Select Committee on Public Accounts Fifty-Eighth Report


  1. The Comptroller and Auditor General found that one of the main obstacles to widening participation was difficulty in securing financial support. Groups with low representation face greater uncertainty and complexity than others, including limited entitlement to loans or help with fees if they study part time. Key issues included:

  • The complexity and wide range of potential sources of public funding from which students can seek support.[37]

  • Uncertainty over access to additional funds distributed at the discretion of higher education institutions; some do not tell accepted applicants until it is too late what support they will receive.[38]

  • Difficulties with the interface between the student support system and benefit systems, for example disabled students studying with extended work placements break their entitlement to long term disability benefits. The Department has joined with the Department of Work and Pensions, HM Treasury and the Department of Health to resolve these problems.[39]

  • The availability of Disabled Student Allowances from local authorities can only be decided after acceptance, which causes uncertainty and can delay payments.[40]

  • Levels of debt after qualification.[41]

  1. The Department consider that the basic financial support arrangements, through a contribution to tuition fees and the student loans, are not complicated. However, they acknowledge that all the discretionary and hardship funds are difficult to understand, that there is very little certainty, and that the fear of debt has some impact on the likelihood of people from poorer families going on to higher education. Simplifying the system, particularly as it relates to discretionary funds, is the first aim of an ongoing review of student finance. The review also aims to provide more up-front support for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, tackle the problems of debt, and address issues such as the extent to which the costs of studying in different locations, such as in London, are taken into account. However, the timing of any announcements is uncertain, and any changes will not affect the package available to those going into higher education in autumn 2002.[42]

  3. Some 77 per cent of full-time undergraduate students are projected to achieve a degree at the institution at which they started. A further one per cent will obtain a different qualification, and five per cent are expected to transfer to another institution. This compares well with other sectors and higher education in other countries. The comparisons by the OECD of the performance of a range of industrialised nations suggest that only Japanese students are more likely to obtain their degree.[43]
  4. Despite this relatively high success rate, the sector will have to recruit more students and maintain or improve achievement rates if it is to meet the Government's national learning targets. Moreover, some institutions lose more than one in five full-time first year degree students, and the proportion of students likely to graduate ranges from 48 per cent to 98 per cent. Non-continuation rates tend to be lower in pre-1992 universities than in post-1992 universities and "other" institutions. And there is a strong correlation between success and prior educational qualifications. The Funding Council recognises that these variations are too wide and is tackling the problem by focusing on under-performing institutions.[44] For example, it has instituted a programme called Action on Access to establish and disseminate good practice on matters such as giving students more support and encouragement.[45]
  5. There is a risk that to widen participation there might be a reduction in standards of intake, provision and degree. The Funding Council pointed out that there is no incentive for institutions to recruit weaker students who might then leave within the first year. The Council clawed back money in respect of those students.[46]
  6. The Council took the view that the rise in the average A level points on entry was evidence that standards of intake had not declined. To offset the risks of lower standards in provision, the Quality Assurance Agency has established benchmark standards on a subject by subject basis for all institutions and is undertaking its first review of provision to ensure that institutions deliver to an appropriate standard. As regards the quality of degrees, there is no system to ensure national conformity. The Agency's benchmarks are the minimum standard, subject by subject. However, there is variation above that minimum threshold in terms both of the content of the degree and the level to which students are taken.[47]
  7. Ninety per cent of full-time first degree students continue into their year after entry.[48] Young students (those under 21 at the start of their year of entry and who represent about three-quarters of the undergraduate population) are more likely to continue (92 per cent) than mature students (84 per cent). Students who withdraw tend to have lower prior academic qualifications. They are also more likely to have entered through clearing. The Department put the costs to the Exchequer of the students who do not continue into the next year at about 90 million, although this excluded costs borne by the students themselves and their families which might bring the cost nearer to 200 million.[49]
  8. Qualitative research carried out by the National Audit Office indicates that the main causes of withdrawals are lack of preparedness for higher education, changing personal circumstances or interest, financial matters, paid work and dissatisfaction with the course or institution. The Comptroller and Auditor General identified a range of good practice, which if implemented more widely could better match students to courses and provide effective preparatory activities, induction, teaching and support.[50]
  9. The Funding Council told us about a range of initiatives in these areas, including:

  • On matching students to courses more appropriate to their qualifications and aptitudes, the Funding Council is working to improve the quantity and quality of information available. The work of the Quality Assurance Agency in validating claims made in prospectuses is important.[51]

  • On teaching, the Funding Council allocates resources to institutions to help ensure that wherever students go, teaching resources are broadly similar—within plus or minus 5 per cent. It had reduced variations by shifting resources from those with large amounts of money per capita to those with low levels, and was continuing to do so. Institutions could top up these funds with their own resources.[52]

  • On student support, including pastoral care, the Funding Council has recommended that to help improve retention institutions should provide additional pastoral and academic care; ongoing study skills; and literacy, numeracy and IT skills services when students enter high education and throughout their study to help aim retention. Students were being offered the opportunity to visit institutions during the summer before entry to learn more about what goes on, and where appropriate to receive some learning skills tuition. Student counselling services and student unions were focusing on assisting students in their first years. No cost-benefit analysis has yet been undertaken on these different activities, partly because it is difficult to isolate and quantify the effect each has on retention. As a result, evidence is generally drawn from on case studies.[53]


37   C&AG's Report (HC 485, Session 2001-02), paras 9, 2.9-212, 3.17-3.20 and Figure 19 Back

38   ibid, paras 2.12, 3.18 Back

39   C&AG's Report (HC 485, Session 2001-02), para 3.19; Q323 Back

40   C&AG's Report (HC 485, Session 2001-02), para 3.20 Back

41   ibid, para 2.12 Back

42   ibid, para 3.18; Qs 8-11, 39, 101, 106, 110-113, 123-124, 175-176, 193-194, 197-210, 248, 354-359, 476-480 Back

43   C&AG's Report (HC 486, Session 2001-02), para 7, 2.4, and Figure 9; OECD Knowledge and Skills for Life, first results from PISA 2000  Back

44   C&AG's Report (HC 486, Session 2001-02), paras 11-12, 3.2, 3.4 and Appendix 3; Qs 261, 280-282, 290 Back

45   Qs 264, 290  Back

46   Q294  Back

47   Qs 92-93, 174, 230-234, 253, 271, 276-277, 364-371, 401-403 Back

48   National Audit Office analysis of Funding Council performance indicators Back

49   C&AG's Report (HC 486, Session 2001-02), paras 8, 2.2-2.5; Qs 339-344, 360-363 Back

50   C&AG's Report (HC 486, Session 2001-02), paras 10, 14-19, 2.9 and Parts 4, 5; Qs 283-287 Back

51   Qs 262-263  Back

52   Qs 373-377, 381-390  Back

53   Qs 327, 333; Ev 52-53 Back

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