Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 420 - 439)

WEDNESDAY 31 JANUARY 2001

MR BAHRAM BEKHRADNIA and MR JOHN THOMPSON

  420. Given that that is the case would there not be some benefit in your doing some in-depth pilot studies of those universities, and I am thinking particularly of some of the newer universities, who have a substantial number of students who fall into that category?
  (Mr Thompson) Absolutely. One of the things that has happened, apart from the things that we have picked up, is that it has taken a little time for institutions to learn from what we have published.

  421. So when are you going to do it?
  (Mr Thompson) We are talking to institutions. I am going to visit an institution in a few weeks. One of the things we are going to raise is whether they can make a start with that kind of classification (of part-time) at the institutional level, and understand what is going on in terms of completion. In other words identify the students who do not intend to get a qualification; that just want to do this or that module. This kind of classification will, if you like, provide a pilot. Then we can get other institutions to do it, and also maybe eventually collect data nationally.

Chairman

  422. This Committee has a reputation for asking you to do even further pieces of research. Are you constrained by resources? Do you need extra resources from the Department in order to carry out meaningful work in these areas?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) We have the resources that we need to do the job we are doing at the moment. We would need more resources to do more things. Otherwise we have to prioritise what we are doing.

Mr Marsden

  423. Can I come back to the point I started with and the point that Charlotte touched on, which was the relationship between support and development and between student completion. Charlotte in her questioning, and indeed we have heard evidence across the board on this, suggested (and there have been suggestions) that because of the emphasis in universities on research and the balance of rewards for research as opposed to teaching and particularly in relation to what one might loosely call pastoral care, students have suffered in this respect, and to that extent HEFCE might be regarded as responsible because of the fact that you have put more and more significance on, for example, research assessment exercise in terms of delivery. How would you answer that criticism?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I do not know what evidence there is for it being so. I know what evidence there is for the research assessment exercise.

Chairman

  424. We have been to Surrey University only two weeks ago and to Kingston University and they said that this was a very serious problem.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Yes, but what is the relationship between the staff development effort, for example, and drop-out? I just do not know what evidence you would point to for that.

  425. You have got good practice. You already know in terms of your indicators where good practice is. What seems to me a barrier is spreading that best practice as quickly as possible.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) That is what I said that we were doing. We have a team out looking at those institutions that are doing particularly well and trying to identify what it is they do well. It might be that staff development is what they are doing well or it could be that some of their student support arrangements are what they are doing differently. This comes out of the Mantz Yorke study and some of the other evidence we have seen: it could be that it is what they do with students before they join them that is important. We do not know. What I am saying is that until we have the evidence we will be very foolish to tell the universities what they should be doing and what we think they should be doing because we just do not know yet.

Mr Marsden

  426. All right, but that is where we are coming to the interface between HEFCE as a funder and HEFCE as an analyser. Let me posit a case of a bright young socially conscious, socially aware, academically perhaps one of our newer universities, which wants to put a lot of emphasis into outreach work, wants to do conferences with children of 13 or 14, not coming from traditional backgrounds. What incentive is there within the system for him or her to spend time on that activity when they know only too well (and the pressure is on the newer universities; it is not just the older ones) that the gold standard for their development in their career and as far as their departments are concerned is piling up books and articles for your research assessment exercise?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) If that is the case that is the decision of the university and the department. We cannot manage the universities in that sort of detail—

  427. But your funding mechanism, and I come back to the point, does not give any incentive to that sort of outreach activity, does it?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) In the sense of what, that we do not recognise quality, for example, in the funding of teaching?

  428. No. You said yourself that that getting students involved at an earlier stage might be a key element to it. Is there anything in the way in which you are currently conducting your funding that would specifically recognise that sort of activity?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) We provide at the moment about £30 million a year through the formula in respect of part-time and mature students and £30 million a year in respect of students from poor backgrounds. That goes disproportionately to those institutions which do precisely the sort of thing that you have described. How it is used internally in terms of rewards for staff I really think cannot be something that HEFCE gets involved in.

Chairman

  429. I have got a note here from our specialist advisers that says that the Secretary of State has allocated £50 million in 2001/2002, £10 million in 2002/2003, £170 million in 2003/2004 to be used in part to recruit and retain high quality academic staff in strategically important disciplines. That is going to be in research rich institutions and is going to be for people with long lists of publications. It is not going to be for teachers surely.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) No. The mechanism for distributing that money is not biased towards the research rich.

Mr Marsden

  430. I am sorry to press this point, but you raised yourself (and you may wish you had not) the whole issue of outreach and I just want to get this on the record. You have no mechanism in HEFCE at the moment for specifically rewarding academics or institutions that go in for pre-university admission outreach work.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) To the extent that they are successful we do because those will be the institutions that gain the most through those aspects of the formula that recognise that. That is in respect of the students from the poorer backgrounds, for example, that you were talking about. There is an element of the formula that recognises that.

