Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 99

Submission from the National Audit Office (NAO)


  1.  This memorandum by the National Audit Office sets out the findings from our reports on widening participation[359] and student retention[360] in higher education relevant to the Committee's inquiry into students and universities. Both of these reports relate to the position in England.

2.  The two reports provide substantial evidence under the Admissions and Student Support and Engagement themes to be covered by the inquiry. This memorandum follows the ordering of the Committee's invitation for evidence.

3.  Access to higher education and success within it will provide most students with greater opportunities for the rest of their lives. Over their working life graduates have been shown to earn, on average, over £100,000 more than similar non-graduates with A levels.[361] Employers, the economy, and society as a whole benefit when students complete their studies. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has overall responsibility for public spending on higher education in England and had, at the time of the studies, the objectives of raising and widening participation while bearing down on rates of non-completion. Progress on each of these objectives between 1999-2000 and 2005-06 was not linear (Figure 1).

  4.  There is a balance to be achieved between these priorities, as increasing and widening participation brings in more students from under-represented groups who may need more support to complete their courses.


Study remit

  5.  For the widening participation report we assessed the progress of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (the Department), the Higher Education Funding Council for England (the Funding Council), the Office for Fair Access and higher education institutions in England on whether:

    — participation of under-represented groups in higher education had increased;

    — initiatives taken by the Department, the Funding Council, the Office for Fair Access and higher education institutions to widen participation had been effective; and

    — higher education provision was delivered in a way that addressed the barriers to widening participation.

Admissions to higher education

  6.  A large number of organisations play a role in widening participation (Figure 2).

  7.  Between the academic years 1999-2000 and 2005-06, participation in higher education increased from 39% to 43% of people aged between 18 and 30 years.

  8.  When we reviewed progress over the previous five years there had been improvements in the participation of some groups in higher education, but not for all groups, and some remained significantly under-represented in higher education. We found that:

    — White people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, both men and women, were the most under-represented group.

    — The participation rate for men was 10 percentage points below that for women.

    — Socio-economic background remained a strong determinant of higher education participation with the participation of young, full-time students from lower socio-economic backgrounds having improved by two percentage points over the previous four years. People from lower socio-economic backgrounds made up around one half of the population of England, but represented 29% of young, full-time, first-time entrants to higher education.

    — Young people living in deprived areas had experienced an increase in participation of 4.5 percentage points since 1998 compared with an increase of 1.8 percentage points in the least deprived areas.

    — Those from non-white ethnic groups were better represented than white people.

    — There were other groups for whom it was difficult to assess participation because of incomplete data.

  9.  Gaps in the data provided by students reduced the reliance that could be placed on some measures of participation, particularly in relation to socio-economic background and for part-time students. The Department had developed a new measure of participation of young people by social class[362] and was linking pupil data with higher education student records and admissions data.

  10.  The attainment of qualifications by students at secondary school or college played a critical role in gaining access to higher education. Low achievement was the principal reason for the difference between rates of participation in higher education for different groups. Notably, all applicants with the necessary qualifications were equally likely to accept a higher education place as others with the same level of attainment, regardless of their family background.[363]

  11.  Each institution has individual benchmarks representing the expected participation for each group, given particular characteristics (such as subject of study, age and entry qualifications) of the students it recruits.[364] On average, post-1992 institutions performed at or significantly above their benchmarks, while the English Russell Group institutions (16 of the most research intensive institutions) performed on average at or significantly below their benchmarks.

  12.  Performance indicators published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency[365] showed that there was variation across higher education institutions in recruiting students from under-represented groups.[366] For example in 2006-07, around one fifth of institutions performed significantly better than expected in recruiting young people from areas with low participation, while a similar proportion performed significantly worse than expected.

  13.  A range of new qualifications, modes of delivery and entry support were enabling students from under-represented groups to achieve success in higher education. Some institutions were making use of new practices in learning and teaching, such as foundation degrees and part-time provision, to diversify the way higher education is delivered and widen opportunity. Institutions were working with further education colleges to offer a greater range of higher education opportunities.

