Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)



  400. Okay, perhaps I can ask about dropping out. Presumably the only sure-fire way of avoiding any dropping out is to have no entry, but presumably we are going to take people in. I am not sure about the risk assessment exercise you undertake and the professionalism of that approach. We have had quite a lot here at various times on risk assessment. Have we learnt anything for university departments on risk assessment procedures adopted by other parts of the government service?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I can answer that. Yes, we have. It tends to be applied more in other areas of the university world, such as forward financial planning, capital needs and so on than in regard to admissions policies and drop outs. I would say, there has been a rather unprofessional approach to assessing the risk of particular categories of students, and that is why we do want to professionalise the action on access we are taking, so there is best practice guidance to admissions tutors which will involve the kind of methods you are referring to.

Mr Gibb

  401. Are some degrees better than others?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That depends on what it is the students want to get from them.

  402. Is a physics degree at a university where they just keep the minimum standards worse than a degree, say, from Oxford on that same subject?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I do not know the answer to that question, I do not think anybody can know the answer to that question, because you are asking me to compare an unknown institution with Oxford University, and I am afraid you will have to be a bit more specific.

  403. Can it be possible in our education system for any degree to be better than any other degree?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, it can.

  404. What I was trying to establish from you was that you are able to utter qualitative value judgments. I get the impression from a lot of the answers that you seem incapable of uttering qualitative value judgments but, thank you, you have just uttered one and I needed to have that before I asked these next questions. The kind of "all must have prizes" ethos of educational establishments is a major problem. Thank you for that. Mr Normington, am I right in thinking that in your dialogue with Gerry Steinberg you accepted that, because of the expansion of the proportion of the population which now go to universities, there has been overall a lowering of the entry qualifications?
  (Mr Normington) No, I actually said there has been a rise in the A-level entry standard; a slight rise from 18 points to 19 during the period of the great expansion in the mid-90s. We also did admit there were some other factors being taken into account and we talked about one institution in the other report, Bristol, which is looking at other ways of assessing pupils than just by raw A-level qualifications.

  405. So there has or there has not been a lowering of entry?
  (Mr Normington) In terms of A-level entry, there has not. There are some universities which are widening—I do not think it is a dropping of standards—

  406. I did not use the word "dropping"; lowering.
  (Mr Normington) Well, lowering. I do not think there is any evidence of that.

  407. Even taking into account those people who came in on these other criteria, there is still no lowering? Or have we got to take these people out?
  (Mr Normington) Let me be quite clear about this. I think you have to be very cautious before you depart far from the normal entry qualifications, otherwise you have to be very sure why you are doing it and that you are not dropping your standards. There is no interest in dropping standards of entry.

  408. What year are you talking about the 18 points average? How many universities were there in that year?
  (Mr Normington) I am talking about a period post-1992. I do not know the exact period but roughly 8 years, to about now.[10]

  409. So roughly from 1992 to 2000 where the number of universities rose from 53 to 90, is that right?
  (Mr Normington) This is when all the post-1992 institutions started coming in.

  410. So when there were 53 universities, when there were however many students 53 universities take—say 10,000 a university—half a million—
  (Mr Normington) Yes.

  411. By 2000 there were 90 universities teaching how many pupils? A million?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) About that, 850,000.[11]

  412. So from 500,000 to 850,000, you are saying that when there were 500,000 places the average A-level points you needed to get one of those 500,000 places was 18—
  (Mr Normington) It has gone up from 18 to 19.

  413. Now, when there are 90 universities taking 850,000 pupils, you need 19 points.
  (Mr Normington) That is what I am advised. That is what the figures show.

  414. I am not that good at maths, I cannot do the figures, but that shows, assuming the units have remained of the same value, we are looking at an increasing standard of attainment at A-level of a phenomenal percentage, a 30 or 40 per cent increase, in the absolute standards of A-level points now being earned by sixth formers. Is that right? Is that the kind of level of increasing standard of education we are achieving in this country?
  (Mr Normington) It is from a low base.

  415. 1992 was a low base?
  (Mr Normington) In terms of A-levels.

  416. A-levels were rubbish in 1992, now they are great?
  (Mr Normington) No.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) The number of students being entered for A-levels in 1992 was very low compared with 2000. The numbers going into A-levels, the 16 to 18 retention rate, has steadily improved even though it is not nearly as good as perhaps it could be.

  417. It just seems to me that you have a huge expansion in the number of students going into university, and you are saying the A-level points required has gone up not down, yet the value of that point is still as valuable in 2000 as it was in 1992?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Can I just be clear. It is not the number of points which are required, it is the average number of points which students entering higher education have.

  418. All right, it is roughly that. What I am trying to assess here is whether the A level point is as valuable in the year 2000 in terms of the absolute level of education achieved in our sixth forms as it was in 1992, and you are saying that not only—
  (Mr Normington) I do not have any evidence that there has been a decline in the standards of A levels.

  419. Are you saying, therefore, that the absolute level of education required, achievement to get into the worst university, the easiest courses in the most mediocre university in 1992, is the same as that which is required to get into the easiest course in the most mediocre university in the year 2000?
  (Mr Normington) I do not think I know that, because I am talking about an average year. Various things will have contributed to that average. It is possible that there are some lower entry qualifications at the lower end. It is possible that it will also be getting larger at the top end as well.


10   Note by witness: This refers to the period 1996-99, when the average `A' level points score increased from 18 points to 19 points. Back

11   Note by witness: The headcount figure for universities in 2000 was 1,398,000. The 850,000 quoted corresponds more closely to the full time equivalent (FTE) figure. Back

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