House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
INNOVATION, UNIVERSITIES, SCIENCE and SKILLS COMMITTEE
Monday 2 June 2008
PROFESSOR SIR MARTIN HARRIS
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee
on Monday 2 June 2008
Mr Phil Willis, in the Chair
Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods
Mr Tim Boswell
Dr Brian Iddon
Mr Gordon Marsden
Witness: Professor Sir Martin Harris, Director, Fair Access to Higher Education, gave evidence.
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 ten per cent of the new fee income to come back to students and that he would not be happy with anything less than ten per cent. In fact, I worked with the sector to get more than 20 per cent and it is somewhere between 24-25 per cent. 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 ten per cent rush 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 ten per cent 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 ten per cent, 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 per cent 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 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 some 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 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 WP 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.
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 £17,000 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 £17,000, 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, twice two people earning an average family 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 Students' Loan 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.
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 Loan 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 Loan 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 one per cent, 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 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 ten per cent 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.
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 2006/2007 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 per cent 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 £1200 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 burses 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, are all 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 Dr Iddon: 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 Dr Iddon: 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 Dr Iddon: 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.
Q60 Dr Iddon: It is interesting and to your credit, Martin, that you did attract a person like me into Manchester University - a person who has no academic qualifications - in the absence of a system which attracted me, it was very useful to be able to reach that level. I personally have an interest in developing the concept of the scholarly MP and consequently I actually pay my own fees and therefore I am conscious of the impact of that, even on a salary of £60,000 odd like mine. On behalf of my constituents I have to think about those who do not earn salaries like that and the impact on them. I was very keen when we took the vote on the Bill to press the Government about ensuring that if we did pass this Bill that we reviewed it properly and of course the outcome of that was there was to be a review of the three years, as you are aware, and the setting up of the commission to work with OFFA to inform that review. In a publication produced in March, OFFA said that the independent commission due to review the fees in 2009 will be working with OFFA, but OFFA states in its most recent report to Parliament that "our analysis shows that the first year (2006-07) of the new student finance system was remarkably successful". Would it be reasonable to conclude that OFFA's role in the review next year is going to be that of a strong supporter of a variable tuition fee?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: I think the answer to that is, and you said this earlier, Ian, that on the evidence thus far we have not seen the dire consequences in terms of social participation that some were convinced would happen. I would go further and I have no idea - I know that nobody has begun to think about this yet - but any submission I might make to such a commission as and when it is established would say that over and above the bursary system we do need to do the very things that we have been talking about in terms of greatly increasing our outreach into schools and I would say especially 11 to 16 schools. The syllabus in a 16 to 18 school or FE college, what an individual student can do is often irrevocably determined by things that have happened in an 11 to 16 school. We have to start as early as we can in these processes.
Q61 Dr Iddon: Is there a level for tuition fees above which students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be deterred from progressing to higher education?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: If I were writing a report myself - this is Martin Harris speaking now and not the Director of OFFA - what I would say is this that in any raising of the fee beyond £3,000 the extra fee has to be reimbursed fully by the university, not by the treasury, to those students who are below an income level predetermined by Parliament. The treasury will not put any more money in.
Q62 Dr Iddon: We currently have 25 per cent of variable fees above the threshold to be recycled for bursaries. If that percentage was raised would that widen access?
Professor Sir Martin Harris: I do not think so for the reasons I have explained. If I were putting extra resources in it would be in schools-related projects.
Chairman: On that note, may I thank Professor Sir Martin Harris for your attendance this afternoon.