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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


2 JUNE 2008

  Q40  Mr Boswell: What I am hearing from you on the way this has gone is that it has been a consensual process in which you have—I am glossing—trained some institutions into doing better than they originally intended to do and that you have not actually needed to get the big stick out, although it is still there if you needed it.

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: I think that is fair. What I would say though is that universities are very genuinely committed to widening. My own view is that they talk themselves up during the process and I did my very best to encourage that talking up process, but obviously, and without breaking the cartel laws, which would be shocking, universities did talk to each other during this process and the net result was a more generous outcome for students.

  Q41  Mr Boswell: Can I round up my thoughts by asking you a little about the specific spend on bursaries. There are three points: the first one is in 2006-07 the under-spend across the sector on bursaries funded from variable fees, not others, was I understand £21 million. First of all, do you recognise that figure and, if so, what happens to it? There is a second one which I appreciate is not the same point which is touching back on students not taking up the bursaries to which they are entitled, to which you have already referred, and I am not quite clear if that relates to the under-spend or whether it is a partial of it, as I suspect. There is also the question at the institutional level of some quite big disparities between budgeting amounts and the amount which was actually spent. I think it would not be invidious to pick up two examples: one is the University of Lincoln estimated £660,000 and actually spent £1,937,000 and on the other hand up the road from your former institution Manchester Met estimated £4,794,000 and actually spent £2,137,000, so it is about half in that case, and in the case of Lincoln a treble spend. Do these things alarm you? Have you actually looked into them? Is this something where institutions can at least learn to get a better handle on what they are likely to need to budget and how they spend it?

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: The answer is yes to all of your questions, but let me try and unpick them. So far as we can work it out, the under-spend was about 50-50 two things: 50% was an overestimate by some universities as to how many students they would get who required the bursary support that they had offered.

  Q42  Mr Boswell: That could itself reflect the fact that there was a relative lack of success in the access policy, could it not, because obviously the constitution of the student body could affect the number of people who would be eligible?

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: Yes, it could do that, although what we think, and remember we are talking about plans that were made as legislation was being passed and before universities had clear ideas, because you remember there was a huge rush at the end—the legislation was delayed and universities are not always brilliant at administration—but one factor in some universities to my certain knowledge was that some universities simply forgot that gap year students would be under the previous regime when they were counting up how many students they were going to admit they counted student who were under the old regime and things like that. That only happened once. You only had one annual report from us. It had better jolly well resolve itself because universities should get better and better.

  Q43  Mr Boswell: It is a learning curve.

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: Yes, it is a learning curve. The other half of the under-spend we have already talked about and you are right, Tim, it is the fact that 12,000 students did not allow their data to be shared. We know that will go down to 6,000 and may well fall further and in fact looks like it is doing so through the telephone persuasion. You are left to puzzle why anybody would positively refuse to share data that they had given to the SLC because they were poor, why they would positively refuse to let the university know that is a mystery, but what we must do is keep that number going down and down. I bet it will never come to zero but we must get it in that direction. The third thing is that at institutional level, David has just passed me a note saying that at Manchester there is a particular issue in respect of the number of students who have taken up the bursaries to which they are entitled and we are in dialogue with the university about that. We are in dialogue with all the universities.

  Q44  Mr Boswell: It is of no surprise to you—it is in your figures—when something like that appears you think you need to look into it.

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: We have to. If we have a role it is surely at this technical level to look into those things. In the case of Lincoln they clearly grossly underestimated the number of students they would recruit who needed the bursary support that they themselves had promised. I do think that sort of problem will go away.

  Q45  Mr Marsden: Can we come back to this issue of what you can do in the context of widening access. We have had the exchanges that we have had which have been encouraging and indeed in your own report you have said about the largest barrier to university education remains deep-rooted social issues such as whether the family has previous experience or aspiration levels within the school. If OFFA is to be more effective in this area, should it actually be able to direct its attention directly to its institutions' admissions policies? I am thinking particularly here of the assessments that are made of applicants' family background and schooling.