Chairman

  431. It is only five per cent, is it not?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) It is five per cent in terms of students from poor backgrounds and five per cent in respect of mature students.

  432. Your prospective Chairman is quite keen to raise that substantially, is he not?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I have no doubt that as Chairman of the HEFCE board he will carry the appropriate influence on that. The trouble with that is that working with a fixed pot it is five per cent and it could be ten per cent, it could be 15 per cent, but it would be at the expense of something else unless the Secretary of State could be persuaded to give us more money which we would use in that way.

  433. How much would it cost to put it up to ten or 20 per cent? What does the five per cent cost?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) The five per cent costs about £30 million or so; it would cost about another £30 million.
  (Mr Thompson) Can I just say something about the outreach? We have had discussions about this with our conference and vice-chancellors are pointing out that some of the really important work does not necessarily, if you are talking about younger schoolchildren, bring recruits to that particular institution. It is difficult to have a formula which recognises this work. However, there are special schemes. We have made quite clear that in the outline of what they are doing, and their plans, we want institutions to put targets on this kind of activity. We recognise that with some of them they have to be input targets because you cannot easily trace the result of visiting, say, a junior school or even in the early parts of secondary school. There are things going on to encourage and support, that are not the kind of activities that necessarily lend themselves to a formula for funding.

  434. What Gordon I think is pushing at, and Charlotte and all of us on this Committee are impressed by in the United States, is that they have the wherewithal to do this work well. Much of it is a managerial function; it is not an academic function. It is the ability to put quality management time into outreach, into high quality admissions procedures, indeed, in terms of linking your alumni into various activities that could help in that. It is a whole area within the United States. Yes, we know that alumni contributions help to fund that, but here, with the different system of funding, it seems that that is an under-nourished part of the university activity.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) But nevertheless it would be, would it not, a choice of the university itself to put the level of resources into that? I wonder what it is that persuades universities in the States to do it to the extent that they do.

Charlotte Atkins

  435. Can I suggest that one of the reasons they do it is that they are much more linked into their local communities than most of our universities are, except in places like Staffordshire University that does an extremely good job in that respect. So many of our universities are so detached from their communities, whereas in the States they put a much higher premium on being involved in their communities.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I believe there are a lot of universities like Staffordshire. Staffordshire is an excellent model, I agree, but there are others in this country. Community involvement is certainly something that we are trying to encourage very much, and we are finding that we are very much pushing at an open door in that respect. Just for clarity, I was very grateful to Gordon Marsden for taking the discussion into the area of outreach. When I referred to pre-entry activity I was referring to the evidence that came through from the Mantz Yorke study and has come through from some other work that I have seen, that suggests that one of the reasons for drop-out relates to the mismatch of expectations between what students are going to get and what they thought they were going to get. It could be—and I am just speculating here—that one of the things that those universities that have lower drop-out are rather better at is getting a good sense of what to expect amongst prospective students and not getting students to come believing false things.

Chairman

  436. Is it difficult to get that? Some universities take an awful lot of students out of the clearing process so it is all a bit last minute.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I do not know.

  437. Is that not a problem?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I do not know about clearing and drop-out.
  (Mr Thompson) There is no hard evidence yet. If people go through the clearing in a hurry, you may think potentially the kind of thing that one is talking about is going to be much more difficult to achieve. We can ask whether that shows up in a like-for-like comparison of those who go through the clearing with those who do not, taking account of the other things which would obscure the comparison. this is exactly the kind of question that we would hope to answer fairly soon.

Dr Harris

  438. I want to return to the issue we discussed earlier in our session when we looked at student finances while it is still fresh in my mind. You in your submission pointed out that there is a link between non-completion and social class. Social class one has a non-completion rate of five per cent and for classes four and five it is nine per cent. You then go on to show that for bright students, three B's and above, there is protection against that factor, that there is very little difference. Therefore those discrepancies are concentrated in people with less than three B's. I put it to you that the people we are trying to encourage in to higher education are particularly at the lower end. What sort of reason do you think it is that for people with generally less than three B's (excluding the bright people who will find their way anyway) there is nearly double the drop-out rate for classes four and five compared with class one?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I am not sure that we explained clearly enough what we thought we were illustrating in those tables. What we were doing there was to show that although there was an apparent relationship between social class and therefore, loosely, wealth or lack of it and drop-out, when analysed differently it looked as if the relationship was actually between A-level points score and drop-out, that the social class effect seemed to disappear when you held steady for A-level points score. That was given as an example at the top end, but if you repeated that example with lower A-level points score—I do not know if we have done the analysis—the hypothesis is that you would find the same result as with other point scores.

  439. So despite the smaller proportion of social classes four and five getting into higher education, generally speaking they are not as clever as measured by the A-level points score?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Yes, that is undoubtedly the case.


 
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