Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 69

Submission from Birkbeck College Student Union Council

  Birkbeck College Student Union (BCSU) is an independent body, funded by Birkbeck College, to represent 19,000 Birkbeck students. We have been representing and campaigning for our members since 1904. Our advice centre is open daily. This submission is from Union Council, which is our highest governing body (excluding General Meetings).


  1.  The removal of ELQ funding affects non-ELQ and ELQ students in a multitude of ways.

  2.  It forces students to choose lower level qualifications in order to protect their future opportunities to re-skill and meet the flexible needs of the modern workplace.

  3.  HEFCE funds will be wasted due to high drop out rates as students are forced into inappropriate courses, and the HEFCE funds invested in students' first degrees will also be wasted where first and second degrees are incongruent.

  4.  Our analysis shows that already disadvantaged graduates will be disproportionately negatively impacted upon.

  5.  The DIUS misguided policy locks students to their first degree, but 75% of Black African origin graduates are dissatisfied with their first degree choice,[84] and women are more likely than men to choose a first degree that channels them into a low paid career.[85]

  6.  Disadvantaged Graduates/Postgraduates are more likely to need additional qualifications to advance in the workplace, so this ELQ policy reduces diversity in medium and high level jobs undermining the Equality Act.

  7.  It also undermines targets to reduce Child Poverty by attacking mothers. Many mothers have to re-skill within two years of childbirth. At least 1 in 5 women returners change career and employer,[86] and a huge proportion does not return to the workplace despite wanting to.

  8.  Birkbeck's unique cohort of older students will also be disproportionately disadvantaged by these cuts.

  9.  We emphatically do not agree with this DIUS policy, as it will do monumental damage.


 (i)   Changes to grass roots IAG (Information, Advice, Guidance) at BCSU advice Centre

"Aim Lower": The ELQ cuts encourage students to take lower level qualifications and reduce their aspirations

  10.  Our BSCU advice centre experience is clear: lifelong learning is a workplace requirement. Rather than encouraging students to up-skill, the ELQ cuts will encourage students to embark on the lowest possible level of qualification, as this leaves open future re-skilling opportunities.

  11.  Disadvantaged students are the most likely to need to re-skill (28-64), and thus the ELQ cuts encourage already disadvantaged groups to "aim low".

  12.  Worryingly, this course of action is likely to be particularly demotivating to BME groups, as seminal research on BME students in HE has found that:

    "aspirations and expectations of the value of, and benefits from, higher qualifications is a more significant positive `driver' for minority ethic than for white students".[87]

The ELQ cuts will force us to give students who withdraw from their courses advice that will make them less employable, and wastes HEFCE funds

  13.  If a student is unable to complete an honours or postgraduate degree, the BCSU advice centre advises students to accept a lower qualification such as a diploma or certificate, as recognition for the part of the course successfully finished.

  14.  This has obvious advantages for the student's CV and confidence, and is a better investment of HEFCE funds than when a student withdraws without achieving any qualification and with a gap in their CV.

  15.  This is problematic if ELQ opportunities are eliminated, as after withdrawal, students often return to study a different subject at a lower level. The original course may no longer be relevant or of interest. The student's confidence may be reduced by the withdrawal, and the reasons for withdrawal may be enduring (eg mental health, childcare, low income). Ongoing reasons such as these are most likely to be associated with disadvantaged groups. BME students have higher non-completion rates than their white peers, and so will be disproportionately affected by this problem.[88]

Penalties: Blaming the victims

  16.  We are extremely concerned about the potential penalties for students who do not reveal previous qualifications. There has been reference to large fines and even prison.[89]

 (ii)   Examples of other effects on non-ELQ students

  17.  Course Withdrawal: There will be a reduction in the number of courses offered, as courses with high ELQ funding levels will be withdrawn.

  18.  Cancelled courses will lead to income loss for Postgraduate students who part finance their study through teaching (most of whom have inadequate or no funding and are already in significant student debt).

  19.  Peer Support: Students tend to go to class mates for help, before turning to their tutors or the SU. It is often the ELQ class mates, who have more experience of academia, that give this support.

