintain their children. Those wealthier students
now also get access to publically subsidised student loans, the
same as everybody else, and we collected evidence which showed
us that some wealthy students, very wisely, were taking out the
maximum publicly subsidised student loans and buying ISAs, going
on skiing holidays and so on, or putting deposits down on houses.
So Learning Maintenance Bursaries that are means tested would
ensure that public money was going where it was needed, to support
people who did not have wealthy parents to support them through
higher education. The Financial Contingency Fund is really for
emergencies, not to support childcare and transport, they should
be dealt with in a proper strategy, it is to deal with sudden
shortfalls, emergencies, that kind of difficulty. We felt that
Learning Maintenance Bursaries, coupled with income contingent
94. I wondered whether you would explain that
because I felt it was rather a mouthful.
(Professor Rees) The idea is that you would abolish
front-loaded tuition fees, ie fees that you pay when you join,
and you replace them by end-loaded, that is ones that you pay
once you have graduated, but we would make them income contingent,
that is you had to earn the graduate premium, the advantage of
being a graduate and earning a bit more, you would have to be
in that kind of job before you are eligible to make that contribution.
We put that figure at £25,000 a year. One of the reasons
for this is we have been hearing from Professor Newby that some
private sector companies are very happy to write off student debts
as they recruit graduates but this does not happen in the public
sector and one of the consequences of the current system that
we are already experiencing is a fall off in the application of
mature age women students in particular, they are the biggest
group, for courses like social work. There will be a real crisis
in social work in a few years' time unless this is addressed.
95. There is now.
(Professor Rees) Because these people are not going
to be in a positionIf they are of a mature age and they
are not going to be terribly well paid in community youth work,
social work, that is a debt that is of concern to them. Under
our system of an end loaded income contingent graduate endowment
scheme then they would have to be earning enough to be eligible
to make that contribution. So if they go into youth work in a
rural area and they never earn £25,000 it is not a problem
for them, that is the idea of it.
96. That is very interesting and certainly I
do not think there are many social workers who earn £25,000.
That was my previous profession and I know a lot about that. Has
there been any work done on whether that is going to bring in
the amount of money that is required? We heard earlier about the
difficulty in looking at how higher education is funded and while
HEFCE were not prepared to say anything about student maintenance
or whatever, they were very clear if they did not get it right
they could lose the money which would mean the courses would go,
etc. Has some work been done on financial modelling for that?
(Professor Rees) At the moment our calculations are
we knowwe knowonly 50 per cent of students are eligible
to pay fees. Large groups of the public are not aware of that.
Only 50 per cent are currently eligible to pay fees. If we had
the arrangement that we are proposing we anticipate that more
than 50 per cent of the graduates would earn more than £25,000,
and there are figures to support that, but we are protecting those
who go into low paid public or voluntary sector employment.
Chairman: You heard Professor Newby, he said
£600 million came out of the pot.
97. £650 million.
(Professor Rees) Minus £26 million that has not
98. Minus £26 million that has not been
paid. It is not going to go into better pay for university teachers,
(Professor Rees) That is a political decision. If
I may take this opportunity, I hope there will be some resource
for university teachers and I would particularly like to mention
the issue of addressing the gender pay gap in university teachers,
which has been extremely well documented and very, very badly
needs to be addressed.
Chairman: The Bett Report and so on. I am going
to switch to Valerie Davey because I know she has a time constraint.
99. Yes, I am sorry I will have to leave, I
apologise to you personally. You have now got this discrepancy
between saying that wealthy parents should in fact be supporting
but you have then end loaded it on to the student.
(Professor Rees) We end-load the fees component. The
fees component is not separate from the bursary, the support,
the maintenance. It is the fees and the maintenance. What we say
is that the individual is responsible for the fees after they
graduate, the wealthy parent is responsible for the maintenance
of the wealthy student, and through bursaries the public sector
would support those who are less well off.