  14.  People from lower socio-economic backgrounds and older applicants not applying directly from school or college were less likely to have access to advice and assistance when applying to higher education. At the time we reported, higher education institutions had recently moved the deadline for applications back by a month, allowing teaching staff more time to advise and produce references for students they may have taught for a relatively short period. This development in the admissions process was of particular benefit to applicants from under-represented groups who attend further education and sixth-form colleges.

Targets for participation

  15.  The Government's 2003 White Paper, The Future of Higher Education, included a commitment to widen participation in higher education, by helping more people from under-represented groups, particularly lower socio-economic backgrounds, to participate successfully in higher education. This commitment sat alongside a policy to increase participation of those aged 18 to 30 towards 50% by 2010.

  16.  Institutions additionally set their own targets or milestones for widening participation. Since 2006 the Office for Fair Access has approved an "access agreement" for each institution wishing to charge variable tuition fees, setting out what actions the institution will take to promote and safeguard access for low income groups. If there is a serious and wilful breach of an access agreement by an institution, the Office for Fair Access can impose financial sanctions. This may include refusing to renew the institution's access agreement, thus denying it permission to charge tuition fees above the basic level, or instructing the Funding Council to suspend part of an institution's grant. When we reported, access agreements had been in place for two years and the Office for Fair Access had not yet identified any breaches of access agreements.

Widening participation initiatives

  17.  In general, the long-term nature of widening participation activities makes evaluating their effectiveness difficult for institutions and policy makers.

  18.  The Funding Council had plans to assess the effectiveness of the two national programmes with widening participation aims, and our surveys suggested that both programmes were well received by participants, schools and institutions.

    — The Department and the Funding Council fund the Aimhigher programmes of outreach activities broadly aimed at increasing young people's aspirations to study in higher education. The Funding Council had recently introduced measures to improve evaluation and all Aimhigher partnerships were required to submit an evaluation plan for 2008-11.

    — The Funding Council also funds the Lifelong Learning Networks which were set up from 2004 to improve progression for vocational learners. When we reported it was too early to determine if they were meeting their objectives but interim evaluations and our review indicated progress was being made. The Funding Council was planning a full evaluation to start in 2009-10 or 2010-11.

  19.  Institutions were working with schools to improve pupil progression. In 2007 the Funding Council issued guidance on how institutions and programmes could target activities at low participation areas and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

  20.  Family expectation or tradition of higher education involvement was particularly significant in encouraging young people to undertake higher education. Some families had inaccurate perceptions of higher education and its benefits and may not have supported young people's aspirations to higher education. We found some examples of institutions working with communities, parents and children of primary school age to address attitudes towards higher education.

  21.  Generally the Funding Council did not directly fund widening participation activities in institutions. Instead since 1999-2000, the Funding Council has allocated a proportion of its teaching grant based on the types of students recruited, recognising that students from under-represented groups or with lower entry qualifications were likely to cost more to teach and retain, and counteracting a disincentive to recruit them. It allocated recurrent funding for widening participation to institutions in proportion to the number of existing students from under-represented groups and gave £392 million in recurrent funding to institutions between 2001-02 and 2007-08. Figure 3 shows the range of sources and amounts of funding for widening participation for 2006-07.

  22.  Nearly all institutions (103 out of 123) chose to use part of their variable tuition fee income to support additional outreach activities in schools or communities, with the aim of encouraging participants to consider higher education. These activities cost an average of £200,000 per institution and amounted to £21 million in total. There is no requirement for institutions to use tuition fee income to fund outreach activities and the Office for Fair Access regards such use as an indication of institutions' commitment to widening participation.

