Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)



  300. Are you quite satisfied with the support and tutorial support that students get in the main across all these universities or does it vary so dramatically that it is from good to appalling?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I am not satisfied because I do not think you can ever be satisfied. It does vary. I do not think I could agree with you that it is from good to appalling but I think it is from excellent to mediocre. That is why we do need to ensure through our quality assurance mechanisms that the mediocre is raised consistently to the level of the excellent.

  301. When some of our students leave university they find that the course that they were on was not quite fitted to the profession they want to undertake or they misunderstood what the profession involved and how the course would benefit them. Some of these students undoubtedly would benefit from undergoing some work experience. Some people would say that they would be better off if they took a year off to conduct work experience before they went on, and yet very few universities are linked up with any opportunity for work experience to take place for their students while they are at university. Do you think they should be encouraged?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I certainly do think it should be encouraged. I would dispute your comment that very few universities do this. I would say that most universities now do this. I would also add, however, that the trend at the present time—this is from employers, not from the university side—is not to organise work experience in one year away in what used to be called a sandwich course, but rather to do more little and often and have shorter bursts of work experience integrated into the course.

  Mr Jenkins: I agree with you. In fact I think that a lot of work based learning should be accredited towards the degree course and we should look at people doing a lifelong learning process rather than a continuation of what started off as a three-year finishing school, and in some of our more elite universities they tend to treat it very much the same today.

Mr Rendel

  302. I apologise that I was out of the room for a little bit for some of the earlier questions. Have you been able to resolve the 41 per cent/44 per cent current participation?
  (Mr Normington) We did say we would provide a note for you and we will do that. I did not know this until I looked into it with my colleagues behind me, but when the Minister of State gave her evidence to the Select Committee and quoted 44 per cent that was indeed what we thought the figure was. What we then set in place, because we knew it was going to become such an important issue, with the Funding Council was a major look again at what the figure was. We decided we were counting some students twice and therefore we revised it down. We have actually taken some students out, so it is down to 41.[5]

  303. So at the time the 50 per cent target was set, you thought you were already at 44 per cent and had 6 per cent to go, and now it is only 41 per cent and you have 9 per cent to go?
  (Mr Normington) I do not know that we based the setting of the 50 per cent target on the 44 per cent, I am not sure it was that way round. I am not sure we knew where precisely we were, we decided we needed to have another look at it.

  304. I am not suggesting you based the 50 per cent target on 44 per cent, but the fact of the matter is that at the time the 50 per cent target was set you thought you had 6 per cent to go, and now you have 9 per cent to go, so your task has become one and a half times as hard as you thought it was.
  (Mr Normington) Well, of course, the task is exactly the same, it is just the count we did was inaccurate.

  305. Therefore the task is one and a half times as much as you thought. Maybe the task is still 50 per cent but that task is one and a half times as hard as you thought it was going to be.
  (Mr Normington) Of course.

  306. I am not surprised the Government is now looking at other ways of measuring the target. The Government announced today exactly how they were going to measure this, I understand in response to questions asked on Monday. It is very good news they have said what they are going to do now, but it does seem rather different, by the way, from what the Prime Minister said originally, when he talked about "over 50 per cent at university". He is now talking about "trying to get to the 50 per cent in all higher education", which is obviously a much easier target to reach, no doubt because of the problems you have just highlighted. They do say now that progress is to be measured through the initial entry rate. Can you explain that a bit more?
  (Mr Normington) That is what I was explaining on Monday in fact. The first time we said we would use the initial entry rate was in 1999. In fact there has always been a measure called the APR—I will not go into it—which was about 18 to 21 year olds. That is a well-tested measure of 18 to 21 year olds who are projected to go into higher education courses, that is courses which lead to qualifications awarded by higher education institutions of one year or more. That is a long-standing measure. All we have done with the initial entry rate is taken that same measure, which we always used, and moved it forward, projected it, to 30. In other words, used the same measure for 18 to 30 year olds as opposed to 18 to 21 year olds.

