Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 400 - 419)

WEDNESDAY 31 JANUARY 2001

MR BAHRAM BEKHRADNIA and MR JOHN THOMPSON

  400. I understand, but in terms of the subject mix is there (again with the same level of caveat) a broad statement you can say about the drop-out rate of students on art courses as opposed to science courses, for instance? We did perhaps see some evidence of those in engineering, for instance, which had a relatively high level of drop-out.
  (Mr Thompson) Yes. Rather than trying to quote them here and get them wrong, there is an annexe in the PR report where we can give you the details and there is a variation. You are absolutely right that engineering and computer science and some of the other subjects which are, if you like, numerical, quantitative, have high drop-out rates.

  401. If, for example, the university which happens to be based in an area which is relatively poor makes a big effort to attract students from there to go on arts courses but nevertheless those from less well off backgrounds have a higher tendency to drop out, on your benchmark they would tend to be under-performing because they have put an effort into getting these students on to arts courses but, because of their own circumstances, against your benchmark you think people on arts courses would tend to be stayers-on and if, because of their personal circumstances, a relatively large number of them nevertheless dropped out, that would tend to indicate that the institution was not doing very well. The real explanation might well be, "We have made a major push to attract students from this background to go on arts courses."
  (Mr Thompson) It is complicated of course because there is a strong association between social background and previous educational achievement and so on. If it is the case that when that is taken into account (and also the subject mixes—there is an association between what students choose to study— the northern chemist is not a myth if you have heard that phrase—there is an association between the social background of the students and the kinds of subjects that they study), if there still remains a large effect from the social background, and I do not think we can answer that clearly at the moment, then in that situation that you have described, yes, the institution could under-perform with respect to its benchmark and it could be that the explanation was in the particularities of the social mix of the students.

Charlotte Atkins

  402. Is HEFCE concerned about the amount of first year study which is taught by the least experienced lecturers and even the postgraduate students, given that the first year is the crucial year in terms of retention?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) We do not have any evidence about who teaches what level of teaching, but I would say that that sort of issue really is an institutional management question.

  403. Surely it is not if it is related to drop-out rates?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) If it were I think what our job would be would be to point out to institutions what the associations are for drop-out.

  404. If you have not got the information you cannot do it.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) We have not got that information, it is quite true. Even if we had I think our job would be to point this out to institutions. For example, in our submission which we have sent to you, if it becomes apparent, and I think it is becoming apparent, that there are certain types of student and maybe certain activities, certain features of institutional performance or an institution's behaviour that puts students at greater risk, it is up to us to point these out to the institutions, but in an autonomous university system I think it is for the universities themselves then to take the action.

  405. If you do not collect the data how can you point it out to the universities?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) It is true: we do not collect that data. We do not collect a lot of other data as well. If it were pointed out to us that there was something here that looked as if it ought to be explored then I think we would probably want to explore it but, as I said to you, that is not something that has come to our attention so far. It is not something we have information about.

  406. Can I ask you in terms of finance then, in the past did the United Kingdom system put more money into student support than into other systems of higher education?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Yes, I think they did. The only comparative information I have seen on this is from the OECD and their series on Education at a Glance, and it was quite clear from the data I saw from the early 1990s that there was more going into student finance in the United Kingdom than in other systems.

  407. By which you mean grants and student support in terms of their financial support?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Yes.

  408. Do you think that this had an adverse effect overall in terms of the teaching quality delivered to students?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Adverse effect?

  409. Yes.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Because it was taking money out of other parts of the system?

  410. Yes.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I have no evidence about that but I would be surprised if it were the case. How do you measure the quality of the different systems?

  411. I was going to ask you then, the funding per student has certainly gone down over the years, has it not?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Yes.

  412. And one might assume that that would have an impact on funding academics' pay for instance. That possibly could have an impact on their ability to both teach and support students in pastoral terms.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Yes. Knowing what I know of government's approach to funding, they will look at the total bill for a particular sphere of activity and if the total amount that was available for higher education was fixed and so much was going on student finance, then both of two other things happened. One was that the rate of participation, ie the number of students, was kept relatively low, but the other was that the amount devoted to other features of higher education, ie what was going on in the universities, was low.

