PROCEEDINGS OF THE COMMITTEE RELATING
TO THE REPORT
TUESDAY 30 JANUARY 2001
|Mr Richard Allan||Mr Gordon Marsden
|Ms Candy Atherton||Mr Patrick Nicholls
|Mr Derek Foster||Mr Stephen O'Brien
|Mr Michael Foster||Mr Ian Pearson
|Dr Evan Harris||Mr Nick St Aubyn
|Helen Jones||Mr Barry Sheerman
|Judy Mallaber||Mr Stephen Twigg
Resolved, That, for the
remainder of this day's sitting, Mr Barry Sheerman do take the
Chair of the Committee, in place of Mr Derek Foster.(The
Report from the Education Sub-committee [Higher Education:
Access] brought up and read.
Draft Report, proposed by Mr Nick St Aubyn, brought
up and read, as follows:
1. The Education Subcommittee announced
in July 1999 its intention to undertake an inquiry into higher
education. Detailed terms of reference were announced in October
1999. We are grateful to all those who have assisted this inquiry,
especially our distinguished specialist advisers and those who
have given oral evidence.
2. This interim report focuses on access to higher
education. On 25 May 2000, the Chancellor of the Exchequer provoked
a storm of protest with an outspoken attack on alleged privilege
in the way some older academically elite universities select their
students. While not dwelling on the specific case which appears
to have prompted his remarks, we took evidence from a wide range
of witnesses in the light of the debate sparked by this controversy.
3. The higher education world is changing rapidly.
Many global companies employ more PhDs than the averagesized
university. The number of undergraduates who learn to earn has
never been greater. Yet Britain still shrinks from the proposal
that students whose studies may set them on the road to riches
should pay their way. The proportion of tertiary education funding
we spend on financial aid to students is twice the level in the
USA and four times the level in France, leaving significantly
less resource to reward the academics who teach them.
4. Despite this level of public support, students
from poorer backgrounds are still "badly represented in universities"
(Ev.p.87, para 10). About 80 per cent of the children of professional
and managerial families enter higher education, but only about
17 per cent of those from lower socioeconomic groups. Access
to higher education by women, mature students and parttime
students is much greater that it was 20 years ago (viz. The
Guardian, 26 May 2000). The number of school leavers from
poorer families entering higher education approximately doubled
in the ten years to 1997 (viz. Dearing Report 6, Table 1.1). Yet
the more recent picture has been one of standstill:
for Degree courses by Social Class
Source: UCAS Statistical Bulletin on Widening
5. This is only an interim report. It seeks to
affirm sixteen pertinent conclusions in the field of access, based
on the evidence we have accumulated not only in session at Westminster
and in written submissions, but also from our visit to the USA
in October 2000. The full text of evidence received to date is
being published at the same time as this Report.
Commitment to widening access by elite universities
6. The evidence from our witnesses clearly showed
that our best universities are keenly aware of the need to attract
the top talent, irrespective of background. In the words of the
Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Dr Colin Lucas:
"It is quite clear that the only way in which
Oxford will keep its place in the university premier league is
by continuing to attract the brightest and best students of each
successive generation. ... regardless of where they come from"
7. He told the Education Sub-committee that over
the past five years really, the ratio of offers to students from
independent schools compared with state schools has reversed from
53 per cent to 47 per cent, to 47 per cent to 53 per cent in favour
of state schools.
8. About 800 people are involved in making access
admissions decisions at Oxford. About 450 of them have received
training so far and the need for all to be trained is fully recognised
9. The social fairness of the system of admissions
is born out by the fact that the results achieved by students
from independent and maintained schools are remarkably similar
Per cent gaining degree class by school background
| ||Independent schools
10. The genuineness of Oxford's 'open access'
policy was fully endorsed by all those who gave us evidence, not
least other leading universities. For example, Professor Kenneth
Calman, Vice-Chancellor of Durham, told the Education Sub-committee:
"The key thing for all
universities, and certainly for Durham, is to remain a first class
university, to attract the best students, irrespective of where
they come from and we have no entry rules. We just want to take
the best students that we can" (Q. 796).
11. The allegation that there is an institutional
bias in our leading universities against those from less well
off backgrounds may of itself have deterred potential applicants
who had the right attributes to win a place. The Committee cannot
stress too strongly that we have heard no credible evidence that
such a bias exists.
The role of the collegiate system
12. We did hear arguments that the complexity
of the structure at Oxford and Cambridge with the custom
of applying through individual colleges, rather than through the
university acted as a deterrent to potential applicants.