Role of government

  23.  In the interests of reducing bureaucracy, access agreements that institutions agree with the Office for Fair Access had superseded the requirement to report on widening participation strategy and objectives directly to the Funding Council. As a result, there was insufficient information about institutions' activities to widen participation, and the Department, the Funding Council and the Office for Fair Access were considering how institutions might bring together their widening participation, fair access and admission policies into a single strategic document which would be made public.

  24.  There were geographical areas with little or no local provision of higher education,[367] whereas increasing numbers of students wanted to study locally or live at home while attending higher education. There had been some progress in increasing provision in such areas, for example through satellite campuses or joint working with further education colleges. The Department had announced a new policy, the "new university challenge", recognising that more needed to be done to expand local and regional higher education.

  25.  Information, advice and guidance on career options and pathways through education were of variable quality and lacked one-to-one engagement. Poor advice and guidance can lead to individuals making poor choices of qualifications to study at school and college, making unrealistic applications to higher education or not applying at all. In 2007, the Department for Children, Schools and Families published new quality standards for young people's information, advice and guidance.

  26.  Widening participation activities were embedded in some programmes aimed at older learners, such as Lifelong Learning Networks[368] and employer engagement programmes.

Overall value for money conclusion

  27.  We concluded that the Department's and the Funding Council's expenditure on widening participation cannot be directly related to changes in participation rates as there were other factors affecting participation, in particular the prior attainment of students. Existing analyses suggested that there had been some improvement in participation of some under-represented groups, but progress had not been uniform across the sector. Limited, often qualitative evaluations suggested specific activities were effective at widening participation. There was scope for improving the achievement of value for money through directing activities towards those individuals who would benefit the most, and building in evaluation measures when setting up widening participation initiatives.


Study remit

  28.  In our examination of retention on higher education courses, we considered whether the sector was improving its already high level of performance in retaining undergraduates on their courses (foundation degrees, honours degrees, undergraduate credits, higher national diplomas, higher national certificates and other higher education diplomas). In particular we looked at whether:

    — the sector's performance on retention had improved since it was reviewed by the Committee of Public Accounts in 2001-02;

    — the Funding Council could do more to encourage the sector to improve retention of students; and

    — higher education institutions could do more to improve retention of students.

The university experience

  29.  As autonomous bodies, most of the impetus and actions for sustaining and improving retention rest with higher education institutions.

  30.  Much of what an institution does is likely to affect the quality of the student experience and therefore student success and retention. There were two especially important areas where we concluded that an institution can target their work and make a difference. These were:

    — getting to know their students and how, generally, they felt about their particular course of study and the culture and amenities offered in the institution; and

    — developing a positive approach to retention-related activities that recognised how they could also improve student success, and so attract students to take up services who might otherwise not do so.

Non-completion of higher education courses

  31.  There are two measures of retention. The first is the "completion rate", which is the proportion of starters in a year who continue their studies until they obtain their qualification, with no more than one consecutive year out of higher education. But higher education courses take years to complete. A more immediate measure of retention is the proportion of an institution's intake which is enrolled in higher education in the year following their first entry to higher education. This is the "continuation rate".

  32.  Retention of full-time, first degree students since 1999-2000 is presented in Figure 4. While the rate of improvement was small, it needs to be placed in the context of the United Kingdom's higher estimated graduation rate than most other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development[369] and the growth in participation in higher education over the same period.

  33.  From the published performance indicators, of the 256,000 full-time, first degree students starting higher education in 2004-05, 91.6% continued into a second year. In terms of completion 78.1% were expected to qualify with a first degree with a further 2.2% expected to obtain a lower qualification, and 5.8% expected to transfer to another institution to continue their studies. From our analysis of the 50,000 part-time first degree students starting in 2004-05, 76.9% continued into their second year.

