Select Committee on Education and Employment Seventh Special Report


SEVENTH SPECIAL REPORT

The Education and Employment Committee has agreed to the following Special Report:—

RESPONSES FROM THE GOVERNMENT AND FROM THE HIGHER EDUCATION FUNDING COUNCIL FOR ENGLAND TO THE SIXTH REPORT FROM THE COMMITTEE, SESSION 2000-01

HIGHER EDUCATION: STUDENT RETENTION

The Education and Employment Committee reported to the House on Higher Education: Student Retention in its Sixth Report of Session 2000-01, published on 23 March 2001 as HC 124. The Government's response to that Report was received on 2 May 2001 and is reproduced as Annex I to this Special Report. The response from the Higher Education Funding Council for England was received on 9 May 2001 and is reproduced as Annex II to this Special Report.

ANNEX I

Letter to the Chairman of the Education Sub-committee from

the Secretary of State for Education and Employment

2 May 2001

Dear Barry,

I am responding to the Education and Employment Committee's Sixth Report about Student Retention in Higher Education which was published on 23rd March 2001.

I welcome the Committee's Report and, as you know, despite the fact that the UK is recognised as having one of the highest graduation rates in the OECD, the issue of student retention in higher education remains high on the Government's agenda. In the grant letter I sent to the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) last November, I specifically asked the Funding Council to take every possible step to bear down on the rate of drop-out. I look forward to the publication of a progress report from HEFCE in the near future.

My officials are working closely with the Funding Council, and will continue to do so to ensure that we achieve a consistent approach to the recommendations the Committee has made.

As the report includes a wide range of recommendations and conclusions, a detailed response to each of these is provided in the attached document. I would be grateful if you could pass this on to the Committee.

Best wishes,

DAVID BLUNKETT

The Select Committee's recommendations are in bold text.

The Government's response is in plain text.

Where appropriate, the Government's responses to recommendations/conclusions are cross-referenced.

1. We recommend two strategies to tackle the problem of non-retention. First, seeking to reduce the numbers not continuing with their course and, secondly seeking to reduce the disadvantages of non-continuation by enhancing the 'portability' of acquired attainment below final degree result (paragraph 13).

These strategies reflect the Government's view.

2. Improving retention is important, but it should not lead to a diminution of the challenge of successful completion. Our concern is to address the barriers, which prevent students from benefiting from higher education, not to lower its standards (paragraph 14).

and

3. Universities and colleges must be careful not to accept candidates with no chance of successfully obtaining any credit for their higher education study. Proper advice at the admissions stage should be available for all students, including those who apply to their local institution and those who enter via clearing. We do not agree with the view that widening access and/or improving retention need lead to lower standards in higher education (paragraph 14).

We have made it plain that widening participation should not lead to any drop in standards. This is why we agreed with the view expressed in the earlier Report on access[1] that quotas should not be introduced. It is important that applicants should have proper advice so they can choose a course best suited to their abilities and preferences, and we work closely with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), amongst others, so that information reaches prospective students from the start of the application process. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) have issued a Code on Admissions which emphasises the need to ensure that promotional materials provide information that will enable applicants to make informed decisions about their options.

The National Qualifications Framework for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, recently published by QAA, sets out 5 levels of HE qualifications—3 at undergraduate level (Certificate, Intermediate and Honours) and 2 at postgraduate level (Masters and Doctoral). For each level there is a descriptor exemplifying the characteristics of the main qualification at that level.

Subject Benchmark Statements are being developed by QAA in partnership with the academic community. The statements set out the general expectations about standards for award of an honours degree in a subject.

Taken together this means that standards in higher education can now be demonstrated in a more transparent manner.

4. We recognise that the UK has a strong record in the proportion of students who complete their higher education and achieve a qualification at the end of their studies. This is a matter in which the higher education sector should take considerable pride. Nevertheless, we look to the Government, HEFCE and to higher education institutions to take action to reduce as far as possible the number of students who do not achieve a recognised qualification (paragraph 24).

In the 29 November 2000 grant letter to HEFCE,[2] the Council was asked to bear down on the rate of drop-out and we expect to receive a progress report on the action taken within the next month.

HEFCE have also been asked to develop a programme of work and an action plan to reduce non-completion, in conjunction with institutions.

5. In the United Kingdom there is a greater deterrent to non-continuation because of the lack of portability of attainment below degree level. We should not be complacent about the low rate of non-completion in the United Kingdom compared with other countries, particularly the United States, where leaving a course of higher education after attaining accumulated credits is a more rational and less disastrous occurrence (paragraph 25).

The Government is keen to encourage mutual recognition of credit through a variety of credit recognition schemes. However, this is primarily a matter for the higher education sector.

See responses to Recommendations 3, 31 and 32.

