Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 500 - 516)

THURSDAY 1 FEBRUARY 2001

RT HON BARONESS BLACKSTONE and MR NICK SANDERS

  500. I am all in favour of income contingency but the fact is, if they are only earning just over £10,000 a year, that debt will hang around for many years. Why do you think you are saying that when the NUS yesterday and Professor Callender both told us they thought that raising the threshold at which the debt has to be re-paid would have an impact on the drop-out rate amongst these groups?
  (Baroness Blackstone) Of course, the government should look at that kind of question from time to time and, if we were presented with good evidence that that was a factor, I would certainly want to consider whether the threshold might be raised a little. We just raised the threshold for this coming year as far as parental income is concerned in relation to tuition fees, so nothing like this should be set in stone and we must look at all the evidence we have.

Chairman

  501. Minister, you will understand very well from the questioning that not all members of the Committee agree on everything we have been discussing today but there is certainly a theme in terms of student finance that runs across the Committee. First of all, the threshold does look low to us; Cubie talked about a £25,000 threshold and 9 per cent at £10,000 seems to many members of this Committee rather low to start paying back that sort of sum. There is a concern across the Committee and I would like you to know that. I would also like you to know that we had some evidence from Sir Howard Newby on whether he wanted to go back to the old system of student finance and he said that no serious political party would put that forward at the next election! Most of us agree, however, to give Evan his due, that a lot of the evidence we have had does keep coming back to the fact that they do not want to go back to the old system. In fact, on our visits I have had people saying to me that one of the bravest things the Labour government did was to decide that 45 per cent of our spending going to student support was unsupportable if we were to invest in universities in the future but what does come back is this nagging concern of the poorer student. I know you said you are watching very carefully whether this does affect matters, but across the Committee there is a concern about the poorer students, the first generation students. I know there are some very good ad hoc schemes and pragmatic responses to that, but I hope you would be aware from the Committee that that band is a concern to more of us than just Nick and Evan.
  (Baroness Blackstone) Of course, and I am really looking forward to reading your report and will take it extremely seriously. Where there are proposals that you have come up with that are supported by the whole Committee, we will look at them. I think it would be right for me at this point to say that poor students are ones we have particular concern about but we do need to look at the evidence and we do have to remember that students, whether they come from poor or rich backgrounds, are investing in their future and, on average, they are going to earn 20 per cent more than a student with entry qualifications to university who does not participate in higher education. It is a very worthwhile investment and I hope that the Committee will continue to say that to any young person they meet—just as David Blunkett and I do.

Dr Harris

  502. I would just mention that the Chairman misquoted me. There is the issue of what happened before the last election or there is the issue of what has happened in Scotland, and I certainly would not describe the Labour party in Scotland as not a serious political party and I hope you would not either. When we last met we discussed whether there were lessons to be learned from the Scottish experience and you said, "First of all, there has not been any change in the overall numbers applying to go to Scottish universities...", and you thought there were probably very few lessons to be learned. Looking at the figures, however, from UCAS that have just come out this time there has been a 6.3 per cent increase in the number of Scottish students applying to Scottish universities based on their baseline which is six times greater than the percentage increase in the number of English students applying to English universities. Does that not suggest that your colleagues in Scotland—and, indeed, my colleagues in Scotland and the Cubie committee—had a point about how the loss of grant and therefore its re-introduction can affect decisions about going to university and about staying on?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I am not an expert on Scotland because I am not responsible for it and I do not want to get too deeply into what a devolved administration have decided to do; that is a matter for them. We think that the system we have put in place is a fair one: we think that it is transparent: we think it is working well: and we do not see a reason to change something that has just been established and pull it all up by its roots to put in a somewhat different system. It was for the Scots to decide how they wanted to structure their approach to student support. I think I am right in saying that the Scottish numbers had come down rather more than in England and Wales before; there had been a bit of a fall-off in applications to Scotland, so what you may see this year is an increase following somewhat lower levels of application than was the case across the rest of the UK. There are pluses and minuses to their system, however, and it happens to be the case that students from whatever their family background in terms of income will all have to pay a deferred fee whereas, in the system in the rest of the UK, students who come from low income families get their tuition free. It is a different scheme that they have introduced, therefore, and I really do not feel it would be right for me to comment.

Chairman

  503. Before we move off Scotland, there is a feeling amongst some English members that we have had recently this experience of a more generous attitude to certain kinds of student financing in Scotland. We have had reports of a more generous pay settlement for teachers in Scotland—and I do not want to get into the care sector which is not our sector—but some of us who represent English constituencies are asking increasingly how these finer Scots are paying for it? When one looks at the Barnett formula and this expenditure per head on education in Scotland and Northern Ireland—and even Wales—above what we have in England, we are getting a little bit grumpy about these generous increases that we are not giving at the same time as we give this generous support to Scotland through the Barnett formula. I hope that note could go back a little way to some of your colleagues in the government.
  (Baroness Blackstone) I am very happy to pass on what you have said to the Chancellor of the Exchequer!