  34.  Our statistical analysis indicated that variations in continuation rates between subjects and types of institution were largely due to the characteristics of students, including their level of pre-entry qualifications. However, when all other factors are taken into consideration, the analysis showed that:

    — a full-time, first-degree student was much more likely to continue their studies into a second year than a similar part-time student;

    — a full-time student with three A levels at grade A was much more likely to continue than a similar student with two A levels at grade D; and

    — a part-time student registered with a higher education institution but taught in a further education college was more likely to continue than a similar student in a higher education institution.

  35.  In 2002, the Committee of Public Accounts recommended that the Funding Council should continue to bear down on wide variations in performance between institutions, focusing on underperforming institutions. Our tests showed no statistically significant difference in the distribution.[370]

  36.  To inform the assessment of performance, the Higher Education Statistics Agency calculates a benchmark for each institution, which takes account of students' entry qualifications and subjects studied.[371] Because the benchmark is an average based on students in all institutions in the United Kingdom, some institutions will be above the benchmark and some below. For most institutions in 2004-05, actual continuation and benchmark figures were similar: 73% of institutions in the top quarter for continuation rates remained in the top half after adjustment for their benchmark, while 13% of institutions in the bottom quarter moved to the top half after adjustment.

  37.  The Higher Education Statistics Agency publishes a range of performance information on institutions, including the Higher Education Performance Indicators, listing institutions' retention of students. As well as helping make institutions accountable, publication of the performance information provided an external incentive for institutions to improve retention because it affected their reputation and hence their student recruitment.

  38.  The Funding Council and some of its partners also have a role in encouraging the sharing of good practice on retention and related issues, which they aim to fulfil primarily through additional funding of certain institutions to share good practice. The sector had access to a wide range of advice on good practice in retention, although we found that there was relatively little evaluation of the impact and transferability of practice.

Student support and engagement

  39.  Students leave their courses early for a range of reasons, but there is rarely one single reason why a student gives up their course. Reasons are likely to be a mix of personal (most common), institutional and course related, and financial (Figure 5).

5  Examples of early leavers

Leaving early because a new opportunity arose
P chose his university because he had heard good things about the city. He had felt a degree would stand him in good stead for the future, but as his studies progressed he decided that he wanted to be a martial arts instructor. He did not feel the need to continue his course and made a positive choice to leave when an opportunity arose.
Financial pressure
L was a mature student, studying for a degree in the evenings at her local university while she continued to work full time. She was supporting two children. When L found out that she was not eligible for a grant or loan herself as her income was too high, she decided not to continue. L plans to re-start her studies once her children are older.
Poor Choice of course
G was a full-time science student, at a university recommended by his school. He found the first year much harder work than he had expected, and he had not realised the requirement to attend all laboratory sessions to pass the course or that the course included a physics element. He left after failing the first year, and intends to study a different subject at another institution.
A difficult decision to leave
M was a mature student studying at a university near home. Following a serious car accident she took a three-year leave of absence. Though the university was very supportive when she returned, M found that the course content had moved on and she withdrew as she expected to fail the exams. Because she felt that she had let everyone down, she did not consult anyone at the university about her decision to leave.
Transferring between institutions
Q chose her university because of its reputation. However, after the first few weeks the course was not meeting her expectations which were based on pre-course reading material. She also found her personal tutor unsupportive. Having made enquiries at another university, which she found very helpful, she transferred.

Source: National Audit Office telephone survey of early leavers

  40.  We concluded that there were a number of specific activities that institutions were using to enhance retention, and important activities are set out in Figure 6 (overleaf).[372]

