Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 88 - 99)




  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 were?
  (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.

  91. Thirty-five?
  (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.

Ms Munn

  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 well developed.
  (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 end-loaded contributions—

Ms Munn

  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 position—If 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 know—we know—only 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.

Ms Munn

  97. £650 million.
  (Professor Rees) Minus £26 million that has not been paid.


  98. Minus £26 million that has not been paid. It is not going to go into better pay for university teachers, is it?
  (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.

Valerie Davey

  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.

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