Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  Q80  Helen Jones: Can I ask you, Professor, with respect, how long this is going to stay under review because the House was given assurances at the time of the passage of this Bill that these institutions would not be disadvantaged and we are still here, as we have been in previous committees, still asking the same questions, both of Ministers when they come before us and of HEFCE? It is very clear, is it not, that those assurances given to us have not yet been met?

  Professor Eastwood: I cannot comment on student support provisions because that is not my area and I am not responsible for that budget.

  Q81  Helen Jones: It is all part of the package about whether these institutions would be disadvantaged by the introduction of variable fees.

  Professor Eastwood: To go back to what I said earlier, as far as the area we are responsible for is concerned, we have made changes since the Bill went through and those changes recognise some of the particular pressures that not just those institutions but also those recruiting part-time students in the new market might face, and we remain, as I say, in close discussion with the two institutions which have a particular role in part-time provision and I believe that we are continuing to make progress.

  Q82  Helen Jones: Do you believe you are not able to make more progress simply because of the loud voices of the Russell Group in these matters?

  Professor Eastwood: No, I do not see that that is a particular constraint. I think there are issues, and indeed some colleagues from, for example, CMU institutions would point to the very large numbers of part-time students they have and so for us—and I suspect too for Government when it is looking at student support questions—there are the issues relating to the two specialist part-time institutions but there are the more generic issues related to part-time students as a whole and that is why I have been labouring this particular point, that we do recognise that there are circumstances which are particular to the Open University and Birkbeck and we wish to continue to address those as the new market develops.

  Q83  Helen Jones: I understand that you are going through the process of looking at teaching costs. What information has HEFCE so far gathered about the additional costs of teaching part-time students as opposed to full-time students?

  Professor Eastwood: I think the difficulty with that is that, of course, it can vary from institution to institution because of the way in which part-time provision is delivered and the extent to which you have to make special provision or not. We believe that within a year we will have robust information as the so-called "Trac for T" programme runs its course and it will be on that basis, I think, that we are in a position to give some quite robust answers to these questions.

  Q84  Helen Jones: Is there any sense in maintaining the distinction between the support we offer to full-time students and part-time students as the distinction between them begins to blur? Some students you might class as full-time, they take a certain number of credits to enable them to work one year and they take more the next year. Is that distinction valid any more for deciding both on student support and how we fund institutions, do you think, or do these institutions, and particularly these two institutions, have different needs from those higher education institutions which have a mix of full- and part-time students?

  Professor Eastwood: If I can take the first point, which I think is a very important one, I do think you are right to say that some of those old-style distinctions are starting to blur and it is quite clear that an increasing proportion of full-time students are working throughout their programmes of study and those trends, what you have described as the blurring, will no doubt be issues that the 2009 Commission will want to look at in the context of any recommendations it might want to make around student support.

  Q85  Helen Jones: Finally, bearing in mind what you said about many other institutions that have a lot of part-time students—we recognise that as a committee—but these two particular institutions fulfil, as you said, a particular function and have particular needs. Are they not likely to lose out both ways if we are not very careful in that they cannot match the variable fee income of full-time students but that there are differences in the costs they have between their costs and universities which have both full and part-time students? Does there not need to be a special look at these institutions which fulfil a particular role?

  Professor Eastwood: As I said earlier, we are in discussions with those two institutions to explore with them the extent to which some part of their activities may or may not be distinct from those of other institutions which have large numbers of part-time but also have large numbers of full-time students.

  Q86  Helen Jones: How long do you expect it will be before we get a resolution to this problem?

  Professor Eastwood: It depends what you mean by "a resolution" and it depends what you mean by "this problem".

  Q87  Helen Jones: That is an academic's answer. When are we going to have this sorted out as we were promised when the Bill was going past?

  Professor Eastwood: If it is on student support I cannot comment on that because, as I say, it is not within my remit. If we are looking at the funding of teaching, which is within our remit, I think the current consultation on the funding of teaching has in it provisions which will be quite helpful to those two institutions and we expect responses to that consultation before Easter, so we will be able to make decisions quite swiftly.

  Q88  Chairman: Professor Eastwood, there is a whole variety of institutions. It is not just the two institutions that Helen has, quite rightly, focused on. We have got Northern College in terrible trouble, we have got Ruskin with financial problems. It is a whole sector of education that is very threatened. If this is happening who should act?

  Professor Eastwood: If there is a problem on the student support side then it is not a HEFCE issue. If there is a problem on the funding of teaching or the sustainability of the institution then that is a HEFCE responsibility.

  Q89  Chairman: Why do you think the people at Northern College and Ruskin are also struggling?

  Professor Eastwood: I probably should not comment on Ruskin; it is an institution in a different sector, so I think I will, if you do not mind, pass up the opportunity to comment on that.

  Q90  Chairman: But it is a worry, is it not, and a concern that whatever kind of part-time student you are this end of the market seems to be under threat? A lot of people go to Ruskin and a lot of people go to Northern College, so that must be quite a worry.

  Professor Eastwood: That would be true but there are other access programmes as well that take students from a very wide variety of backgrounds into higher education and do so very successfully. The point I would make though is that the data we have on part-time take-up suggests that though there are some reductions in the number of traditional continuing education-type students the part-time provision for students registering for degree programmes looks as if it is holding up.