Mr Marsden

  504. On casualisation, the issue that we have had presented to us by various people including NATFHE and AUT is that there is a concern about casualisation. NATFHE told the Sub-Committee that, in post 1992 universities, 44 per cent of staff were part-timers and 37 per cent were employed on an hourly paid casual basis. The AUT said they did not believe teaching was necessarily of a lower standard when conducted by part-time or casual staff but obviously, where there were courses which relied on a large number of them, it became more difficult to deal with student queries and problems, and that brings us back to the issue of pastoral support and student retention. Is it the case that these flexible conditions of employment can affect non-completion rates?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I would want to be very careful before answering that question—

  505. I thought you might!
  (Baroness Blackstone)— because I just do not know whether they do. I think poor teaching would affect completion rates but I have never seen any evidence that people teaching part-time necessarily are less good teachers than those teaching full-time, and I have some personal experience of this. As we ask universities to think much more about preparing young people for their future careers rather than simply teaching them an academic discipline, and as we ask universities to reach out far more with much better contact with employers in both the public and private sectors than used to be the case, there is huge value in bringing people in from outside who have practical experience in particular professions, particular sectors of the economy, and who want to put something back into higher education by doing some part-time teaching.

  506. With respect, Minister, I did not suggest part-timers would be worse teachers. Indeed, again, as someone who was a part-time teacher for nearly fifteen years I would be foolish to do so. The point I was making was that, in universities where the staff:student ratio is particularly high where they employ a large number of part-timers and where there is a lot of pressure in terms of time for pastoral care, the discontinuity between members of staff and students might be a problem. I accept you are not in a position to pronounce definitively on that but would it not be, for example, the sort of issue that HEFCE might look at?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I am sorry because I slightly misunderstood your question. Of course, if you get into a situation in an individual department where a very high proportion of your staff are part-timers, or possibly even more the case if they are paid on a casual hourly basis, then you are in danger of not providing adequate pastoral care because a full-time person is there all the time and is much more likely to be able to do that. Anyway, if you are paid just to do your teaching and then you go away again, you are not really available for those other, wider responsibilities that university teachers should have. I think, however, really it is a matter for the universities to organise themselves in such a way that we do not get into this. The government has provided very substantial additional founding to universities; for the first time since 1986 the unit of resource is going up next year. We have put £1.75 billion in as extra funding over this next spending period as well as another billion for research and this is a huge turnaround, so I do not think universities ought to be in that position.[2]

  507. Just finally, on that point, the Chairman mentioned our concern across the board in this Committee with poor students, but I think there is also a concern across this Committee about poor academics. Given that we have had concerns expressed to us by a number of witness about the demographic timebomb whereby a large number of academics from the 60s and 70s generation are going to retire in four or five years' time, are you confident that the £330 million that the Secretary of State has allocated over the next three years to retain and recruit high quality academic staff to this sector will be a sufficient sum of money to address some of these issues? I hope you would agree that there is no point us getting the access to universities right and the pastoral care of students right if the quality of staff and the range of the staff is not there when they get there.
  (Baroness Blackstone) I agree wholeheartedly with that. The quality of the staff who work in our universities is absolutely at the centre of having a successful world-class university system. I accept, as does the Secretary of State, that university teachers' pay has fallen in the last decade relative to many other professional groups, and it is for that reason that we have put the extra funding in you have just described—£50 million in this coming year rising to £170 million in the third year of this spending round. This will make a substantial difference; it is up to the universities to decide what they pay their academic staff; the government does not determine this; we think we have provided the extra funding—some of it earmarked in that way—but within an overall substantial increase in funding which I have just described to you.

  508. And you think it will be enough to address the concern about the demographic timebomb that both Howard Newby and Professor Bett brought before the Committee?
  (Baroness Blackstone) It is difficult to make absolute predictions about demographic timebombs.

  509. I know it is a dramatic phrase.
  (Baroness Blackstone) I think it is a slight overstatement of the position but, again, I think there are still a lot of very talented young scholars and researchers who want to work in our universities. They are great places in which to work and they will provide for many people an extremely fulfilling career.

Chairman

  510. But in some disciplines, Minister, there is very real concern—economics, for example, and in some of the sciences and information technology—that a very high percentage of post-graduates are not intending to stay with the UK. I am not asking you a question; all I am saying is that we are getting pretty firm opinions and concerns that, in some subjects, the situation has changed in the sense that an undergraduate finishes up with debt and now faces three years of post-graduate education where he or she will not be able to pay that debt off, and is going to be on a very low income. Perhaps we are as a Committee getting more concerned about those voices which say that the quality of the young graduates going into post-graduate and then on into the teaching profession in some sectors is very worrying.
  (Baroness Blackstone) I think this is something that has obviously got to be monitored and looked at. In most subjects, most disciplines, there are still substantial numbers of very clever, very able young people who want to become post-graduate students and who want to go on into an academic career, and I hope that will continue and last. There have always been some disciplines where there are particular shortages—five or ten years ago people were talking about shortages of academic lawyers. I think that has been resolved; I do not think there is too much of a shortage there now. I accept what you said about computer science and IT but there are shortages in every single sector of the economy. We have to try to get more young people coming into these areas where the demand has really grown so dramatically that we cannot meet it here and nor can we in most other OECD countries.

