Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)



  220. We have a situation where the documents here tell us really that working class students are less likely to get into the elite universities, they are certainly less likely to get on some courses particularly the professions of medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine, and they are less likely to go away from home. As far as I am aware, it has been virtually ever thus. Is there nothing that can be done which is actually going to make any difference at all here?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Let me take you through those three factors in turn, if I may. The differential in students from poor backgrounds going to particular universities is almost wholly related to their previous educational attainment, not to the fact they were from poor backgrounds per se. However, there are some professions, like medicine, veterinary science and others, where there is some evidence that the proportion from poorer backgrounds entering those subjects, even if you were to hold educational attainment constant, is not what it should be. We have discussed this with the Council for Heads of Medical Schools, and have persuaded them to introduce a whole set of innovative measures which would encourage medical schools to go out and seek well-qualified students, high-attaining students, who nevertheless have probably not aspired to a medical career for some of the cultural reasons you are implying. There are some experiments operating in five or six medical schools up and down the country now. My former university of Southampton is running one of them. I have to say that not only are they being successful in attracting in non-conventional students, but they are also, and this is very crucial, retaining the confidence of the medical profession in taking in this entry.

  221. How long have these experiments been running?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Only for the last two years.

  222. So in all the recorded time up to then nobody has felt that this was desirable, so all of those who are in positions of authority in all the universities just now have never previously believed this was an issue which required addressing? Have I got that right?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Not quite, no. Up until now the professions like those you have referred to were primarily admitting students solely on the basis of A-level scores plus an interview, and they realised over time that such was the increasing demand for those subjects that was leading to a more and more socially-selective entry, and therefore they are taking positive steps to diversify the students coming in.

  223. But only in the last two years. It only occurred to them recently that the professions were socially-exclusive?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is correct because it is only in the last four or five years that the data has become available on which we can draw accurate measures of this.

  224. They must have been fairly out of touch with the nature of life outside university, surely, if they did not realise the students who were appearing in front of them were not socially representative?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think the professions concerned were much more interested at that time in the educational qualifications on entry than they were with the social representativeness of the students they received. That is now changing.

  225. I think that is possibly a generous way of putting it. What guarantee is there that if we give universities more money they do not simply continue to reinforce privilege? If the Government had not come along and forced you to do some of these things, what evidence is there that you would ever have done any of these on your own?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) First of all, the Government should not give us money in the hope we would simply not reinforce privilege, it has to be done on the basis we have in place a set of procedures which will ensure that money allocated for widening participation is indeed directed towards those ends.

  226. It is a pretty damning indictment, is it not, of the universities that we have as a Government to specifically give you money to widen participation? There is nothing in the universities themselves which would make you want to do that of your own volition?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, I think most universities have always wished to admit students on perceived academic merit irrespective of the financial background of the student. What has changed I think is that as the numbers entering higher education has grown and grown and grown, the system as a whole has become less elitist, and then measuring this kind of issue has become more and more important.

  227. So if successive Governments had not come along and put more money into the system in order, presumably, to dilute it and make it less elitist, the universities in terms of their own momentum would just have kept on reinforcing privilege and replicating themselves?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) For the reasons we have discussed, in a time when university entrance was highly selective in terms of educational qualifications, that meant also it was highly selective in terms of social background.

  228. And all these highly intelligent, sophisticated individuals were incapable, were they, of looking beyond the presented examination results and realising they reflected an imbalance in society? They never thought of doing anything about it on their own, did they?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think that is unfair. There are some parts of the higher education sector which did quite a lot actually, and I, for one, and a number of others have benefited from that. I repeat, whilst universities were admitting a very small proportion of the population on the basis of educational qualification alone, it was bound to have this impact. It is still true today that there are major incentives for institutions to admit on the basis of educational qualifications alone and not look beyond that. We have had to do something to redress that balance.

  229. Can I clarify this then? The University of Oxford and the University of Wolverhampton, at opposite ends of the spectrum, presumably have different entry qualifications for the same courses?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes.

  230. Do they produce different degrees? Is a degree from one better than a degree from the other? Is the academic standard higher?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) All of the degrees, whether at Oxford or Wolverhampton, or any other institution, have to meet a minimum threshold of standards laid down by the Quality Assurance Agency.

  231. A point you made earlier on was that when people were being assessed, they were being assessed on the basis—and I think I quote you correctly—they could or could not benefit from the experience. It is clear from what you said just now, is it not, that everybody who went to the University of Wolverhampton, provided there was an appropriate course at Oxford, could have benefited from a course at Oxford?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) In the past I would agree with that.

  232. Well, this year for example.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, but the number of places available at Oxford were very restricted.

  233. I understand that, I am coming on to that. Can I clarify the extent to which the higher qualifications demanded by places like Oxford and Cambridge and others are just simply a mechanism for filtering out rather than actually being essential? I remember speaking to a major Scottish employer who said they had hundreds and hundreds of applications in, they threw out everybody from bar about three universities simply on the basis it was the only way administratively they could cope with the system. Am I right in thinking therefore there are literally thousands of people who could benefit, and the main reason why Oxford and Cambridge and other elite universities have a much higher level is simply to filter them out and make it easier to determine who gets in?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I am sure that those two universities and a number of other universities have far more well-qualified applicants than they have places available.

  234. Is that a yes to the question?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes.

  235. Okay. The same presumably then would apply to things like medicine where it has struck me for a long time that the high level of qualifications required is not actually necessary to undertake the course, it is just a means of filtering out? This is a Scottish example I can give you but I assume it is appropriate here as well: there were students in schools in an area I represented who were unable to apply for medicine because they were not able to do five Highers in the fifth year because the school they were at did not have that combination of Highers to allow them to apply, so simply because of their backgrounds they were disqualified from going on to university, and the system did not seem to have any self-regulatory mechanisms to recognise any of that.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) In the past that is true, and what we have had to do is work with the professional bodies in medicine to ensure there is a greater diversity of entry qualifications into medical schools. To put it crudely, that they are looking not just for three As at A-level but for other factors as well.

  236. What was the motivation for that change? Was it internally generated or did the Government do it?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I am not sure I can answer that question, to be honest.

  237. That in itself is an answer actually. It confirms my view that if we left universities to themselves, they would never have changed, and that universities in many ways cannot be trusted to self-regulate. Can I ask about Chart 16 on page 18? There is an issue here about the proportion of higher education providers undertaking various things, and I think the highest number is them visiting schools and colleges, and that is very welcome. I presume you undertake some sort of review of this. What evidence do you have that the elite universities are widespread in the schools and colleges they visit? I would hate to think, for example, that Oxford only visited public schools. Does Wolverhampton go to Eton, for example, to try and recruit from there? Is there a pattern and what does it tell us?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Before we hand over the money to the institutions for their widening participation activities we demand a plan from them, and the money is handed over in relation to that and how they spend it is monitored and subject to audit.

  238. How they spend it is then audited? We do that, and that is to stop them stealing it, so you know that the money to be spent on travel to university is spent on travel to university. It does not say they have not spent it all going to public schools, does it?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Well, the plan that we agree with them would indicate the kinds of activities they have in mind. To answer your question very directly, in the two universities you have mentioned, Oxford and Cambridge, their plan does include specifically targeting schools which have not had a tradition of sending students to Oxford and Cambridge, and we monitor that.

  239. What proportion of the visits are to schools which they have not previously recruited from?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I do not have that information available.


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