Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

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 sector—they did not need much persuading—that 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 been—separate and autonomous institutions—and 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 made—I do not claim that OFFA is wholly responsible for this but it is certainly a contributor—is 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 unfair?

  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 24-25%[1]. 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 persuade—they did not need much persuasion—universities 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 somebody—a 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 return.

  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 put—and it would have been 10%, that is my reading—and 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 for 23-24%[2] 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 been criticised.

  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[3] 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[4].

  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 aspiration.

  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 levels?

  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 running—that 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 we—whoever "we" are—should 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 we do?

  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 agreement—that is because they chose to spend all their extra fee income on bursaries—but 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%" " Back

2   Note from the witness: "See footnote 1" Back

3   Note from the witness: "Including the Director there are 3.9 full-time equivalent members of staff" Back

4   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" Back

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