Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
2 JUNE 2008
Q1 Chairman: We welcome our witness today,
Professor Sir Martin Harris, the Director of Fair Access to Higher
Education (OFFA) to this one-off session where the Committee is
looking at the Office of Fair Access as part of our work of looking
at the non-governmental developments which are included within
the DIUS portfolio. That is the major purpose of today's session.
All of us remember the heated debate around the 2004 variable
tuition fees. We also noted very carefully that on the actual
day of the second reading of that debate the vote was in doubt
right up to the beginning of the debate itself; it was a very
tight thing. One of the things that perhaps swung the debate that
day was the Government's commitment to set up an organisation
which would try and make sure that the issue of fair access, particularly
to under-represented groups, would not be compromised by the variable
fees issues. I think that won the support of quite a number of
Members of Parliament. Do you think that you have made any difference
to that agenda, Sir Martin?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: I
think there is a great un-worked experiment, is there not, and
that is what would have happened had all the things that OFFA
has done not taken place and we shall never know in any objective
sense the answer to that. My view is that OFFA has made a great
deal of difference because what it did was persuade the sectorthey
did not need much persuadingthat if this new fee regime
was going to work both absolutely and in terms of not deterring
students from less well off backgrounds, then a bursary scheme
that fitted closely together with the Government's own financial
support arrangements was absolutely imperative. To anticipate
a question you might ask in a moment, the fact that I had spent
a lot of time in this sector and had a lot of trust in the sector
enabled me and my team to set about very quickly getting a set
of bursary arrangements that met that goal. One answer to your
question is the proof of the pudding is in the eating; that is,
after the tiny downturn in the controversy about fees themselves,
global applications have gone up and the proportion of people
from the lower social classes has not gone down.
Q2 Chairman: We will look at that.
I suspected you would say that but if the Government had said
within that Bill that it was a duty on the Higher Education Funding
Council to do the work that is currently done by OFFA, do you
think the same outcomes would have been achieved?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: I
think there would have been much less diversity. I think it was
very important that one aspect of what is encapsulated in the
Act is that universities remain as they have always beenseparate
and autonomous institutionsand they can judge, and I do
passionately believe this, better than a national scheme could
have done the variety of student support arrangements that are
most appropriate for the particular groups they are trying to
reach out to. They do vary substantially from institution to institution.
Q3 Chairman: The quote from Dr Terence
Kealey, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckinghamshire,
basically said that your appointment was calculated to keep the
Russell Group on side. Was that true?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: I
think it was very important to keep all the groups of universities
on board, including, but not exclusively, the Russell Group, and
one of the things I have tried to do all my career in the sector
is to understand and appreciate the strengths of different groups
of universities, different kinds of universities within the total
higher education sector, which is incredibly diverse.
Q4 Chairman: With respect, you have
not made an iota of difference in the major Russell Group universities,
have you, in terms of access?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: Let
us wheel back a little. What the fear was, and I like you remember
vividly those months of debate, that there would be a substantial
reduction either of applications in general or of applications
from lower social groups and that the difference that has been
madeI do not claim that OFFA is wholly responsible for
this but it is certainly a contributoris that neither of
those things has happened. Admissions have held up and are rising
again and the proportion of students from the poorer groups has
not fallen. Those are really important achievements when you think
what was being predicted in good faith by some of those who engaged
in those debates.
Q5 Chairman: We will come on to some
of those figures. I would like to challenge you on that because
I think the margins of increase and the margins of decrease with
certain socio-economic groups are so small that to actually claim
that that is a huge success is perhaps over-egging the pudding.
Professor Sir Martin Harris: No,
that is not fair.
Q6 Chairman: I am unfair or you are
Professor Sir Martin Harris: What
I was seeking to assert was not that there had been a great improvement
but that there were predictions of very serious declines in participation,
both in general and what I am saying with some fairness is that
that has not happened.
