Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)



  160. So you disagree with Professor Newby?
  (Mr Normington) He was not in the Department. I would not—
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) With respect, I did not say it had an impact on policy. I was asked, I think, did it have an impact on the resources going in.

  161. Resources are where you start the policy.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I was not there at the time, but this certainly was drawn to the attention of the Funding Council, and indeed all universities were very concerned to ensure, in the wake of the Laura Spence Affair, they were not inadvertently discriminating against students from particular kinds of backgrounds. I would say, as far as the Funding Council was concerned, it has drawn to our attention not only the issue of widening participation, because that particular student of course did not come from a deprived background, but also the issue of fair access.

  162. But you did see an increase in resources?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, but it pre-dated the period.
  (Mr Normington) It really was not as a result of the Laura Spence Affair.

  163. But there was a sudden increase in ministerial interest in this issue.
  (Mr Normington) That is indisputable.

  164. From our earlier conversation, in fact it was the wrong target, was it not, because the main problem, as we have discussed at length, is educational achievement earlier on in people's lives. Do you think it is helpful to bash universities about their application procedures?
  (Mr Normington) I do not want to link that back to the Laura Spence issue—

  165. Just hypothetically.
  (Mr Normington)—but as a general issue, it is right that if we think that a university is not achieving the kinds of levels of participation we expect, that is highlighted. That is what our ministers have been doing in recent times again, including with Oxford and Cambridge. There is no point in having these performance indicators unless you look at them and decide that you need to do something about them. After all, the Funding Council is in that business.

  166. Do you believe—and maybe this is a pejorative phrase—that positive discrimination in favour of applicants from poorer social backgrounds does have a place in widening participation?
  (Mr Normington) I think you have to be quite cautious about it, because I think you have to know why you are doing it and you have to know that you have a student on your course who is going to be able to attain the standard of that course. I do not think we should be heading down the road of lowering the standards.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think the phrase "positive discrimination" is open to misinterpretation here, because it implies if you are discriminating positively in favour of somebody you are discriminating against somebody else. I think the objective of all of us is to open up and improve opportunity for everyone to get into higher education. What I would say is that for many, many years, since I have been in the university world, admissions tutors have always taken into account when making an offer to a student a wider range of their background and circumstances than just their A-level score. That has always been the case.

  167. I am not necessarily saying it is a bad thing, by the way. In paragraph 13 of the conclusions it says, "Key activities related to the application and selection process include. . . taking applicants' backgrounds and circumstances into account in assessing the likelihood of succeeding in higher education." Also, in the Bristol University case, which my colleague mentioned, there is evidence they do that. Is that not in effect positive discrimination? You may not like the phrase but the effect is the same.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think that is simply a repetition, as I said, of practices which universities have been undertaking for many, many years. I know it is commonly understood that universities mechanistically and automatically offer students a place in terms of their A-level grades, but that has never been mechanistically and automatically the case, those offers have always varied according to an assessment by tutors of a whole range of background features of those applicants, whether it is the mix of A-levels they have taken, the kind of backgrounds they have, their ages and all other factors.

  168. I was speaking to an Oxford college admissions tutor about this issue quite recently, and he was saying to me that the problem they have is basically they have thousands of students now applying with straight A grades at A-level, and there are many, many more students with straight A grades than places in Oxford, and the only way they really can discriminate against people is through an interview process, which is in itself fairly inexact and depends on people's individual whims and so on to a degree. Is that a problem? Is there some way of stripping out the straight A cohort, the top achievers, perhaps by introducing a new kind of exam?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It is a problem, not just in respect of universities like Oxford but also in respect of certain subjects which are vastly over-subscribed in terms of applications for the places available, where again even those with straight As are more than the number of places available. This is why we do need to issue, with some urgency I think, some good practice guidelines on admissions, because it is not whether or not you interview, it is how the interview is conducted that is going to be absolutely crucial, as it is in every other walk of life.

