Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)



  280. Let us combine the two. The situation is that you have a success rate in some universities of something like 48 per cent. You have also a drop-out rate in some universities of over 20 per cent. That cannot be classed as being very successful.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, I agree. I agree that those figures are, both of them, too high. I was referring to the overall sector performance. Within the sector there are indeed some institutions where we need to work much harder with them to ensure that they are improving both their practice on admissions and their effectiveness in retaining students once they have been admitted. I absolutely accept that.

  281. It has taken me a long time to get to this. Is it not true to say that the pre-1992 universities have a drop-out of approximately two per cent and that the post-1992 universities have a drop-out of over 20 per cent? What does that show?
  (Mr Normington) There is quite a range. The drop-out in the post-1992 universities is higher.

  282. I did some research myself, not to this particular report. I think it was a report that we did on further education. I rang round the universities in my area, not in my constituency, although I did ring Durham University. The drop-out there was pretty minimal. I then contacted York University. Again the drop-out was minimal. I contacted Newcastle University. The drop-out was minimal. I then contacted other universities post-1992 and their drop-out was frankly abysmal, something like 20-22 per cent. It was not because of financial problems. It was because of failure in being able to do the courses.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) You are quite right to say that the average rate of drop-out is higher in the post-1992 institutions, but even there, and there is evidence of this in the report, there are post-1992 institutions with really very good practice in retaining students. What we need to do is understand much better how they are able to do that without jeopardising standards and then spread that good practice to the others.[2]

  283. The question that I want to ask, if that is the case, is this. Is it cost effective to trawl around looking for students who you know at the end of the day are not going to make the grade?
  (Mr Normington) If that is what they are doing it is not cost effective.

  284. I am not going to give you names, obviously. I am not going to give you universities. I know of students who, when they went to university, in my own experience knew that they were not going to make the grade and they dropped out and they failed. That is not fair on them as well as not being fair on the taxpayer.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I agree. Absolutely. I would just add that it is not only a waste of public money; it is also rank bad educational practice. As I said on Monday, this is simply bad admissions practice. It should not happen in that way.

  285. Give me the reasons why you believe that the majority of students leave higher education.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think the majority of reasons are two-fold. One is that they have found when they entered the university that the course which they had applied for, which they thought would suit them, turns out not to suit them, and that goes back to the Chairman's previous question about improving on the quality of information they receive. The other one quite honestly is personal problems, and I do mean personal problems. They are homesick, they have personal relationships which are suffering because they have moved away and matters of that kind, and they find that living away from home, combined with the challenges of higher education, are just too much for them.

  286. Figure 10 on page 15. I looked at this graph and drew some conclusions from the graph. One of the conclusions that I drew was one that I found myself doing a bit of research on. The financial reason was not really the main reason why they left university. Then I read the report and I realised that personal reasons could include financial reasons, so that is misleading, but then I realised that in fact this only represented 40 per cent of those who drop out. In other words you do not know why 60 per cent drop out. The biggest section of dropping out, ie, for personal reasons, you do not know what those personal reasons are, so at the end of the day you cannot tell me why people are leaving university, can you?
  (Mr Normington) We are not sure. We have just done some more research to try to get to this. It has not yet been published but it will not be long before it is published. It still does not tell us for sure. Financial hardship is only quoted by 18 per cent of people. Personal reasons continue to dominate. Wrong course, wrong institution is the one that is at the top of the list. It is the same story. Of course it may be all those things. The personal reason may be that they cannot do the course, it may be that they have not got enough money, it could be all interlinked, and that is the problem. We have not found a way of getting behind that.

  287. What I am saying is that the numbers are only 40 per cent anyway so 60 per cent you do not know.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Tracking these people down is a hugely difficult task and, having tracked them down, when we want to ask them about something that they would probably regard as a personal failure, they often do not want to answer the question. It is a very difficult research issue.

Mr Jenkins

  288. I was very interested in the question that Mr Steinberg asked because I am totally amazed by the report that says that we do not know why young people left. They probably walked away. If you write to them they will chuck it straight in the bin. They do not bother answering. Have we not tried some sampling? Have we not tried some in-depth survey work on some of these young people to get to the real crux of the problem?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, there have been some projects of that kind. There is a piece of research done at the Liverpool John Moore University on this. I think Mr Steinberg's question was really about, is this a valid sample? Is a 40 per cent sample giving us valid answers? I have some sympathy with his question because even I do not know and by definition none of us can know whether this is representative or not.

