Select Committee on Public Accounts Fifty-Eighth Report


The Committee of Public Accounts has agreed to the following Report:



  1. Through the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Department for Education and Skills spends £4.8 billion a year on higher education in 131 institutions, which are attended by about 1.7 million students. Higher education covers all study, training and research carried out at a standard higher than that of A-level or National Vocational Qualification level 3. It includes Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, degree courses and postgraduate courses.[1]
  2. Government policy is that the higher education sector should make a significant contribution towards national learning targets (Figure 1). The Government is committed to working towards widening participation in higher education while continuing to improve standards and raise achievement levels, and its undertakings for the sector are shown in Figure 2.[2]

    Figure 1: National Learning Targets for young people and adults



    Position when targets were launched in 1998

    Position in Autumn


    Target for December


    19-year-olds with "Level 2" (5 GCSEs at A*-C, an NVQ[3] level 2, intermediate GNVQ[4] or equivalent)




    21-year-olds with "Level 3" (2 A-levels, an NVQ level 3, an Advanced GNVQ or the equivalent)




    Adults with "Level 3" (as above)




    Adults with "Level 4" (NVQ level 4, i.e. having a degree or a higher level vocational qualification)




    Learning participation target—reduction in non-learners

    26% of population not in learning

    Data not yet available

    24% of population not in learning

    Source: Department for Education and Skills




    Figure 2: Key Government Targets for widening participation in higher education while continuing to improve standards and raise achievement levels



    Delivery targets




    Increase participation towards 50 per cent of those aged 18-30 by the end of the decade while maintaining standards


    To be reported in 2002


    Make significant year on year progress towards fair access as measured by Funding Council benchmarks


    To be reported in 2002


    Bear down on rates of non-completion


    The Funding Council expects to publish a target for the sector in January 2002, but had not done so by 17 January


    Strengthen research and teaching excellence


    Results of the Research Assessment Exercise published in December 2001 indicate that 55 per cent of research staff now work in departments which contain work of international excellence

    A new quality assurance method is to be introduced from September 2002



  4. The Comptroller and Auditor General produced two reports, Improving student achievement in English higher education and Widening participation in higher education in England. [5] We examined the performance of schools in preparing students for entry into higher education, financial support for students, and ways of improving retention and achievement in higher education.
  5. In the light of our examination, we draw four overall conclusions:

  • There is some lack of clarity about the target for widening participation. Definitions have varied over time, and what qualifications count is under review. The basis of measurement has also changed, in the light of the Department's review of reported data. The Department should set out in unambiguous terms the target for widening participation, the courses that count and the basis for measurement.

  • The Funding Council pays higher education institutions a premium, based on student home postcodes, as a broad proxy for the extra costs institutions incur on students from poorer backgrounds, for example on focused recruitment and extra teaching support. The Council recognises that the "postcode" system is not ideal, especially for students from rural areas or inner cities. In its review of the additional costs higher education institutions bear and of the methodology used to allocate widening participation funding, and it should look for ways of better targeting the £31 million involved.

  • Pupils from poorer backgrounds get fewer GCSEs at A-C grade and A-Levels, and far fewer go on to higher education. The Department have an array of initiatives aimed at helping these children to develop positive attitudes to education and gain better qualifications, including Sure Start, the literacy and numeracy strategies, and Education Maintenance Allowances. And they have recently issued a green paper on proposals for extending opportunities and raising standards for 14-19-year-olds.[6] Improving their performance in schools and colleges is crucial to raising the overall number who go on to higher education, and to raising participation from 41.5 per cent in 2001-02 towards the target of 50 per cent by 2010.

  • The current system of financial support for students is too complicated, particularly in respect of the wide range of discretionary funds that might be available. This complexity and the fear of debt are barriers to increasing participation. In its review of student funding, the department should strive to make the system simpler to use, better targeted on those from lower socio-economic groups and the disabled, and give potential students more certainty about the support they are likely to get.

