Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 440 - 453)



  440. And despite their being under-represented already?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Yes. I am afraid there is a pretty clear relationship between A-level achievement and social class and whatever your social class you are less likely to drop out the higher your A-level points score is.

  Chairman: Is that not in direct contravention to what Claire Callender told us in her research?

Dr Harris

  441. I was just going to come to that. In some of the work that has been done for you by Mantz Yorke it puts another possibility. It says that working class students cited financial problems as influential on their departure more frequently than other students and that these students were less likely to return to higher education at some point in the future. Students who regarded themselves as working class tended to a greater extent than others to admit they had made the wrong choice in the field of study than elsewhere. When the responses about social class were divided according to self-reported social class there were marked differences relating to finance. Working class students reported more often than middle class students that financial problems had exerted a moderate or considerable influence on their withdrawal. And finally, on page 7 of a later chapter, it said that as far as full time sandwich students were concerned working class withdrawals cited significantly more than others financial difficulty in influencing their decision, but analysis showed that financial difficulty was more likely to discourage working class students from returning to study. Certainly in terms of the qualitative findings of that research, which is also gone into further with different analyses in this pamphlet, which is your booklet for December 1997, there is data to suggest that finance is a factor.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Yes, you are quite right. What you need to do is interpret the two sets of information alongside each other. As I said in an earlier answer, we cannot provide the richness and the detail that some of the interview analyses provide you with, but we do have data, and you need to interpret the data. The data certainly do seem to indicate—and they can only be taken to indicate; you cannot draw hard and fast conclusions from this—that there are academic considerations that seem to lie at the heart of drop-out. There may well be second order financial considerations but you can explain a large part of drop-out, it seems, by reference to academic considerations.

  442. Clearly the fact that people from poorer backgrounds do less well at A-level is understood and therefore a smaller proportion of them will get into higher education, but I would still have thought that they would at least approach those that get in, the average points score size, but given that it is going to take some time to improve that situation and your research was done in 1997 and finance may well be a factor, do you think if it is a factor then the withdrawal of grants from students in social classes four and five makes that more of a factor or less of a factor? It is a key question.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) No, that is speculation.

  443. I am inviting you to speculate based on your work.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) But I have no idea, and nor have you, whether the drop-out has actually gone up since then.

  444. Regardless of whether drop-out has gone up or down, because there may be other factors involved, isolating the issue of finance being a factor, particularly for poorer students who may be on the brink anyway, substituting loan for grant or debt for grant, would that be more or less likely to make finance a key issue?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) If finance becomes more difficult then it may well have a bigger impact on drop-out, but until 1997/98 (and it is, I agree, tantalising that the data stop; next year's data will begin to go into the period when the finance arrangements changed), on the basis of the analyses that we have done it seems that you can explain drop-out to a very large extent by reference to academic factors. Admittedly finance might be a second order factor.

  445. Can I invite you to send us the tables for three D's, because choosing three A's, they have very low drop-out rates anyway and it makes it more difficult for us to interpret.
  (Mr Thompson) Yes.

  446. As I say, it is strange that you chose to look at three A's.
  (Mr Thompson) Going back to what Claire said, and also Mantz Yorke said and the other researchers, they pointed out that the decision to drop out is a complex one and untangling the different factors is very difficult. The other thing that Claire mentioned was, what do you say about the people who struggled on possibly with financial difficulties? As you say, Mantz Yorke said 39 per cent cited financial difficulties as one of the contributing factors. I suppose what we are unable to get at is, if you like with the ideal experiment. If we were to take a group of students and we were to remove those financial difficulties, what difference would it make? The illustrative calculation we provide—and we will do some more—attempts to answer this. We will get at this question when we do the modelling properly. One of the problems of course is that we really have insufficient data about the entry qualifications and we are trying to build on what we so that we can untangle these.

  447. I agree that data is a problem, and maybe it would be a good idea—it will take some time—to compare Scotland, which has done a more widespread effort than the efforts that have been done here to return money to poorer students as opportunities, and maybe some comparative studies in the years to come. It is obviously not a good idea in the first year of grants now in Scotland. Would that be worth HEFCE investigating in a comparative study because you could control for many factors?
  (Mr Thompson) Yes, what we call a natural experiment in social science.

  448. You are going to investigate?
  (Mr Thompson) Yes.


  449. This is quite interesting in the sense that Claire did put a great deal of emphasis on this link between student financial hardship and dropping out whereas you have introduced very strongly in your theme academic qualifications. We had previous evidence that in fact when you interview a student they are not likely, given human nature, to say, "I was a failure. I did not make the grade. It was too difficult." They will give a range of other explanations. It has been a very good balance. Do you think that is at the heart of some of it?
  (Mr Thompson) We are doing some research into employability and we are getting at the problem by talking to graduates, to their line managers and to their teachers to try and get a full picture from the different points of view of the relationship. In this case I would think that work which relies on the perception or understanding of just the student is probably insufficient and that we should do more detailed studies (the aerial photograph work that I mentioned earlier and then we go and look in detail at a piece of research) in order to try and get at the view of the teachers or the lecturers and people that respond from that side and try and get a more rounded picture of what happens. Certainly that is what institutions themselves should be encouraged to do.

  450. I want to round this session up, which has been exceedingly useful. One of the points that came up when we were discussing questions to ask you was this: is there a danger that your decision to quote popular universities, saying they can exceed their MASN by up to four per cent, will further weaken other universities who are not going to get the four per cent, and the knock-on of that will be to make their problems of retention even more difficult?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) The answer to that is no because if we thought the answer was yes we probably would not have taken that step. The evidence is that very few institutions breach their MASN, let alone go up to four per cent above it. In reality, if it had had an influence on some institutions it would have been at the margins. The other thing to say is that this control on student numbers, and it is only full time undergraduate student numbers that we control, was never introduced originally as a way of managing and planning the system. If we were to want to manage and control the system in a way that protected some institutions by holding others back, I think we would want to do so by looking at rather more comprehensive instruments for doing that than this one which is an accidental instrument. This instrument was introduced as a way of limiting public expenditure rather than safeguarding some institutions at the expense of others. The answer to that really is that the evidence just is not there.

  451. Just to conclude then, are there areas in terms of this pleasant interlude (I hope it was pleasant for you; it was pleasant for us) which you feel we might profitably have asked you which we did not cover? Are there aspects that you have come across in your work that we should address in terms of retention that you have not picked up this morning we are not focusing on?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) No. I think quite honestly all the issues that are in our minds are the ones that you have raised. The only thing that I would want to emphasise is that of course the evidence that we are presenting does pre-date the work that was presented to you this morning and so we need to interpret it in that light. I do think that the combination of quantitative data and qualitative data is a useful one. The qualitative data gives you an idea of where you ought to be investigating but they need to be brought together.

  452. Sitting where you are in HEFCE is there a view that you privately talk about over coffee or whatever where you share Claire Callender's obvious real concern that poor students, because they no longer have a maintenance allowance, are tending to drop out in increasing numbers?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) We have not seen the evidence for that yet, I have to say, but nor would we have done because the data trails by a year or two.

  453. It is too early. Can I thank you and congratulate you for one of the best answers I have heard. If it was not in a Yes Minister script it should be if they ever revive the series. It was when you said, "We were already getting on with this before the Secretary of State asked us to do it."
  (Mr Bekhradnia) There was a subtle message there and that is that drop-out and access and participation in particular have been high on the HEFCE agenda for years.

  Chairman: That anticipation of the wishes of your master was wonderful. Thank you.

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