The witnesses from Oxford, however, were strongly of the view
that their system contained many more strengths than weaknesses.
Ms Minto told the Sub-committee: "It allows the applications
to be dealt with on a certain economy of scale, so that we can
give applications individual attention in the way they are not
given individual attention in other higher education institutions."
13. The underlying case was that to remove the
college's right to choose their candidates would undermine the
independence of the collegiate system itself. In the words of
Professor Marquand: "...there are certain advantages in not
having a collegiate system but there are enormous advantages in
having a collegiate system as well. There is a tradeoff."
14. The problem of attracting more applicants
from poorer backgrounds is not confined to collegiate universities.
As Mr Peter Lampl told the Sub-committee: ".....Imperial
is 18 per cent from its benchmark, you find that UCL is
17 per cent from its benchmark. I think the surprising thing
about the analysis we did, or that HEFCE did, is that, if you
like, the access issues are not related to the collegiate universities
but are related to a whole range of universities." (Q. 344)
15. One misconception is that the colleges are
a source of resistance to change in the system of admissions.
However, Ms Minto told the Education Sub-committee: "...the
colleges on admissions have something called a 'disarmament agreement',
so that if we take a decisionfor instance, we took a decision
five years ago to abolish formal entrance examinationif
a majority of colleges support that decision, all the colleges
go along with it. It is absolutely collective." (Q. 739)
The recent HEFCE funding given to improve access "is being
spent and being used in a very coordinated way...all colleges
are involved." (Q. 740) The Vice Chancellor (Dr Lucas) also
assured the Sub-committee: "I have not had any resistance
from the colleges to the proposals we put out on the Access Working
Party." (Q. 739)
16. We believe that the present collegebased
system at Oxford and Cambridge is part of the diversity of our
higher education provision. Clearly, the right of colleges to
select their entrants is integral to their independence. The ability
of colleges to target groups and to form close relationships with
maintained schools is a proven benefit of their system. Those
not familiar with the system may however feel at a disadvantage
in the application process. It is therefore essential that applicants
who apply through the university be given an equal opportunity
to those who apply through a college. We recommend that the relative
success rate of university and college applicants be carefully
monitored and the aggregate results be published.
The reliability of A levels and the UCAS tariff
17. A number of witnesses cautioned against a
mechanistic approach to A level results. In his introduction to
the new UCAS tariff system last year, their Chief Executive Mr
Tony Higgins stated: "Achievement at A level was never meant
to be used for allocating university places, still less for performance
tables." He told the Sub-committee that it would be a mistake
to read too much into a crude analysis of the distribution of
A level results and the then allocation of places at specific
universities (Q. 698).
18. Professor Dylan Wiliam also cautioned that
according to his own research, "between a half and third
of students might miss their true score by one grade. That is
not a criticism of the Alevel boards; it is a fundamental
limitation of the technology of assessment." (Q. 975) He
was equally critical of the US system of reliance on SAT scores:
"The Americans have found the corelation between SATs
scores and the eventual grade they get from colleges extraordinarily
poor. It is the same predictability as an interview, around about
0.4. It is very, very small." (Q. 928)
19. Given the lack of consensus on a single measure
of talent in the course of our enquiry, it is perhaps not surprising
that the UCAS proposal for a tariff system was itself only accorded
a lukewarm welcome. The higher education Minister, Baroness Blackstone,
told the Education Sub-committee: "I do not think that using
or not using the tariff itself may be an impediment to access."
She went on to explain:
"I can certainly envisage
a situation in which a university decided that the tariff system,
where you tot up points and then reach a total and see how students
compare, might not be the one that they would want to make most
use of. They might want to look at a whole range of individual
qualifications, plus other qualities that students might want
to possess to do really well in particular courses that they are
offering." (Q. 1105)
20. Professor Wiliam explained that the difficulty
with the tariff system is that it is not clear whether it is just
measuring achievement or whether it is measuring potential. "There
is no point in admitting somebody who has clocked up a large number
of tariffs over a large number of years just by sticking at it.
That is not the kind of flair that elite universities are looking
for." (Q. 929)
21. The Committee welcomes initiatives which
serve to demystify the applications process to our elite
universities. Yet we see no merit in imposing new systems, which
provide simplicity at the expense of accuracy. Selecting the very
best qualified students for a course is a complex process. There
are no prescriptive solutions across the board. We do however
value the input of additional relevant information. In this context,
we believe that the use of the new AS level results in admissions
will be a useful adjunct to the selection process, especially
for able students from schools with weak experience of applying
to elite institutions.