  1. Our more specific conclusions and recommendations are as follows.
  2. On improving school performance

      1. The Department has instituted a range of measures to improve the educational experiences of young people aged up to 18 in schools and colleges, including Excellence in Cities, the Connexions Service and Education Maintenance Allowances. Some positive signs are emerging. It needs to evaluate the success of these initiatives (individually and overall) every 2-3 years to assess effectiveness in delivering higher attainment, higher staying on rates in post-16 education, and more students coming through to higher education.
      2. One reason why students leave higher education without completing their qualification, or fail, is that they are not well prepared in key skills before they start. Higher education institutions therefore have to identify knowledge and skills gaps and provide support to students, for example remedial or catch-up courses in mathematics in the first year. The Department need to ensure that the difficulties being experienced by institutions are fed into curriculum development and back to schools, through the work of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
      3. On improving arrangements for entry into higher education and widening participation

      4. High education institutions now have to prepare widening participation strategies and report progress annually. The Funding Council has also developed institution-specific benchmarks, to provide milestones. The Council should also develop targets for each institution, linked to achievement of 50 per cent participation by 2010.
      5. Participation by disabled students is particularly low: an 18-year-old with a disability or a health problem is 40 per cent less likely to enter higher education than an 18-year-old without one. The Funding Council should review institutions' widening participation strategies to ensure that their plans to recruit more disabled students are sound, and to disseminate good practice.
      6. On improving the financial support system for students

      7. In their review of the system of student finance, the Department should aim to rationalise the 23 different elements and the channels through which they are administered.
      8. The Department should review the support available for disabled students, including allowances from local authorities, so as to give these students greater certainty over support before they have to decide on whether to accept a place in higher education, to remove any disincentives to participation.
      9. On improving retention and achievement

      10. Overall achievement in higher education compares favourably with other industrialised nations. Significant improvement depends on raising students' academic performance in schools, which will take time. Meanwhile, the Funding Council should continue to bear down on very wide variations in performance between institutions, for example success rates ranging from 48 per cent to 98 per cent. It should develop an action plan focusing on under-performing institutions, in consultation with the Department.
      11. Potential students rely on good information to ensure they get on the course they want and that it meets their expectations. The quality of information is improving, for example through on-line services such as Higher Education Research Database. In their information to potential students, institutions should draw on the research conducted by the National Audit Office to provide information on areas such as course content, methods of assessment, the amount of time students should spend at their studies, any ancillary costs, and success rates of past students.


  3. Evidence from a study of 32 countries by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)[7] shows that only four (Canada, Finland, South Korea and Japan) perform better overall than the UK in key subjects. At the detailed level, the UK scored 7th on literacy, 8th in maths, and 4th on scientific literacy. The main issue identified in the study was the gap in attainment between the lower and higher socio-economic groups. Lower academic attainment at age 18 accounts for most of the lower participation in higher education by 18-year-olds from poorer social classes or with disabilities. Many students from lower socio-economic groups are not getting good enough GCSEs, and therefore are not staying on in full-time education and A-levels, as Figure 3 illustrates; but also over half of the social class V pupils with good GCSEs do not stay on to get A-levels. Ninety per cent of those with two A-levels go into higher education, so the focus of the Department's policies is on helping and supporting people from these groups to get better GCSEs and undertake A-levels.[8]



    Figure 3: Academic attainment and continuation in education at ages 16 and 18




    5+ GCSE passes A*-C at age 16

    Level 3+ qualifications at age 18

    All young people aged 16 or 18



    Has no disability or health problem



    Has a disability or health problem



    Social classes I and II



    Social class V



    Source: Department for Education and Skills

  5. The Department has instituted a range of measures to improve the educational experiences of young people up to the age of 18 in schools and colleges, including:

  • Excellence in Cities and Excellence Clusters, covering a third of all secondary school pupils and designed to tackle under-achievement in some of the country's most challenging areas;

  • Education Action Zones, promoting innovation and higher standards in small urban and rural pockets of deprivation;

  • new learning pathways for 14 to 18-year-olds, giving greater scope to mix academic and vocational qualifications and designed to end the culture of leaving school at age 16;

  • the Connexions Service, providing teenagers with help and support in preparing for the transition to work and adult life; and

  • Education Maintenance Allowances for 16 to 18-year-olds in education, currently covering about a third of the youth population in pilot projects.

