Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460-479)



  460. You used to have to have a French O-level to do history, I think, which seems strange to me. In terms of the reasons why people drop out, you mentioned that most of them are personal. Is it possible to provide any further information on exactly what the breakdown of personal reasons is, or is that just an unknown factor now? If you cannot, can I ask this question. I have not read the Report fully enough. Is there a demographic breakdown of dropout rates?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, there is. We know that older, more mature students are more likely to drop out than 18 to 21 year olds.[16]

  461. What about people from poorer backgrounds?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) They are also more likely to drop out.

  462. What about men and women?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Men are more likely to drop out than women, but married men are more likely to stay in.

  463. You mentioned the relationship between teaching and research in terms of parity of esteem. Do you think there is institutional sexism in that? I mentioned this issue at the last hearing, you remember, that if a woman, for argument's sake, does a certain amount of research, has a child, then carries on teaching, changes from a teacher to a situation where she does more research, in that window where she is hanging on there will be a lot of pressure to get her out of the statistics in terms of outputs, in terms of your monies. Do you think that is happening?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) As I said, I think, on Monday, I believe there have been isolated examples that I am aware of, and I said that we do have to ensure—which is why we established an Equality Challenge Unit—that there are no examples of what you describe as institutional sexism of that kind.

  464. I am sure there are lots. That is why I wondered whether it is possible to recognise the machinery that is making people be pushed in that direction?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Indeed it is. I think this comes down to the fine print of some of the evaluations we do, especially the research assessment exercise which I suspect is in the back of your mind. We did offer very specific guidance on that issue for the 2001 research assessment exercise, following issues drawn to the Funding Council's attention as part of the 1996 exercise.

  465. Finally—again this is anecdotal to a certain extent—I am led to believe that in cases like economics, where people go for degrees in economics, you have cases where often the standard of literacy involving people being admitted is declining all the time. These are in terms of people using proper grammar and spelling and that sort of thing. Is there any reason to think this is declining?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think it is very difficult to draw a conclusion right across the board. One does hear complaints that in terms of grammar, paragraphing, sentence structure, things of that kind, students are not quite so proficient now as they have been in the past. On the other hand, when one looks at other skills that are relative here, like students' IT skills, of course they far surpass the kinds of skills of students only a few years ago.

  466. Finally, in terms of the nationality of new lecturers, given the low incomes of lecturers, is there an increasing drift, in cases like economics, to have more and more foreign lecturers coming in to get the brand, if you like, of British universities, because British abroad would get more money if they just went into normal teaching or a normal job? Is this a chronic problem, do you feel, in the higher education system?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) There are a number of shortage subjects where it has been difficult to recruit UK residents into lecturing posts. The Government is currently proposing to offer golden hellos for lecturers in those subjects. You mentioned economics. It is true that recruitment in certain kinds of economics, especially macroeconomics and the more mathematical end of economics, has been extremely difficult for a number of years now. We have been fortunate to be able to recruit some very highly qualified and high-calibre people from other countries where, for example, there has not been a tradition of a PhD in Economics and they have come to this country to obtain one and stayed on. I am thinking of countries especially like Italy where that has been the case.

Mr Williams

  467. We have had an interesting two sessions. The problem is that you do not know where to push hardest in the education system to obtain the result which you want. In terms of quality of end-product for the nation, the high priority must be to produce as quick a result as possible in producing more and better graduates, if we are to remain successful in the modern economy. In that respect, have you done any cost benefit of the advantages of recognising that students are coming into university not as well qualified as you would like them to be, not as conditioned to the self-teaching ethic? Has there been any cost/benefit assessment of how much more effective it might be to build the teaching element into the university, rather than while at the same time you are trying to do a broad sweep across education? It is like focussing a teaching element—which is almost a dirty word in many of our universities—into the university. Could not that have a relatively rapid effect in quality and in numbers, because fewer might drop out? I am not sure you should answer that. I would not even answer it.
  (Mr Normington) I want to say just one thing, which is that a graduate still is likely to earn on average substantially more—35 per cent more—over his or her lifetime.

  468. Yes, but that is irrelevant to what I am asking about here.
  (Mr Normington) That has not changed. In fact, if anything, it has become wider. So to get a degree is still a very good thing, because it gives you a very good economic return.

  469. You are missing my point. What you are saying is a symptom of the problem which I am trying to address. The problem is that you do not have enough well-qualified people, that is why their earning differential is improving. What I am asking is, has there been any consideration given to the idea that those in the teaching element in the university might actually bring in a teaching element, that more teaching priority into the university might be a quicker and more cost-effective way of rapidly improving the number and quality of graduates?
  (Mr Normington) It might be. I am not sure we have done the cost benefit analysis on that but I think we agree there needs to be a higher priority given to teaching and to investment in teaching. There still appears to be a considerable demand for graduates and therefore you would have to expand the numbers as well but you would need to improve the quality of teaching. I may be missing your point.