  20.  All students benefit from increased lifelong learning opportunities to re-skill with additional qualifications. This flexibility is demanded by the modern workplace, as the guarantee of a "job for life" is obsolete.

  21.  The ELQ cuts also undermine the tremendously exciting Layard Agenda, which proposes that financial investment should support organisations that increase societal happiness and enrich life experience,[90] a criteria amply fulfilled by Birkbeck and BCSU. As noted elsewhere,[91] careers that support societal happiness and the Layard Agenda, such as the range of psychology, psychotherapy and theological courses benefit from older students with more life experience, and thus are vulnerable to course closure under the ELQ cuts.

  22.  The financial impact on Birkbeck will reduce BCSU's grant, reducing the services BCSU offers all students, such as representation in academic appeals, welfare advice and community building or social activities. We play a considerable role in keeping WP and other disadvantaged students in college.

  23.  BCSU is a centre of expertise on part time and mature student issues within the student movement. A weakening of BCSU will lead to a weaker national voice on part time and mature issues.


 (i)   Re-skilling is not a personal luxury, and the ELQ cuts will lead to a waste of HEFCE funds

  24.  HEFCE and Bill Rammel have said that if people "want" to re-skill they can take a foundation degree or train in a vulnerable area.[92], [93]

  25.  The reality is re-skilling is often not a matter of having a choice. Disadvantaged groups are more likely to need to re-skill than average (28-70). Why should already disadvantaged groups be even more penalised with the narrow and inappropriate opportunities sanctioned by the ELQ funding changes?

  26.  The cohort in question is graduates/postgraduates and they would be better off doing an ELQ course that works in concert with their previous qualifications. This would mean that HEFCE investment from the first degree is not wasted.

  27.  The inevitable outcome of being forced to do an inappropriate course is a high percentage of non-completion, and the consequential waste of HEFCE funds.


  28.  By disadvantaged groups we mean groups who are disadvantaged in relation to their peers in HE and the workplace eg such as women (to men), BME students (to white students) and students with disabilities to those without. These are very heterogeneous groups, but we have used the term "disadvantaged groups" for brevity.

 (i)   The ELQ cuts destine graduates to be tied to their early degree choices, and this has a disproportionately negative impact on disadvantaged groups

Examples include:

  29.  The justifications for the ELQ funding cuts rely heavily on students making "a correct" choice of first degree. However, within two years of graduation almost all White graduates are happy with their first degree choice, but over 75% of Black African origin and over 67% of Asian origin graduates regret their choice of first degree.[94]

  30.  BME groups are nearly 1.5 times more likely than White graduates to do a second honours degree/sub degree course (Black African origin graduates are nearly twice as likely to do a second honours degree).[95]

  31.  These dramatic differences (29-30) suggest that the proposed DIUS ELQ policy potentially discriminates on grounds of ethnicity.

  32.  Government commissioned research on the gender pay gap has identified that IAG given to school leavers regarding appropriate qualifications and career pathways substantially disadvantages women compared with men.[96] Factors including IAG channel girls into qualifications leading to lower paid career pathways than those suggested to boys. This is despite girls achieving better exam results than boys.[97] One major reason for this is that jobs that are stereotypically female are low paid. The report Towards A Fairer Future[98] observes:

    "The occupational segregation that results makes a substantial contribution to the gender pay gap. Choices made at school can lock in differences in earning potential between men and women for the duration of their working lives".

  33.  The report Shaping a Fairer Future[99] specifically states in order to avoid being trapped by these early choices, a woman must have a multiplicity of opportunities to retrain and change career throughout her lifetime.

