Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-379)



  360. Hang on, Sir Howard has just told me that his figure was 91 million as the cost of dropping out, the Higher Education Funding Council itself commissioned research which came up with a figure of 200 million. There is quite a big argument about how much money is being lost here.
  (Mr Normington) But there are a lot of factors. I was saying there that one of them is the cost of funding a student through, ie the actual student finance, but that is only one of the issues. We do know what that costs because we are funding through contributions to tuition fees and loans. We do know about that.

  361. You see you can identify the total cost of taking an individual student through.
  (Mr Normington) Not in individual cases.

  362. Would it not be helpful if you could? Then you would know more accurately how to redistribute your resources.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) May I come back on this? I think you will find that the 90 million figure is the cost to the Department, to the Exchequer. The Yorke Report added on to that other costs which are borne by students or their families which are not borne by the Exchequer and the taxpayer.

  363. Nonetheless, it would be very helpful to have a picture of the total cost of taking a student through because, as we discussed on Monday, the Scottish Report referred to the current system as being insufficient, and the average student in this country spends more than they get from the system which is made up in other ways. Would it not be helpful to have a complete picture for each student of the cost of going through?
  (Mr Normington) It might be. I would have to take some advice on that, it might be very, very administratively complicated and it might not be worth the effort of doing it. I am certainly prepared to think about it. I just do not know the answer to your question, it may be. It sounds as though tracking every student in that precise way probably would not get us to the kind of answer we wanted; it would not help us particularly. We think 91 million is near, it is around that figure. We think the research which has been done adds some other factors in and that explains the difference. I do not know but I am prepared to think about it.

Mr Davidson

  364. Could I start off with one of the points the Chairman made about standards. He raised the point about first and second class degrees. I do not know whether, Professor Newby, you ever played rugby at all as a young lad, but your side step on that question was really quite remarkable. Could you clarify this point for me. As I understand the point about A-levels, the standard across subject and across institution would be the same; it is a national examination. Would you say it is fair to say the same applies to degrees?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No.

  365. If a degree is not a degree, as it were, if one degree is not the same as another degree, how are employers and others who are making assessments meant to work out what standard a student seeking employment has actually reached?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) What we can guarantee to employers and the students themselves, and I think their interests should come first here, is that any degree must conform to a minimum threshold standard which is set out, subject by subject, by the Quality Assurance Agency. The variations then come above that threshold in terms of both the content of the degree and, to be quite honest, the level to which students are taken.

  366. It would be known by people in this country which are the best institutions, but suppose a Japanese firm is locating here and wants to recruit graduates for something or other, there is no guide to what a first class degree, second class, third class is worth, and I accept your point it is not just first and second, it is more complicated than that. If there is no hierarchy of values of degree, how do people outside the magic circle know?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) All institutions now have to set out what it is students have to know and to achieve in order to obtain a particular standard of degree in each subject. That is the information which the Quality Assurance Agency requires and actually checks up on.

  367. But I do not have time for all that, I do not want to delve into that, I just want to appoint some graduates.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It is true that across institutions there is not the same system of national conformity that there would be at A-level or in pre-16 education. There never has been because institutions are autonomous.

  368. So it is meaningless?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, not meaningless.

  369. One degree is not then equivalent to other degrees. Some degrees are far better than other degrees.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) They are different.

  370. I appreciate they are in different subjects.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, they are different even within the same subject. A physics degree in one university may cover different aspects of physics from a physics degree in another university.

  371. If I am wanting to employ people, it would be reasonable to expect somebody with A-levels is the same as somebody else with A-levels but that does not apply with degrees. You accept that is a major difficulty?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It is true that any employer would expect any degree in physics to conform to a minimum threshold standard. Beyond that, there is indeed a good deal of variability.

  372. Can I come on to the question of a cycle of enhancement. The most prosperous universities have the best students, they get the best results, the best teachers and so on. It seems perfectly clear that is what happens and has happened for a while. What are you doing to redistribute resources in order to raise the lower performers?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think I have to divide my answer to that question, if I may, by dividing resources into two, because the answer is different in each case. With regard to research resources, we do have a policy of allocating resources with respect to the quality of research as measured.

  373. Can we stick to teaching?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) On teaching, very well. On teaching I think a very different imperative applies, because we are dealing with students here, and students need to be assured that whichever institution they go to, the kind of resources available to teach them are broadly similar, and they are to within a plus or minus 5 per cent band.

  374. That is interesting. So you are saying that within 5 per cent, however that is assessed, the teaching which somebody would receive from the best of our universities is within 5 per cent of that which they would receive from every other institution in the country?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, I am saying that the resources which we allocate to those universities are within a plus or minus 5 per cent band. Of course, they may be able to draw on other resources.

  375. So if it varies within 5 per cent, and there are already inequalities, then all you are doing is continuing these inequalities?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, because a number of years ago—let us say, a decade ago—that variation was much greater than that, and we have converged the resources together; in other words, we have taken resources away from those institutions which had a very large amount of money per capita student and redistributed those to the very low levels, we have converged them together.

  376. You just said to me that it is within a 5 per cent variation.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Now. It did not used to be. We have worked actually to swing that around.

  377. Since there are still major discrepancies in the quality of degrees, which I think we have agreed, surely you ought to be making major discrepancies in the allocation of resources even yet. It is very much my impression that working-class students tend to go to former polytechnics where they get poorer facilities, where the teachers, if they are good, seek and go off to other institutions with better reputations because there is not parity of esteem as between institutions, there is not parity of esteem as between research and teaching. Does that not seem to be inadequate action being taken by yourselves?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is why we introduced factors like the widening participation premium, and why I accept that we need to look sympathetically at whether that covers sufficiently the costs; in other words, that a differentiation would be introduced into the teaching funding model in respect of that premium. Could I also add, by the way, that there is another factor which is relevant to your question, and that is that the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act specifically forbids the Funding Council from taking into account the other resources which institutions receive in making their allocations.

  378. That is helpful. In terms of taking action, though, would it be fair to say that unless you are a bit more radical in redistributing, then the inequalities will continue?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I accept that we need to be much more vigorous in identifying the costs of taking in students from poorer backgrounds, in order that we can cover those costs for those universities which focus on those students.

  379. That may be an answer, but it is not quite the answer to the question I asked about the inequalities between institutions, in that clearly some institutions are much less well funded than others, have much less capital, have a long tradition of being underfunded, particularly those which have moved up a stage. Are you undertaking a programme of radical redistribution of resources?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) With regard to capital, yes. There are many institutions, as you will know, especially the post-1992 institutions, which have inherited a backlog of very poor estates, of run-down buildings. We have a poor estates fund specifically to address that issue.


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