Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)|
2 JUNE 2008
Q20 Dr Iddon: I want to move on to
how you measure OFFA's effectiveness. Specifically how do you
define disadvantaged groups and have you any baseline data for
each of those groups?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: In
a sense this is a cop-out answer. We define it in family financial
terms. I know perfectly well that that is not the whole of the
answer and that is why I said earlier that it is encouraging that
different universities have said in our catchment areas there
are these ethnic groups or these remote rural dwellers or there
are these social groups. There are different potential catchments
for different institutions. In terms of the legislation our role
is to look for those whose family incomes are below certain thresholds.
Q21 Dr Iddon: Can you say what those
thresholds are because I have some figures here which look remarkable.
Definition of students on a low income for a start and assessed
household income of up to £47,425that is more generous
than the Government make available.
Professor Sir Martin Harris: OFFA
has always seen itself as having two roles: one is to make sure
there is the most generous possible support for those on what
was originally £17,500
and is now £25,000
in terms of family income and those who get generous support both
from the Government and through the bursary systems from individual
universities. What became clear very early on was a fear, which
may or may not have come true, and again we shall never know,
that really sharp cut-offs at a point just above initially £17,500,
now £25,000, was not a sensible way to manage a government
support and a bursary support system, so what we said to universities
is if in your judgment tapered supportit goes down right
across the rangewill count up to that level which was,
at that time, two people earning an average income. We were conscious
of the two teachers or the two nurses or the two social worker
family as getting some minimal financial support.
Q22 Dr Iddon: I raise my eyebrows as
I represent one of the poorest constituencies in the country.
We are talking about incomes of £10,000-£12,000 per
family, many of those single people, male or female, and those
are the kind of people I want to get into university, not the
children of two teachers.
Professor Sir Martin Harris: There
is a judgment to be made there and I sympathise with what you
are saying. What we have got is a situation in which those with
incomes that you describe should really not be deterred on financial
grounds. There are much more complex issues that we could explore
as to why those people do not apply to universities in greater
numbers, but I think there is data showing that financial support
for students from truly poor families is more generous than it
has been for a decade and I welcome that. I think that is fantastic
but I think a sudden cut-off at £25,000 or something was
not something that would have played very well.
Q23 Dr Iddon: Bearing in mind what
we have just been discussing, will OFFA be able to measure the
effects of variable tuition fees on the participation of those
Professor Sir Martin Harris: Let
me be even clearer than I was just now. My personal view is that
the initial purpose of OFFA as voted for by Members of Parliament
was to make sure that there was not a catastrophic decline in
participation and poorer participation. I think you can say that
the proof of that is there to see. That has not happened and I
am sure that everybody in this room is delighted that it did not
happen, but if we are really going to break through into those
groups who do not go to university at all, then I do not think
another hundred or two once they are 18 is going to be the solution.
We have to do more with schools at a much earlier age. If I were
devoting additional resources it would be in those directions
and I think government is edging in that direction, or at least
that is my perception.
Q24 Ian Stewart: I do not know whether
there is a formal declaration of interests but I am registered
at Manchester for a PhD as Martin well knows. Martin, can I ask
you to consider that, as you have given those assurances to Brian
when he asked you those last questions, is it not too early to
make assumptions about the impact of fees and finance on this
generation of students and perhaps even the next generation? Would
it not be more sensible to save the opinions about that until
probably two generations on?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: It
is certainly true that if you talk in the sector or more broadly
along the lines that I have just been saying you very soon come
to a real dilemma and that is are we really certain that the effects
of the last two years are going to be sustained and that since
nobody is proposing an extra pot of money then moving even a small
sum of money out of support for actual students into support for
potential students, because that is really what we are talking
about, is it not? If you have slightly less in bursaries and slightly
more in outreach it is still the same pot of money unless there
were an additional income stream, which I think nobody is predicting
just at the moment. There are many voices urging caution, Ian,
as you just did and saying yes, it would be nice to spend more
money on outreach but not at the expense of the bursaries for
the present day students. If you read what the NUS have said,
I think they would go two-thirds of the way with that but they
might be close to what Brian just said that maybe we certainly
should not take money from the poorer students, but is £47,000
poor? There is obviously room for manoeuvre about whether you
can move some money from some income bands into outreach, but
all of these are political decisions.