  1. The Department and the Funding Council see further improvement in secondary education as a prerequisite to further raising performance in higher education, especially for people from the lower socio-economic groups. Success depends on effective leaders, head teachers and teachers creating an ethos of discipline and learning.[9]
  2. Another key to progress is developing the aspirations of young people. As well as developing the ethos, philosophy and performance of secondary schools, the gap between primary schools needs to be closed, because some of the falling behind of children from poorer families starts there. There is also a need to tackle low aspirations and culture in communities and families.[10]
  3. OFSTED inspects all maintained schools, and has identified just over 60 that require special measures. The Department follow up on schools that are weak and failing. For example, each of the 200 schools with fewer than 25 per cent of pupils achieving five A-C grade GCSEs has an individual plan with extra support to improve their performance. These plans include ensuring that the school has an ethos of discipline, which is essential to creating a learning environment. In addition, programmes such as Excellence in Cities about supporting schools to raise attainment, including tackling behaviour and working with families. One example is Tower Hamlets, which under the Literacy Strategy has made significant improvements towards the national average.[11]
  4. Education Maintenance Allowances aim to encourage young people to stay at school after 16. At the time of our hearing, these allowances covered about 30 per cent of the country and evidence was emerging that they were raising staying-on rates significantly. Subsequently, in June 2002 the Government published a consultation document on 14-19: extending opportunities, raising standards, which looks at how to encourage students to stay on and achieve more. Its proposals include more flexible and responsive curriculum planning, better recognition for and more coherent technical and vocational education, closer collaboration between schools and colleges and better guidance, advice and support for young people.[12]
  5. The Department are already seeing the first signs of improved levels of educational attainment at GCSE for pupils from poorer families and from poorer areas. These ought now to be reflected in higher staying on rates in further education and post-16 education and A-levels, and shortly in more poorer students coming through into higher education.[13]
  6. Higher education providers are also helping to address the problem of early disengagement with a range of measures that aim to encourage young pupils to stay in education for longer and meet the needs of adults who left education early. These include visiting schools and colleges, partnerships with schools and colleges, taster days and events for parents.[14]
  7. One of the reasons why students leave higher education without completing their qualification or fail is that they are not well prepared. As a result, higher education institutions are increasingly seeking to identify knowledge and skills gaps and ease students' transition, for example by offering remedial or catch-up courses in mathematics in the first year.[15]
  8. To improve numeracy, the Department have launched programmes starting with teaching of mathematics in primary schools and subsequently for children between 11 and 14. They are also concerned about the failure rate in AS level mathematics, and the impact on the number of maths teachers. Other countries are experiencing similar problems, and the only countries where the numbers of students in mathematics and maths-based subjects are holding up are in the Far East.[16] There are also concerns that the modular nature of A-levels means that students can get a good pass in maths, yet still lack essential skills for their degree courses.[17]

  10. To improve progression from school to higher education, there is a need not only to raise aspirations and school performance, but for those in higher education to make sure that the courses they are offering are attractive and fit for purpose, and that admissions policies are fair and equitable.[18] We looked at measures to help widen participation, how higher education institutions could improve the information available to students, and the fairness of admissions procedures.
  11. (a) Progress in and measures aimed at widening participation

  12. We noted that in various statements there appeared to be some uncertainty about the target for widening participation. The Department said that the target of increasing participation towards 50 per cent of those aged 18-30 by the end of the decade had been based on forward projections by the National Skills Task Force of the number of high level jobs there were going to be in the economy. The Department were confident of putting in place the plans and policies to achieve this target. They do not believe that the target is too ambitious, in terms of the capacity of children to improve. Between 1989 and 2000 there had been a marked increase in attainment at GCSE for children of unskilled manual workers, from 11 per cent achieving five A-C grades to 30 per cent, which showed how levels could be raised.[19]
  13. Since 1998-99, the Department said they had used a consistent measure, the Initial Entry Rate to measure progress. This measures changes in the number of 18-30-year-olds projected to go into higher education. The available data then available gave a participation rate of 43 per cent, but subsequent quality assurance reviews of data from higher education institutions and further education colleges had found some errors. Using more robust data, the participation rate in 2001-02 was 41.5 per cent. These figures do not include professional qualifications, and the Government has asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to say whether they meet the test of higher level qualifications. The Department estimated that any change would only have a marginal effect on the participation figures.[20]
  14. The Funding Council provides funds to help higher education providers meet the costs of widening participation activities. It also provides access funding for providers to pass on to students facing hardship. Students with disabilities can apply to their local education authorities for Disabled Students' Allowances overseen by the Department. The total funding allocation under these categories was over £200 million for 2001-02.[21]
  15. Funds to help offset providers' costs consist mainly of four premiums (Figure 4), paid with overall teaching funds. They are designed to recognise extra fixed 'per head' costs for part time students and extra recruitment and support costs for mature students and students from low participation postcodes or with disabilities. The premiums also cover the extra costs of lifelong learning so are not entirely focused on widening participation. Further funds comprise £8 million for partnership projects with schools and colleges, £4 million for summer schools to raise the aspirations of young people and £6 million to increase participation by students from the state education sector at providers currently recruiting below 80 per cent from that source. There will also be a distribution of £56 million to help with costs of physical adjustments required under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001.[22]