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: I think we are moving into very interesting territory and here I am going to be more cautious than you, Gordon. You know that I totally support the view that resources, including perhaps some of the resources currently used for bursaries, although that is a difficult issue and, as Ian said, should be focused on outreach into schools at an earlier age. I think that the legislation is really quite specific that admissions remain the prerogative of the universities. That was one of the fundamental understandings built into the legislation when OFFA was set up. The present Secretary of State is of the view that universities could be more explicit about their admissions processes and procedures and I do not myself think that that is a job for OFFA but I do think, and I am encouraging the sector to find a modus vivendi with the Secretary of State such that there is an explicit publication of the processes. But if you mean should an external body—OFFA or anybody else—be involved in the particular admissions decision about a particular students, then I think that is very, very dangerous territory.

  Q46  Mr Marsden: I was not talking about any specific particular incidence of an individual. Those with long memories remember a certain lady called Laura Spence, so we are not going down that route. There is a broader issue though and I would hope that this is something you might be able to comment on and that is the extent to which universities are alive to what statistics are telling us about potential applicants. I just want to throw one thing in here and that is the issue of educational maintenance allowances. The Institute of Fiscal Studies published a very interesting but actually relatively little commented upon report on the impact of EMA's. There has been a whole range of statistics which have actually been very encouraging. In my own borough of Blackpool, for example, the number of students taking up EMA's has virtually trebled over the past three years. Surely there is a role, given where educational maintenance allowances are targeted, for that to be an area where OFFA might look at how many of those young people who take up EMA's get through to university; how many universities look at EMA's as a potential marker in terms of their admissions processes.

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: I totally agree with that. One of the things that we are encouraging universities to look at—I choose my words carefully—is the extent to which they might look at their own bursary policy and explicitly say, perhaps to 16-year-olds, that if you get an EMA and if you then decide to go on into higher education we can tell you now that you will be entitled to these amounts of financial support. My intuition is that offering people slightly different sums of money at 18 is less effective than trying to build up a set of expectations significantly earlier. I think there is an obvious potential synergy between EMA's—those students have identified themselves as going on in education, but also as needing financial support. I think there is a lot of mileage in saying that, whatever else a university's bursary policy does, it will guarantee whatever their maximum is for students who go through into higher education. The problem is that you do not want to tie a 16-year-old down back to something we were talking about half-an-hour ago to one particular university. One of the things about aspiration-raising is you may move not just from thinking I will go into HE, but I will go into this university rather than that university. Clearly you could not have a hundred universities offering unless it was a national scheme. One of the things I think the Government might look at is the extent to which students on EMA might be guaranteed the minimum bursary that a university offers for students on that income level.

  Q47  Chairman: It is actually a drop though, is it not? If you follow Gordon's line, the EMA is equivalent roughly to £1,200 a year on a 40-week term of £30 a week if you do that rough calculation, and yet many of the universities are offering significantly less than that as a bursary. The point you make and that Gordon is making is well made. If you can guarantee at least that level then it becomes an attractive proposition.

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: It also encourages that continuity of upward aspiration.

  Q48  Dr Blackman-Woods: I want to bottom out this issue about admissions policies because clearly the universities have picked up rumours around some sort of interference in their admissions policies and it is something that they absolutely feel is central to their own autonomy. I just wanted absolute clarification that there is not going to be a vetting scheme of admissions policies and then whether you think there should be a vetting scheme, or whether in fact we should do something similar to what is happening in schools at the moment and just build absolute transparency into the system so it is really clear how universities are and what criteria they are using to admit students? Can you see the distinction I am making between vetting and transparency?

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: Yes, and I think it is a crucial distinction. What OFFA can do and what should be done are not necessarily the same thing. Let me give you the answer as I see it. The Secretary of State said recently that he believes each university should have a published admissions policy and I have actually no problem with that. He goes on to say that he has asked David Eastwood and myself to look at how that might be brought about and to report to him in September. My own view, and time will tell whether this is what emerges, is that there is no threat to the sector in any way if they decide that they will each one by one publish a transparent admissions policy. If you go then to require it to be part of some statutory document, that immediately becomes very much more problematical and not something that I would wish to be associated with. If you are saying should there be a transparent admissions policy from each university that they put in the public domain could anybody dissent from that? If you say it should be part of an annual agreement with the director of OFFA, then I think that would be difficult and perhaps even illegal.

