Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
WEDNESDAY 14 MARCH 2001
1. Welcome to our Committee again. A lot of
water has gone under the bridge since we last met. You would know,
Tony, very well that not only have we produced a report on access
to higher education but also, I have to say with some degree of
satisfaction, we completed yesterday our Retention in Higher Education
report, which will be published next week. We are providing some
interesting meat and drink for you from the Committee. When we
had an away day, just before I became Chair of the Committee,
one of the things which came out very strongly from the deliberations
was that the Committee should not just do a report and then walk
away from it at that stage; the view was that the Committee should
see through the reported recommendations and come back to them.
In a sense this is the process we are going through today. The
dust has settled a little bit on our report, there were some pretty
strong recommendations that affect your work. We had an informal
discussion with Chris Price this morning on the ongoing process
in terms of post qualification access, but we thought we would
have a more formal discussion with yourself on the implications
of some of the recommendations that have been made and the feasibility
of introducing them faster rather than slower. I wondered if you
would like to say anything in terms of how you have reacted to
our first report.
(Dr Higgins) I thought it was an excellent
report, and indeed wrote to you and told you so. I think this
session comes about four or five days too early because I have
a meeting with my Board on Friday, when we are going to have a
first look at the two specific proposals you made to us about
trying to harmonise the applications dates and asking a question
on the form about "first generation" applicants to higher
education. Also, we have approached the validating bodies, the
awarding bodies, to see if they will release the GCSE results,
which is one of the recommendations in the report. They have a
management committeeI think it is this week or the beginning
of nextwhen they are going to consider that. I hope the
signs are positive.
2. Could you follow through the first point,
in terms of the question on the application form about first generation
(Dr Higgins) The application form gets a bit cluttered.
It is there to be used as an application form rather than necessarily
to collect data. On the other hand, increasingly applicants are
applying electronically, in which case the size of the form does
not matter and the data can be collected quite easily. My only
personal fear about the possibility of answering the question,
whatever the question might beand that is the second issueis
that we must be careful not to offend the Human Rights Act. Under
that Act, everybody has the right of education and if you were
seen to be, in some way, shape or form, favouring one group rather
than another, you might then get attacked by another group saying,
"It's not fair, favouring those from certain post code areas"
or those who are first time applicants or whatever it may be.
3. But you make that strong point about the
benefit of being able to identify students from postal code area.
(Dr Higgins) Yes, indeed.
4. Is that any different from knowing whether
a student is a first generation student?
(Dr Higgins) No. You need to know where your students
are coming from. You need to know, in particular, where they are
not coming from. Then you can market successfully in those areas
where they are not coming from. But I just think sometimes that
if you start going for quotaswhich I know the Committee
said it did not want to seebut if you start going for what
is apparent positive discrimination, then it is just possible
that somebody might be open to some accusation of some bias under
the Human Rights Act.
5. Could I say that I thought we had pretty
much nailed that on the head. Certainly I think some of this Committee
were surprised by only a couple of reactions to our access report,
that came from one or two journalists and one or two academics,
that seemed to link the recommendations we had made, which we
believed allowed universities to identify and follow through talented
students from non-traditional backgrounds, to a view that that
meant a reduction in quality. In the report, as you remember,
we said we believe that what we have failed to do in this country
at the moment is to find talented people with high ability and
get them into appropriate higher education, whatever that may
be. So the Committee was adamant that we did not want any reduction
in standards, we did not want quotas, but we did want an ability
to get across this final frontier of finding talented people who
have the potential for higher education but do not have that moment
arrive. I do not think, in terms of the Human Rights Act or any
other Act, that really can be seen as a problem, can it?
(Dr Higgins) No, andif I may volunteer some
information about some planning that we are doingwe are
planning to put together a careers advice package, delivered electronically,
which will help young people and not so young people make crucial
decisions where they need to make them. One clearly is, on entry
to higher education. What would be your choice of GCEs or VCEs?
and what would be your choice of GCSEs at the age of 13 or 14?