  169. In fact the admissions tutor said that when people do not get accepted these days, they do not just tear up the slip and go out to the pub, they call their lawyer about how the interview was conducted. I was very privileged in my education, I went to St Paul's School in London, which is a fee-paying school and I think sends more students to Oxford and Cambridge than any other school, and I was trying to work out what the ethos there was—apart from the obvious thing, that it had a lot more money because parents were paying money—and obviously it is very selective and has an academic ethos and the children who get sent there tend to come from families who value education. I was trying to think of the state school which came closest to that ethos and it is the grammar schools, as far as I can see, and I am interested in what Mr Normington was saying in response to Mr Bacon. Is there any evidence that as the grammar schools have declined there has been a falling-off in people from state schools getting into good universities?
  (Mr Normington) I just do not know that, I am afraid.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I am not aware of anything.
  (Mr Normington) I can try and find out.[6]

  170. I remember seeing a figure at the time of the Laura Spence row that actually there was a much higher percentage of state-educated people at Oxford in the 1960s than there is now, so there has actually been a decline.
  (Mr Normington) I think that might be the case, but I just do not know the figures.

  171. Is that not something you should be looking at? I am not saying necessarily bring back grammar schools, because that is a policy decision, but should you not be looking at that kind of ethos—and this is partly Mr Gibb's territory—and looking at what it is that makes a school an academic-achieving school?
  (Mr Normington) I think the whole thrust of the policy is to create schools which have an ethos of attainment and aspiration and that is what it is all about. We are proud at looking at any examples of that but grammar schools were a particular type of school, as you say, which were very highly selective, and those which still exist are still highly selective.

  172. Would I be right in saying that the thrust of education policy at the moment, with more and more tests, is that certain schools will be more selective and there will be more specialist schools? You are sort of creating grammar schools in all but name.
  (Mr Normington) No, that is not the policy, and specialist schools are nothing like grammar schools; absolutely nothing like them. It is not re-introducing selection.

  173. Not at all?
  (Mr Normington) No.

  174. The Department's mission statement, if that is the correct phrase, is in paragraph 1.6, "The Department is committed to working towards wider participation in higher education while continuing to improve standards." A lot of people out in society think that standards at universities are declining and they point to certain degree courses—and I do not want to be unfair to the people I am about to mention—like hairdressing degree courses and catering degree courses and so on. Do you think that is a problem?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I am not aware of any degree courses in hairdressing, let me say straight away. I think we need to unstrip the myths from the reality here. I repeat the comment that the Permanent Secretary made earlier, it is no part of our intention, indeed we would be doing a disservice to students, to admit more students into higher education at the price of lowering standards. It would not be fair to the students, let alone to anyone else. I do not believe standards have fallen in universities, we have evidence from the Quality Assurance Agency which monitor these things to demonstrate that the quality and standards which operate in higher education in this country are very high, are sustainably high and are as good as anywhere in the world.
  (Mr Normington) Clearly the range of courses has greatly increased but it does not follow they are lower standard courses.

  175. Mr Normington, you said there was some evidence that student loans or the fear of debt by students was having a deterrent effect on people from poorer social backgrounds. What is that evidence? What statistical evidence do you have?
  (Mr Normington) I think this comes from the student income and expenditure survey. Remember, one of the issues here is that this system has hardly been in place long, so some of the evidence we have is for the previous system.

  176. You are about to scrap it. Maybe we will never know.
  (Mr Normington) We are having a review of it, we are not about to scrap it. I can provide you with the proportions. Some of it is about the perception of debt, fear of debt, and there is some evidence of that. There is also some evidence though that that goes along with some of the things we were talking about earlier, which is, "It is not for me, I couldn't imagine going to university", and some of that is up the table compared with the fear of debt. But fear of debt is an issue.


  177. Mr Osborne asked you a question about the relative decline in people coming from state education to the most popular universities, can you give us a note on that?
  (Mr Normington) Yes, I will do that.

Mr Steinberg

  178. Chairman, can they give us a break-down of some of the universities as well?
  (Mr Normington) I guess so.[7]


  Chairman: Thank you. There is a division in the House, we will break for about ten minutes.

  The Committee suspended from 18.24 pm to 18.45 pm for divisions in the House

Mr Rendel

  179. Firstly, can I ask you where the 50 per cent target came from?
  (Mr Normington) Do you mean how do we measure it or—


6   Ev 48-49, Appendix 1. Back

7   Ev 48-49, Appendix 1. Back

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