6  Actions to improve retention


Management informationMost institutions collate and disseminate internal information on withdrawal rates at course and faculty level. Others also use student level information, for example on attendance, to identify students at risk of withdrawal. A minority of institutions conduct periodic exercises to contact early leavers to help establish the real reasons why they left, particularly where some common issue affecting retention is indicated.
Strategic commitment to
It is important for institutions to have a clear strategic commitment to retaining students that all staff understand buy into, so that they can see how commitment to high levels of retention should affect the way they work.
All the institutions visited were undertaking some activities to improve retention, but not all were based on a clear strategy for the whole organisation. Even at institutions where the strategy was clear, senior managers acknowledged that some parts of their institution were demonstrating greater commitment than others.
Commitment from
Students need to commit to attending lectures and carrying out independent study. Universities can communicate clearly to students and follow up cases where commitment seems not to have been secured.
Support through academic provisionProperly resourced tutoring systems help individual students to identify the extra support and facilities they can use to improve their chances of success. Institutions often offer pre-entry courses and learning support opportunities, but many institutions find it difficult to get students to take up services that would help them to `stay the course' and succeed. This can be because students and academic staff may regard the services being there to fill a `deficit' in a student's ability, but institutions can increase take-up by promoting these services as positive options to take to improve the prospects of a good degree.
Broaden options for
Some institutions and in particular those with higher numbers of non-traditional students are being flexible in allowing students to choose learning options to fit their personal circumstances for example through comprehensive nodular systems.
Provides specialist supportAll institutions provide specialist support services, such as welfare. They are increasingly organised as a `one stop shop; and student unions usually have an important role in their provision.
Financial support, through bursaries and hardship funds, is available to assist students from disadvantaged backgrounds or in financial difficulty. Some institutions are more proactive in promoting financial support than others.

Source: National Audit Office case study visits and literature review

  41.  From September 2006 institutions were able to charge new, full-time students tuition fees up to a maximum value of £3,000 in 2006-07 and £3,070 in 2007-08, subject to an agreement approved by the Office for Fair Access. Most institutions were charging the full fees when we reported, although a small number charged less than the maximum and some charged different fees for different courses. Institutions charging tuition fees of more than £2,765, the value of the full maintenance grant in 2007-08, had to offer additional financial help in the form of bursaries. Students eligible to receive a full maintenance grant had to be offered a bursary or other help that would at least make up the difference between the full maintenance grant and the tuition fee rate.

  42.  Institutions are required to determine what proportion of their additional tuition fee income they plan to spend on bursaries to support students from low-income families. In the first year of the new tuition fee regime (2006-07), institutions spent a total of £96 million (21%) of the total additional fee income on bursaries, although the proportion varied considerably by institution; out of 120 institutions which offered bursaries, 18 allocated over 30% to bursaries, and 32 allocated less than 15%.

  43.  As many as 12,000 students entering higher education in 2006-07 on full state support did not apply for a bursary although many were likely to have met the necessary criteria. The Office for Fair Access believed students either were not aware of bursaries or did not fully understand if they were eligible. Information on financial assistance is available from a range of sources: individual institutions are responsible for marketing bursaries and various organisations are involved in publicising loans and grants. It was planned that from 2009-10 the Student Loans Company will take over responsibility for administering all student financial information and plans to introduce an integrated on-line calculator to enable students to determine their eligibility for financial support.

  44.  The relationship between the higher education financial system and the number of applications is a complex one, but by the time we reported the introduction of variable tuition fees and more generous financial support for students did not appear to have reduced the number of applications to higher education. There was no early evidence of a correlation between the level of an institution's bursaries and applications. There was little research on the impact of tuition fees on those who may have considered but not applied to higher education and some students continued to have a poor understanding of the financial support available.

  45.  We found that part-time students in higher education (who are more likely to be mature students) had access to more limited student support, had to pay their tuition fees up front and were often not eligible for bursaries.

  46.  We identified a common issue across institutions relating to students with disabilities. Some students with disabilities are entitled to financial assistance (Disabled Students' Allowances). We found that students receiving an Allowance were much more likely to continue their course than other students self-declaring a disability and, indeed, than students who are not disabled.[373] Although the number receiving an Allowance had increased, at some institutions an Allowance was obtained by less than 10% of self-declared disabled students studying full time or at least more than half time, and at other institutions over 70% obtained an Allowance.