    Figure 4: Main funds to cover providers' widening participation costs









    2001-02 (£million)


    Part time


    Part time students (young and mature)








    Mature full time students








    Young full time and part time students from postcodes with below average youth participation








    All students with disabilities, based on the number receiving Disabled Students' Allowances





    Note: Part time students are defined as those studying for less than 21 hours a week or less than 24 weeks a year; young students are defined for funding purposes as those under 25 at course commencement


  17. The Funding Council allocates the premium on the basis of a classification of postcodes into clusters that have broadly homogeneous population characteristics. The Funding Council accept that in some inner city areas like London and in remoter rural areas, postcodes are not a close proxy for participation factors. The Council has therefore decided to launch a review of the indicators to see whether it can find a means of directing support in a more specific and concentrated way.[23]
  18. The Funding Council discourages providers from taking account of students' postcodes when processing applications, because it does not want the interview process to be distorted by factors, such as additional funding, which are extraneous to an assessment of students' potential. Providers can however obtain information about current students, eighteen months after their admission, by examining Funding Council data showing the postcode cluster to which it has assigned each student, requesting further data on participation levels in each cluster and matching the two sets of information.[24]
  19. Higher education providers believe that the costs of their widening participation activities exceed the funds they receive for them. The Funding Council commissioned KPMG to undertake two studies to identify the additional costs. Their reports indicate a wide range of costs in different institutions, depending on what they are doing to widen participation and KPMG are undertaking further research. The Council expect that once they have a much more accurate estimate of these costs, they will raise the premium.[25]
  20. There is a wide variation between institutions in the proportion of students they have from poorer social classes. Oxford and Cambridge have the lowest participation rates. They have far more well-qualified applicants than places available, but the Funding Council has been urging them to adopt strategies to widen participation. Like similar colleges, they receive an "aspiration premium", to pay for the additional costs of going into schools and colleges and into parts of the country which historically have had very low rates of participation in higher education, and those universities in particular. In this way, the institutions try to raise aspirations, work with schools and colleges, inform them about their admission policies and demonstrate that they operate on the basis of merit and no other basis.[26]
  21. The Funding Council had asked all higher education institutions to provide widening participation strategies, including targets for widening participation, and to report progress through their annual operating statement. They had also launched a benchmarking exercise, which aimed to set widening participation targets for each institution, reflecting different mixes of subjects and different patterns of recruitment but ensuring that each institution was working up to and beyond its benchmark. Looking forward, they had it in mind to set targets for institutions working in partnership with schools and colleges.[27]
  22. Students from poorer social classes have particularly low representation in medicine, dentistry and veterinary science and higher representation in education, mathematical and computer sciences. As regards medicine, the Funding Council has persuaded the Council for Heads of Medical Schools to introduce a set of innovative measures to encourage medical schools to seek well-qualified students who may not have aspired to a medical career for cultural reasons. Over the past two years, experiments have been running in five or six medical schools, and which are not only attracting non-conventional students, but also retaining the confidence of the medical profession.[28]
  23. (b) The information available to students

  24. Potential students need good pre-enrolment information about courses to ensure that their higher education experience meets their expectations and aptitudes, and enables them to progress along their chosen career path. Information about higher education, individual institutions and courses offered is more widely available than ever before, through websites as well as prospectuses and open days. UCAS now has an array of services on line, and the Higher Education Research Database also provides information online. However, some students are dissatisfied with initial descriptions of courses and others, particularly those accepted through the "clearing" process, have little time to research fully the courses on offer.[29]
  25. The Funding Council recognises the need to continue to improve the quantity and quality of information students have, so as to make informed choices about the type of course and type of institution that most suits them. It accepts the need to ensure that there is no deliberate over-selling, and the Quality Assurance Agency looks specifically at claims in both prospectuses and other course material to ensure that the aims and objectives are valid and are met over the lifetime of the course.[30]
  26. (c) Admissions procedures

