Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. Have you any data on the proportion of students and their social background who take up mini-cabbing and bar work, etcetera, etcetera, in order to avoid unsustainable debt as they see it and what impact that has on their educational attainment? In other words, do you know if they are prejudiced doubly?
  (Mr Normington) I do not think I do have precise figures about that. A substantial proportion of students work while they are going through university now. In my mind I have a figure of around 40 per cent working on a regular basis but I would have to check that figure.[1]

  21. Is the tendency for those people from poorer families to tend to do more of that sort of work therefore undermining their studies?
  (Mr Normington) It is not just people from poorer families working.

  22. I appreciate that but that is the propensity.
  (Mr Normington) Clearly if you are not getting as much support from your family then you are going to look for other ways of supporting yourself, and working is one way.

  23. Are you sympathetic to the idea of a graduate tax?
  (Mr Normington) I do not think it is for me to say whether I am sympathetic or not.

  24. Do you know how much extra tax the Exchequer could expect to get from someone with a degree versus someone with A-levels?
  (Mr Normington) I do not know that. I know that a graduate is likely to earn substantially more.

  25. I think the figure is between 30,000 and 50,000 more in tax. I also understand that if a graduate tax were charged by raising National Insurance ceilings to a 40 per cent kick in we would raise between 9,500 and 14,500. Given that the money could be reined in and paid for itself by a graduate tax, are there many discussions on this going on?
  (Mr Normington) I am not really willing to be drawn about the discussions going on in the Department.

  26. I simply make the point that I hope you are engaged in the idea of investing in human capital and making a profit on it and helping everybody. On the issue of standards, would you be surprised to hear stories of universities phoning headmasters asking whether they had anyone with three Us at A-level at their school so people can go into university without any A-levels and get funding? In any such cases do you find a very large drop-out after year one of people who have got poor grades, which has nothing to do with social background?
  (Mr Normington) One answer to you is that we do not want to see a lowering of standards as participation is widened. I do not think that is a helpful course of action at all. I would be a little bit surprised to hear that, but I know that universities set their own admission levels and I do not influence those at all, in fact I am forbidden from doing that, and they obviously do look at a range of factors other than just qualifications.

  27. Professor Newby, maybe you can give us some illumination and provide some information on how many people are going to university with no A-levels at all in order for the university to get the money.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) My comment on the issue of headteachers ringing up and asking for students in that fashion is that it is rank bad practice on admissions.

  28. I appreciate that but they are desperate to fill the places they have got and get the funding for them.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) However, there are many students who present themselves to universities for admission who do not have A-levels who quite legitimately are offered places because of their particular background circumstances, and often mature students, for example, who have not got those qualifications, are admitted, sometimes—usually in fact—after having gained a qualification after having undertaken a foundation course.

  29. Do you know of any research that suggests that the preconceptions of children as to whether they expect to be train drivers or stockbrokers, or whatever, are made at a very early age and it is quite difficult to break out of that, and so self-esteem and expectation is a driving force of later success? What action are you taking to combat that in early years of teaching?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) If I can break down your question. There is evidence, first of all, to show that attitudes to learning are formed at a very early age. Certainly by the ages of 13 or 14 they are relatively fixed and that is why, if we are to raise aspirations amongst young people as institutions, as universities, we must work with the schools to intervene at those early years. Secondly—

  30. May I interrupt you just for a second on that because you said things were relatively fixed by the age of 15. I recall seeing a television programme that tracked people and interviewed these people asking "what are you going to be?" and they came back to them when they were 15 or 20 and found that in 95 per cent of cases they had in fact fulfilled their expectations, and the idea they were genetically programmed to become train drivers was unconvincing.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I was not suggesting for one minute that they were genetically programmed—

  31. This was decided at 15 as opposed to five.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, but not on the basis of genetics, on the basis of the culture, the culture of the family, the culture of the community, the culture of the peer group within which they are operating. I can remember last year a newspaper headline in reference to admissions to university, which is something raised in the Report about the differential between girls' and boys' aspirations, saying "It is not cool to be clever", and I think, amongst young boys in particular, there is that factor and it is formed amongst their peer group. That was the kind of thing.

  32. What is Oxford or Cambridge, or any university for that matter, doing to raise expectations and enthusiasm among students who are normally not very good at forming skills in that respect?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) They are doing a number of things. First of all, they are employing more recruitment officers to go out into schools and give talks in schools, to work with school teachers to raise aspirations. They are also doing more in the way of running summer schools and organised visits to the institutions, specifically aimed at those schools which have not had a tradition of students applying to those universities.
  (Mr Normington) There is quite a bit of evidence from those summer schools that by introducing potential students to the possibility of going to those places and breaking down the mystique, you can begin to change perceptions. There is some really encouraging evidence from that.

  33. Obviously the statistics from Oxford and Cambridge, as I understand them, show that a similar proportion of people apply from any social background. The problem is that many schools never have people applying so there is a more proactive attempt to go into schools that never apply. Is that correct?
  (Mr Normington) That is correct.

  34. In terms of women in higher education—and I know David Rendel is a bit interested in this—my understanding of senior lecturers is that there is something like a ratio of 3:1 in favour of men. There are all sorts of explanations for this, but would you be aware of any pressure that is being put on female lecturers in higher education to terminate their jobs or change them in order to get a higher accreditation in terms of the university itself which delivers more funding? In other words, if it is the case that you have a man and a woman who are equal in every respect but the man happens to be generating extra paper in whatever journal and the women at that point might have a child, for instance, and it might be the case that there is a greater propensity for women to look after children certainly when they are first born, have you any evidence that senior management are coercing such people out of their jobs in order to lift standards in order to get more money?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Not in general no, but I am aware, as I suspect you are too, of some isolated cases, one of which received quite wide publicity recently when it was taken to an industrial tribunal.

  35. Which one was that?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) The case of the London School of Economics.

  36. I was thinking of another one actually.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I should say that the guidelines which the Funding Councils lay down over procedures for the research assessment exercise specifically make reference to the position of female colleagues who of necessity might have had to take career breaks in order to bring up children.

  37. So would you accept that within the financial machinery that is currently employed there is institutional sexism, for the reason I said, coming to a head in a certain number of cases at the moment?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) If by "institutional sexism" you mean are there practices in higher education institutions which inadvertently result in a lower than expected number of females—

  38. I do not mean to have a go at the institutions, I mean to have a go at the financial machinery that is driving managers in those institutions to be prejudiced against women.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No I do not think there are practices of that kind, although I do believe that the proportion of senior staff in higher education institutions which is female is unacceptably low and I also agree that we, along with institutions, must be more active in ensuring that that is not perpetuated in future.

  39. Can I ask Mr Normington again on funding, given the changing costs in terms of the various regions, particularly costs of housing in London, do you think there is a reason to review finances on a regional basis? Do you feel that insofar as a very high proportion of the poorest students stay at home, the fact that there are no grants available is limiting the choices of poorer students to go to the universities that they might otherwise choose? They might want to go to Oxford but they do not live there so they go to Treforest, or wherever it happens to be?
  (Mr Normington) It is certainly true that students from poorer families are more likely to go to a university near their home and that must be related to their view of the support that they are going to get from the system. If you look at the present system, of course, it already has differential rates of loans for students who are studying in London, students who are studying away from home and students who are at home so there are three levels. There is already built into the system some recognition of the different costs. There is quite a lot more money in London for loans. All this is the subject of the review which the Secretary of State announced in October and which we are actively carrying through.


1   Note by witness: The student Income and Expenditure Survey 1998/99 indicates that 46% of full-time students are employed during term-time. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 12 September 2002