Mr St Aubyn

  511. Casualisation is one reason why students may be discouraged; another that we have gathered from the QAA is that perhaps they are not getting feedback on how well they are doing—in termtime their papers are not being marked quickly enough. Another might be the incidence of protests by lecturers in terms of going slow or other marks of dissatisfaction with their terms and conditions. Do you monitor those second two issues and how confident are you today that there will not be a more national outbreak of protest by lecturers and others who feel that their conditions are simply not being recognised, and the need to improve them has not been recognised?
  (Baroness Blackstone) On the issue of how much feedback students get from their teachers, no, the government does not monitor that. I really do think, again, that individual universities should make sure this is adequate. I would really decry any university department that was not providing quick marking, regular feedback, criticism where it is needed and praise where it is appropriate.

  512. For the record, then, you would like universities to keep track of how their faculties are doing in that respect?
  (Baroness Blackstone) Of course. I think it is very important, concerning what makes for a good academic department, that that is done well. On the issue of industrial action, the government regrets any industrial action that is being taken by university staff that will have an adverse effect on students, and I very much hope that those who are considering taking such action will think again.

  513. Have you monitored it? Has it been on the increase or decline over the last few years, and do you think it might become more widespread?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I do not think, until the issue this year about deciding what next year's pay should be where there has been a dispute between the management side and the unions, there has been industrial action taken in the last two or three years. I am not aware of it. Yes, of course, we shall be keeping a close eye on the extent of this but we have to rely on universities letting us know what is taking place.

Dr Harris

  514. You made an interesting remark about this whole issue of academic's pay. Last week the Chairman asked Sir Michael Bett, "Do you think that is already impacting on retention rates, because we are getting less motivated and less well paid people in the teaching profession?", and he replied, "It is... a good working tool to think that way. That is the tendency.", and he gave the example of someone leaving with £10,000 or £12,000 worth of debt, thinking about a PhD who was offered £7,000 pay, and if he takes that job he will build up further debt, and if you want to keep him in the education system you start him off as a lecturer at somewhere around £18,000 at the age of 27 or 28, and the problems that causes. Clearly there is an issue of academic pay but you say that this is a matter for universities. Now the main source of universities' funding is the government and their main way of increasing the pay is to get an increase in the funding for students, unless you are going to let class sizes and quality drop. Funding for students has dropped—I know there are future promises but the record is it has dropped significantly—so surely you have to take some responsibility yourself for low levels of academic pay because you are the money masters for the universities? The only reassurance for universities is that it is their responsibility if they were allowed to charge top-up fees.
  (Baroness Blackstone) Let me come back to the Bett report. That, of course, was a report not to the government but to the universities, and it is for the universities to consider Bett's recommendations. It is not true that funding has dropped very substantially since this government came into power—on the contrary. We have put substantial amounts of funding into universities; we accepted the Dearing recommendation initially of efficiency savings of 2 per cent in total after there had been a 36 per cent reduction in the unit of resource between 1988 and 1997. This government has turned that round and now, next year, for the first time in over a decade there is going to be an increase in the unit of resource. That, therefore, plus the additional money that we have earmarked for funding people's pay at universities should lead to a much-improved situation over the one that had developed, and which I readily accepted had developed, over a ten-year period.

  515. I agree with that but for this Parliament, which is all we can say that has happened because the matters for next year are probably for the next Parliament unless the view is that there will not be an election this year, can you not see that it is the unit of resource that you provide that dictates to universities how well they can pay their staff?
  (Baroness Blackstone) It has been a long-held view—and it was a view held by the Dearing committee which was an independent report with substantial numbers of people from the sector on it—that when you have a growing system you can make some efficiency savings. We accepted that efficiency savings totalling 2 per cent during the first three years while we have been in government were possible because we were allowing the system to grow. We have now decided that it is right to reverse what has been required for a very long period of time, which is annual efficiency savings, because when they have been implemented over a long period you begin to start getting closer to the bone and for that reason, for the first time since 1986, we are in fact providing additional funding on a per capita basis as well as the very substantial increases that we have provided over the last three years but where we have expected some efficiency savings.

Chairman

  516. Minister, we realise you have given us a great deal of your time and we are grateful for that and for you answering a wide range of questions. Before you go, I have a couple of house announcements. Our access to higher education, the getting in bit, will be out next week and we look forward to that. This is, as you know, the staying-in part and this is the last oral evidence session, although we are going as a select committee to Manchester next week to look at a range of universities in the Manchester area. Our next scheduled oral session is on 21 March when Mike Tomlinson, the new chief inspector, will come before the Committee to discuss his annual report, and there will be debate on OFSTED in Westminster Hall on 15 February. Thank you very much for your attendance.
  (Baroness Blackstone) Thank you very much for inviting me and I am really looking forward to reading the report next week and, indeed, the subsequent one.


2   Note by Witness: Over the six year period 1998-99 to 2003-04 the Government has invested in additional funding of £1.7 billion. Of that figure, nearly £1 billion will be available over the three year spending review period, 2001-02 to 2003-04. Back


 
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