Examination of witnesses (Questions 400
WEDNESDAY 31 JANUARY 2001
BEKHRADNIA and MR
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
(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 mixesthere
is an association between what students choose to study
the northern chemist is not a myth if you have heard that phrasethere
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.
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
(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
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?
(Mr Bekhradnia) Because it was taking money out of
other parts of the system?
(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,
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.
416. I would like to move on to ask some questions
about the relationshipand this is very relevant to HEFCEbetween
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
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 sinceand
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 universitiesI 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
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.