  34.  These findings (32-33) suggest that the DIUS ELQ proposals potentially discriminate on the grounds of gender.

  35.  The pay gap is a measurable economic index of inequality. In London, which will be worst hit by the ELQ cuts, the gender pay gap is 25%.[100] This is virtually equivalent to what it is was in 1976 when the Equal Pay Act was first brought in,[101] and is 40% higher than the national average. The UK gender pay gap is one of the worst in Europe. Government bodies have responded to recent research with a host of progressive and exciting initiatives,[102] but it is evident that these fledgling initiatives will be thwarted by the proposed ELQ funding cuts. BME graduates are paid on average 9% less than their white counterparts.[103]

 (ii)   Barriers in the workplace mean graduates from disadvantaged groups are more likely than their peers to need to re-skill at an ELQ level

  36.  The WP agenda helps more people to get degrees, but workplace and economic discrimination and disadvantage continue at graduate level and beyond.

  37.  Overall BME graduates find it harder to get employment than their white peers.[104], [105]BME groups are not a homogenous group. Chinese and Pakistani origin male graduates are two times more likely than average to be unemployed.[106] Thus, perhaps not surprisingly, these are also the two BME groups (and Bangladeshi) that are most likely to re-enter HE for additional qualifications.[107]

  38.  Economic distribution reveals graduates from disadvantaged groups disproportionately clustering in lower paid, lower prestige jobs than their peers.[108], [109], [110]

  39.  Disadvantaged groups are more likely than their peers to require additional qualifications to gain workplace recognition and promotion.[111] Unemployment and barriers to career progression mean career changes and sideways moves are more likely for disadvantaged groups than their peers, and the result is an increased need to re-skill.

  40.  Research is dense with examples of the scarcity of women, BME groups, and people with disabilities in top layer, high prestige, highly paid jobs[112] eg only 9% of directors of the UK's top 100 companies are women.[113]

  41.  Two recognised pathways for disadvantaged groups to top layer jobs are mentoring/role models and additional training/ qualifications.[114]

  42.  The government has committed to end the pay gap(s) and workplace inequity for all socio- economic groups with the progressive and exciting Equality Act. To tackle inequality, diversity at medium and high level jobs must also be achieved. However, the ELQ cuts eliminate one of the main accessible routes to workplace progression and promotion by limiting opportunities to re-skill and gain additional qualifications. This maintains economic disadvantage beyond graduate level for disadvantaged groups, and also reduces roles model and mentoring opportunities.

  43.  The DIUS proposal to take £100 million from economically disadvantaged graduate groups and give it to economically disadvantaged non-graduate groups, undermines the Equality Act and cements the Pay Gap(s).

 (iii) ELQ and Women with caring responsibilities

  44.  At BCSU we believe that bringing up children is the most valuable contribution to society a person can make. However, the financial penalties for women who do so are immense.

  45.  There has been much concern about the effects of the ELQ cuts on women returners. In response, Bill Rammel has stated that there are 47% of women on ELQ courses and 47% of women on non-ELQ courses, and he has implied that there is not a problem.[115] This shows a breath-taking lack of understanding of women's lives. Women's caring status is not usually monitored by college admissions, but there is every reason to believe that the ELQ and non ELQ groups are two different cohorts of women.

  46.  A comprehensive round of research has converged to agree that women's caring responsibilities are the major reason for the gender pay gap and related economic disadvantages eg pensions.[116], [117], [118]

  47.  There seems to be a general assumption that women returners who need to re-skill are those returning to the workplace after a number of years, or decades, raising children. This is an important group. However, BCSU's experience is that many mothers and carers are forced to re-skill within roughly two years of childbirth due to the child-unfriendly nature of their pre-children careers.

  48.  30,000 women are forced into resigning, redundancy, or are sacked due to their pregnancy each year in GB.[119] 50% of pregnant women face discrimination and disadvantage at work,[120] and over 70% keep silent about it.[121] Unsurprisingly, many women simply do not return to the workplace at all. Those that do are often forced to change career and re-skill. These are the types of women we see at BCSU advice centre. We believe that a lot more women would like to re-skill, and return to work but lack the appropriate IAG, so we have initiated an outreach programme aimed at women returners (54-56).

  49.  75% of mothers who do return to the workplace, return as part-time workers[122] either due to lack of quality childcare or because they want to spend time looking after their children.

