Examination of witness (Questions 161
THURSDAY 18 JANUARY 2001
161. It is strange being back in the Palace
of Westminster proper in the sense that at least over in our new
meeting room in Portcullis House we now have the ability to see
our witnesses. I can see you, Howard, as you are on your own.
Can I welcome you here most warmly.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Thank you very much.
162. The Committee all know that I got great
value out of a very late night journey back from Dorset fairly
recently when you and I were the only people, I think, on the
train to London which was much delayed.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) We resided in Eastleigh
Railway Station for a very long time.
163. Thank you very much. Congratulations on
your new role which you will be taking up when?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) On October 1st.
164. Excellent. We have got you in terms of
wearing all three hats, I think, today. You have worn one in the
past, one at the moment and one to come.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is right.
165. No, four, University of Southampton Vice
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is the day job.
166. Three national, that is the day job. Okay.
President of Universities UK, if anyone does not know that was
formerly CVCP and, of course, Chief Executive Designate of HEFCE.
If we can get straight on. You will know thatGod willingthis
afternoon after your departure we will complete entirely our Report
on Access to Higher Education. We, thinking there might be some
event that will curtail our investigation of higher education
sometime in May, thought the only thing we could do justice to
is something pretty tight and complete on its own and that is
retention. Retention goes very well with access, as you will agree,
I think. Today's session is on retention. We opened earlier this
week meeting the QAA and had quite a good session I thought there.
With your experience we would like you, in a sense, to start off
the meeting by asking you, are you concerned? We look at the figures,
we are rising perhaps pretty gently up the student loss curve,
if you like, but it is a time of great expansion of higher education.
We are up there in the high teens now. We visited two universities
only this week, one the University of Surrey and one at Kingston,
around about ten per cent in terms of student loss, two thirds
in the first year. Do you think this is a problem we should be
very concerned about? How do you evaluate it as an area?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think certainly it
is a problem we should be concerned about because any student
who withdraws from university before they have completed their
course, it is usuallynot always but usuallysomething
of a setback, if not a tragedy, for the student personally. Of
course there are resource implications of that and if they leave
without any qualification whatsoever that is a setback for all
concerned. I think it is something we should be concerned about,
yes. I would remind the Committee that by international standards,
however, retention rates are very good, very high. I think only
Japan, internationally, has a lower drop-out rate than we do.
I would suggest, also, that as the sector has expanded over the
last couple of decades, and as we have taken in more students
with a much wider range of social backgrounds and academic qualifications,
universities have taken more risks at admission, I think it is
right they should do so but if we have not dropped our standardsand
I do not believe we havethen the outcome is likely to be
some gentle rise, as you put it, in drop-out rates. However, I
do think that there is more we can do and I agree that the problem
lies mostly in the first year. For all the efforts that universities
have made to attract students from non-conventional backgrounds
into the sector, I think that cannot be done at the expense of
paying much more attention to those students once they have arrived
at university in order to retain them.
167. What sort of thing works? When we were
at Kingston, I think, and my colleagues will correct me if I am
wrong, they said there did not seem to be any discernible difference
between what background the student came from in terms of the
wastage in the first year. What do you think?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is not my experience,
I have to say. I think there is some evidence to suggest that
there are higher drop-out rates amongst those students from poorer
socio-economic backgrounds. If you are asking me what needs to
be done, I think first of all a great deal more needs to be done
in conveying relevant and meaningful information to students before
they even arrive at university and before they are even contemplating
entering higher education. It is a question, if you like, of managing
expectations. We need a rather judicious mix, I would suggest,
of raising aspirations so that more young people in schools at
an earlier age can begin to aspire to go into university but,
having done that, then convey meaningful and sensible information
to them so that they know what to expect. Once they have arrived
at university they often need more support, more mentoring, more
counselling, especially in the first year. I think as we extend
deeper and deeper into, as I said, students from non-conventional
backgrounds, they are likely to experience more of a culture shock
when they arrive.
168. You mentioned relevant and meaningful information,
could you give us an example of what you mean in practice? What
practical information are we talking about?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes. I had the salutary
experience of watching my son apply for university a couple of
years ago and as a familyand I am someone who works in
the sectorwe submerged ourselves in prospectuses and CD
roms and information over the internet and it rapidly becomes
very bewildering, I have to say. Some universities are beginning
to do this but I think we could do more in conveying clear summary
information which deals with some of the broad brush stroke issues
about what students could expect to find and what they need to
think about before they go to university, before we induct them
into detailed information about course selection and matters of
that kind. At the moment I think students tend to be thrown in
rather at the deep end with a pile of prospectuses and other forms
of information. A lot of information they pick up by word of mouth
actually, in my experience, not all of it terribly accurate. So
I think a lot more can be done and a lot more can be done, I think,
through universities reaching out more into the schools and colleges
at an earlier age, 13 to 14 rather than 16 to 17, so this is a
more managed process from the age of about 13 years onwards.
169. It has been a few years since I have been
giving advice to students in that sense. Do you think something
like a DfEE guide to what you have to know, what you have to look
at, something which is very simple to follow but maybe down in
that flow chart process, would be useful?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) It would not do any harm
but my experience is that students on the whole do not pick up
what I would call intelligence rather than information from that
kind of source. I think we could do a lot more at Universities
UK by providing protocols for universities so that we can say
"This is the kind of information that our experience and
our research has shown that students need before they get to the
course selection stage." I think we would be happy, I am
sure, to take it up with the Department about how we might establish
some of those protocols so that universities could provide some
information in fairly standard format which students would find
much easier to read across and read through.
170. That covers the process of course selection
and the application side of it. What about advice on the first
couple of days, weeks, months at a university, are we looking
at that area?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think that is something,
in fairness, that universities do reasonably well. All students,
and increasingly I have to say their parents, are normally invited
to visit universities, and most of them these days do, well before
they actually arrive at the beginning of the new year. When they
do arrive at the beginning of the new year I think all universities
take three or four days, sometimes as much as a week, before formal
tuition starts in inducting the students across a whole range
of things. That works quite well, I think. Yes, of course, some
students feel completely dislocated when they first arrive, they
may have left home for the first time, they may feel rather lonely,
they are establishing friends, but I think universities are very
aware of that and we do an awful lot, and our students' unions
I have to say do an awful lot, to mitigate that kind of sense
of loneliness and isolation. I do not think that is quite the
issue, I think it is more in terms of ensuring that students know
what to expect in terms of the styles of teaching and learning
they are going to encounter when they get to university which
can be quite different in some cases from what they have encountered
in schools and in colleges.
171. I very much want to agree with the comment
you made about universities starting early in terms of encouraging
students to attend university because I have been banging on about
this, and the Committee have got pretty bored with me going on
about year eight, which is when people are 13. It seems to me
a gap year in terms of their academic development. It is the time
when those young people could be interested in university before,
and crucially before, they take their GCSE options. Could you
let us know of any universities which are, in fact, focusing on
young people at that age, first of all?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think quite a number
of universities do. They do it in a variety of ways. First of
all, increasingly universities are compacting with schools and
colleges, not just locally but often some distance from the university.
Obviously, we have all traditionally done a lot of things in our
immediate locality but, as you know, still students on the whole
do not go to university in their immediate locality, they still
like to move away from home. Another area which is being explored,
I think, is in the field of school teachers fellowships so that
we build up increasing links with school teachers and get the
teachers in to the universities in their inter-departments in
which they have a background so that teachers take messages back
into the schools as well. Now that is only beginning to take place
but I think a lot of work is going on in doing that sort of thing.
In all parts of the sector, whether it is Oxford and Cambridge
on the one hand, or some of the new universities on the other,
I think again a lot more could be done there to extend that. That
is the kind of thing I am thinking of. In terms of actual examples
of universities, I do not want to keep quoting Southampton but
we could certainly allow the Committee to have some examples of
what is going on.
172. The other thing, I was interested in what
you said about the protocols perhaps that universities should
adopt in terms of information before students attend. I had the
unfortunate experience of one of my local constituents who gave
birth while she was at school not being able to take up a place
at university because they could not guarantee her a child care
place. Now obviously if child care breaks down, as we all know,
whether we are at university or in a job, that really does lead
to drop-out, whether out of a job or out of college. What is your
experience of the sort of support universities give in terms of
child care, whether to mothers or fathers? Does this illustrate
the sort of support that universities give to both mature students
and part-time students? It seems to me we can look at the whole
area of finance but crucially child care is one of those aspects
which has a financial aspect and, of course, is very, very important
in terms of students being able just to physically get to the
course and survive three or four years.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think I would add also
to that, it is not just students who we need to offer child care
support to, it is also our staff.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) All universities do this
and all universities have an integrated child care support system,
nursery provision and so forth, which covers both staff and students.
All universities in my experience also charge differentially between
staff and students and also ensure that it is affordable to students.
Students, of course, can apply to universities for hardship grants
to cover the cost of this where it is necessary. Again, my experience
is that over the years demand for these facilities has risen.