  289. There is what is known as a statistical base for doing random observations and random sampling through a population that would give you fairly accurate answers but you need a format. You have an in-depth interview with these people. It will not be that costly because there are not large numbers. I am just amazed that we are at this stage and we have not done this.
  (Mr Normington) We have actually got two recent surveys which get closer to this but it does not tell us anything more than is here. Even when you get behind the personal reasons they break down into some of the things that are here: wrong course, wrong institution, financial issues, family and personal issues in terms of relationships and so on, just not liking being away from home. Those are the things that it breaks down into.

  290. I notice on page 9 that you are going to publish a target for bearing down on rates of non-completion and you are going to try and improve this. You have got this in mind now?
  (Mr Normington) One of the things we have asked the Funding Council to do is very much to bear down on non-completion, particularly in those institutions where performance is not good enough. We have been working with the Funding Council on the issue of targets and your Board discussed this the other day.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, that is right. We are intending to report formally back to the Department on this very shortly, by which I mean within the next month. We produced an interim report last year and if you wish you can ask me further questions on that. It is essentially dealing with some of the issues I have referred to already, identifying good and bad practice, taking effective measures to deal with bad practice and ensuring that good practice is disseminated as widely as possible around the sector, and also through a more coherent form of training over admissions practices and also over counselling and other forms of tutorial support.

  291. What powers will you have to make sure that the institutions comply with your recommendations?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) This is a difficult area.

  292. I know.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I do not need to underline the fact that the most effective action will be taken at the institution level by the institutions themselves and they are of course autonomous. What we can do is initially to offer guidance to them, including best practice guidance, to which we would ask them formally to conform. We can audit them against that practice and we could (and possibly will) set targets, especially for those which are under-performing. The final sanction we have, which we use very rarely but is there available to us and the sector knows this, is to make any particular form of action a condition of grant. We use that very sparingly indeed.

  293. If I can word this correctly, we know that socio-economic group 5 in particular has amongst its population some very bright youngsters but, given the sorts of conditions they live in, the schools they go to, they do not achieve the grades that their potential would allow them to if they were put into a better environment, and yet these are sent through the system like anybody else. I notice that Mr Normington said that some universities look at potential. Name them, because most universities actually get their sheets of paper, get their grades, they get more nominated for finance than they can service, they chuck them to one side, and you know that there is a pecking order in this country at universities. The best ones still take the best students based on those grades and, if necessary, interview. How are we going to overcome this problem?
  (Mr Normington) I accept that A-level grades remain the key determinant.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I accept also that of course there are big disparities in supply and demand for places between different institutions and therefore those institutions with very high demand from students can do, and have in the past done, what you just said, which is why we have had to bring in the proposal we have over benchmarking and other factors of that kind, to ask them to examine their own practices and begin to operate a rather more sophisticated admissions policy. That having been said, there are a number of other factors which are outside my Council's control which act as powerful causes of admissions practices in universities, and I am thinking in particular of the way in which newspaper league tables are constructed which also provide a very powerful incentive to do precisely what you have said. We are finding therefore at times that we are working somewhat against the grain with some universities to persuade them to operate on a rather more broad front over their admissions.

  294. So we have got a situation where some universities now select students who they believe will complete the course, do well, so maintaining their position in the league table. They also have none of the problems associated with the extra work that is required in taking these through the courses. They have lower drop-out rates and they are high in the league table. I would compare them with what are mainly the post-1992 universities that do not have this choice because they in the main are left with the remaining students to pick from. It was said about one institution on qualifications and entrance examinations, that if you walked past on the day they started and they had got empty spaces they would drag you in because they needed bums on seats to get the money in. What is the alternative? They were not going to get paid if the students were not there. If the students fell out after the end of the year at least they got some money. They are lower down the ranking table. What have you done to overcome this?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Institutions do not receive money if students drop out in the first year and therefore there is a powerful incentive for them not to admit students only to fail them at the end of the first year. The technical term we use is clawback. We claw money back from those institutions if they have not successfully got students through the end of their first year against the numbers that they are contracted to provide.