  Q49  Mr Boswell: We can hardly fail to understand the claims for university autonomy which you have set out perfectly well and equally a perfectly reasonable requirement for transparency and publication. However, from what you said earlier, for example, about EMA, there may be a perfectly reasonable case to my mind for some elements of common practice—the ability to provide a deal which enables EMA's to lead to progression, for example, and there may be others. Do you think those could be incorporated within that system? If that were to happen, would that be a proper thing for Universities UK to get involved in discussing what might be elements of commonality in approach as well as the distinctive bits that are obviously appropriate to the individual institution and its access needs?

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: It is perfectly proper for Universities UK to have those dialogues with government or with anybody else. The point I am trying to make is that OFFA has certain statutory obligations and I would not want it to be inside those. It is worth making the point that it is often said that in Wales there is a national bursary policy but when you look at what their website says—let us assume for the moment that it is accurate—what it says is the national policy is that each university shall offer at least £300 to each student of a certain income level and that there may be supplementary bursaries available from individual institutions and they should make contact with those institutions. Put like that, it sounds exactly the same. We have a policy that says every student must have a minimum of £300. Luckily it is normally £1,000 in practice and a jolly good thing too. Sometimes the differences are more apparent.

  Q50  Dr Blackman-Woods: I want to carry on from that discussion about admissions policies to say it is unlikely that it is going to be possible to use admissions policies to tackle the four socio-economic groups 4 to 7 where there is an under-representation of young people. If you cannot direct admissions policies to do something about those groups, would using targets be a mechanism? I know there are the HESA targets, but I mean specific targets for the 4 to 7 socio-economic groups. Could that work or have we passed the time when targets are effective or would be possible to implement?

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: Let me say again in different words what I have said before, starting from the specific and going into the general. I think there is no argument against publishing universities' own admissions policies but I do not think either that that will make a dramatic difference to the issue that all of you are teasing away at in different ways. If we are really going to get students from the groups that we are all interested in, then the phraseology I have always used is you have got to get them into the pool of applicants. I do not believe for a moment that any university discriminates against applicants on the grounds of social class in any direction. I fundamentally do not believe that. What I do believe is that the applicants' pool for different universities is uneven and that the crucial thing that we can all be focused on is getting more people into the pool and, more controversially, into some specific sub-pools. You will all have different views about that but that is very much the Peter Lampl line. It is not just enough to go to university, you have to go to certain universities, but I do think the crucial thing is to get students to apply.

  Q51  Dr Blackman-Woods: Nevertheless, my question would be are they going to do that? Are universities going to do enough to widen the pool unless there is a specific target for each of them that says you have got to get this number of students in socio-economic groups 4 to 7 into this institution or you start to lose HEFCE grant or whatever?

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: I think that universities always respond better to carrots than to sticks. I have never known a stick persuade a university to do anything. I do think there are ways in which if any government so chose it could increase the resources available to those universities that made the particular efforts that you have in mind, but I do think it has to be that way round and it has to be on the basis that if you do increase the pool of applicants from these socio-economic groups there are incentives for you to do so.

  Q52  Dr Blackman-Woods: Is not the likely outcome of that, and indeed I think we have seen it already, that what happens is that universities who need to raise additional income will then target those groups and those that are wealthy will not bother?

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: I wish I thought it was just about money. I genuinely think it is much more complicated than that. There is a real question we are all asking in different ways which is how you get those young people who come from family and social circumstances where HE is no part of their experience how we get them to be willing to consider higher education. Once you can get them to a summer school and once you can get them to all the things that universities do you are halfway there, but how do you get them to cross that first barrier? It is not clear to me, Roberta, that it is exclusively or even principally the university's job to be talking to five-year-olds, eight-year-olds, 11-year-olds and their parents and their teachers and their mentors and so on. I guess in this room there are different views about gifted and talented, but one of the positive aspects of gifted and talented is meant to be to pick out at an earlier age than 18, an earlier age than 16, perhaps as early as 11, young people in schools where academic aspiration is not top of the list and to try and encourage those individuals to move forward. We are always up against a dilemma, are we not, about how do you raise an entire school and how do you raise individuals within that school whose aspirations are there? I wish I knew the answers. Broadly speaking, I think we do have to find ways of identifying in schools where most young people do not go on to higher education those who can be motivated to do so because you may think this is defeatist but I would rather help some than none.

