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

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 £47,425—that 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[5] and is now £25,000[6] 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 support—it goes down right across the range—will 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 disadvantaged groups?

  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 Act—that did not turn out to be possible—or 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 you agree?

  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 to do.

  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 objectives—I am not decrying that—but 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 view—I am not wishing at all to editorialise your remarks—emphasised 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 or not?

  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 outliers—you have all seen the data—a 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 was intended.

  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 spin—shall we put it that way—things 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

6   Note from the witness: "From the 2008-09 academic year" Back

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