  50.  Part-time jobs are lower paid than full-time jobs (on an hourly rate comparison), and top layer jobs are rarely available part-time.[123]

    The Women and Work Commission has found:

    "Often they have to change employer and occupation- and accept lower pay—to get part-time work. This means their skills are being underutilised and this represents lost productivity for the UK economy"[124]

  51.  Despite the obligation of employers to consider flexible working patterns for women returners, at least 1/5 mothers have to completely change careers[125] and re-skill.

  52.  We are particularly worried about women who have children shortly after graduation. These women will not be protected from the devastating affects of the ELQ cuts even if the suggestion of an exemption from the ELQ cuts after five years of study is accepted.

  53.  Our outreach programme plans to target mothers in mother/toddler groups (and possibly children's centres) promoting Birkbeck's accessible admissions policy, evening nursery, child friendly hours, BCSU's facilities and support eg our family chill-out room. We also plan to promote family-friendly legislation. There is a lack of appropriate IAG for women returners. JobCentre lone parent advisors only see lone parents who don't claim income support once (even if they are on equivalent low incomes via maintenance payments). However, despite JobCentres being an excellent resource, many women returners feel uncomfortable using them, but we feel Birkbeck is very accessible.

  54.  Caring for children and/or relatives is a 24 hour job. It can be both exhausting and time consuming. Post natal depression may be as widespread as 52%,[126] and depression is almost endemic amongst carers. These factors make up-skilling unrealistic. So, we have identified Birkbeck's practical and inspiring range of certificate and diploma courses (at all levels of the common awards scheme) as our focus. These are the courses worse hit by the ELQ cuts, and in the present uncertainty, we have frozen our outreach.

  55.  Because the ELQ cuts reduce mothers' chances to return to the workplace, and consequently maintain the pay gap, the effect is to undermine the Child Poverty Agenda. In Inner London, where the cuts will predominate, 51% of children live below the poverty line, which is double the national rate.[127]

 (iv)   ELQ and Older Students

  56.  There is a growing demographic of older people whose needs must be met.

  57.  Inadequate pensions and increasing retirement ages mean older people need to work longer, which necessitates a disproportionate need to re-skill in this group.

  58.  The courses that are particularly attractive to mature and older students will be most vulnerable to closure under ELQ cut plans. This affects ELQ and first time mature and older students.

  59.  Many older graduates and postgraduates want to continue contributing to society through voluntary work after retirement. However, they often need to do a relevant course to make their skills, and knowledge bases, truly transferable to the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector is dependant on skilled volunteers, but lacks the funds to pay for the exponential rises in ELQs proposed. The ELQ cuts wastes the skills of older volunteers and undermines the voluntary sector.

  60.  Increased incidence of disability in older people results in occupational changes, and this leads to a need to re-skill to avoid substantial drops in income and dependence on benefits.

  61.  Depression is compounded with the onset of many age related problems. Being part of a social network, and having a sense of purpose and fulfilment are major recognised ways to combat depression. Return to study has both a preventative and therapeutic effect on depression. It also gives students access to counselling, social activities and support available at BCSU.

  62.  Study and mental activity is thought to have a preventative (and to some extent) therapeutic effect on cognitive deterioration associated with age onset problems such as memory loss and Alzheimer's.

  63.  The ELQ funding proposals systematically advantage younger students as opposed to older students, and, therefore, potentially breach the Equality Act.

  64.  The wealth of life and workplace experience, knowledge and historical perspective mean that older students make an irreplaceable contribution to Birkbeck's seminar groups.


  65.  That you do not cut ELQ funding.

  66.  That further consideration is delayed until completion, publication and public scrutiny of an equality and diversity impact assessment.

  67.  We do not accept that targeted grants will eradicate potential discriminatory outcomes of this policy. Research and our experience shows that current IAG targeting disadvantaged groups is inadequate eg the low uptake of tax credits shows that people often assume that they are not entitled to support. Furthermore, targeted grants will not support workplace diversity at middle and top layer jobs.