  470. I think you are. Read the minutes and put a note in later, as we are short of time.[17] I think that is the best thing to say there. Looking at the number of people who are wasted from university—and not all of them are wasted when they drop out obviously—and Table 10, we are told in paragraph 2.8 that 26,000 students in the first year of their course were recorded as leaving early. Then we are told in the footnote to Table 10, which Mr Steinberg referred to, that the estimate of the number recorded is around 60 per cent of all withdrawals. So we have to take it that the total number dropping out must therefore be somewhere round about 40,000. Do we have a total figure?

  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, we do.

  471. Can you give us it?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) The total drop out figure which is given in the Report does include the 60 per cent who could not be traced through this exercise. So what we have here is a picture of the 40 per cent who responded to this survey. The total figure includes all the students who dropped out.

  472. In fact it is higher, it is 60 per cent are not recorded.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes.

  473. So if 26,000 were recorded, 39,000 were not recorded, which means there is a total of 65,000 who drop out. Does that sound right?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That sounds about right.

  474. Going back to the table, what surprises me is the absence of self-criticism. If you look at those individual categories and you put together the almost meaningless "personal reasons" plus "other" plus "unknown", you have 60 per cent of the people who are included in that list. It seems to me there is no systematic analysis being made at all of why drop out occurs. Where in there is the element of consumer dissatisfaction? Where is anything which says that the universities are at fault, that they are not providing what students want, the students were not happy and so on? Where do we find that? There must be an element of that, must there not?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I am not sure, with respect, whether this is directed to me or the NAO, but I would say that the Report states clearly that no student stated their main reason for dropping out was their dissatisfaction with the teaching.

  475. Maybe no one asked them. Do we know they were asked? The C&AG did not have a chance to go round 65,000 students and ask why they were dropping out. Who asked them? Do the colleges automatically ask them?
  (Mr Jones) The universities provide this information through HESAU, the Higher Education Statistical Analysis Unit. We were only collecting the data and that data was not collected by the universities.
  (Mr Normington) Some of the independent analysis we have done, and we have had a number of goes at this, shows that students sometimes are asked and of course they are dissatisfied with the quality they have received on the course, that they have not had enough support from the tutor, they have not seen the tutor, but it does not come through very strongly. It is often tied up with, "I was on the wrong course", "I chose the wrong institution". Wrong course and wrong institution can cover a whole range of things and in there maybe is quality of teaching.

  476. Yes, teaching is almost a dirty word in some colleges. Coming back to the issue of finance, which is shown as very low here, the Library of the House of Commons shows that if the grant level for students was the same today—and it does not exist of course but if it were—as in 1979, it would be 3,500 a year, which is for an under-graduate on a three year course, 10,500 that they would have received had the grant system been sustained. Can you not see that to people from the sort of family Mr Davies was talking about, the sort of families who have low income, often single parents and so on, the difference between having a 10,500 grant over three years and ending up with an 11,000 debt over three years is a mountainous difference? Do you not recognise that?
  (Mr Normington) It is a big difference, yes.

  477. These figures are almost frighteningly large. I do not mean this in a nasty sense but are you aware that to many of our constituents the sheer thought of getting into that sort of debt, with no guarantee that you are going to be able to pay it off because they cannot see a guarantee, is a massive deterrent? This must help to explain why students from the lower income groups do not come in or are not able to stay in university.
  (Mr Normington) I think we have accepted all through these two hearings that debt and the fear of debt is a deterrent to people from lower income families, and that is why the Government is looking at it again.

  478. I am glad they are looking at it again. Can I feed some extra thought in then. You talk of the extra earnings that people get from being graduates, but pay back starts at half national earnings, so youngsters who could be earning in three years' time instead face the prospect of getting as far as half national earnings and then having to start paying back this debt from what is really a relatively low level of income.
  (Mr Normington) They have to start paying back at 10,000. There is a cap on what they have to pay back. They pay back—

  479. Yes, I appreciate that, but they are caught in all ways if they do not have any sort of family support, because if they aspire to have a mortgage as they get a bit older this debt is taken into account in assessing their mortgage eligibility as well, is it not? Can you not see how it stacks up?
  (Mr Normington) Mr Williams, I do understand this. The Government changed the funding system—

  Mr Williams: We know what happened!
  (Mr Normington)—and when it did that it also put in a number of things that were designed to ensure that there was some extra help for students from poor families. I accept the general proposition that if you move from a grant system to a loans system then some people will be put off by the prospect of building up a large debt. That does follow, of course.


16   Note from witness: Further details and the breakdown of personal reasons for dropping out are available in Undergraduate non-completion in higher education in England (HEFCE 97/29), Table 3.2. These show that the most frequently indicated reason for withdrawal are: "Chose the wrong field of study" (40% of respondents indicated that this was a moderate or considerable influence), "Lack of commitment to the programme" (39%), "Financial problems" (39%), "Programme not what I expected" (38%) and "Insufficient academic progress" (36%). Back

17   Ev 51-52, Appendix 1. Back

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