Q7 Chairman: To be fair I was one
of those who predicted that that would happen and I hold my hand
up to that, but it might still. In terms of OFFA's role here,
is there anything that you feel that you have forced universities
to do that they were not willing to do anyhow?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: It
is not a question of force. I think if I tried to force anybody
to do anything, knowing my sector very well that would almost
certainly have been quite counterproductive. I do think that persuasion,
particularly in that first 12 months making sure that there were
schemes put in place quickly and effectively, yes, I think that
OFFA had a great deal to do with that. To put it in context, when
Charles Clarke appointed me, he said to me privately that he expected
10% of the new fee income to come back to students and that he
would not be happy with anything less than 10%. In fact, I worked
with the sector to get more than 20% and it is somewhere between
I do claim that OFFA had some significant impact on that.
Q8 Chairman: Has there been a single
breach of an access agreement?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: No,
but you would not expect that, would you, because if by that you
are talking about the bursary part of an access agreement, you
would expect students who felt they had been promised something
which they did not then get to make a terrific hoo-hah about,
and rightly so.
Q9 Chairman: One of the things that
I am trying to get at in this first polite line of questioning
is really what difference OFFA has made in that sense. You said
that a huge number of agreements were quickly put into place between
the Bill being passed and the deadline for the 2006 funding regime.
In terms of those agreements you are saying that you had no input;
they were all accepted, you did not amend any of them as far as
your report is concerned?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: That
is true, but I think what you are summarising is the endpoint.
Once the agreements were formally submitted we did not amend any
of them but there is an awfully big step between the day the legislation
was passed and the day that access agreements came forward for
formal approval. We did spend 12 months going round and round
the sector to seek to persuadethey did not need much persuasionuniversities
that a generous set of bursaries was appropriate in the circumstances.
Q10 Chairman: They were willing to
do this? They agreed that they should do it.
Professor Sir Martin Harris: Yes.
Q11 Chairman: The 10% rough target
fee for bursaries was something that was universally accepted.
Have we perhaps wasted half a million pounds on OFFA?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: There
is an un-worked experiment, is there not, which is what would
have happened if the legislation had not included the establishment
of somebodya small group to work with the sector to try
to ensure that there was an adequate and diverse system of bursaries
put in place.
Q12 Chairman: You have got this half
a million pounds. In your view could it have been spent in a better
way to achieve the Government's objectives?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: It
is difficult. You could imagine, could you not, other ways of
spending half a million pounds, but to get £300 million,
which is what it will be when it is a full three-year scheme,
committed to students in return for a half a million pound a year
investment is no mean achievement. It is a pretty cost-effective
Q13 Chairman: All HEFCE had to say
is you will not get your grant unless you put that in.
Professor Sir Martin Harris: Unless
you do what?
Q14 Chairman: Give 10% back of the
student fees in bursaries.
Professor Sir Martin Harris: You
could have had a straightforward scheme that said every university
shall putand it would have been 10%, that is my readingand
you will remember at the time the £300 minimum was the one
thing that was spelt out in terms. What I was seeking to achieve
was a significantly bigger proportion of money put back into student
support. The Government could never have legislated at that time
coming back to students, nor could it have legislated to say that
certain universities should put more for poorer students into
their system than into others because all of those things would
have interfered with university autonomy and would rightly have
Q15 Chairman: You spend half a million
and you have three staff. That seems to be an incredibly generous
budget for three staff?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: The
great majority of our money is spent on the basic running costs
of having three staff
and the fact that we have to occupy the same premises as HEFCE
in Bristol and there is a service level agreement. Those three
staff would be in offices even if they worked for HEFCE.
Q16 Chairman: Your staffing costs are
£242,751. Another quarter of a million goes on what?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: On
renting accommodation and the expenditure of monitoring the access
agreements themselves, on travelling, on seminars and all that
kind of thing.
Q17 Mr Marsden: I would like to ask you
about universities' engagement with schools as part of this process.
I was a member of the previous Education and Skills Select Committee
that did a report on the White Paper that led to the 2004 Act.