One of the reasons we would like to go out and give them advice
on that is that they do not muck up their choices at 16-plus or
going into higher education at 18-plus. We are going to try to
see if we can alert young people at the age of 13 and 14 who would
not normally be thinking of going to university, but they might
well do so. That is the whole point of what we are trying to do.
Also, as part of the work we are doing, we are issuing them all
with a smartcard which contains all their education details, which
can be updated, and all their subject interests and so on and
so forth. We can then begin, we think, to enthuse everybody of
that age about the possibility of going to university. There is
talent there which does not get drawn on.
6. Should we be starting earlier than the age
of 13/14, long before they start looking at the GCSE options?
(Dr Higgins) I think you probably should, actually.
7. What about that gap year that we have in
(Dr Higgins) It could be early readers in Primary
school, where you are learning to read at a very young age and
So-and-so's brother or sister has just gone off to university.
8. But you were talking about blocking off options
and not blocking off options. Given that some people, or even
most people, choose their GCSE options in year 9, when they are
13/14, but many of them have already started thinking about what
those options are, what you really should be looking at is when
they enter secondary school or, indeed, before they enter, in
middle school. Perhaps you should be looking at an earlier time.
(Dr Higgins) I take that advice. We are in the planning
stages and we are trying to get it resourced.
9. You talk about the Human Rights Act, do you
not think at the moment we block off certain groups of people?
In terms of higher eduction, how would you consider that that
is affected by the Human Rights Act in terms of a right to equal
access to higher education?
(Dr Higgins) I do not know what the answer to that
10. Is that not equally valid to you saying
you are worried about systems which might encourage groups to
go, somehow disadvantaging previously advantaged groups?
(Dr Higgins) Yes. I mean, there will have to be some
case law and it may well be that the first case brought falls.
11. The Human Rights Act could work either way
(Dr Higgins) Well, it does give you the right to education.
It is non age specific and it is life-long.
12. We were talking about first generation students.
How would you define a first generation student?
(Dr Higgins) I think it would be those who are applying
neither of whose parents have been to higher education before
or whose brothers or sisters have not been in higher education
before. To get a sensible answer to the question, it is going
to have to be quite a tight question.
13. How would that be complicated by the fact
that we have so many more mature students in our system than they
have in the United States.
(Dr Higgins) I do not see it more complicated or less
complicated. We have been asking the same questions of young people
as well as mature people. I am just thinking about the size of
the form now, but it might be an interesting question to ask of
mature candidates whether their sons or daughters have been to
a university or college or not, and whether perhaps they have
been inspired by their sons and daughters.
14. How would you handle those students perhaps
who had started a course, had dropped out, and then several years
later, as mature students, have decided that they want to apply
again and go through the whole course. How would that be affected?
(Dr Higgins) I think the questions would be there
on the application form and they would answer them truthfully.
Where on the form it says: "Previous Educational Experience"
they might want to say, "Well, I did a year at so-and-so
and I dropped out, but I might have passed the year." They
might have dropped out because of financial reasons.
15. Therefore, that would suggest you would
like some sort of accreditation for years completed in higher
(Dr Higgins) Personally, I would, yes.
16. There is no penalty for lying on the form,
(Dr Higgins) Yes, there is.
17. If you were the son or daughter of a barrister
and you said he was a plumber and had never been to university
(Dr Higgins) I do not think they would find that out.
But if you said you had grades at A level or whatever that you
did not have, then you would be guilty of fraud. And there is
a lot of it around.
18. Do you see any barriers to UCAS introducing
such a system of monitoring first generation students?
(Dr Higgins) No, I do not think so. It is for the
Board to decideand we shall be consulting our admissions
officers at our meeting next month -but I cannot see any barrier
19. So we are really talking about something
that could be done quite quickly quite soon.
(Dr Higgins) It could be done for the year entering
in 2003, because the current form is now being printed (even as
we speak, actually).