Q25 Dr Iddon: While we are on bursaries,
it is difficult using the data that you collect to disaggregate
that data to really measure the effect of bursaries because we
have received some criticisms of your data. People have said that
your statistics are of little value which is something people
have quoted to us in evidence. Here are just two of the criticisms:
first, you do not disaggregate bursaries funded from variable
fee income from other bursaries and scholarships awarded, for
example by industry, so how are people to measure the effect of
bursaries when you are not disaggregating all the different kinds
of bursaries and scholarships?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: Firstly,
universities have always had a small number of self-funded sports
scholarships, music scholarships, all kinds, and they are still
there and they go on. What we measure by law in the access agreement
is those sums of money from their new income streams; that is
the fees that universities decided to commit to student support
through bursaries. Where I agree with you and where I think we
could do better is I think we could, by working more closely with
the SLC, and we do work very closely with the Student Loans Company,
we could publish in future years bands of students in different
incomes to see how the money that is being spent on bursaries
is being divided between the poorest, the moderately poor, the
not really very poor and so on. I think that is a fair point.
We read that in the NUS submission, for example. We are minded
to talk to the SLC about how we might do that. I do say again
that there is a very big difference between what a student whose
family income is £17,000 or less receives, and one whose
income is £35,000, and rightly so.
Q26 Dr Iddon: The other criticism
was because of the high level that you take the income level to
in a joint household of £47,425 for the reason that you band
your incomes to that level and also the previous reason I have
just given that bursaries and scholarships come from elsewhere,
it is difficult to look at your data and really assess the effectiveness
of bursaries on widening participation.
Professor Sir Martin Harris: The
first of those points is a valid one. I think it makes sense for
us to look at the distribution between income bands of the total
sum. I am sure if each individual university does that it would
be quite easy to collect that data. I am not convinced that the
other point is a major one. I think the number of scholarships
from historical funds, endowments and so on, outside a couple
of universities, could be very, very small.
Q27 Dr Iddon: It is a pity that Dr
Gibson is not with us this afternoon as he is very keen on statistics.
This Committee have done an investigation into statistics and
one or two of us sat on the Statistics and Registration Service
Act (as it is now) so we are up to here with statistics at the
moment. Have the statistics that you presented to us in your submission
been reviewed by the UK Statistics Authority or not?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: I
do not know the answer to that ... No they're not.
Q28 Dr Iddon: I suggest that they
should because, for example, you reproduce a table at paragraph
28(c) of your submission showing new entrant students by income
levels to support your view that students from the lowest income
group have remained stable, but the problem with that table is
that over a third of new entrants did not even supply any data,
so what value is the table?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: I
understand what you are saying, Brian. All you can do is to compare
like with like. If consistently year on year a third of people
do not declare their own social background then you are entitled
to assume, I think, that the proportions are roughly the same
from year to year. Why people do not declare their social background
is itself a very interesting and complex question.
Q29 Dr Blackman-Woods: Some universities
have expressed concern to us about the large number of non-respondents
and I think they have found it quite difficult getting students
to fill in the forms. My understanding is that the Student Loans
Company is now asking for that information in a different way.
I wondered whether you had looked at that to see whether that
would be an easier way of getting the information. At the moment,
as it stands, that is a huge number of non-respondents. We do
not actually know, as Brian says, what the effect of that is in
the overall picture.
Professor Sir Martin Harris: I
am glad you have raised that. Clearly the biggest problem we had
in Year 1 of bursaries was the 12,000 odd students who did not
agree that the data that they had given to the Student Loans Company
could be shared with the university they went to. We could speculate
for indefinitely long about why that happened. One of the things
that we did as a team very quickly was talk to ministers about
whether we could either be exempt from the Data Protection Actthat
did not turn out to be possibleor whether in fact we could
reverse the onus of responsibility and that did turn out to be
possible, so this year a student has to make a conscious decision
not to share the data. That in itself had a dramatic impact and
there is now a telephone follow-up by the Student Loan Company
to those people who have positively refused to share data and
it turns out that half of them then changed their mind. All of
these things are really quite interesting, are they not, but the
outcome will be that that problem of 12,000 students who do not
get a bursary who are apparently entitled to one will decline
very sharply because of certain changes in the way data is collected.
That is a very good piece of news.
Q30 Dr Iddon: Would you accept that
because OFFA collects data across the sector as a whole it is
extremely difficult to use your data to find out which institutions
like Bolton University who I know are top of the table, but it
is very difficult from your data to establish that they are one
of the best at widening participation. On the other hand, as well
as masking the institutions that are highly successful like Bolton
University, we cannot actually find out either the institutions
that are lagging behind at widening participation, although we
can guess a few from the anecdotes that fly around. Do you not
think that it would be better to present the data showing successes
and failures in that respect?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: Of
course the amounts that universities actually spend on bursaries
are published in our annual report, so that is known. You can
also tell from UCAS the social composition of particular universities,
so I think that data is available. If what you are really asking
is how can we change the distribution of the social mix of university
students, then I think we are back where we were ten minutes ago
and we probably all have similar views; that is, you have to change
aspirations at a very early stage. You have two issues, do you
not? There is widening participation, which is do students go
to university at all, and that I think is politically wholly uncontroversial
that everybody that I know is in favour of widening participation,
but then one interpretation of the phrase "fair access"
which is in my title is that it is precisely which universities
students go to that is very significant and that is much more
controversial. That is to say, you immediately become involved
in issues about the extent to which all universities are equal,
all universities give equal opportunities or not and, if not,
to what extent should students who have chosen to go to University
X be encouraged, or induced, given extra financial support, to
go to a different university? I do not need to tell you, Brian,
that that would divide the sector into very clear camps.
