Examination of witnesses (Questions 460
THURSDAY 1 FEBRUARY 2001
and MR NICK
460. Nevertheless, I think Lord Dearing found
that the numbers from the poorest homes going into higher education
had doubled in the previous decade without all these programmes
and yet, in the last three years, there has been a standstill.
Do you think the reason why perhaps non-completion rates have
not gone up in the last three years is because the less well off
students are simply self-selecting before they even go to university
and deciding they are not going to be able to make it through,
however wrong that decision might be?
(Baroness Blackstone) There has always been an element
of self-selection as far as university entry is concerned going
back 30, 40 or 50 years. One of the things we have to tackle is
raising the aspirations of any young person who potentially could
go. That has not been done anything like enough in the past. The
big expansion that took place in the 1990s did lead to some increase
in the numbers of young people coming forward from-non-traditional
backgrounds and that is very good. At the moment, we have not
been going in for a very big expansion. We have a smaller, very
carefully constructed expansion, again to make sure that we maintain
quality and standards. Our policies have to be given time to work
their way through.
461. The Prime Minister's aspiration of expansion
up to 50 per cent is no longer on the agenda? That seemed to be
a very big expansion plan when I heard it at the time.
(Baroness Blackstone) You will remember that it is
50 per cent by the time a young person reaches the age of 30.
We are not talking about 50 per cent of school leavers. We have
got to about 32 per cent as far as school leavers are concerned,
but if we look at the figure for the numbers who have gone into
higher education by the time they are 30 it is now at about 44
per cent. We think that is a sensible, reasonable aspiration to
get to 50 per cent over the next five to seven years.
462. Can I turn now to the Secretary of State's
letter of 29 November on higher education funding, which presumably
you had something of a hand in?
(Baroness Blackstone) Yes.
463. In paragraph 11 of that, he says, "The
evidence shows there are unacceptable variations in the rate of
drop-out which appear to be linked more to the culture and workings
of the institution than to the background or nature of the students
recruited." What is the evidence you think he was referring
(Baroness Blackstone) There is evidence from HEFCE
which has looked in some depth at student drop-out, but there
are some institutions which seem to have broadly similar intakes
but have a much higher level of success in terms of retaining
students right through a course than some other rather similar
institutions. It is really based on those findings that the Secretary
of State thought it was important to see whether we could reduce
the amount of drop-out in those institutions with a slightly less
464. We had the director of policy of HEFCE
and the senior data analyst come and give evidence to us yesterday
evening and they told us that in their view these benchmarks and
measures were, in their words, a rough and ready measure. Do you
think it is a good idea, based on rough and ready evidence, to
make an assertion about the rates of drop-out being unacceptable
variations? We all want to see the drop-out rate reduced. Do you
think it is a bit harsh on the institutions concerned to accuse
them of unacceptable variations, based purely on rough and ready
(Baroness Blackstone) We have to go on the evidence
that we have. Measures of this sort are quite difficult to construct
and make absolutely perfect from the point of view both of reliability
and validity. The government felt it had enough evidence to ask
the Funding Council to have a look at ways in which we could narrow
the disparity that does seem to exist between the best performing
institutions and the least well performing institutions. I think
that is a very reasonable thing for the government to do in order
that we can reduce the amount of drop-out. Whilst the United Kingdom
has a pretty good record in this respectI think we have
the second highest level of retention across the OECD countries
at 83 per centfor the 17 per cent who do not get through
that may represent very considerable personal failure and it is
something that we should try to work on and make sure it does
not increase and, if possible, we can try to reduce it a bit.
465. I agree we want to try and reduce the drop-out
rate, but when the Secretary of State talked about bring pressure
to bear on those institutions whose performance falls significantly
below their benchmark, bearing in mind the comments of the statisticians
involved that the benchmark was a rough and ready measure, can
you clarify what sort of pressure that is? Is it moral pressure
or financial pressure? What sort of pressure does the Secretary
of State have in mind there?
(Baroness Blackstone) I think it is pressure to have
a look at every aspect of their programme, their pastoral care,
the advice and guidance they give that I was talking about earlier.
It is pressure to make sure that their teaching is of the highest
possible quality. Poor teaching does not help as far as student
drop-out is concerned. Also, careful and sensible selection. Selecting
students for a course for which they really are not suited would
also be a failure on the part of an institution.
