Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 180 - 199)




  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 proportion—and I do not know what research has been done on this—actually 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.

Charlotte Atkins

  182. Imagine what it is like for the students then.
  (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.

Valerie Davey

  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 produced—and produced quite recently for the first time—data 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 experience—financial, educational and otherwise—and 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 my experience.

  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 students—and this does go back to 20 years ago—are 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.

Dr Harris

  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 that report?
  (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.

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