Overall value for money conclusion

  47.  We concluded that, compared internationally, higher education in England achieved high levels of student retention. The improvements, when reviewed in 2007, were considered a good achievement. However, the gap between higher education institutions with the highest and lowest levels of retention (taking account of their student and subject profiles), and a minority of institutions' worsening continuation rates[374] indicated that there was scope for some further improvements in retention.


Widening participation

  48.  To assess progress in increasing participation of under-represented groups we undertook a detailed analysis of data held by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. To determine the effectiveness of the widening participation initiatives and explore what barriers remain to participation, we carried out surveys of 2,900 unsuccessful applicants for higher education places and of 1,000 teachers in primary and secondary schools, visited seven institutions and met with representatives of key organisations.

Retention in higher education

  49.  This report was based upon:

    — analyses of the Higher Education Statistics Agency's student data and quantitative analyses of higher education performance indicators;

    — case studies of selected higher education institutions including a telephone survey of early leavers;

    — review of academic and other research;

    — international comparison research; and

    — consultation with stakeholder groups, reference to experts and discussions with staff of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

March 2009

359   National Audit Office (2008) Widening participation in higher education, Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, HC 725, Session 2007-08 Back

360   National Audit Office (2007) Staying the course: the retention of students in higher education, Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, HC 616, Session 2006-07 Back

361   Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills , unpublished analysis, and PricewaterhouseCoopers/Universities UK (2007) Research Report: The economic benefits of a degree, Universities UK: London Back

362   "Full-time Young Participation by Socio-Economic Class" (FYPSEC) Back

363   National Audit Office analysis of UCAS 2006 data, presented in Figure 7 of Widening Participation in Higher Education Back

364   A benchmark is the institution's expected performance taking into account the average of institutions of similar type, the profile of entry qualification of its students, the subjects they studied, and their age. For each institution a range around the benchmark is calculated, which accounts for the size of the institution and the random variation in performance that is expected. If an institution's performance is within this range then its performance is similar to that expected and not significantly different to its benchmark. Annual performance of institutions is presented in relation to each institution's benchmark. Back

365   The Higher Education Statistics Agency is the official agency for the collection, analysis and dissemination of data about higher education. It is a company limited by guarantee and its members are the two representative bodies for higher education institutions in the United Kingdom-Universities UK and GuildHE. Back

366, Table series T1 and T2 Back

367   Tight, M (2007), The (re)location of higher education in England (revisited), Higher Education Quarterly, Vol 61, No 3; Higher Education Funding Council for England (2008), Exploratory analysis of geographical cold-spots of higher education provision and participation Back

368   Lifelong Learning Networks are area, regional and national collaborations of universities and colleges which create opportunities for vocational learners. They aim to enhance the coherence, clarity and certainty of vocational progression into and through higher education, taking into account local economic context and regional skill priorities. Further detail is presented on page 27 of Widening Participation in Higher Education. Back

369   Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2006), Education at a Glance 2006, OECD: Paris (Table A3.2 "Survival rates in tertiary education"). In 2004, Japan, Ireland, Korea and Greece reported higher "survival rates" than the United Kingdom. See Figure 10 in Staying the Course: The retention of students in higher education. Back

370   Based on Levene's Equality of Variance test, which is a reliable statistical test that compares variances in different sample groups. Back

371   The Higher Education Statistics Agency does this on behalf of the Performance Indicators Steering Group, which represents the sector, including the Department and the Funding Council, and is responsible for overseeing the development of performance indicators. Back

372   Our report Staying the course: the retention of students in higher education contains specific examples from a range of universities as Figures 20-24 on pages 29-32. Back

373   While the Allowances make it easier for disabled students to study, it may also be the case that successful applicants for the Allowances display greater persistence generally and so are more likely also to succeed in their studies Back

374   We examined how the continuation rate of each institution had changed between 2001-02 and 2004-05. Of the 117 institutions with data for both years the continuation rate of 30 institutions (26%) decreased by at least one percentage point. Back

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