Q31 Dr Iddon: If we are being serious
about widening participation, we really ought to have transparent
statistics that reveal who is not even trying to widen participation
or, if they are trying, they are not being successful at it. Would
Professor Sir Martin Harris: I
do think it is clear already which institutions have which social
mix. I think the question as to how you get that social mix to
change in particular universities is extraordinarily complex.
My remit is to say are universities providing adequate bursaries?
Are universities doing adequate outreach? As I explained, even
part of that is not within my remit for historically accidental
reasons. I do think that as a society we could ask the question
are we doing enough to encourage people from all social backgrounds
to go to those universities that we judge will maximise their
social opportunities, but let us not kid ourselves as to how complex
that is. It involves knowing in some sense which institutions
can confer those social advantages.
Q32 Dr Iddon: Do you think OFFA has
any responsibility at all to monitor not only the success of different
universities at widening access but also their failure in terms
of drop-out rates?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: That,
too, is more complex than it looks because drop-out rates broadly
correlate with adventurous, in the best sense, admissions policies
and one of the reasons I have never joined in the criticism of
the fact that some universities have higher drop out rates is
they tend to be the ones who are maximising opportunities for
non-traditional entrants. If there was a rise in drop-outs in
universities that recruit students who might normally be expected
to go into higher education, I would be very anxious. I think
that would be a failure on their part but I would not want to
discourage universities like Bolton, for example, which gives
opportunities to young people who have never had those opportunities
before and if they thought they were going to be penalised because
their drop out rates were higher, I think that might deter them
from doing the very thing that we are trying to encourage them
Q33 Dr Iddon: Do you have any data
which monitors the disparity between the institutions on widening
access and, if you have it, will you publish it?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: If
you mean right across the board, of course we do not for the reasons
that we explained just now that the same act that established
OFFA did away with the requirement on universities to make annual
returns of what they do in widening participation in the broadest
sense. HESA does have widening participation benchmarks and that
data is available.
Q34 Chairman: If you actually look
at the socio-economic classification of candidates accepted for
higher education degrees over the last two years, for instance,
as a measure, with the exception of Classification 1, which are
in many ways these people with higher managerial/professional
where there was an increase of 0.5 of 1%, in every other category
there has been a decline. If you look at Classifications 4, 5,
6 and 7, in each of those classifications, apart from 6, there
has actually been a slight decline in the number of students from
those socio-economic groups going to university. Could I suggest
to you that the best that OFFA has done is to try to maintain
a status quo, which I think was one of the clear objectivesI
am not decrying thatbut in terms of actually meeting the
aspirations that Brian Iddon has, which I would share very strongly,
we are not making any progress at all in that.
Professor Sir Martin Harris: I
am not looking at the same sets of figures as you are but, broadly
speaking, my understanding is that the number of applicants, after
a dip in the year when fees were being talked about, and it was
the talking that did most of that, the numbers of applicants and
students admitted has edged up slightly each year and that within
that the proportion in the lowest social groups has stayed stable.
Q35 Chairman: It has gone from 5.9%
to 5.8% is what has happened in the lowest group. In Group 6,
it has gone from 13.5% to 13.6%. In 5 it has gone from 4.8% to
4.7%. These are overall marginal decreases. They are nothing to
shout home about, are they? The real challenge still remains.
That is the point that Brian is trying to make very strongly here
that perhaps OFFA now needs a different direction?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: I
do not disagree with that. I think there was a job to be done.
Parliament set a job and my view is that we have done that pretty
well. If you are asking me do I think that relatively marginal
changes to the bursary arrangements, or even relatively marginal
changes to the Government's own support arrangements, which I
think are now tolerably generous to be honest, if I think that
is now the key way forward, no, I do not. Then you run into the
legal differences between OFFA and HEFCE and that is why, with
David Eastwood, with whom I get on extremely well, we are trying
to find a way of bringing these things back together. If you were
to look two or three years ahead and ask whether the current structures
are the right structures, then I think that is for some future
secretary of state to decide. What is clear is that the agenda
of bringing higher education within the aspirations of more people
than it currently is is one on which we can make a lot more progress.