  Q91  Mr Marsden: We can trade statistics, I know, till the cows come home, but does it not worry you, Professor Eastwood, that we seem to have a certain mindset in the Department which, perhaps because it is financially inconvenient, slightly dismisses these issues of funding? We have had statements in the past from the Department: "Part-time students are not a uniform group. Many of them are comfortably off, many have their fees paid by employers. Why should we step in and start subsidising employers who are already paying for people to go to higher education?". That may be true in some institutions. It is certainly not true in the two institutions that my colleague Helen Jones has been talking about, and if I could declare an interest I was an Open University part-time tutor for nearly 20 years. Certainly the majority of my students were not comfortably off and did not have their fees paid by their employers. I know you have said student support is not a HEFCE responsibility but the fate of the universities who are affected by parsimony in student support is a HEFCE responsibility, as is the reliability of the statistics on some of these rather glib generalisations that occasionally come out of the department. What are you doing in HEFCE to amass further data on this? Are you confident that the data which DfES officials and occasionally Ministers quote in support of their position is robust?

  Professor Eastwood: What sits behind that as far as student support is concerned is a question of targeting and the targeting challenges are different and distinct for part-time students from full-time students.

  Q92  Mr Marsden: I am sorry to interrupt you, but I asked a very specific question about the data that is used, this 40/60 split. Are you confident that that is robust?

  Professor Eastwood: The 40/60 split?

  Q93  Mr Marsden: We are told that 41% of part-time students may receive some level of fee support from employers. Many of the other 59% are in a very different situation. We have a situation where Ministers and civil servants are saying on the back of a four in 10 figure that this is not something we should be too exercised about because there is a whole load of employers out there paying for the students. What I am saying is that that still leaves the 60% who are being paid for but are you confident that those statistics are robust? What are you doing and what are you able to do in HEFCE to get more robust statistics on part-time students?

  Professor Eastwood: I have no reason to have particular problems with those data. As I say, the issue for part-time students is the variety of support which is available for part-time students, which does mean that there are particular issues around targeting any kind of student support. In terms of my own core responsibilities I am confident that we have ways of working with the two institutions that you have signalled which will enable them to continue to play the distinctive role in the sector that they have.

  Q94  Mr Marsden: As the Chairman said, it is not just a potential issue. It is a very important issue for those two universities, I grant you that, but it is an issue if it is going to become a problem right across the sector. Northumbria, Sunderland, Portsmouth, MMU, all of these are universities with substantial and significant numbers of part-time students. It seems that HEFCE needs to put a sharper focus on how the fall-out from this lack of support for part-time students may hit your individual institutions.

  Professor Eastwood: That is what I have been trying to say we are monitoring very carefully and we have committed ourselves from the introduction of the new fee regime to doing that. Were we to start to see the kinds of adverse impacts that you refer to then you can rest assured that we will—

  Q95  Mr Marsden: So you will be in there with Bill Rammell telling them about these problems, will you?

  Professor Eastwood: Were there to be a significant change in the trends around part-time provision in higher education, yes, of course, I have a responsibility to inform ministers.

  Q96  Mr Marsden: Can I ask a final question, and that again is about the law of unintended consequences and that concerns some of the statistics we have seen in terms of the reduction of adults on courses in FE colleges? You yourself have already talked about the widening participation and the link between FE and HE. Given the importance of enhancing opportunities for progression to HE which often comes from FE, was that decline a matter of concern for you?

  Professor Eastwood: Again, that is a funding question for the Learning and Skills Council, not for us.

  Q97  Mr Marsden: But I am asking you a philosophical question, if you like. You are coming to us this afternoon and saying, quite rightly, all the things that you have said about HEFCE's broader view. You concurred with what the Chairman said in that respect. You cannot entirely wash your hands of a situation if that situation is going to produce fewer people, particularly older people, getting a first taster in FE and then wanting to go into HE, particularly not when you have been lauding Leitch and talking about the importance of skills. You must have a view on it surely?

  Professor Eastwood: We certainly do have a view on Leitch and taking—

  Q98  Mr Marsden: I know you have got a view on Leitch; you have told us what your view on Leitch is. I want to know what your view is on the decline in adult learners in FE.

  Professor Eastwood: As far as higher education is concerned we would want to be assured, and I think we are assured, that there are appropriate pathways into higher education. In that context the very real progress around access programmes is for us probably more important than that, that that sort of pathway, that kind of second and third chance route, remains. I think the funding and quality of access programmes to higher education is pivotal to those sorts of potential learners.

  Q99  Stephen Williams: Chairman, we have had Professor Eastwood before us before on research funding so we will not go over the history, but since then the consultation period, which was rather short, has now completed and we look forward to the future. Is HEFCE going to be running the shadow metrics exercise alongside the 2008 RAE?

  Professor Eastwood: Following the PBR announcement we are beginning work on the development of the new model and we will make a public announcement in March because my board will agree a timetable at its meeting next month, so that is formally where we are. In practice what we are anticipating now is that we will run the RAE in 2008 as previously advertised. We will test the new model, which by then will have been constructed, in the light of the kinds of data that we get from the RAE in 2008. That will give us a check on its fitness for purpose. We will do any subsequent re-engineering of the new model in the light of that experience so that it is ready to run for the STEM subjects in 2010-11.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 9 August 2007