Examination of witness (Questions 180
THURSDAY 18 JANUARY 2001
180. We have quite a limited time and as much
as I am entranced by the gap year I want to move on, Nick. One
of the things I want to interject is this: do you think it is
a problem that quite a few students, quite a sizeable proportionand
I do not know what research has been done on thisactually
get their university place at very late notice through the clearing
house network? Is that a problem?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes.
181. If it is, would post qualification access
to university help?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) It would go a long way
towards it, yes. Personally I would favour post qualification
admission, PQA, I think most vice chancellors would. I do not
know whether any Members of the Committee have ever visited a
university during clearing and seen what it is like. It reminds
you of those old black and white war movies, war ops, where there
are lots of people sitting around in front of banks of telephones
which are ringing all the time.
182. Imagine what it is like for the students
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Exactly. This is the
point I am heading towards. There is an awful lot of scurrying
around. It is very difficult to make considered decisions on both
sides, I would submit, the student and the university. The reason
why we have not been able to achieve PQA yet is actually the necessary
steps which have to be gone through between the public examinations
which take place in schools and colleges on the one hand and the
timing of the start of the university term on the other. Now,
I only have to remind the Committee of what occurred unfortunately
in Scotland last year to see that if we are to make any changes
of this kind, we have to be absolutely sure they are bomb proof
before we can institute them. We have been trying to persuade
the schools that to move the summer examinations forward by two
or three weeks would make all the difference but so far we have
not been able to persuade them of the necessity to do that.
183. I hope we are not going to allow the unfortunate
experience of Scotland deter us from positive steps in the rest
of the country.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Absolutely not, but I
am just making the point to see how we actually need to be absolutely
sure that we have got something that is not going to damage the
interests of the student.
Chairman: I take that point in the spirit in
which you gave it.
184. Just to follow up on that, and the practicalities,
would you be happy to see Oxford and Cambridge in the UCCA system
so there is, in fact, some kind of uniformity following post qualification?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Personally, yes.
185. Good. Following on the main thrust of my
concern though is having got these youngsters and, indeed, mature
students from wider groupings into university, is there any evidence
that the type of institution is either encouraging or discouraging
to their continuation? In other words, if they are in a larger
institution or a smaller institution, if they are in their local
institution or further away, if they are in a collegiate system
or a single university, have we any evidence as to whether some
of those are more positive in retention than others?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, we have, because
the English Funding Council producedand produced quite
recently for the first timedata which tried to calculate
what the expected drop-out rate of students would be, given the
mix of subjects the university teaches on the one hand and the
kind of social backgrounds from the areas from which those universities
particularly draw on the other hand to calculate an expected drop-out
rate and then compared the expected with the actual, and there
were indeed variations between institutions. Unfortunately, it
was not quite as systematic as your question is leading me to
summarise. There were not any obvious correlations between some
of the factors you mentioned, such as size or whether they are
old or new universities or anything of that kind. It appears to
rest very much upon factors which are particular to a particular
institution rather than across a range of institutions.
186. I am not surprised to hear that, so what
you are saying is certain institutions have good practice which
helps in retention. What I want to know then is who is responsible
for spreading that good practice because we had the Chief Executive
from the QAA very recently who seemed to think it was not particularly
QAA's responsibility, although good practice and guidelines were
emanating? Wearing any one of your various hats, who do you think
should be responsible for extrapolating the information which
you say is available and ensuring that all universities are responsible?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Personally I believe
that the first responsibility lies with Universities UK, that
is what we are there for, to encourage good practice amongst universities
in the sector, with the Funding Council acting, if you like, as
a safety net to cheer on some of this good practice from the sideline.
Sorry, I am mixing metaphors dreadfully there. You understand
what I am saying. This is something that we do want to pick up
at Universities UK. We have a study under way at the moment looking
at various aspects of the student experiencefinancial,
educational and otherwiseand we would want to use that
to disseminate good practice.
187. A last question, if I may, Chairman. In
the context of the size of university, where students arrive and
find perhaps that they need to choose a different course, they
need to change courses, is that facilitated more easily within
a larger institution, where you can do it within the university,
as opposed to needing to change course and institution?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Very much so, yes, it
is much easier from all ways round to change within an institution
than to change institutions, which is really quite difficult for
a whole range of reasons I could go into if you wish but I think
are fairly obvious.
Valerie Davey: No, that is fine. Thank you.
188. Are you telling us, Sir Howard, that we
have in effect not got much real data on why people drop out?
I would have thought, knowing of your eminence as a sociologist,
that sociology departments up and down the country and all applied
social science departments would have been doing research on why
they lose students and be coming up with a variety of good information
about how we correct the problem.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I am sure your advisers
will tell you, we do have research on why students drop out. The
most important reason is academic and the second most important
reason is financial.