  413. So has the balance between student support in terms of financial support and money put into the institution in terms of funding, academic pay and so on, and in recruiting more researchers and so on, changed at all because of the impact of loans and tuition fees?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) That must be a matter of fact.

  414. Are we closer to the OECD average?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I do not know the answer to the question as to whether we are closer to the OECD average, but the balance between what the government is giving to student support and what it is putting into institutional support must be changing in favour of institutional support, I would think.

  415. How does that compare with other countries?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I do not know.

Mr Marsden

  416. I would like to move on to ask some questions about the relationship—and this is very relevant to HEFCE—between state support and development and student retention but before I do that I am slightly concerned about the implication of your response to Charlotte. We are looking in this inquiry at the enormous changes that there have been in the student body, the number of universities and everything else over the last 15 to 20 years. In your reply to Charlotte you seemed to me, if I am not misrepresenting you, to be saying, "We have not taken this step", and you seemed to be putting yourself into a rather reactive as opposed to proactive position as far as HEFCE was concerned. I want to focus on the particular issue of the enormous growth in the number of part-time and mature students in the system and some of the new universities was concerned. May I ask you two questions? First of all, are universities themselves doing enough to recognise the needs of part-time and mature students and, secondly, are you yourselves at HEFCE doing enough both to collect the data that will enable us to recognise those needs and then to prod universities into doing something about them?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I think we do recognise that part-time and mature students have particular needs and indeed bring with them certain costs to universities, not least the costs associated with helping them to complete their studies. You know that we have recognised these to some extent in the premium funding that we are providing for part-time and mature students. Indeed, we are providing, as you know, premium funding in respect of students from poor backgrounds. That is recognised. We have also, through programmes we are running, like the fund for the development of teaching and learning, tried to identify good practice and also to develop good practice and to disseminate it. What I am saying is that it is for us to identify and help develop and to disseminate but it really must be for universities themselves to decide on how they deploy their staff and what arrangements they make for that.

  417. I accept that that is a very noble and broad defence of academic autonomy, but you were specifically charged by the Secretary of State in the letter of the 29th to bear down on these issues, to use the phraseology in the letter—
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I know the phrase well.

  418. It has probably borne down on you since—and if mature students for example, or part-time students, are less likely to complete (and there is some circumstantial evidence of that) does that not mean two things? Does that not (a) lay responsibility on you to compile as a matter of urgency more data on the subject, and maybe this is an issue John would like to come in on, and (b) suggest that you should be flagging up more strongly to universities—I am not saying that you say to university X, "You need to do X, Y and Z"—that they need to do something given that this is a moving target, given that we have heard all the evidence today that statistics are normally running 12 to 18 months behind the times? Is there not a slight lack of urgency (I am not saying you are complacent) in responding to the Secretary of State's request?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) No. I have to say that our response to the Secretary of State's request started well before the Secretary of State made his request. In this area you really have to understand the problem well before you start to prescribe solutions to the problem. In our paper we show what looked like an apparent relationship between drop-out and social class but when it was further analysed it turned out to be a relationship between previous educational background and drop-out. One of the things that we did, as soon as it became apparent from the performance indicators (and I do think that we have taken a great step forward in showing the extent and the nature of the problem) that there were differences in the experiences of how apparently similar institutions performed was to set in train a project to try and understand what it is that those institutions that are doing well are doing in order precisely to do as you said and try and promulgate that to all the institutions.

  419. That is understood. I am sorry to press you. I would like a response on the issue of data on part-time and mature students.
  (Mr Thompson) On the part-time, if you remember, when I was talking about getting the regular data collection, we identified a problem early on back in 1995, and we put in train a way of getting a longitudinal record in the course of the data collection. That has happened for the first time this winter, and that will provide the basis for not having to do back end processing. There are two problems with the part-time students. First of all, the quality of the data made getting ahead of the game, not waiting for the improved data collection, more difficult because of the poorer quality of the data. But there is a more fundamental problem that we have. Part-time study is a very heterogeneous activity. It varies from something which is very similar to full time; it just happens that the person is part-time, a person who is definitely doing it for a qualification and definitely wants to gain that qualification in a definite period of time, to something which also covers continuing education. The problem is that, sitting in the centre, it is very difficult when we do the measure to interpret the data. That is why we tried to introduce a measure which was module completion rather than course completion. We have had problems with that but we are still trying to get there.


 
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