In that report we said the basis for any discussion about widening
participation and ensuring fair access must be that access should
depend on academic ability, but also the priority for widening
participation must be actioned in schools at least from age 14,
and preferably earlier. Indeed, looking again at your own aims
in Aim 1 where you talk about supporting and encouraging improvements
in the participation rates aims to reduce as far as practicable
the barriers to higher education for students, et cetera. What
is striking from what has been said so far is that you do not
really seem to have been able to do anything. I know there is
a lot of good practice in certain universities about that outreach
work and Sutton Trust has done excellent work and various other
bodies as well, but would it be fair to say that OFFA has not
really begun to scratch the surface in terms of encouraging universities
to do that sort of thing?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: I
certainly agree with the core part of your argument. My own view
is, and this may sound almost heretical from the Director of OFFA,
that financial support for students who have already decided to
go to university is no longer, if it ever was, the key issue in
determining how you widen participation among those groups where
there is no experience whatever of higher education in their family
or if they are at a school where higher education is not a normal
Q18 Mr Marsden: If that is the case,
why have you not so far been able to focus more on OFFA's activities
at promoting awareness in universities and schools among groups
who would not normally go to university at those sorts of age
Professor Sir Martin Harris: Two
things: firstly, I think it would have been rather strange if
OFFA had not focused initially, and we are still in the early
stages of getting a bursary system up and runningthat is
where the focus of attention was and that is certainly where the
media interest has been and where the interest of parents has
been. However, one of the things I have been saying in all my
pronouncements in the last 12 months is that maybe the focus should
now shift and we should focus more on really reaching out to 14-year-olds
and younger in schools to change aspirations and to recreate upward
social mobility because that is the fundamental issue.
Q19 Mr Marsden: It is very welcome
to hear that. I noted the nuance and significance of the "we",
whoever we are. There is nothing in your own remit at the moment
in principle that would prevent you from doing that. Are you able
to go away and say more forcefully to ministers, as you have said
to us today: look, this is something wewhoever "we"
areshould be getting more of a handle on and if you want
us at OFFA to do it we would see it as an important part of what
Professor Sir Martin Harris: Certainly
there already is that dialogue between myself and ministers and
of course it is more ministers in the department to which I am
not directly answerable in a sense which is a slight complication,
but I think the dialogue is there. Whether OFFA can do it under
its present structure is a very interesting question. One of the
things David Eastwood and I have been talking about for a long
time now, and I hope something will come of it this autumn, and
certainly my Secretary of State seems to support it, is the view
that we should look back at part of the deal that was done when
the act was passed. All kinds of things were said and done and
one of the things that was no longer compulsory was for a university
to make an annual statement of all the things that it does to
widen participation. You have to remember that the offer of the
access agreement, apart from the bursary part, the rest is a somewhat
arbitrary statement of certain things that a university decided
to do extra at a particular moment in time when the legislation
was coming into force. You know as well as I do that lots of universities
have a proud record, some a less proud record, of reaching out,
but what the access reports include is what they include. What
I would like to go back to, and it is back, is one annual statement
which could come to HEFCE and to OFFA that would say all the things
that universities do in terms of outreach and which has an appendix,
an important appendix, but really an appendix, that is the bursary
scheme that is compliant with the law. We have a somewhat artificial
boundary where some universities declare that they spent nothing
on outreach in their access agreementthat is because they
chose to spend all their extra fee income on bursariesbut
those universities are doing massive work in outreach but it is
not in the access agreement, so we have a somewhat false database.
If we could go back to a one-off annual statement of wider participiation
and fair access in your statement, I hope the Secretary of State
is on board for that now and I think the sector will agree to
that. My answer to your question is probably not in the access
agreements in the legally defined sense of the term, but in an
annual report that was publicly available. I think that would
be a very good idea.
Chairman: I think we are all very encouraged
by those comments.
1 Note from the witness: "Actual expenditure
on bursaries and scholarships to low income students was 21% in
2006-07; including expenditure on additional outreach it was 25%"
Note from the witness: "See footnote 1" Back
Note from the witness: "Including the Director there
are 3.9 full-time equivalent members of staff" Back
Note from the witness: "In 2007/08 OFFA's actual expenditure
was £415,370. Full details can be found in the published
annual accounts available at www.offa.org.uk" Back