189. So they find the course too hard or do
not like the course?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) A mixture of both. If
we are talking about the academic reasons, the most important
amongst those is they have simply entered a course which does
not meet their expectations and, secondly, they find it too difficult,
but actually one usually follows the other, I have to say, in
190. When we were probing some of the people
we met, both students and staff, at Surrey and Kingston, there
was some suggestion that students often give the reason as financial
but actually when probed a little deeper it is rather more complex
than that. Does that square with your experience?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, it does. These things
are often all bound up together. I think all of us who have worked
in higher education will be familiar with students who for one
reason or another have found life difficult in the first year
in university. It may start with an academic problem, it often
ends up with a financial or even a medical problem and they do
tend to be bound up together.
191. Do more women drop out than men? Women
do better in education in almost everything if we see the stats
on A levels, GCSEs and first class degrees. Are they better or
worse at dropping out at universities?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Retention rates are better
amongst females than males.
192. Women hang in there better than men?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes.
193. That is another one. Okay. In terms of
squaring up the problem, when we were in the United States looking
at half a dozen universities we found a constant clamour when
we met students, the demand was smaller group teaching. I know
my own experience at the London School of Economics as a student
was that they did two things. There was quite a lot of small group
teaching in the first year but they also put their big stars on,
all the great professors gave the introductory lectures, Oakeshott
or whoever it was. Is that something we should learn from or is
that counter-productive? There is a feeling post-graduate students
are given first year student tutorials and they get a less quality
product in that first year.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I have to say I worked
in the United States too and I would encourage the Committee not
to draw comparisons between American universities and British
ones in this respect because I can assure the Committee that there
are very, very few full professors in American universities who
teach under-graduates at any level.
194. No, the criticism was they got left with
post-graduates and with graduate tutors.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I agree. There has been
an increase in that, I think that is undeniable. I am sure the
statistics are there to show the class sizes or seminar group
sizes have risen over the last 20 years and there are obvious
financial pressures. After all, we have much less money to teach
them. What has also happened, I think, is that under pressures
from the Research Assessment Exercise star researcher professors
have been encouraged by all universities, I think, who are strong
in research to focus more on that research role. Indeed, they
have in some cases taken clear advantage of their market position
to seek such kinds of arrangements with their universities. I
think it is less common than it used to be, say, 20 years ago
for what you call the star research professors to teach first
year under-graduates, yes.
195. Is that one of the problems of the Research
Assessment Exercise? We had very severe criticism of the RAE in
a couple of places we visited this week. Is that a real problem?
Is that problem being driven by the Research Assessment Exercise?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think the Research
Assessment Exercise is part of an overall syndrome which is that
universities have had to manage their resources much more effectively
and have had to look in a rather gimlet eyed way at what returns
they can receive financially or otherwise from the management
of their inputs. If you can receive a good return, which you can
through the Research Assessment Exercise, from putting more investment
into pulling in high quality research professors and not diverting
some of their limited time into teaching under-graduate courses
than you can from encouraging such professors to get involved
in under-graduate courses, then that is what I think would otherwise
be known as an effective management of university resources. I
am not defending that from the point of view of the quality of
the student experience, although I would urge the Committee not
to draw a rather loose conclusion that graduate students are by
definition offering poorer quality tuition to students than star
research professors are because I do not think that applies either.
Many graduate studentsand this does go back to 20 years
agoare very much more committed to their students and their
teaching and are making their way in the world and putting a lot
of effort into their teaching than perhaps people of my age and
stature in the profession.
196. Certainly the QAA told the Committee that
there was much more attention to the training of university staff
than there had been in my generation.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Absolutely. I think virtually
all universities these days insist all their staff, as part of
their probationary period, go through formalised teacher training
and most universities offer accredited qualifications for that
which usually now, and this is still going on, will be accredited
by the Institute of Learning and Teaching. I think what you are
driving at is have the pressures on all academic staff in universities
to perform through research, and be rewarded for that performance,
had an effect upon the quality of their teaching and the quality
of the student experience. I would say as a social scientist that
is quite difficult to measure but I think if you ask most people
in the academic world they would say yes, it has.
197. I just wanted to return to the financial
reasons for non-completion. Are you aware of the work of the DfEE
who commissioned research from Professor Callender? Have you read
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) I have not read it, no,
but I have seen a summary of it.
198. In the summary it talks about how average
debt has increased up to 1998-99, which was the last year, from
£777 to £2,473, an increase of 195 per cent. They report
that 60 per cent of all full-time students and 40 per cent of
part-timers reported that they thought financial difficulties
had negatively affected their academic performance and that one
in ten of both full and part-time students had thought about dropping
out for financial reasons. Of course they are only interviewing
the people who have not dropped out so they have selected out
the people who have already. What is your view on that?
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) My view on that is that
there are some students who, for whatever reason, lack parental
or other forms of financial support who have continued to struggle.
There are other students who get into high levels of debt because
they are supporting a lifestyle. I think one needs to draw quite
careful distinctions between those two groups of students.
199. The highest proportion, the highest debt
and the highest likelihood of fear of non-completion in this report
was found to be among lone parents.
(Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes.