Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 200 - 222)



  200. Who had no other sources of income. Would you say that group, which is under represented in higher education, was more they are just poor, the former category, or they really ought to cut down?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, I would put them into the former category. I think we have seen, have we not, since the introduction of the fees and loans regime in 1997, that there were some categories of students who may well have been suffering unduly from this. I think there has been some introduction, as you know, of some bursary schemes to try and mitigate their difficulties. It has been rather ad hoc and I think what we would urge from Universities UK is that in the future perhaps these schemes could be grouped together in a much more coherent way to offer a more comprehensive bursary scheme to those students who really need it.

  201. When you say a comprehensive bursary scheme, do you mean a scheme like the grant system that was actually withdrawn after the date of that data that I have referred to or would you mean something bigger than that?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Broadly speaking, I think we would argue from Universities UK that the real disincentive for students from poor backgrounds to entering and remaining in higher education has not been from the introduction of fees, because they have not on the whole had to pay fees, it has been from the abolition of the maintenance award. The more that could be done to support them with their living costs, the better.


  202. Would you like to go back to the pre-1997 system?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, because I have been differentiating fees from maintenance awards. If we are talking about the financing of higher education, there has to be some kind of partnership between Government, through the taxpayer, parents, and the students themselves who will benefit from their higher education qualifications. I do not think, frankly, any party is going to go into an election saying "Vote for us and we will raise taxes so we can give more money to higher education".

  Dr Harris: Our policy at the last election was precisely that.

  Chairman: Howard is talking about the next election.

Dr Harris

  203. And reported in a number of newspapers was our launch of the next election policy which is precisely that, to raise £3.1 billion, of which £750 million will go into higher education to abolish tuition fees and replace that funding at universities which they need and restore the grant. Would you like to have another go?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I do not think I would actually.


  204. I think Howard said no major party!
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I would say that in terms of public support for expenditure in different areas of the public services, I think that the electorate may well vote for increased taxes to support some public services but I have not seen any evidence they would vote for increased taxes to support universities, I have to say.

Dr Harris

  205. In my constituency I made that quite clear and I did get a significant swing against the national trend. If you have better research I would love to see it.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It is not so much research, it is what is going to be the outcome of the next election which will be the best research on that.

Mr Foster

  206. I will move away from the Liberal Party propaganda machine. To what extent are students discriminating customers, particularly with regard to quality of teachers?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Increasingly, and so are their parents.

  207. How are they demonstrating that?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) By complaining more.

  208. Has the introduction of tuition fees increased that discrimination?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, it has.

  209. You are saying that students are valuing more highly perhaps the education they are receiving and taking it more seriously in terms of the nature of the quality they are getting?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Very much so, and so are their parents. I keep repeating that because we are finding that parents are becoming much more involved in these issues that you describe, including the choice that their children make. What we are finding is that, if I can put it this way, the introduction of fees is doing away with the large remnants of in loco parentis as far as the relationship between universities and students is concerned. Students are becoming—to put it rather in an exaggerated way perhaps—less and less pupils and more and more customers. I do think we have to respond to that. In addition, we have to teach them to be intelligent customers.

Charlotte Atkins

  210. Before we move away from financial aspects, can I just ask one question. Do you think that it would be helpful to students, given that we are unlikely to go back to maintenance grants, that the preference loans which presently exist should be extended? I have found certainly that low income students going to high cost areas like London find that the student loan, which they have available at preferential rates, is not sufficient and they have to go to other areas if they cannot draw on parental income for other monies which are not loaned at preferential rates.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think this whole area is something which I hope that the DfEE and Government might have another look at in the not too far distant future. As I said before, a number of ad hoc and very welcome measures have been introduced to relieve the most obvious cases of hardship, whether it is students on unemployment benefit, mature students, single parents and so forth. I think rather than have a plethora of ad hoc bursary measures or preferential loan schemes, it would be much better to tidy the whole thing up and have, if you like, more of a one stop shop so that students have a much clearer idea of what their entitlement is because my experience is that they do not. It is not just the students who are in the sector, going back to where we began, students at 13, 14, 15, 16 have the most remarkable mis-information about student financing on both fees and bursary.

Mr St Aubyn

  211. Can I say the Conservative Party policy on higher education will be announced in ten minutes' time and draws very heavily on the evidence we have received over the years in this Committee and our two inquiries on higher education. Could I please follow up your comment about the students becoming customers. It does seem to me your customers are coming to you in all shapes and sizes. Is the response to that a one size fits all policy is the best practice that universities should follow to ensure that the typical student, if he or she exists, will be retained on the course, or is the key to the response that there is as diverse a sector for them to choose from as can possibly be achieved?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think the latter broadly, provided there is a minimum floor—and since you have received evidence from John Randall you will know about this—which ensures we can assure and demonstrate a minimum acceptable quality of higher education. Beyond that I think the sector is so diverse, our student needs are so diverse, that one size will not fit all.

  212. Following that up, clearly the core funding that HEFCE gives universities is enshrined in the Act. This is without any say in what courses they teach, and which students they choose to accept. Do you think if additional funding is going to be made available to help universities retain their students that HEFCE or the Government has a role in dictating how that money should be used or do you think universities should be relied upon to develop and use their own expertise and knowledge and experience to develop their own strategies, i.e. give them money and let them get on with the job?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I obviously incline to the latter but I would say that because of the diversity of needs, just in terms of geography apart from anything else, the needs are quite different. Universities, quite rightly, need to be accountable for how they spend that money. So I think Government's role is to set some broad aims, as it does, through saying "We want to encourage widening participation. We look to universities to come forward with effective means of achieving that. We, the Government, understand that this is resource intensive and here is some earmarked money". Now it is a matter for the Funding Council to distribute that money against proposals put to it by individual universities and we would expect the Funding Council to report back on not only how that money has been spent but how those universities have achieved the aims they set themselves in spending that money.

  213. Is there not a danger in that approach that you then become very didactic in your approach, you become very judgmental as to what universities are going to do?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, actually, on the contrary, it was precisely to avoid that that I went down the line I suggested. I think if one were to be didactic and operate in a kind of Gosplan fashion on this matter, one would actually say to universities: "You will recruit X percentage of students from social classes C2, D, E. This is how you will do it. There is the money and if you do not do it that way, we are not going to give it to you". I do not think anyone is suggesting that approach, and certainly I would not advocate it.

  214. For instance, the analysis HEFCE did of benchmark performance, there are very serious reservations about the quality of that analysis and the assumptions that it makes. Do you recognise those reservations?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) There are reservations, I would not use the term very serious. I do not want to get too technical about this, the social scientist again, but there are issues about using postcodes on the assumption that everyone within that postcode is from a homogeneous social background. I happen to live in a rural area, there I am, the University Vice-Chancellor, across the lane from me is an 82-year-old widow who has lived in the village all her life, we are in the same postcode. If you take the average of the two, you get a sum which is rather meaningless. I have to say that empirically the number of postcodes where that is a major issue is reasonably small, although I understand the concerns in London about it.


  215. You think the HEFCE benchmark is useful?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It is useful.

Mr St Aubyn

  216. Can I challenge that, for a moment, Chairman. It seems to me the underlying assumption is that if you are a college which teaches a lot of science and engineering courses you are expected to draw more students from less well off backgrounds. If you have gone out of your way to persuade middle class students that they should be doing science and engineering too, somehow the HEFCE benchmark says "You are not performing well". It tends to take the status quo and apply it across the board and that is your benchmark. Is there not a whole group of assumptions underlying this analysis which are basically trying to entrench the status quo that less well off kids at the moment tend to go for the science and engineering more than middle class ones?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No. I see what you are driving at. The issue is is this useful or useless, not whether it is true or false. For the reasons I have mentioned one cannot defend it down to the nth degree in offering an absolutely accurate representation of the benchmarks that we are all referring to. But is it a useful tool for a university to say to itself "Well, hang on a minute, are we doing things rightly or could we improve on this?" I think it is actually quite useful. I would say from my own experience as a Vice-Chancellor, it has forced us to ask questions, for example, about where we are drawing our students from, where we are attempting to market and recruit students from, not just in terms of socio-economic groupings but more regionally in other ways. Are we trying hard enough to attract more students from the North of England as opposed to the South, issues of that kind. I think in broad brush stroke terms it actually is very useful and, after all, it is not being used in any direct way to substantially change the resources going into universities one against the other. There is at the moment a small postcode premium, as it is called, five per cent, that applies to those students who are drawn from certain postcodes. Personally I think that if we are serious about attacking the issue of attracting more students into higher education from those sorts of backgrounds, recognising that it is very resource intensive to attract them and then retain them, there might be a case in the future for looking at raising that premium.

  217. And plus more fine tuning the method by which you identify the student? I have a poor housing estate next to the university in my constituency.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I have to say I think there is a danger there. Ironically, the more you fine tune it and the more you make it into an analytical tool of the kind you are describing, the more tempting it is to go down the more didactic route and that I do not think any of us would wish.

Valerie Davey

  218. Can I come in on two specifics, if I can, quickly in the time. First of all, we met students at the post-graduate level who were beginning to be concerned about going on, given the financial situation, to do their doctorate or to do their post-graduate work immediately following a degree. Is that your experience as well? That came up amongst conversation the day before yesterday.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think there is a distinction here between post-graduates, masters' students on the one hand and PhD students on the other.

  219. I think it was those who were looking to do another two or three years as opposed to another single year.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is what I thought. I do not know of any evidence that students are being put off going on a masters course, quite the contrary. That fourth year, as it usually is, the first year of a masters course, is often something they use to fine tune their employability and they can still see the return on that. There is more of a potential problem in attracting students to carry on to do two, three, four years on a PhD given that the science base and, indeed, universities as their employers need to recruit more such students in the future. I have to say that the OST, through the Research Councils, recognises that problem and has done quite a lot to not only raise the student stipend but also to make the career path of moving from under-graduate to post-graduate on into a science based career much more attractive. I think this is something we do need to keep an eye on, especially if we are talking about public sector employment as opposed to private sector employment at the end of the day.


  220. It is very worrying if we are going to get to a situation where there is a real dearth of serious post-graduate students who are going to be the next generation of university teachers.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is a problem that has arisen in some selected subjects, yes. I think we could, on another occasion, have a debate about whether we feel that the total volume of PhD students in this country is too big or too small. Certainly if we take the obvious case of economics, which I think has been very well rehearsed, there is indeed an absolute dearth of students coming into areas like that into other areas where there is strong private sector competition for students to move out of higher education before they become PhD students.

  221. Is there a danger that we are getting less good retention because of less good teaching because we are just not paying enough for our university teachers? What is your view on that?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I do not know of any evidence that teaching standards have declined in universities. On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence to say that we are facing increasing difficulties in a labour market obtaining what I would call our fair share of the best and brightest of the present generation that is moving out into employment. We are storing up long-term trouble for ourselves. Coming from Southampton, I have to say I really do hope that the Titanic does not have to hit the iceberg before somebody realises there is a problem here because we are talking in terms of generations here. The expansion of the 1960s, the post-Robbins expansion in universities, that generation is coming up to retirement over the next decade and if we do not replace them sufficiently the intellectual capital on which this country has drawn to retain its excellence in both teaching and research in universities over the last generation is going to decline. That is a serious medium to long-term issue which we need to take steps now to redress and not wait for it to happen and then rush around in a panic trying to do something about it.

  222. That is a good note on which to end. Indeed, I was going to ask you what question would you like us to put before the Minister when she comes before us next week and that sounds like a pretty good one, unless you would like to add one?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think if we are looking medium to long-term that is the key issue, it is how to attract and retain not just students but staff, our fair share of the best and brightest. It is very important, is it not? If universities do not inspire another generation of young, and increasingly not so young, people who, let us remember, are going to come in and out of education more and more now in the era of lifelong learning, if we do not inspire them then why are we doing this in the first place? They have to be inspired by high quality, highly motivated academic staff in universities. I used to say to my own students, especially mature students, when they came to my department, "if we have not changed you after three years I believe we will have failed in our job".

  Chairman: That is a good note on which to end. I know you are on a short timetable, thank you very much for coming and talking to the Committee. Thank you.

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