Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 120 - 140)



  120. How about the longer term? When you first mentioned income I assumed you were talking about their life income, you meant their income as a student.
  (Professor Rees) Yes.

  121. What about long-term, their marketability, the jobs they might be eligible for, the quality of the institution, whether the degree is highly regarded?
  (Professor Rees) There are no guarantees on income and, of course, income attached to particular walks of life are variable across the United Kingdom depending on local labour markets to a certain extent for graduate professions. I think any kind of information on that could only be indicative. It would be a pity, in a sense, if courses were marketed principally or purely on the anticipated remuneration of occupations linked with that particular degree subject. We do find that many employers are interested in recruiting graduates because they are graduates, not particularly because of the particular subject that they have studied. I would want to see a freedom of choice in subject and in institution in terms of intellectual curiosity because students who are intellectually driven by the subject they have chosen do much better than those who are doing it to get a certificate. I would just like to see open choice on that with as much information available as possible on income, what it would be like to study at that institution, what the support mechanisms are and so on.

  122. You seem to be calling for rationality as far as the next three years is concerned but not too worried about a lack of economic rationality, if you like, subsequently. One of the things that I think worries a lot of students is, okay, it is good to go to university but is it good to go to this university to do this course or is this, frankly, a bit undervalued by employers, colleagues.
  (Professor Rees) I am not sure that I have got anything helpful particularly to say on that. It does seem to me that labour markets can change very quickly. The sorts of skills that are in demand can change over time. The sorts of generic skills and employability that hopefully all graduates end up having are very marketable in themselves, but the notion of a very planned higher education system with rationing, if you like, or sweeteners for some courses rather than others can lead to all kinds of difficulties. We saw this, I think, when teacher training courses in England offered a golden hello. People who wanted to train to be teachers from Wales who had signed up to be trained in Wales did not get such a golden hello because there was no problem recruiting teachers in Wales and the very next year, of course, all these Welsh based potential teacher trainees went to England and the Welsh institutions immediately overnight had a very deep recruitment problem. In a devolved constitution, as we have at the moment, if you start tinkering with sweeteners and subsidies or whatever on an individual course basis you can really do quite difficult things to the market.

  123. That was going to be my last question but I have just one more. You have reminded me of a question I was going to ask. It is one thing to talk about devolved from institution to institution and course to course, but do you think it is right that English students should be discriminated against in Scotland?
  (Professor Rees) It depends what you mean by discrimination. It does seem to me that the United Kingdom ought to have some aspects of the funding system that are coherent so that any student from any part of the United Kingdom can study in any other part of the United Kingdom without benefit or hindrance, if you like.


  124. You looked quite closely presumably at the Scottish experiment?
  (Professor Rees) Yes.

  125. What was your evaluation of that?
  (Professor Rees) In Scotland they are mostly four year courses because their first year is similar to the A levels and there are far more students living at home, it is quite different in that regard from the rest of the United Kingdom. I think my own investigation group had a lot of sympathy with the recommendations of the Cubie Report and we think they would have worked better had the Scottish Parliament implemented more of them than they did.

  126. Similarly with Dearing?
  (Professor Rees) Yes. Dearing got it right.

  127. Sorry?
  (Professor Rees) Dearing got it right, or a lot of it right.

  128. So the thrust of your report was taking us back to Dearing?
  (Professor Rees) We looked very carefully obviously at everybody's recommendations in this area and we thought if more of the Dearing recommendations had been implemented then we would not have so many of the difficulties that we really do have in the system today, and I must emphasise on the basis of nine independent hearings, three Chatham House seminars and 1,500 organisations and individuals that we took evidence on, the system is not working.

Paul Holmes

  129. My first very quick question goes back to the ground David was covering. We have got 32 per cent roughly going into higher education now and the Prime Minister is aiming for 50 per cent, by and large we have got all the people we are going to get from the socio-economic group we call the middle class, they always took 70 per cent of university places anyway, if you are going to expand from 32 per cent of the nation to 50 the only area you can get that from is from the working class, the poorer end. Is that the way you can argue that there is clear evidence that the current financial system is a deterrent to the expansion up to 50 per cent because it would affect that audience which traditionally was not going to university but it is the only place the Government can go to expand to 50 per cent?
  (Professor Rees) Yes, absolutely. The evidence that we have from existing FE students who had been considering going to HE very clearly expressed concern about not being able to afford to do it. We have personal testimonies from people in further education who had been doing very well, who had made that big leap back into further education, the really tricky one, and doing really well in their FE college but said "my family has been suffering while I have been trying to manage this part-time FE with having a job and running a home" and they would love to go on to higher education but would not put their family through it. That is where we are losing people who could potentially go into HE.

  130. We have had the very detailed Cubie Report in Scotland with lots of excellent recommendations, now we have the detailed Rees Report with lots of excellent recommendations, the Government are now looking again at what they are doing, are they calling you in as expert witnesses or are they re-inventing the wheel?
  (Professor Rees) The Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning at the National Assembly for Wales, Jane Davidson, has had several discussions with Estelle Morris on these issues. She has made the point that this report is evidence-based, it is research-based policy, it is a group which collected an awful lot of research and commissioned some research and some statistical analyses, collected evidence from employers, families, parents, training providers, trade unions, local businessmen, who reported a decline in their income in bar takings—a very great concern for a small place—and letting agents who talked of the difficulty they were having now that students were not able to afford the sort of rents they wanted to charge. We heard from so many people and have analysed that, so this is not just the opinion of nine people, this is evidence-based research and as a result it is very difficult to argue with it. The recommendations are rooted in evidence.

