Select Committee on Education and Employment Fourth Report


PROCEEDINGS OF THE COMMITTEE RELATING TO THE REPORT (continued)

37.  We conclude that the Chancellor's allegations were without merit. We did hear how such allegations can of themselves damage the work being done to change perceptions of the admissions process and its fairness. The Chancellor's remarks were not only irresponsible but also directly hurtful to the interests of the very group ­ able students from poorer backgrounds—which he claimed to want to help. This is all the more regrettable in the light of the failure of his government to increase the numbers from poorer backgrounds entering higher education since 1997, in contrast to the doubling in numbers in the previous decade (see paragraph 4 above).

The effect of tuition fees

38.  The Sub­committee received some evidence to suggest that student contributions to tuition fees, even with means­tested assistance to meet the cost, could act as a deterrent to entering higher education. The Cubie Committee reported that "From the extensive public hearings throughout Scotland, and in spite of the means­testing of the contribution which means that they will not have to make any such contribution, there is no doubt that many presently excluded groups see tuition fees as yet another impediment to access" (Cubie Report, Section 10, paragraph 32). They concluded that "our research and the results of our consultation process emphasise the burden and inequity presented by the requirement to pay a contribution at the beginning of each year" (Cubie Report, Executive Summary, pages 12-13).

39.  It can also be argued that since students often do not know their parents' income, they will not know whether their families are exempt from the need to find the up­front fee. This may act as an obstacle to participation even for those students whose families would not be liable to contribute. In this context we note that the Northern Ireland administration has extended the exemption from fees to "encourage students from low­income families into college and university education." (BBC News Report—15 December 2000, Shaun Farren, Education Minister).

40.  Although fees are supposed to be paid by the family, recently published DfEE­sponsored research relating to the first year of the new system of student contributions to student fees reported that "of the students whose parents were assessed to pay something towards their fees ... 20 per cent received less than the assessed amount and so faced a shortfall of £579 on average." (Callender and Kemp, Changing Student Finances: Income Expenditure and the Take up of Student Loans among full and part time higher education students in 1998/9, DfEE Research Report RR 213, December 2000, page xxiv). The researchers also found that "for various reasons 10 per cent personally paid £803 on average towards their fees. Most financed their fees through their student loans despite the fact that loans were meant to be exclusively for maintenance". Although the means­test for the student contribution for tuition fees was designed to avoid a deterrent effect on applications from those from low­income backgrounds, there is at least a prima facie case that this has affected access at least to a limited extent. We note that although Government maintains that there is no such deterrent effect of the introduction of tuition fees, there is no research available to provide confidence in that conclusion.

41.  The Minister told the Education Sub-committee that she did not think that the Scottish experience "had many implications directly for the rest of the UK" or relevance for policy in England and Wales (Q.263). This appears to be a premature conclusion to draw when comparative data might support her contention that fees have no effect just as it might well support the opposite view. The Government should at least seek enlightenment from the diversity created by devolution.

The impact of maintenance grants and debt aversion

42.  The Sub­committee received a great deal of evidence, both written and oral, that the abolition of maintenance grants for students from low­income backgrounds and their replacement by additional loans had had a negative impact on participation rates from low­income groups. In the DfEE­funded research report, the researchers found that "most full­time students, however, did think that their friends might have decided against university because of the changes in student funding and finances". 61 per cent of full­time students agreed with the statement that 'Changes to student funding have deterred some of my friends from coming to university'. The proportion of students agreeing with this statement was highest among students from social classes IV and V (68 per cent), black students (68 per cent), and women aged 25 and over (68 per cent), the very focus of widening participation strategies." (Callender and Kemp, Changing Student Finances: Income Expenditure and the Take up of Student Loans among full and part time higher education students in 1998/9, DfEE Research Report RR 213, December 2000, page xvi, Executive Summary).