  27. The majority of potential full-time students apply to institutions immediately from school or college, or after a 'gap year'. Most submit their application forms to their chosen institutions through UCAS and admissions tutors sift through the forms to identify suitable students. Institutions make offers of places based on results already obtained, or conditional offers based on predicted grades at A-level or Advanced GNVQ, or other evidence of their suitability. Some, which attract more applicants than they have places for, make offers based on high grades at A-level, or the achievement of other qualifications. Others who have more difficulty in recruiting students tend to make much lower offers. Applications from students with disabilities or from mature people with less traditional qualifications are usually considered individually. A few institutions, notably Bristol University, have also started to take account of the overall performance of the school or college applicants have been attending, and have interviewed students from those schools with low average achievement.[31]
  28. The aim is to widen participation without lowering standards of entry, which is not in students' interests either. Over the last 15 years, and despite a substantial expansion in higher education, the average A-level points on entry have risen from 18 to 19.[32] The Department see no evidence of a drop in the standards of A-levels, and the scope for variations between examining bodies is less, now that the number has been reduced to three. It is the role of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to maintain standards across the boards.[33]
  29. Most institutions accept that interviews are the best way to test an individual's commitment to the course, and their aptitude for it. Especially for returners to education, applicants with lower prior academic qualifications or "widening participation" students, interviews help staff assess whether or not any additional support may be needed. Interviews are also very important for helping applicants assess the suitability of the institution and the course for their needs. Interviewers may help students explore other options or advise on additional qualifications (e.g. an Access course at a further education college) before proceeding with the current application.[34]
  30. In practice, interviewing is very resource intensive, and for most faculties it is impossible to interview all students whom they might be willing to accept. Many target interviews at particular groups. About two thirds of institutions provide specific training to interviewers to ensure that they put candidates at ease and get the best from the interview.[35] Following the Comptroller and Auditor General's report the Funding Council plans to issue urgently advice on admissions to establish good practice which all higher education institutions must apply, and through the funding mechanism seek assurance that these criteria are being used.[36]


1   C&AG's Report Improving student achievement in English higher education (HC 486, Session 2001-02), paras 2-3, 1.1  Back

2   ibid, para 1.9 and Figures 5, 6; C&AG's Report Widening participation in higher education in England (HC 485, Session 2001-02), para 1.6 Back

3   National Vocational Qualifications Back

4   General National Vocational Qualifications Back

5   C&AG's Reports (HC 485, Session 2001-02) and (HC 486, Session 2001-02). Back

6   14-19: Extending opportunities, raising standards, Cm 5342 Back

7   Knowledge and Skills for Life - first results from PISA 2000 Back

8   C&AG's Report Improving student achievement in English higher education (HC 486, Session 2001-02), para 2.4 and Figures 9, 10; Widening Participation in Higher Education in England, Qs 1, 67-71; Ev 49-50; Knowledge and Skills for Life - first results from PISA 2000 Back

9   Qs 251, 255, 437-441 Back

10   Qs 43-44, 48-57, 63, 148 Back

11   Qs 77-78, 81, 83-85, 133-135, 141 Back

12   Qs 146-147, 191-192; 14-19; Extending opportunities, raising standards, Cm 5342 Back

13   Q12 Back

14   C&AG's Reports: HC 485, Session 2001-02, paras 3.4-3.7 and Figure 16; HC 486, Session 2001-02, Figure 7  Back

15   C&AG's Report: HC 486, Session 2001-02, paras 10, 2.10, 5.7-5.9  Back

16   Qs 256-257, 420-432 Back

17   Qs 346-349 Back

18   Q15 Back

19   Qs 2-3, 90-91, 140 Back

20   Qs 179-190, 302-320, 179-190, 249-250; Ev 49 Back

21   C&AG's Report (HC 485, Session 2001-02), para 1.25; Qs 155-156 Back

22   C&AG's Report (HC 485, Session 2001-02), paras 2.14-2.16 and Figure 12 Back

23   C&AG's Report (HC 485, Session 2001-02), para 2.16; Qs 7, 149, 213-214, 377 Back

24   C&AG's Report (HC 485, Session 2001-02), paras 2.16-2.17; Qs 149-150, 217-219 Back

25   C&AG's Report (HC 485, Session 2001-02), para 2.19; Q145 Back

26   C&AG's Report (HC 485, Session 2001-02), para 1.20 and Figure 8; Qs 4-6, 143-144, 226-234, 237-239 Back

27   Qs 4-6, 14, 142-144 Back

28   C&AG's Report (HC 485, Session 2001-02) para 1.19 and Figure 7; Qs 220-224, 235 Back

29   C&AG's Report (HC 486, Session 2001-02), paras 14, 4.2-4.5, 4.11; Qs 336-339 Back

30   Qs 262-263 Back

31   C&AG's Report (HC 486, Session 2001-02), paras 4.6, 4.9 Back

32   Qs 268-270 Back

33   Qs 272-274, 404-418, 424, 430, 448-452 Back

34   C&AG's Report (HC 486, Session 2001-02), para 4.8  Back

35   ibid, paras 4.9-4.10  Back

36   Qs 154, 168, 242-247 Back

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