  131. A final question from a slightly different angle, where can you see changes in the benefit system which might affect all this? For example, when I was a student in the 1970s you could still claim benefits in the vacation, indeed the room I signed on in was the one used in The Full Monty in Sheffield. Is there any scope for bringing the benefits system back into it?
  (Professor Rees) I am not sure it is appropriate to think of it in terms of benefits. I mentioned earlier on there is a terrible difficulty in the interface between student support systems and the benefit systems, particularly surrounding the needs of disabled students. There are real clashes, if you like, in terms of regulations, that very badly need to be sorted out to enable disabled students to progress. I mentioned earlier that 60 per cent of access and hardship funds are spent by students on child care and transport, and that seems to me wholly inappropriate. We need to have strategic approaches to accommodate the transport and child care needs of people who are learners in further education or higher education. It really should not be terribly difficult to identify their particular needs and work them into local transport planning systems and so on. If you were to take those out, that 60 per cent, from what is currently spent on access and hardship, so it is gone, "saved", if you like, then there is a possibility of looking at the interface between student support and benefit systems for crises and emergencies. There are particular groups of students who appear to have nowhere to go and we have identified this in the report. Children of foreign-born adults, for example, in some cases over here on a temporary basis, who are not eligible for anything. There are other particular small categories who seem to slip through the net.

  132. What about an area like housing benefit, given that students renting in the private sector normally have to sign on for the whole 52 weeks of the year and not just for the 30 weeks of term time?
  (Professor Rees) The housing situation for students is very alarming. It is quite clear there are some very unscrupulous individuals taking advantage of students' naivety in terms of signing pieces of paper which they then learn has meant they have promised to do all sorts of things like signing for 52 weeks when they thought they were only signing for the term time. I think that whole area of housing for students needs to be monitored and policed much better than it is, and probably much better regulated as well. That would certainly help in terms of hardship for a number of students who have been caught out by unscrupulous landlords at the moment.


  133. So overall, if your recommendations were taken on by the Government, what are the cost implications?
  (Professor Rees) It would mean investing more money in student support, that is for sure, but on the other hand if we had child care and transport strategies that were really effective, that would save money, if you like, for the student support bill. There would be a lot of savings in terms of the existing higher education student support services which spend a lot of time duplicating means testing that is already done by the local authority in some instances for tuition fees, a whole lot of bureaucracy around the administration of all of these systems, that would all be saved. So it is not simply expenditure, we are wasting a lot of money on administering a very cumbersome system at the moment. So certainly in our recommendations we went to try to reduce a lot of that bureaucracy and make clean, simple, transparent systems which everyone would be aware of up-front. It would cost more, for sure. We said that to cover all of the recommendations in Wales would be £58 million. The Minister in the National Assembly for Wales has doubled the budget for student support for this financial year and intends to add another £20 million for the next academic year, so she is moving towards trying to meet what the bill will be. The difficulty for the National Assembly for Wales, of course, is that it does not have the power to introduce learning maintenance bursaries and financial contingency funds in higher education, but it can in further education and is giving serious consideration to this. But, in my own view, it would be much neater if in terms of student support there was a UK system in place.


  134. We are steadily moving to the conclusion of this session and thank you for your patience. Just two last questions. The IPPR came out with a report a week ago today with some rather different recommendations from your own, and I wonder if you had sight of that or if you had any views on it.
  (Professor Rees) Unfortunately I was in Ireland last week so I have not yet seen the IPPR Report.

  135. One of the strong recommendations, or one of the concerns certainly, was that the method of offering loans at reduced rates, which I think you have touched on, is a very regressive policy; it offers loans, as you said, to people who can afford market rates. Did you work out the cost implications of that for Wales?
  (Professor Rees) No, it is quite difficult to disaggregate because do you just look at students resident in Wales at Welsh institutions, do you look at students who are from Wales in institutions elsewhere, or students just at institutions in Wales. It would be very difficult to disaggregate just for Wales. It is clear that there is some waste of publicly subsidised resources in the system which is currently used, and it is not being accessed by students who would benefit from it but who are debt averse.

  136. Did you take any evidence from Nick Barr from the London School of Economics?
  (Professor Rees) Yes.

  137. Did you look at our two HE inquiries of last year?
  (Professor Rees) Yes, we did.

  138. That is a blessed relief, that someone did! My last question is, the Minister for Higher Education will be sitting in your seat on Wednesday morning. What do you think we should ask her?
  (Professor Rees) I think it would be good to ask her how she might meet the challenge of some of the problems which have been identified in Cubie and in our own report—problems which really cannot be sustained—and whether she would be of the view that the recommendations we have put forward would in fact be the best way forward for the UK.

  139. Were you disappointed there was very little mention, if any, of education in the Chancellor's Autumn Statement?
  (Professor Rees) Yes, of course.

  140. Thank you very much for your attendance.
  (Professor Rees) Thank you.

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