22. The weakness of the present system is that
error in the A level assessment of candidates is magnified by
the need to predict the results a year in advance. Mr Tony Higgins
of UCAS told the Education Sub-committee: "the last research
I saw on A level scores showed that predictions were wrong in
65 per cent of cases... [of these] 52 per cent were showing predictions
two grades higher than students actually got, 26 per cent showed
one grade higher than they actually got and the remainder ...
were predicted lower grades than they actually got." (Q.
612) There was no discernible difference between the state and
private sectors' powers of prediction. "The worst predictors
were the colleges in the FE sector. The best predictors, from
memory, were sixth form colleges." (Q. 615)
23. One of the reasons for the poor level of
predictions was reflected in the problems of the assessors at
university. Mr Peel of Oxford told the Education Sub-committee:
"...we are taking a snapshot of the candidates at a certain
stage in their development. We are seeing them in December of
year 13 and they are going to arrive in October having taken their
A levels in May or June. That gap between December and May is
a big six months." (Q. 815)
24. Mr Peel joined many witnesses in wanting
a post-qualification system of application. For example, Mr Peter
Lampl remarked: "I cannot stress how important this issue
is, of having to apply before you know your A levels, and I think
that is a huge issue which goes through all of this, whether you
are applying to a collegiate university or to a subjectbasedentry
university, like Imperial or UCL." (Q. 344) Tony Higgins,
in the context of far too few people from lower socioeconomic
groups going on to higher education, told the Education Sub-committee
that if we could organise a system of application and access which
was conducted after applicants had got their qualifying results,
A levels, vocational A levels or whatever, young people would
be much better served (Q. 597). Professor Halsey stated that "I
think if it is practical, and I think it probably is, that it
is better to take the admissions after the Alevel results
are known, rather than secondguessing in the admissions
colleges the wisdom of the examiners which will be known later."
Dr McCrum said it would be "ideal" if A level results
were out when admissions were decided (Q. 966). Dr John Brennan
of the Association of Colleges and Dr John Durnford of the Secondary
Heads Association were both in favour of moving towards a post-qualification
system, but warned that "we are locked into the present school
year and we are locked into the present university year"
25. In the context of elite universities, where
the precise A level grade may be critical to a candidate's prospects,
there are clear advantages in post qualification application.
The Committee urges an immediate expansion of structured year
out opportunities for able candidates from less well off backgrounds,
who would benefit from the maturity and certainty of applying
post A level. At the same time, the Committee does not advocate
wholesale changes to the school year, which in practice are only
likely to benefit a small minority of school leavers. Candidates
from less academic families whose performance is improving through
sixth form will be among those most penalised by an earlier exam
format. The long-term solution to the practical obstacles to post-qualification
applications lies in the technology and the methods used to speed
assessment of summer term exam work.
Funding Access Programmes
26. In academic year 200001, funding available
from HEFCE for programs to widen access totalled £160 million.
Sir Brian Fender told the Education Sub-committee that there was
no need to constrain the independence of university funding in
order to promote the agenda of wider access, since the institutions
were already taking action in that area. "The way forward
would be in an open way to encourage universities to set their
own targets against their own admissions to achieve their own
objectives." (Q. 443)
27. Yet many witnesses testified to the lack
of resources available to attract applicants. Mr Peter Lampl told
the Education Sub-committee: "... when you talk to these
leading universities they all say, 'Well, we'd love to do more
on the access and recruitment side, but, quite frankly, we can't
pay our professors enough, and we can't buy scientific equipment,'
there is a lot of other priorities." (Q. 362) He observed
a feature of the US system which we had confirmed during our visit
there, the extent to which alumni are prepared to contribute to
the cost of widening access. He told the Education Sub-committee
how contributions from alumni at Princeton "shot up"
when they switched the focus of their fund raising from new buildings
to new students. We heard how as much as a third of Princeton's
running costs were now met by alumni contributions.
28. We recommend that leading universities work
far harder to attract financial support from former students for
access programs to their alma maters. Those who currently benefit
from the fruits of the knowledge economy should be encouraged
to give back to the knowledge society. Enhancing the ability of
their former university to attract the best candidates, irrespective
of background circumstances, will enhance both its and their own
29. One alarming development is the cut back
in the provision of careers advice to school children in year
ten. The shift in resources to those with disabilities and learning
problems away from the more able students is going to make the
problems of many schools even harder. Mr Hopkins of Peter Symonds
Sixth Form College told the Education Sub-committee: "I can
only speak in terms of my own college and it has certainly been
our experience already. We currently employ our own careers coordinator,
qualified careers officer, because we do not feel we get sufficient
support from our local Careers Service... we are experiencing
a 50 per cent cut in the careers officer's time who is coming
to my college from last year to next year." (Q. 891)
30. Mr Fawcett, headteacher of Thurston Community
School, remarked "we have benefited enormously in school
from very professional, high quality, very specific advice based
upon good knowledge" (Q. 891). But Dr Dunford of the Secondary
Heads Association warned that "...the development of the
Connexions [service] ... is putting at risk the universality of
the Careers Service, and it is only through that universality
that we will get good quality advice going into the younger year
groups" (Q. 892). Dr Brennan of the Association of Colleges
said "I can only endorse that ... I think there are worries
that the degree of Careers Service support for this particular
part of the agenda may diminish as a result of the shifts which
are taking place" (Q. 892).
