Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 251-259)




  251. Good afternoon and welcome to the Committee of Public Accounts. Today we are considering the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report on Improving Student Achievement in English Higher Education. This is part two of the drama that we started on Monday because we have back with us Mr David Normington and Sir Howard Newby to talk to us. Colleagues are free if they wish to return to any unanswered questions on Monday, if the witnesses are very happy with that. I should say that we are very honoured to welcome also in the public gallery the Nepalese Public Accounts Committee to whom I was very privileged to talk about our work before the meeting. We are also very privileged to welcome to the public gallery Mrs Sekoula who is President of the Supreme Chamber of Control of Poland. I suggested to Sir John Bourn that he should now be known as the Supreme Controller as well. Back to business. I was going to ask you, Mr Normington, by way of a general introduction, if you think you can widen participation, maintain standards and raise achievement all at the same time. Please answer that if you feel able to. You were telling us a bit about Government targets on Monday. Do you want to say a bit more about targets and how you are going to ensure that you succeed in meeting them?

  (Mr Normington) I think I said on Monday that it was a major challenge to widen participation and maintain standards. If you add to that maintaining and improving on this non-completion rate which a lot of this report is about, that is a really tough set of challenges. The interesting thing about this report is that it brings us back to where we were to some extent on Monday in that it talks about the importance of prior attainment. Once again, once you get A-level results, what level of A-level results you get has a major impact on whether students have a greater propensity or not to complete their course and to achieve. That is the central issue in the report. I rehearsed at some length some of the ways in which we are trying to widen participation and maintain standards.

  252. Do not do it now.
  (Mr Normington) I will not do it now.

  253. You get the next two and a half hours to do that, bit by bit. Can I ask you to go straight to the heart of the matter as far as I can see it, that with many universities awarding their own degrees how will you ensure that claimed achievement rates are not improved by lowering standards?
  (Mr Normington) It is a key issue and to some extent the sector is self-regulating and it is very important therefore that the system that we have for maintaining standards and for which the Funding Council is responsible is maintained. It really is for Sir Howard to explain a bit more about that.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) The sector has established the Quality Assurance Agency which is doing two things. First of all it has already established benchmark standards on a subject by subject basis for all higher education institutions which are awarding higher education qualifications. It is also of course just completing now its first sweep of reviews of provision in higher education institutions to ensure they meet up with the claims which they themselves have made.

  254. You have mentioned benchmarks so I will go straight into that. Only a few institutions are significantly outside their benchmarks. Do benchmarks hide the need for action by some institutions?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No. I think that the purpose of introducing benchmarks and making them publicly available—they are published by us, and they do appear in the newspapers—was first of all to hold up a mirror to the institutions' own performance so that they must question themselves about how well they are doing against the rest of the sector and, having done that, where there is clear evidence of under-performance we take that in hand to ensure that those institutions are putting in place effective measures which will ensure that they come up to benchmark in the future.

  255. Can I go back to you, Mr Normington? You made a pretty obvious point on Monday that there was a need for further improvement in secondary education. How far is success in schools and sixth form colleges a prerequisite to improving performance in higher education, do you think?
  (Mr Normington) I think it is a very important part of it. It is schools, sixth form colleges and further education colleges because a lot of A-levels and vocational qualifications are taken there. Yes, I think it is a very important part of getting people from the lower socio-economic groups into higher education and, as we can see, the levels of attainment you achieve before you go in do seem to be correlated to what happens when you are there and your likelihood of staying and completing the course successfully.

  256. We know from this report, particularly from page 29, that there is widespread concern amongst staff about numeracy, so can I ask you a question about numeracy skills? Why do you think students are unprepared at such a basic level of higher education and what are you doing about it?
  (Mr Normington) In terms of numeracy?

  257. Yes.
  (Mr Normington) In terms of what we are doing pre-university, we are concentrating very much on numeracy in primary schools where this must start with the numeracy strategy really, improving the teaching of mathematics in primary schools. We have just moved on in secondary schools to focus on maths and English teaching between 11 and 14 where it could be equipping students with the basics before they get to GCSE and move on. It is a major problem. There is a significant improvement but it remains an issue.

  258. I am told anecdotally that some business studies courses are even having to water down their courses to remove the mathematical bits of them because their students simply cannot cope.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think that is regrettable if they are. Let me say about the general problem that it is the case that over a number of years now many universities have had to offer (the nomenclature varies) remedial or catch-up courses in mathematics in the first year. It is not limited to mathematics, I might say. There are also problems in modern languages. The reasons from the sector's point of view are partly concerned with modular A-levels in which, in a subject like mathematics, which is what I would call, if you will forgive the jargon, a linear additive subject; that is, you cannot—

  259. No, I do not forgive the jargon.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) You cannot do one stage until you have done the one prior to it because one building block adds on another. Modularity has meant that students are to some extent in the A-level syllabus able to choose some areas of mathematics and not others, and when they come to university therefore one cannot make the same assumptions that one could have made perhaps a generation ago that everyone has the same knowledge and level of mathematics today that they had then. We do find in mathematics and in modern languages that the same problem applies, that quite a lot of intensive tuition has to go on in the first year to bring everyone up to the level of mathematics that one might have expected a generation ago.


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