  307. So that everyone knows, what does "measuring the initial entry rate" mean? What are you measuring there?
  (Mr Normington) It is actually a projection of how many 18 year olds entering at a particular point will have a higher education experience of the sort I have described by the time they get to 30. That is a long-standing measure. It is the only measure—

  308. I do not mind whether it is long-standing or not, I am trying to understand what on earth it means. You seem to be saying that in any one year as a certain number of people become 18, you are going to guess how many of those will have had some sort of higher education experience in the next 12 years.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) May I try and help?

  309. I hope you can.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) The way of measuring it in the past was called the Age Participation Index and you took the number of 18 to 21 year olds in the population and the number of 18 to 21 year olds in higher education, you divided one into the other and that gave you your percentage.[6]

  310. That makes obvious sense.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) How the initial entry rate differs is that because the target is set in terms of 18 to 30 year olds, what you have to do is take those who are entering each year when they are 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 et cetera up to the age of 30, and calculate the sum of those against the total population at that point in time. Does that help?

  311. I think I understand.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Let me put it the other way around: if you took the old measure, which I agree was simpler, you took the number of 18 to 21 year olds in the general population, the number of 18 to 21 year olds in higher education and divided one into the other, that would ignore the fact that some of those 18 to 21 year olds went on to enter higher education after the age of 21 and, if your target is 18 to 30 year olds, you need to include them.

  312. Let me put it round the other way: supposing in the year 2010 we look at everybody up to the age of 30 and say, "How many people are there between 18 and 30 and what percentage of those have by now started some sort of higher education during their lifetime", is that not the obvious way of doing it?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I am not sure whether it is the obvious way of measuring it, but that is not the initial entry rate, because over that period of time we believe that the rate of participation will increase.

  313. Let me see if I can get this. In the year 2010 you are going to say, "How many 18 year olds entered this year", and you are also going to say, "Of those 18 year olds who did not enter this year, how many do we expect to enter when they are 19 next year? Of those who did not enter either this year at age 18 or next year at 19, how many do we expect to enter when they are 20", and you go right through that process up to age 30.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is right.

  314. So for most of the 50 per cent you are measuring, you are actually guessing what is going to happen to the current 18 year old cohort over the next 12 years, and you are presumably guessing that on the basis of—I do not know—what the current entry rate is or current entry rate plus a little factor you are going to add on which is conveniently going to allow you to add on a few people because you are going to guess that the rate will increase over the next few years? That seems to be what you are saying.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I would not use that vocabulary but the basic methodology you describe is correct.

  315. Thank you. That is very interesting indeed.
  (Mr Normington) This is absolutely in the public domain.

  316. I am not suggesting it was not. I am not suggesting you were trying to hide anything! I was just saying that I have never met anybody who actually understood it.
  (Mr Normington) It is the only measure we have. We could construct other measures of course.

  317. Indeed, like the measure I suggested.
  (Mr Normington) This is the one which we know and we use.

  318. I may be being extremely rude to the rest of the population of Great Britain but given that I am the Higher Education spokesperson for my Party, I probably have looked into this about as much as most people in the country, and I certainly have not until this moment understood at all how you were expecting to measure it. I certainly had not understood there was a great deal of guesswork involved and that you were expecting to predict an increasing rate which is quite clearly going to make it a lot easier to hit the target, although you really do not know if that increasing rate is going to continue. It is an extraordinary measure to my mind.
  (Mr Normington) I do not go along with "guesswork".[7]

  319. It is a prediction.
  (Mr Normington) It is a projection—


5   Ev 49, Appendix 1. Back

6   Note by witness: The Age Participation Index is defined as the number of home domiciled young (under 21) initial entrants to full-time and sandwich undergraduate courses of higher education, expressed as a proportion of the average 18-19 year-old population of Great Britain. Back

7   Ev 49, Appendix 1. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 12 September 2002