We in turn had to quite rightly ensure that the quality of the
care that we are offering is of the best. There is no indication
in our block grant for the cost of this so essentially we are
under some obligation to ensure that it is self-supporting in
terms of cost, which has not, I think, provided universities with
the best of incentives to expand their facilities and ensure they
are up to the quality they require. Affordability, I have to say,
even with the way in which we all subsidise it, still does remain
a bit of an issue with students, not so much with staff but with
174. This really should not be a problem, it
was not so much a problem that the university did provide the
child careyou say all universities dobut perhaps
they may not have had the capacity to take on that particular
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is correct. I think
all universities are looking at various innovative ways. There
is now, of course, a thriving private sector involved in supplying
nursery and child care facilities and I think many institutions
have been joining up with the private sector to see what we can
do to expand the capacity for child care and other similar facilities
175. You said that universities provide for
staff and students. Also, as a Committee, I think we are very
concerned that universities should be very much part of their
community. Are there schemes whereby places are also offered to
the community to try to link the university into its hinterland?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) There are cases but I
would not for one minute wish you to believe that this is something
which is common in universities. On the whole what happens is
that if there is any spare capacity that is offered to the local
community, but I think I would say, in my experience, there is
something of a difference here between the way in which universities
have opened up their facilities elsewhere compared with what they
have done in the case of child care. If you think of other facilities,
such as sports facilities or libraries and so on, they really
have been opened up to the local community. I think in all honesty
that has been less of a case with regard to child care, I suspect
because of the cost implications concerned and because of the
legal liabilities involved.
Mr St Aubyn
176. School leavers are at a critical stage
in their personal development, perhaps this explains partly why
the drop-out rate is so high in the first year at university.
There seem to be two views of this. One is that university should
capture the school leavers before they go off the boil academically
and keep on the straight and narrow to try and retain as many
as possible. The other is that many of these school leavers would
benefit from taking a year out from education, ideally in a structured
environment, a year out from education, before they then make
that commitment. The evidence is that those who take a year out
have a far lower drop-out rate once they get to university. What
is your personal view on that debate?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) My personal view is that
taking a gap year is beneficial provided it is relevant to the
course they eventually intend to study because I do also incline
somewhat to the rather jesuitical view that you described as the
first option, which is that students get into a rhythm of learning
and working and they particularly, in my experience, as a former
teacher in higher education, get into a rhythm of doing written
assessments of various kinds. When they have taken a year out
and they have got out of the habit of reading and out of the habit
of writing, especially, it takes them a little while to pick all
that up again when they do enter into higher education. I was
pleased that you qualified your comment with "preferably
in a structured environment" when you talked about the gap
year because I think that is where it is of greatest benefit otherwise
I am not entirely sure that the student's gap year is of direct
educational benefit when they enter higher education. It may benefit
them in other ways.
177. There is a cost implication here because
taking a year out, unless it is working in industry or something,
tends to have costs associated with it. Would you be in favour,
given we are particularly also interested in widening access and
making sure that those from less well off backgrounds stay the
course and go to university, of some resources being devoted to
those from less well off backgrounds to take a structured year
out rather than those resources being used in other ways to help
retain them at university?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) If you are talking about
the structured gap year to facilitate retention of those from
lower socio-economic groups in the higher education system, then
I am not sure taking a year out frankly is terribly relevant one
way or the other. What I think will be preferable will be to take
such students and give them a kind of fast start by bringing them
in earlier into the system, perhaps through a summer school immediately
before they start their first year, and get them accustomed, as
I said earlier, to what the expectations are in higher education
and what the styles of teaching and learning are that they are
going to encounter and induct them into that before they enter
the first year. I think if there were resources available of the
kind you describe, personally I would not recommend they went
into a gap year, however well structured, but rather into perhaps
a three month fast track induction between the time they leave
school or college and the time they arrive at university.
178. Are there not various aspects to going
to university, like being in control of your own life for the
first time, having to organise yourself? These are skills which
in a year spent in a job environment, if it is the right job environment,
you may well pick up and develop so you then become more ready
for the university atmosphere than you would otherwise be.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) You may, equally you
may not. I agree there are a series of, if you like, domestic
skills that one has to learncooking, cleaning, ironingwhich
the evidence is that many students do not have when they enter
university, I have to say the evidence is that a lot of them do
not have when they leave either. I just remain somewhat sceptical,
frankly, that one requires a whole gap year to acquire those skills.
I am more concerned, as you can guess, that a student from the
kind of background we are talking about, from their point of view
are often taking a rather risky step. They lack, often, academic
self-confidence, their confidence is certainly very fragile. I
think if we are talking about limited resources focused in ways
which can best help them, personally I would go for a three month
induction or something of that kind between school and university
so that they can encounter what to expect at lower personal cost
in terms of self-esteem and in other ways and they are better
prepared for the hurly burly of the first year of academic life.
179. You recognise that they could acquire that
self-esteem and confidence by stepping out into the real world?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Absolutely. I am not
against the gap year at all. I hope I was clear when I said that
if we are talking about a gap year as something targeted towards
dealing with this issue of widening access, I am sceptical that
it would achieve that purpose. There are lots of other benefits
about why young people need to take a year out but not, I would
submit, that one.