Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-219)



  200. Do you think that is going to be a significant problem this year? We have been told the package will not be changed in time for this September.
  (Mr Normington) Indeed, we have said we are not going to change the package. That is something we have to be very conscious about as we announce the outcome of the review.

  201. So there is a significant danger that you may have a number of people deciding to put off going up for a year, with all the pressure that is going to mean the following year, and the problems for universities it could mean with people deciding not to go up this year.
  (Mr Normington) I do not want to agree with that. I would just say, we need to be very clear when we come out with the outcome of the review, we have to have our eye very firmly on the impact of students going in this September as well as next September. Applications to universities are very buoyant at the moment.

  202. It sounds from what you are saying that you may be tempted not to make the package very much better, because if you do make it very much better you might tempt students into putting off going up.
  (Mr Normington) That is not my decision.

  203. I know it is not just your decision, but you seem to be implying that, which is something of a worry.
  (Mr Normington) We have to see what comes out.

  204. Do you think there is a particular problem with up-front costs? I have a worry that a number of students, particularly perhaps from poorer backgrounds, may think that up-front costs are a particular risk. If they are asked to pay up-front—and we have all I think accepted now there is a case for saying those who go to university should pay something back from the benefit they get from a university education—they are taking a big risk, because they may not get all the way through university, for whatever reason, they might fall ill, they might be unable to finish their university course, and they might be left with quite large debts hanging over them and no way of paying them back. Obviously, in some cases they will not have to pay that back, their income will be too low, but nevertheless they will be left with that debt which makes all the greater difficulty for things like mortgages.
  (Mr Normington) In extreme cases, if they never earn 10,000 a year, they will never pay it back. That is why it is income-contingent. They only start paying back when they start earning.

  205. For that very reason, a young person thinking about a student financial package, may see it as really quite risky because they have to pay a lot up-front, get into debt and they may not get the pay-back in terms of getting a university education, through to a degree and then getting a better salary.
  (Mr Normington) They may feel that, of course they may feel that. I do not know whether the facts support that.

  206. Would it not be a better scheme to try to have the pay-back after they have got that degree, rather than paying up-front and having to go through that risk process which they would not have to go through if you only had to pay it after you had your degree?
  (Mr Normington) You lead me back towards the Scottish system in a way.

  207. Indeed.
  (Mr Normington) That is what the Scottish system does.

  208. Indeed.
  (Mr Normington) I do not think we have the evidence of that. It is a possibility. The Scottish system would I think cost quite a lot more money.

  209. Potentially it would have the effect of encouraging people to go to university.
  (Mr Normington) If we agree there is a fear about debt, there are different ways of tackling that. 50 per cent of all students do not pay tuition fees, do not pay a contribution to tuition fees. That is not well known. Only about a third of students actually pay the full contribution to tuition fees. If you asked everybody on the street, they would think they all had to contribute. So there is an issue there as well.

  210. Which is precisely the reason why a lot of them, even those who do not have to pay, are being put off.
  (Mr Normington) The fear and perception of debt is an issue.

  The Committee suspended from 18.59 pm to 19.05 pm for a division in the House

Mr Rendel

  211. I have two questions remaining to ask. The first refers to Example 5 on page 21, which I must say I found fascinating, where the University of Bristol examined the relationships between the A-level scores and degrees, and I think again Brian Jenkins mentioned something about this earlier. If that research is good research and it is true of other places, and I see no reason why if it is true of Bristol it should not be true of other places, then I would have thought that points a very clear marker towards what ought to become best practice for all higher education institutions when they are considering which students to take in and which not to take in. I would have hoped the Department would therefore be sending round a memo to all institutions it funds to say, "Look at what has happened in Bristol, they seem to have a very good scheme working here, it ought to become best practice for all of you."
  (Mr Normington) I cannot do that legally, this is really for the Funding Council. I cannot interfere with the admissions policies of universities.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I referred earlier to the fact that we are indeed developing good practice on this through Action on Access and various other programmes we have put in place. I would agree, the Bristol example is very encouraging. I would just caution a little on the grounds that we are dealing with a very diverse range of institutions and what might apply in Bristol might not necessarily apply in every single university up and down the land, but nevertheless I agree there is good practice going on here which we should disseminate all round the sector.