466. Lastly, we have had some estimates of the
cost of non-completion which in 1997 was put by HEFCE at £90
million a year and it was more recently estimated by Professor
Mantz Yorke as being in the region of £200 million a year.
Do you have a departmental estimate of what the cost is of the
(Baroness Blackstone) I would want to rely on HEFCE
figures in a situation of this kind. They will be the most authoritative
and reliable figures that we can have.
467. You do not think the figure has climbed
from 90 million to 200 million in the last year?
(Baroness Blackstone) No. I would be amazed if it
had because the drop-out rate has not grown by that amount. It
has not grown at all. In fact, if anything, it has come down a
tiny bit over the last couple of years.
(Mr Barry Sheerman took the Chair)
Chairman: Can I apologise and thank Charlotte
Atkins for holding the Chair. No discourtesy was intended. I left
Edinburgh at seven o'clock this morning hoping to be here but
the fog at Heathrow had other intentions for me.
468. You mentioned the importance of good pastoral
care and we are particularly interested in support provided for
part time students and mature students. I am particularly thinking
of students who have family responsibilities. Do you think, from
your experience, that universities are doing enough to recognise
the increase of such students, both in terms of having to fit
in work commitments if they are part time, but also in terms of
fitting in their family commitments?
(Baroness Blackstone) I have some personal experience
of this from ten years at Birkbeck. I think it is extremely important,
as far as part time students are concerned that universities are
especially supportive about both work and family commitments.
Part time students take longer to graduate and that is as it should
be. There should also be some flexibility about that as well as
teaching which fits in from a timetable point of view with their
needs and requirements. Both part time and full time mature studentsnearly
all part time students are maturehave the advantage of
experience and maturity in every sense of that word, which often
makes them the most motivated students that you can come across,
because their determination to succeed is often quite moving.
At the same time, they can sometimes arrive at university with
a strange lack of confidence, not about themselves so much, but
about doing academic work after a long gap. I think it is really
important that universities help students initially, when they
are starting out on something which is new in the sense that they
may have left school at 16 or 18, ten or twelve years ago. That
kind of attention to detail is vital.
469. I could not agree with you more. My experience
when I went back to university for the second timeand that
is increasingly the case nowis that there was a real problem
in getting universities to recognise family responsibilities,
particularly the needs of those who have young children. They
would change classes without notification or cancel classes and
reschedule them at a time later in the evenings so that people
could not pick up their children. Do you think enough is being
done to alert our higher education institutions to the fact that
while that may have been feasible and acceptable when had lots
of 18 year old, full time students, it is no longer appropriate
for the type of student body we have now? In other words, are
our academics being given enough training in the needs of the
student body that they are serving?
(Baroness Blackstone) In those institutions that have
very high proportions of part time students, they are more likely
to be sensitive and alert to that sort of problem. In some institutions
where the numbers are much smaller, it may well be that they should
be thinking a bit harder about this kind of issue. I do not know
about training for individual academics. I think there should
be a whole culture right across an institution of the importance
of taking this into account. Sometimes things do get cancelled
and rescheduled because somebody is ill and there is nobody else
to do it at the original time. I would not want to say that you
could never, ever avoid that situation, but if you are alert to
it, if you are sensitive to it, you can and you should. It is
up to individuals at universities to get this right. I do not
think it is for the government to be constantly putting out detailed
guidance of that sort.
470. I had a young student with a babywith
increasing numbers of teenage pregnancies at schools, this will
happenwho wanted to go on to higher education but she could
find no university that would be able to guarantee her a child
care place and, without the child care place, she could not accept
the university place. I was rather surprised and disappointed
that universities have not got themselves up to date in that respect.
Luckily, she found a university place and had the support of her
school to carry on with her studies, but she should not have had
the situation where no university would guarantee her a child
care place before she accepted the academic place.
(Baroness Blackstone) I am surprised because most
universities now have pretty good child care facilities. That
was not true ten or fifteen years ago but there has been an enormous
improvement and development. The government has encouraged universities
to provide for decent child care. Some students do not want to
use a university nursery; they want to use one closer to their
home. We have improved hugely since we came into government the
range and availability of child care provision generally, but
universities have to try very hard to reach out to that sort of
student, because it can make a huge difference to their entire
lives and the extent and length of time that they are dependent
on the state.