  68.  Do not rely on employers to pay for re-skilling. A major reason students study at Birkbeck is to change employers. Furthermore, employees will be forced to remain with employers for the duration of their qualification (eg five years).

  69.  Shorter courses such as certificates and diplomas at all levels of the common awards scheme should be exempt. This would still lead to savings as these courses are shorter and cheaper. However, these courses almost always do not include a dissertation or independent research component, which is often the element resulting in the greatest student development. A dissertation topic is also often flagged up during job interviews.

  70.  A proposal to fund ELQ students after a five year study gap has been mooted, but we think two years is more realistic, as this would allow graduates to realistically assess what qualifications they need after a spell on the graduate job market. It would also support women who have to change occupation shortly after childbirth.

January 2008

84   Why the Difference? A Closer Look at Higher Education Minority Ethnic Students and Graduates (2004) Connor, H, Tyers C, and Modood T, Hillage J. Back

85   "Shaping a Fairer Future", (2005) Women and Work Commission. Back

86   DTI, 2006. Back

87   Why the Difference? A Closer Look at Higher Education Minority Ethnic Students and Graduates (2004) Connor, H, Tyers C, and Modood T, Hillage J. Back

88   eg Why the Difference? A Closer Look at Higher Education Minority Ethnic Students and Graduates (2004) Connor, H, Tyers C, and Modood T, Hillage J. Back

89   Lords Education Debate: Adult Learners, 3 Dec 2007. Back

90   Happiness (2006) Layard, R. Back

91   Lords Education Debate: Adult Learners, 3 Dec 2007. Back

92   eg DIUS Select Committee 28 Nov 2007. Back

93   Commons debate on Higher Education 8 Jan 2008. Back

94   Why the Difference? A Closer Look at Higher Education Minority Ethnic Students and Graduates (2004) Connor, H, Tyers C, and Modood T, Hillage J. Back

95   Ibid. Back

96   "Shaping a Fairer Future", (2005) Women and Work Commission. Back

97   Ibid. Back

98   "Towards A Fairer Future", (2007) Department for Communities and Local Government. Back

99   "Shaping a Fairer Future", Women and Work Commission 2005. Back

100   Women in London's Economy, (2005) GLA. Back

101   Equal Pay Act, 1975. Back

102   The Equality Act, "Shaping a Fairer Future', (2005) Women and Work Commission, "Towards A Fairer Future", (2007) Department for Communities and Local Government. Back

103   NUS Black Students Campaign. Back

104   NUS Black Students Campaign. Back

105   A Review of Black and Minority Ethnic Participation in Higher Education (2006) Aim Higher. Back

106   A Review of Black and Minority Ethnic Participation in Higher Education (2006) Aim Higher. Back

107   Ibid. Back

108   "Shaping a Fairer Future", (2005) Women and Work Commission. Back

109   eg Why the Difference? A Closer Look at Higher Education Minority Ethnic Students and Graduates (2004) Connor, H, Tyers C, and Modood T, Hillage J. Back

110   Money, Money, Money. Is it still a Rich Man's World? (2005) Fawcett Society. Back

111   Why the Difference? A Closer Look at Higher Education Minority Ethnic Students and Graduates (2004) Connor, H, Tyers C, and Modood T, Hillage J. Back

112   Money, Money, Money. Is it still a Rich Man's World? (2005) Fawcett Society. Back

113 Back

114   eg CRE recommendations. Back

115   Commons debate on Higher Education 8 Jan 2008. Back

116   "Towards A Fairer Future", Department for Communities and Local Government: London 2007. Back

117   Money, Money, Money. Is it still a Rich Man's World? (2005) Fawcett Society. Back

118   "Shaping a Fairer Future", (2005) Women and Work Commission. Back

119   Greater Expectations (2005) EOC. Back

120   Ibid. Back

121   Ibid. Back

122   DTI, 2006. Back

123   "Shaping a Fairer Future", (2005) Women and Work Commission. Back

124   Ibid. Back

125   "Towards A Fairer Future", (2007) Department for Communities and Local Government: London. Back

126 Back

127   Parents and Work in London (2006) GLA. Back

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