  Q53  Chairman: I started my questioning by saying that you were the appointment that the Russell Group wanted and OFFA has been framed in the image of the Russell Group. Your response to Roberta seems to emphasise that because the Bolton Universities, the Salford Universities, the Leeds Mets, all are meeting a very, very healthy target for socio-economic groups 4 to 7. The universities that are not are the Russell Group. Unless you have a target which says to them, and I agree with Peter Lampl here, we do need to get the very poorest students into what are perceived to be the very best universities and I always say that all universities are our best, they are just different—but whatever you would say in terms of the Russell Group universities, unless you have a clear target for that, they are just not going to do it, are they?

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: I am certainly not here as an apologist for the Russell Group but I do believe that you have to then ask yourself is it fair to young people to admit them to a university if their academic attainment at that time is not on a par with those others who are admitted.

  Q54  Chairman: Why does the one follow? Why should that be the case?

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: Because unless we can show that there are people in the pool of applicants to a particular university who have reached the normal entrance qualifications of that university in that subject, unless we can show that there is then discrimination on social class grounds, then the issue is how to get people to apply, not how to admit them, is it not? Am I making myself clear?

  Q55  Chairman: I think you are making it clear. I was the head of two very large, but relatively poor, comprehensive schools in the North East and Leeds for 20 years. Never once did I receive a letter from Oxford or Cambridge actually targeting my students. I did from Leeds Met and I did from Sunderland Poly. That is the point. I think it is a stick as well that you get well rewarded if in fact you actually target these young people who have real ability at an early age and you pull them through into every institution rather than just some institutions and you seem to be against that.

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: No, I am not. If I appear to be against it then let me rephrase it. What I am saying is that we should encourage every university to make every effort to ensure that its pool of applicants is as socially inclusive as possible. I do not think anybody is going to dissent from that.

  Q56  Dr Blackman-Woods: It is willing the means as well as the ends. I totally accept what you are saying about the pool. We do not have evidence of direct discrimination against students from poorer schools who have four A's at A-level and not getting into these universities. I would accept that it is not only a role for universities—they have to work with schools and others—but nevertheless there has to be something that pushes us surely towards a bigger pool from those backgrounds because we have not got a large enough pool at the moment.

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: If you look at the amount of outreach done by, let us take the Russell Group since the Chairman has mentioned them, compared with a decade ago it is chalk and cheese. That is the programmes of working with FE colleges, sixth form colleges and summer schools and summer programmes. If you are asking me is it enough, no, it is not enough, it will never be enough, but you have to ask yourself how far universities should go down the road of effectively supplementing both the teaching and the pastoral care provided in schools. That is my view that, in the end, you have to change what 11-year-olds, what 13-year-olds think they are capable of academically and think they are capable of socially. They have to go against their immediate peer group very often. "Why do you want to go to university? We do not want to go." You have to get people out of those and I think society can decide to do that and universities are part of that.

  Q57  Ian Stewart: I am perplexed by what you said earlier. When you described that situation I have to say that it did sound as though you were actually arguing that universities should not bother getting right down to school level. Did you mean that?

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: No, I did not.

  Q58  Ian Stewart: Or did you mean that they cannot be expected to do that?

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: I said they can only be part of a societal decision that says we are going to redouble our efforts to raise aspirations in secondary schools or even earlier.

  Q59  Ian Stewart: How can that be done by universities?

  Professor Sir Martin Harris: Funnily enough, I went to the HEFCE annual conference in Warwick at Easter and argued very strongly that universities should have staff attached to themselves so they are university employees but not university teachers in the usual sense who spent their time—I was arguing about 11 to 16-year-old schools, not FE and sixth form colleges—to improve mathematics teaching, to improve those underpinning disciplines that get you into the pool, so that is the academic line, but also the pastoral line because I do believe that if people at 12 or 13, or 14, have somebody they meet from time to time who says "You can go to university, you can go to a good university", those are the sorts of things I would like to see done. It would not be right, Ian, to assume that people who are currently employed to be university teachers and researchers would be ideal at helping 12/13-year-olds to change their aspirations, academic and pastoral, but of course it should be done. I made that speech at Warwick in April.

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