43.  Dr John Brennan, Director of Further Education Development, Association of Colleges, told the Sub­committee that: "If we are interested in getting many more young people into higher education¼ we are seeking to draw into the group those for whom debt aversion is a serious issue, and ¼ you need a system which has an element of loan and an element of grant in it, and grants specifically targeted upon those who are coming from the poorest backgrounds and face the biggest difficulties" (Q.893). Mr Andrew Pakes, President, National Union of Students, told the Education Sub-committee that he supported the re­introduction of some non­repayable state support "as it fits our principle that money should be targeted to those people most in need, namely in this case mature students and students from lower income backgrounds¼ (in England and Wales) application figures, especially from mature students, indicate that potential students are being deterred." (Q.61)

44.  Professor Maggie Woodrow's work for the CVCP showed that the absence of the grant to lower income groups was a particular concern for students because "loans were quite out of proportion to the normal spending for low­income groups¼If we are the people who say we want more lower income students coming into higher education, there is a top priority to get these students in, should we not be trying to get them in in a way that is sensitive to their cultural norms and not just say, 'They will get used to it.'"(CVCP, From Elitism to Inclusion, May 1998). The Four Counties Group of Higher Education Institutions in their report found evidence that student finance is a significant factor in low participation areas. For example, in their Norwich report, they found that "Finance is a huge issue is many deprived households. Loan structure locks into a culture of a fear of debt". In the report on the Thurrock district they stated that "There is certainly a concern of financial effect on those from lower socio-economic groups, often immediate monetary priorities". Professor Green in his oral evidence agreed that these concerns may be a factor in the cold spots versus hot spots difference in his Report (Q.478).

45.  The issue of maintenance grants was at the heart of the Report of the Cubie Committee who concluded "to maximise opportunities for all¼ the student support system must change and should be more focused and better targeted. To counter 'loan aversion' and facilitate greater access, we propose the introduction of non­repayable bursaries for some full­time higher education students¼ Only in this way will the universities and colleges help attract students from under­represented groups." We note that maintenance grants have been restored in Scotland and in Northern Ireland.

46.  Despite the Government's determination to tackle the under­representation of low­income groups in higher education, we find that the balance of evidence suggests that the abolition of maintenance grants, in the context of the current objective of expanding higher education and increasing participation, may well have had a deleterious effect on access and will continue to do so in the absence of alternatives for low income groups.

47.  We welcome the fact that the Government appears to have recognised this by the introduction of a relatively small number of Opportunity Bursaries and additional provisions for mature students. However, a more imaginative system of support would appear to be a significant part of the overall solution to under­participation and we recommend that the Government should investigate this.

48.  In the context of debt aversion, we also believe in significantly raising the threshold before debt repayment of student loans is started. This would have a significant impact on the attitude of students from less well­off households towards the risks and rewards of taking a degree.

The quality of higher education across the sector

49.  The debate on access has been confused by two separate issues. The first is the proportion of applicants from maintained schools gaining access to elite institutions. The second is the proportion of applicants from less well­off backgrounds gaining access to higher education. This begs the question of whether there really is a systematic distinction between the best and the rest, when it comes to an undergraduate degree course.

50.  For example, Tony Higgins (UCAS) told the Education Sub-committee: "...when we are talking about the standard under­graduate degree in French or geography or engineering or maths or whatever it is, I am not sure really it matters which university you go to, whether it is Loughborough or Keele or Cardiff or Plymouth or Oxford or Imperial." (Q. 595)

51.  There is no obvious social injustice if a highly qualified school­leaver, who wishes to become a doctor, studies at Newcastle rather than at Oxford. Both courses are excellent. Both will be equally acceptable in terms of the student's later progression. The cost to the student, including maintenance, is very comparable and in both cases a small fraction of the cost to the higher education system of delivering the course.

52.  The Sub-committee visited Surrey University on 16 January 2001. The only reason the physics faculty at Surrey is not rated directly equivalent to Oxford, we were told, was because it is smaller. Across the fields of study in which it specialises, the faculty is at the forefront. Indeed, in the field of micro satellites, Surrey is acknowledged as undisputed world leader. Surrey also has the best record of any UK university over five years in terms of its graduates' success in finding employment. It is hard to see how a student who misses a place at Oxford but gains a place at Surrey to study physics can have been treated unfairly.