6. The relationship between social class and non-continuation is not straightforward (paragraph 26).

7. It seems extremely likely that student factor, sectorwide influences and issues that relate to individual institutions all play a part in the question of retention. Government, the sector and the individual institutions, therefore, should each address the factors over which they have control (paragraph 28).

Conclusions 6 and 7 reflect the Government's view.

8. We recommend that higher education institutions should provide guidance to their students that they should not work in paid employment for more than 12 hours a week during term time. However, the Committee recognises that seeking to reduce non-completion by preventing students from working longer hours, if they are doing so in order to fund their living costs, may be self-defeating unless access to financial support for less well off students were improved (paragraph 49).

This is a matter for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and for individual students in balancing academic needs against their freedom to work and the benefits from paid work. In our view excessive working during term time should be discouraged. But we see difficulties in a single rule of thumb, given differences between HEIs and between courses.The Government's student support package is sufficient to meet the needs of students, with extra targeted help for those that need it most. We recognise that more needs to be done in a targeted way for groups of less well off students and this is why, for example, we are introducing in 2001/02 £2,000 opportunity bursaries for certain younger students and childcare grants for student parents, based on actual costs, up to a total maximum grant of £6,360 for two or more children. Also from September, 50 per cent of full-time students will make no contribution to tuition fees because we have raised the contributions threshold.

9. We recommend that HEFCE should, as a matter of urgency, audit the impact of casualisation of higher education staff contracts on the support and pastoral care of students, particularly those from a non-traditional background and part-time or mature students. If this audit highlights structural weaknesses in the support systems for students because of changes in patterns of staff employment, we recommend that higher education institutions should ensure that staff who are not on casual contracts, and who have sufficient time for student support activities, are responsible for support and pastoral care for students. We also recommend that HEFCE should investigate further the reasons why higher education institutions are employing more part time and fixed term staff, and in the course of doing so propose ways of tackling the underlying problems (paragraph 53).

The Government agrees with the Committee that it is important for students, particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds, to receive high quality academic support and pastoral care. HEIs employ their own staff and set their conditions of employment, so we look to them to monitor the impact of any casualisation of their teaching posts on the support which their students receive. In doing so, they will wish to take into account the need to maintain the high standards which students and monitoring bodies alike want to see. We welcome the Funding Council's intention to consult the sector on how the question of staff contracts and their impact on the pastoral care of students might be reviewed.

10. We are concerned that the overall quality of teaching should not suffer as the result of emphasis placed upon success in the Research Assessment Exercise. We recommend that the DfEE should seek wide representations from higher education staff on the impact of the 2001 RAE on their work-load and responsibilities. In the light of this, HEFCE should consider the possibilities of a joint teaching and research quality assessment to reduce the bureaucratic demands made on institutions and to give a more balanced view of overall performance (paragraph 61).

The Government agrees that the assessment of research should not harm the quality of teaching. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) is conducted by HEFCE and the other Funding Councils to inform quality-related funding decisions and its monitoring is a matter for HEFCE rather than DfEE. After each exercise HEFCE and the other Funding Councils evaluate the RAE process and take forward any conclusions. Following the 2001 RAE, HEFCE will consult the sector about any future research assessment exercise and will include in the consultation the question of the impact on workloads and responsibilities. The recent HEFCE fundamental review of research policy addressed the question of the future of the RAE and whether it was appropriate to continue with a separate RAE. The conclusion of that review, widely supported in the subsequent consultation, was that as long as research was to be selectively funded, a discrete exercise for assessing quality would be required.

We have invited HEFCE to discuss with the QAA, Universities UK and SCOP, ways to further reduce the subject review load while still providing reliable public information for students, employers and others. Taken with the planned further reduction in the average length of reviews, the aim is to secure a reduction of 50 per cent or more in the volume of review activity compared with the existing arrangements.

11. We recommend that HEFCE and individual institutions should look carefully at earmarking funds for outreach activities and pastoral care, and ensure that excellence shown in these areas, especially by younger academics, should enhance rather than jeopardise career advancement and promotion (paragraph 62).

This is a matter for HEFCE and for individual HEIs.

The 'Excellence Challenge' requires HEIs to produce action plans setting out their strategy for widening participation and in particular the activities they will be engaging in to support schools and colleges in delivering the programme's objectives, and this will help to focus the funding appropriately. We agree that pastoral care for students from non-traditional HE backgrounds is important and we will be encouraging HEIs to devote resources to this. We have provided specific funding for the administration of student support services within HEIs from this year.