471. Charlotte almost took the question out
of my mouth. Is not the problem in the selection process? It is
a problem that Charlotte highlighted. For students moving on to
university, it is not good enough for universities to say, "We
will offer you a place and, yes, we have a nursery and you can
apply when you come here", they need to know before they
go that that child care place is available. Ought we not to be
moving to a situation where universities address problems like
that during the entrance procedures, rather than hoping they might
sort if out afterwards?
(Baroness Blackstone) I am sure that is right. I suspect
that some universities who have very heavy demand on their child
care places are just nervous about making an absolute guarantee.
They are not quite sure exactly how many students are going to
graduate and move on or whether there will be some people who
will stay on to do a Masters degree, keep their child care place
and so on. I do not in any way disagree with you that more can
be done to try to really help and encourage the young, single
mother to get herself the best possible education that she can.
472. I am not surprised to hear your strong
support for part time and mature students because of your own
background to which you alluded. The cutting edge which determines
whether these things actually happen or not is the conversion
of aspirations into detailed policy changes. I want to ask about
two particular areas where it seemed to us, not least from some
of the comments we had from witnesses yesterday, that HEFCE had
perhaps been a little tardy. I want to take the first point about
the institutional barriers that there are for full time students
dropping down to part time student status. If I may, I will quote
what Dr Peters said to us in evidence last week: "If a student
were to drop down from full time to half time within the year
the institution would lose all its public funding in relation
to that because the Funding Council would deem that they were
a non-completer." Is that accurate? If it is, is it not a
disincentive to the flexibility for part time and mature students
that we are talking about?
(Baroness Blackstone) I am going to ask Nick Sanders
to answer that because, quite honestly, this is news to me.
(Mr Sanders) It is news to me as well unfortunately,
so I cannot give you a proper answer. We can give you an answer
in writing afterwards, but it is clearly a sensible policy that
the needs of individual students should be met and the institutional
barriers or complications should be addressed, rather than historic,
institutional arrangements coming first. That is our starting
point for thinking about it, if that is helpful.
Mr Marsden: It would be helpful to the Committee
if we could have that defined in writing.
473. If you look at some of the training programmes
in our country like New Deal, there are very good premiums for
trainees who finish the course. In a sense, if there was a back
loading where you would get a substantial bonus for completion,
especially for first generation students, that might be something
to address non-completion rates.
(Mr Sanders) Funding, by definition, encourages retention
already of course.
474. Is it generous enough?
(Mr Sanders) The retention rate is very high. It is
hard to know what happens if you make adjustments to the funding
of a relatively modest sort.
475. Can I move to another aspect which is very
relevant to student retention, particularly in those groups? That
is the whole issue of transferability and portability in terms
of course work. Obviously, I understand not least with the development
of modular structures in university degrees this is more and more
important, but it seems from the evidence that we have received
that this is not something which the Funding Council particularly
gives benefit to by way of its funding process. Professor Geoffrey
Copeland gave evidence to us and Professor Peters said, "We
have been trying to get regional arrangements to break down the
credit transfer barriers and Geoffrey has been chairing a group
which is trying to bring that together, but it does not feel like
we have made an awful lot of progress, so for example suggestions
from various quarters that the Funding Council might move to a
credit based union of funding have been resisted by the Funding
Council." Is that accurate? If it is accurate, does that
not act as a barrier in terms of encouraging the sort of transfer
in and out which more and more part time and mature students need
(Baroness Blackstone) The whole issue of credit transfer
has been on the agenda for 25 years. It is highly desirable but
quite tricky in practice. We have autonomous universities. We
do not have a national curriculum for higher education; nor should
we. This means that individual academics who are responsible for
the curriculum for a particular course hang on rightly to their
academic freedom to teach what they think is appropriate. Different
institutions teach slightly different, sometimes very different,
programmes in a degree that might have a rather similar kind of
name. You immediately have something of a problem as far as credit
transfers are concerned, particularly if you have a linear type
examination system with end of course exams that require a student
to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding across the whole
course. That however can often be used as an excuse for not being
rather more open minded about taking people in, allowing them
to catch up, giving them a bit of help, when they want for one
reason or another to transfer out of one institution into another.
On the whole, we should avoid the situation where people are moving
from one university to another. We have short, three year courses
for undergraduates, shorter than virtually every other country.