  295. If, for instance, a student goes through more than one year of a course and the university does get paid for that first year there is some money in the bank for the university. If the student then drops out, Mr Steinberg said, it is a waste of public money. I do not believe this. I believe that many students, even though they have undergone just a year of higher education, do get some benefit from undergoing that year. It makes them realise what it is about, what the demands and challenges are, and they may re-enter higher education at some later date. Have you got any evidence in regard to this?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes. Of the 23 per cent who do not continue beyond their first year ten per cent return to continue their studies at a later date, sometimes in another institution; in fact usually in another institution.[3]

  296. It is said that schools very often, because there is this system of exam grades and passes, spoon-feed students to get them through the exam, but when these students go off to university they find that the different style of the institution throws them for a while and they lose their way. It is quite noticeable that students who take GNVQs as against A-levels do much better in the first year in mostly the post-1992 institutions, but the A-level people catch up. What is being done to make schools prepare youngsters for higher education rather than merely pass the exam?
  (Mr Normington) The report does say that and it is reporting the views of people at a focus group. I am surprised at this. I have been to lots of schools, quite a few colleges, quite a few sixth form colleges, and the trend is in sixth forms to have more self-learning. It is more of a step on the road to the kind of education you get at university than it used to be. That is what I have seen and I do not see that. I have to believe what the staff are saying but I have not seen it for myself. Most students when they get post-16 will not accept sitting in rows being spoon-fed. That is not how they learn. They expect to have much more self-directed learning, much more project work, much more working on their own, much more doing their research, and that is the trend in post-16 education.

  297. I am sorry. I think you need to re-visit some schools in this country because I can assure you that if the students were left to do their own research, their own work, they would never get through the course because there is such a condensed amount of information transference that you have to spoon-feed them so much information before they are able to undertake any type of project.
  (Mr Normington) What happens post-16 is nothing like what happens in university, I accept that, but it is quite different from what is happening pre-16 in most places. It is less different often in schools. It is certainly different in FE colleges. Of course there has to be discipline, of course there has to be teaching, but it is more of a stepping stone to higher education than it was when I was in school. That is the trend. I have been to dozens of institutions in the last few years.

  298. All right. Maybe you are getting a different view. Maybe you should have to work in one and see what it is like.
  (Mr Normington) I have sat in schools and watched it happening.

  299. One of the things I notice is that universities with accommodation provided for their students have a lower drop-out rate. I have always been surprised because I know that with some of my children's cohort, their parents have bought accommodation and they occupied it for the three or four years they were there with their colleagues and then they sold it at the end and made a profit on the transaction. Why is it that universities have not woken up to the fact that they can make a going concern of providing student accommodation because after all they have got a captive audience and very often it is a growing asset? Why have we not got more accommodation provided for these students in what is a very vulnerable first year period?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think we would say it is good practice for all universities where possible to provide the offer, the opportunity, of accommodation to students in their first year. The first year is particularly important in handling these students for the reasons we have been discussing. Many institutions are able to do that. The new universities in particular which have traditionally recruited locally when they were polytechnics do have a deficit with regard to student accommodation and we have targeted support to universities through what we call our poor estates scheme which they can use to both develop accommodation themselves and also, where appropriate (and this is an emerging trend) enter into public/private partnerships with the private sector on lease-back and other kinds of schemes whereby that accommodation can be provided more quickly and without cost to the university, at least not up-front cost.[4]



2   Note by witness: Details of non-continuation rates and achievement rates are contained in the C&AG's Report Improving student achievement in English higher education (HC 486, Session 2001-02), Appendix 3. This shows that, although, on average, non-continuation rates are higher in post 1992 than pre 1992 institutions, there is considerable overlap between the two. Back

3   Note by witness: "77 per cent of full-time first degree students will achieve a degree at the institution at which they started. One per cent will obtain a different qualification and a further five per cent are expected to transfer to another institution", C&AG's Report Improving student achievement in English higher education (HC 486, Session 2001-02) para 2.2. Back

4   Note by witness: Support is provided to universities through project capital funds, which they can use to enhance their accommodation, not through the poor estates scheme as stated. Additional funds may be provided to assist with the professional fees involved in entering into public/ private partnerships. Back

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