53.  One of the damaging implications of the Chancellor's remarks last May was that those who do not gain a place at a famous university are in some sense a failure. Yet the evidence we have received shows clearly that higher education across the UK is now a mosaic of opportunity with centres of excellence in many of our universities. For this reason, we believe that more emphasis should be placed on the numbers from less well­off backgrounds taking higher education courses, less on the particular institution where they chose to take it.

54.  The HEFCE system of measuring the participation of poorer social groups against a benchmark for each university is a useful contribution to analysis, but it should not be seen as defining the goal of each institution. There may be many good reasons why an individual university diverges from its benchmark of participation. For example, the underlying assumption behind the benchmark is that less well­off students favour science degrees, while better­off students favour arts courses. A university like Surrey, which champions its science capability in a catchment area which is predominantly middle class, is therefore seen as failing its benchmark. Yet its absolute level of participation by those from social classes IIIm, IV and V is higher than average. This system, if it affected the core funding of institutions, could therefore provide a perverse incentive for universities in prosperous areas to drop courses in science and engineering.

55.  Section 68 of the 1992 Act guarantees universities independence in their choice of students and choice of course of study. Sir Brian Fender (HEFCE) clearly had no wish to undermine this core principal of academic freedom. He told the Education Sub-committee in respect of university response to HEFCE's benchmarks: "We have encouraged them to produce strategic rounds for access ... I would expect and hope that they produce their targets about how they were going to develop that strategic plan and share those with us, but I do not think externally imposed targets would be the way forward. 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)

56.  The Committee believes that the key to widening access is first and foremost to encourage more from less well-off backgrounds to enter the sector. The second thrust is to ensure that applicants have a range of high quality courses from which to chose, regardless of the institution to which they apply. We have seen plenty of evidence of the latter in the course of our enquiry. We believe that the Government must now address the reasons why the numbers entering higher education from poorer homes have stopped growing since 1997."

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Report from the Education Sub-committee be read a second time, paragraph by paragraph.—(The Chairman.)

Amendment proposed, to leave out the words "Report from the Education Sub-committee" and insert the words "draft Report proposed by Mr Nick St Aubyn".—(Mr Nick St Aubyn.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.


Ayes, 2Noes, 10
Mr Stephen O'Brien Mr Richard Allan
Mr Nick St AubynMs Candy Atherton
Mr Derek Foster
Mr Michael Foster
Dr Evan Harris
Helen Jones
Judy Mallaber
Mr Gordon Marsden
Mr Ian Pearson
Mr Stephen Twigg


Main Question put and agreed to.

Paragraphs 1 to 10 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 11 read as follows:

"On 25 May 2000, the Chancellor of the Exchequer ignited a wide-ranging debate on access to higher education by describing 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". We decided not to examine in detail the individual case of the young woman cited in the Chancellor's remarks, although we suspect it was not the most apposite example which he could have chosen. We welcomed the opportunity for public debate on the question of access to higher education that this provided."

Amendment proposed, in line 9, to leave out from the word "remarks" to the word "We" in line 10. —(Mr Michael Foster.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.


Ayes, 7Noes, 5
Mr Derek FosterMr Richard Allan
Mr Michael FosterMs Candy Atherton
Helen JonesDr Evan Harris
Judy MallaberMr Stephen O'Brien
Mr Gordon MarsdenMr Nick St Aubyn
Mr Ian Pearson
Mr Stephen Twigg


Another Amendment proposed, in line 9, after the word "remarks.", to insert the words "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."—(Mr Nick St Aubyn.)

The Committee divided.


Ayes, 3Noes, 7
Dr Evan HarrisMs Candy Atherton
Mr Stephen O'Brien Mr Derek Foster
Mr Nick St AubynMr Michael Foster
Helen Jones
Judy Mallaber
Mr Gordon Marsden
Mr Ian Pearson


Another Amendment proposed, in line 9, after the word "remarks.", to insert the words "However, it is right that we should report on the substance of his allegations. Figures released by Oxford University and quoted in The Guardian on 30 January 2001 showed that while the great majority of all entrants gained three A grades at A level, 23 per cent of comprehensive pupils were admitted with slightly lower grades, compared with 17.2 per cent from independent schools. For every 100 places, Oxford colleges typically make 120 offers, expecting 80 applicants to achieve their grades. It was in the 20 per cent of places from candidates who narrowly missed three As or a B that Oxford has been giving comprehensive students the benefit of the doubt. So, in fact, rather than discriminating in favour of independent school pupils, the evidence suggests that at Oxford, if anything, the bias is the other way. We conclude on the basis of oral evidence and statistics that while the Chancellor's allegations may have been true in previous years, figures that have emerged since his intervention suggest that it is no longer true."—(Dr Evan Harris.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.