  212. If some of them do not think they are similar, they ought at least to be testing that presumably?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Indeed so. I think it is especially important that those institutions which are below their benchmark, which Bristol was, in particular take note of this.

  213. The second question is about the premiums for taking on students from lower representation postcodes. Am I right in saying that premium is paid when they take them on?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes.

  214. Would it not be rather cleverer perhaps to spread that payment during the time that student is at university, since there is known to be a problem with universities who may be scratching around for students taking on anyone they can and might see it as quite advantageous to take on such a student because even if they drop out a little bit later they have got the money?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) If they drop out within the first year, they do not get the money. I take the general point you are making, I think we need a rather more sophisticated means of identifying the cost in the first place and then, having identified what the additional costs are, find an appropriate way of covering those costs within institutions in general. So I accept the thrust of your question.[10]


Mr Davidson

  215. Could I start off by saying that this, I think, has been one of the most depressing hearings I have been at, because it is one of the most important subjects that we have had the opportunity to deal with and I have been struck throughout by what I think is almost a complete lack of commitment from both of you to what I believe is the Government's policy and the general thrust of what we seem to be arguing for. Maybe I have misunderstood your commitment to this and, if so, I would be grateful if you could clarify that during the exchanges. Can I put a point first of all to Mr Normington. The first thing we heard from you was the main issue was the question of school results, and I appreciate if you want to succeed in life generally you want to choose your parents wisely, but is that not just a case of saying, "It was not me, it is not my responsibility, it is not my fault"? You have gone through this afternoon producing a variety of explanations which in a sense are alibis for yourselves on the basis that if blame is dispersed so widely that everybody is responsible, then in effect nobody is responsible and no blame or criticism can then be levelled at universities. Does that seem like a reasonable way of approaching what you have said this afternoon?
  (Mr Normington) I have not said anything of the sort. I have said nothing of that at all. I do not accept that any part of the education system is yet doing well enough in terms of its work for children from lower socio-economic groups. There is a need to tackle that at every point in the education system. I do not accept alibis, the Government's policy is not based on alibis, it is tougher in some places to break down the barriers there are, but I do not accept you cannot get more children from the poorer parts of the country or the lower socio-economic groups into higher education. I am absolutely committed to that and I think the universities have a very important part to play in that. I do not think it is just about the schools, I really do not. The universities have to look at their admissions policies, they have to reach back into the system and I think they have a major role to play in raising aspirations.

  216. Would you accept that it is not unreasonable for me to have gained the impression that these objectives are not objectives by which you are particularly excited?
  (Mr Normington) I am very excited by the objectives, I think they are really tough. If, by the time I retire, which will just be around here I guess, we have hit these targets, I will be proud.

  217. I wonder if I could turn to page 15 and paragraph 2.17, the last sentence, where it says, "The Funding Council discourages providers from taking account of students' postcodes when processing applications." I wonder if you could clarify for me what that means. It can be read in two ways, neither of which reflect much credit on the systems in their different ways. It could either be that there are universities which discriminate against people from poor backgrounds, or there are universities which discriminate in favour of people from poor backgrounds simply to get the money. Could you clarify which it is?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I have referred earlier to the fact that the premium itself is a rather diffuse measure, but let me take the point you raise head on. It is very important that judgments which are being made by admissions tutors on whether or not a particular student could or could not benefit from higher education in that institution are not distorted by these kind of considerations. At the point of admission, the decision must be made on wholly educational grounds and not on some rather distorted perception that in taking this student rather than that one, the university will gain financially by doing so.

  218. And some universities are doing that?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) We have no evidence that has happened.

  219. Why say it then?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Because we wanted to pre-emptively ensure as far as we could that that would not happen.


10   Note by witness: The premium is calculated to reflect the proportion of students from neighbourhoods that are under-represented in HE in all years of study, not just those in their first year. The proportions are calculated using the individual student data for the most recently completed academic year. We do not pay a lump sum as soon as an institution recruits a student from an under-represented neighbourhood, as the methodology described above shows. Back

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