31. The Committee is deeply concerned that the
new direction of the Connexions service, however well intentioned
towards disadvantaged groups, will impair the take up of higher
education opportunities by more able students in a few years'
time. It is essential that the Government redress this backwards
step before more damage is done to the core aim of widening access.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer's attack on Oxford
32. On 25 May 2000, the Chancellor of the Exchequer
described it as "scandalous" that the University of
Oxford had turned down an applicant "using an interview system
more reminiscent of the old boy network and the old school tie
than genuine justice in our society... It is about time for an
end to that old Britain where what matters more are the privileges
you are born with rather than the potential you actually have...
it is now time that these old universities open their doors to
women and people from all backgrounds. We are determined that
in the next ten years, the majority of young people will be able
to get higher education" (Press reports in, for example,
The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph
on 26 May 2000).
33. We decided as a Committee not to investigate
the detail of the individual case cited by the Chancellor in support
of his allegations. We should report on the substance of his allegations.
If true, they would amount to a damaging verdict on our elite
universities. If false, they would represent a grossly irresponsible
abuse of authority by a senior Government Minister.
34. This Committee has consistently laid emphasis
on the need for senior figures to ensure that their statements
on education are properly evidence based (see Second Report from
the Education and Employment Committee, Session 2000-01, OFSTED
Corporate Plan 2000, HC 34). Members of the Sub-committee
therefore asked all relevant witnesses to its enquiry whether
the Chancellor or his office had been in contact with them before
he made his statement.
- None of the witnesses
representing Oxford University had had any contact with the Chancellor's
- Neither Professor Halsey nor Dr McCrum had
any communication with his office.
- The Minister for Higher Education, Baroness
Blackstone, had no direct contact with the Chancellor prior to
his outburst. She added: "I do not honestly think that internal
discussions between different Cabinet ministers are something
that I ought to be relaying to this Committee. I do not know what
conversations took place between the Secretary of State and the
35. The Committee disagrees with the Minister.
Whether or not the second most powerful member of the Government,
who has direct influence over the funding of higher education
institutions, has consulted with colleagues before making a damaging
attack on our leading institutions is a legitimate matter of public
concern. The failure to provide any evidence of such consultation
is itself a serious indictment of the Chancellor and his lack
of judgment in this case.
36. The Sub-committee did however in the course
of its enquiry seek to establish whether these allegations had
- Three witness to our
hearings were asked about "the old boy network" and
"the old school tie" at work in the application process.
Mr Peter Lampl told the Sub-committee: "I do not think these
universities have ever deliberately discriminated."(Q.337).
Dr Colin Lucas responded: "I think that the allegations are
fundamentally untrue and it is counter productive" (Q.834).
Sir Brian Fender affirmed: "All universities are committed
to wider participation".
- Dr Philip Evans OBE, Headteacher of Bedford
School, was asked about bias which might arise from the links
at governing body level between independent schools and Oxbridge.
He replied: "I do not think there is any evidence that networking
produces any better results, absolutely none at all, if anything
quite the reverse." (Q. 555) He cited a senior admissions
tutor at Cambridge who told him that a candidate from an inner
city comprehensive with identical qualifications to a Bedford
School candidate would obviously be preferred.
- Mrs Sue Fishburn, Headteacher, Leeds Girls'
High School, added: "I would actually say that colleges and
universities at the moment are bending over backward to show that
they do not use any such network and that their academic criteria
and their general nonacademic criteria are as transparent
as they can be" (Q. 554).
- Sir Kenneth Calman, Vice Chancellor of Durham
University, confirmed to the Sub-committee that he felt the attack
against his institution by the Deputy Prime Minister which followed
the Chancellor's outburst was unfair (Q. 998).
It is instructive that no oral witness gave evidence
in support of the Chancellor's contention of bias in the application
system and that so many eminent witnesses rejected his claim.