Ayes, 4Noes, 7
Mr Richard AllanMs Candy Atherton
Dr Evan HarrisMr Derek Foster
Mr Stephen O'Brien Mr Michael Foster
Mr Nick St AubynHelen Jones
Judy Mallaber
Mr Gordon Marsden
Mr Ian Pearson


Another Amendment proposed, in line 11, at the end to insert the words "The most recent evidence from Oxford University indicates that the number of applications made from state schools increased after the Chancellor's speech, and the number of offers made by the university to state school pupils also increased, dispelling any notion that the Chancellor's remarks were unhelpful".—(Mr Michael Foster.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.


Ayes, 6Noes, 5
Ms Candy AthertonMr Richard Allan
Mr Derek FosterDr Evan Harris
Mr Michael FosterMr Stephen O'Brien
Helen JonesMr Ian Pearson
Judy MallaberMr Nick St Aubyn
Mr Gordon Marsden


Paragraph, as amended, agreed to.

Paragraphs 12 and 13 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 14 read, amended, and agreed to.

Paragraph 15 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 16 read, amended, and agreed to.

Paragraphs 17 to 19 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 20 read, amended and agreed to.

Paragraphs 21 to 23 read and agreed to.

A paragraph—(Mr Nick St Aubyn)—brought up and read, as follows:

"The HEFCE system of measuring the participation of poorer social groups against a benchmark for each university is a useful contribution to analysis, but it should not be seen as defining the goal of each institution. There may be many good reasons why an individual university diverges from its benchmark of participation. For example, the underlying assumption behind the benchmark is that less well­off students favour science degrees, while better­off students favour arts courses. A university like Surrey, which champions its science capability in a catchment area which is predominantly middle class, is therefore seen as failing its benchmark. Yet its absolute level of participation by those from social classes IIIm, IV and V is higher than average. This system, if it affected the core funding of institutions, could therefore provide a perverse incentive for universities in prosperous areas to drop courses in science and engineering."

Question put, That the paragraph be read a second time.

The Committee divided.


Ayes, 2Noes, 6
Mr Stephen O'Brien Ms Candy Atherton
Mr Nick St AubynMr Derek Foster
Mr Michael Foster
Helen Jones
Judy Mallaber
Mr Ian Pearson

Paragraphs 24 and 25 read and agreed to.

Paragraphs 26 to 33 postponed.

Another paragraph—(Mr Nick St Aubyn)—brought up and read, as follows:

"Section 68 of the 1992 Act guarantees universities independence in their choice of students and choice of course of study. Sir Brian Fender (HEFCE) clearly had no wish to undermine this core principal of academic freedom. He told the Education Sub-committee in respect of university response to HEFCE's benchmarks: "We have encouraged them to produce strategic rounds for access. ... I would expect and hope that they produce their targets about how they were going to develop that strategic plan and share those with us, but I do not think externally imposed targets would be the way forward. 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).

Question put, That the paragraph be read a second time.

The Committee divided.


Ayes, 2Noes, 8
Mr Stephen O'Brien Ms Candy Atherton
Mr Nick St AubynMr Derek Foster
Mr Michael Foster
Dr Evan Harris
Helen Jones
Judy Mallaber
Mr Gordon Marsden
Mr Ian Pearson

Postponed paragraphs 26 to 33 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 34 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 35 read, amended, and agreed to.

Paragraph 36 read and agreed to.

Other paragraphs—(Mr Nick St Aubyn)—brought up and read the first and second time as follows:

"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 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).

 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).

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."


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 8 February 2001