Chairman: That is a very positive comment.
Q36 Mr Boswell: I think that is positive
and I think you are right about the general way in which most
of us would feel about how this should take place. One of the
difficulties which you have expressed a number of times, and perhaps
we need to rest on it a bit, is the procedures for OFFA now and
the principles on which it operates and the way they can be related
both to its original remit and to whatever its evolving remit
might be. You have quite rightly in my viewI am not wishing
at all to editorialise your remarksemphasised a number
of times the fact that there would be different access requirements
and views about desirable ways of widening access in different
institutions with different circumstances. I think we can all
concede that. On the other hand, I think you will understand that
we want a certain coherence and a certain set of relation to principles
about how you do your work. At one level we have the NUS saying,
for example, pretty explicitly the agreements are not benchmarked.
I wonder if we could take that as a basis for one or two questions.
On the access agreements for the moment, and I realise that is
not all that you do or wish to do, are they benchmarked against
a model agreement which might cover, for example, the main features
of a bursary scheme and then, secondly, the disadvantaged groups
that are being targeted in the outreach? Is there a central template
to which you relate these in analysing whether they are sufficient
Professor Sir Martin Harris: I
think the truthful answer, Tim, is that we have between us sufficient
knowledge of the sector as bursary agreements are being put in
place informally to talk to groups of roughly comparable universities.
Q37 Mr Boswell: So there is a Russell
Group template and there is a modern universities template.
Professor Sir Martin Harris: You
may say that; I could not possible comment. What we certainly
did try to do was to ensure and what this did was increase, as
you might imagine, the amount of money put into bursaries, talking
informally as access agreements were being developed and saying
well, you know, you might find that your principle competitors
have done somewhat more generous arrangements than you have, so
in that sense there were informal benchmarks and then there were
outliersyou have all seen the dataa small number
of universities made really extraordinary decisions and that is
their privilege. We did see as a de facto outcome that
groups of roughly similar universities came up with roughly similar
packages. Crucially, in general, the minimum for the poorest students
is significantly higher than the Secretary of State had in mind
at the time; that is the norm for the poorest students is about
£1,000 as opposed to the £300 that Charles Clarke indicated
he would expect absolutely universities to provide. Going back
to things Ian was saying earlier, and also Gordon, that is right
and proper. We are helping the poorer students more; more than
Q38 Mr Boswell: I understand what
you said about the process which is interesting. You gave the
impression that this is a, I will not say a negotiation, but an
informed dialogue which has been taking place. Were you able to
input sufficiently into the activities of the individual institution?
Obviously they have autonomy but you had a handle in this to scrutinise
what they were doing against even the sectoral benchmarks, if
they existed. Did you at any point say "that will not do"
and reject something? Perhaps going on from that, there is also
responsibility to monitor the implementation of the agreements.
As you indicated earlier, some of that is student-driven of course.
Given that people are occasionally prone to spinshall we
put it that waythings may not have quite worked out as
they were claimed to do. Have you picked up any of that? Perhaps
another way of putting it would be if you did, would you be in
a position to do something about it?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: Yes.
The powers that you as Parliament gave us are quite draconian
in the things that we could do if universities behaved in really
foolish ways are there and it may be that was one of the reasons
why they did not. I would like to hope their reasons were more
positive but there certainly was a big stick in the locker. To
try and answer your three questions in turn, there was only one
university that we really leaned on. They put in a potential bursary
even below the 10% that Charles had told me was the absolute minimum
and I did speak directly personally to that university. Interestingly
enough, when a few months later the press were asking universities
whether OFFA was interfering and so on, there was a quote from
a university that said yes, I had interfered, and it did not take
too much to track back, although the journalist would not confirm
it. Yet 12 months later that university was extremely grateful
because their offering would have been so much out of line and
so much weaker than those of their competitors that, in the end,
it helped that university really rather significantly. I think
in terms of monitoring what universities actually do, yes, of
course the legislation is quite detailed about that. We know how
many bursaries they give, we know what proportion of their initial
commitment they gave and I think it is fair to say not one single
student has come forward and said that what he/she expected has
not been provided. That is a pretty good record. That is no credit
to OFFA; that is a credit to a hundred odd universities that have
made offers and provided them.
Q39 Mr Boswell: You would deal with
that rather than Ruth Deech's institution, or would it go either
way? Do you talk to her about these things?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: If
there were a formal complaint then the legislation would require
it to go to Ruth Deech ultimately, but clearly if it was about
bursaries we would expect to solve it by negotiation and that
has not arisen.
5 Note from the witness: "In the 2006-07
academic year" Back
Note from the witness: "From the 2008-09 academic