Occasionally, there is a reason why this has to happen and then
we should really work hard but I do think it is up to the universities
to work together to come to sensible solutions, sensible, common
sense, practical approaches to this. Perhaps there is a case for
HEFCE providing through their resourcing a bit more in the way
of a carrot for that to happen.
(Mr Sanders) Clearly, HEFCE has to proceed with the
consent of the institutions and that is at the heart of this issue
and the issue about how fast the institutions wish to move in
that direction and how far the Funding Council can and should
give them incentives. That is what the argument is about rather
than there being any suggestion from anyone, I am sure, that there
should be a central dictum.
476. I am not trying to unpick the 1992 Act.
I am merely suggesting that in this area HEFCE might be a little
more proactive. Can I move to broader issues, and this is where
the whole issue of teaching quality and teaching support comes
in, because we have heard evidence consistently throughout this
inquiry of concerns about the staff:student ratio having an impact
on the ability of staff to give the sort of pastoral care which
you, Minister, quite rightly said should be part of the benchmark
process. Specifically, we have also heard very significant criticism,
not least from the vice-chancellor of Surrey University, of the
way in which the assessment exercise, with the emphasis it puts
on particularly younger academics focusing on research and the
outcomes of that, may distort the balance in universities between
teaching, between pastoral care and research in the amount of
time that academics, particularly younger academics, are able
to give to the sort of support which students need. Do you have
any sympathy with that view?
(Baroness Blackstone) I think it is up to the leadership
of individual universities to convey to young academics the importance
of teaching, from the vice-chancellor down to the deans of faculties
and the heads of individual academic departments. They have the
responsibility to say to everyone joining the profession, "Of
course you are interested in research. You may want to make your
mark in researching in a particular area, but you have a primary
responsibility to your students." There is no reason, in
my view, or in my limited experience, why you should not be able
to undertake first class research and take your teaching seriously.
I know sometimes when people are starting out getting the balance
right may be difficult and they may need a bit of help, advice
and guidance, but it is for the individual university to provide
that. In that sense, I am not particularly sympathetic to whoever
it was who said this to you. On the other hand, I know these pressures
exist and you have to keep watching out for them and making sure
people understand what their contractual obligations are and just
how important teaching is.
477. Where is the carrot in the systemI
am talking now about funding carrotsthat would encourage
a young academic (I am focusing just on them because they are
perhaps the most under pressure) to say, "Okay, I will spend
20 per cent of my time less on my own research, which may or may
not translate into my teaching, and 20 per cent more in terms
of perhaps taking up some of the excellence initiatives that the
government is doing with the Institute of Learning and Teaching
and doing outreach work with schools", which we have heard
about previously and which we all believe is so important to not
just widening access but retaining students in the system. At
the end of the day, we can have all these grand aspirations but
in the day to day, pressurised atmosphere of a university something
has to give.
(Baroness Blackstone) Virtually all research should
translate into better teaching. Even if you are doing research
on something quite narrow, it nearly always has wider implications
and what you learn from your own research, particularly as a young
academic, is going to be helpful to the quality of the content
of the teaching that you are providing.
478. You and I were at the London School of
Economics at the same time. We knew some eminent professors who
were brilliant researchers but could not teach to save their lives.
We would not want to stop them researching, would we?
(Baroness Blackstone) Of course not. Even people who
are not good teachers because their communication skills are bad
would almost certainly become somewhat better teachers if they
were doing really fascinating research and they could pass on
those results to their students.
479. The fact of the matter is we have to address
this question of: do we in the university system today give adequate
bonuses and rewards, brownie points, whatever you want to call
them, to good teachers? The evidence that we have had still is
we do not.
(Baroness Blackstone) I was about to come to that.
The way in which you should encourage people to take their teaching
seriously from the funding point of view is by promoting people
when they can demonstrate that not only is their research of a
high quality but so is their teaching. Similarly, where somebody
is an outstanding teacherand we should collect more evidence
about the quality of people's teaching, including directly from
students, because they are the people who tend to know usually
about thatwe should be giving additional increments. We
should be definitely celebrating high quality teaching at our
universities. I think there is a case for doing more of that than
has perhaps been done in the past.
1 Note by Witness: The Government's aspiration
is to get to 50 per cent by the end of the decade (2010). Back