The Government's funding to HEIs continues to increase. Between 1998-99 and 2003-04 there will be an increase of £1.7bn (18 per cent in real terms). Neither the DfEE nor the Funding Councils set a limit on how much may be spent on student support, so that individual institutions decide how much money they put into their student support services. The Government shares the view of the Committee that higher education employers should encourage academics to be involved in outreach work and pastoral care and reward them for this in the same way as for their teaching skills and research activity.

12. We recommend that the DfEE should urgently commission research on the impact of student debt on graduates' decisions on the feasibility of post-graduate study and academic careers (paragraph 64).

The Government has already taken steps to improve the competitiveness of PhD stipends to ensure that doctoral study remains an attractive option for graduates. The minimum level for Research Council's PhD stipends will rise to £9,000 per year by 2003-04, a substantial real terms rise, which will also be matched by Arts and Humanities Research Board studentships. Meanwhile the DfEE has put an extra £50m this year, rising to £170m in 2003-04, towards pay in higher education. It will be important to monitor and keep under review the impact of this new money, as well as the new student support arrangements on demand for post-graduate study and entry to academic careers.

The Office of Science and Technology (OST) already commissions an annual survey of postgraduate study intentions, and this explores the importance of debt as a factor in decisions to take up post-graduate study. The results for the first two years of the survey -1999 and 2000 - are available on the following website: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/~gradsch/OSTsurvey.html. This year's results will be particularly useful as they will include for the first time, students who have experienced the new tuition fee and loan arrangements.

There are also existing sources of information on graduate destinations, including academic careers, which the DfEE will continue to monitor.

The DfEE continues to monitor the impact of the new student support arrangements, including debt, not least through regular surveys of student finances. This specific issue can be covered in future surveys.

13. We recommend that HEFCE should urgently commission research on the impact of demographic changes and retirements among senior staff over the next ten years, with a view to further recommendations to the Government on funding initiatives for key subjects at risk (paragraph 66).

It is for individual HEIs to tailor their recruitment policies if they wish to alter the age balance of their staff or to plan for the forthcoming retirement of a particular age group. In fact, the age profile in HEIs does vary considerably between institutions. For most HEIs this is not an issue and in general they seem to manage their staffing dispositions well. The Government recognises that there may, however, be difficulties in some subject areas.

HEFCE has carried out a recent review of the age structure of academic staff and has found no general problems. However, in the light of the Committee's recommendation, HEFCE will conduct a further review, this time by subject area. We welcome this and will consider the findings carefully.

14. We welcome the additional funding from the Secretary of State to recruit and retain high quality academic staff in strategically important disciplines. We acknowledge that university and college staff and their organisations do not regard this as adequate in relation to the broader needs of the academic profession. We urge the Government to address the growing disparity in salaries between academic appointments and career paths for equally qualified candidates in other fields (paragraph 68).

The Government is pleased that the Select Committee welcomes the extra funding we have provided to help institutions reward and develop their staff. This funding is part of the £1.7 billion additional funding the Government is making available for institutions over the six years to 2003-04, an 18 per cent increase in real terms. It is important to note, however, that the Government does not set the salaries of higher education staff. As independent bodies, HEIs agree pay and conditions with their employees in the light of their own operational needs and the resources available to them. The Government recognises that funding levels play a part and has listened to HEIs' concerns about difficulties they experience in retaining top quality staff because of the inflexibility of the reward systems. When institutions apply for the additional funding by submitting their individual human resource strategies to HEFCE, it will be for institutions to determine their priorities and how these will be tackled.

15. We recommend that the Government should give very careful consideration to any further expansion in the number of places in higher education and ensure, before proceeding, that such expansion is fully funded and that existing places can be filled with students who are successfully retained (paragraph 69).

The DfEE has reflected the Government's aim that by the end of this decade, half of all 18 year olds should have the opportunity to benefit from higher education by the time they are 30 years old, by including it as a Public Service Agreement target.

The Spending Review announced last year has allowed, for the first time in well over a decade, for an increase in the unit of resource per student in 2001-02 and that further expansion up to 2003-04 will be fully funded. This level of funding will enable the Government to make steady progress towards the aim of 50 per cent participation. Expansion towards the aim beyond 2003-04 will be at a rate which this country can afford. The funding to achieve this will be a consideration for the next and subsequent Spending Reviews.

As has been stated, HEFCE has been asked to bear down on the rate of 'drop out'. Our policies further support and enable students to continue with their education and the Funding Council is developing performance measures to inform the effectiveness of these policies.

16. We recommend that the Government's priority of widening access and improving retention in higher education should be reflected by sustained overall increases on a per student basis in the level of funding for teaching (paragraph 70).

As stated at Recommendation 15, the Spending Review announced last year has allowed, for the first time in well over a decade, for an increase in the unit of resource per student in 2001-02 and that further expansion up to 2003-04 will be fully funded.

As a result, the recently announced HEFCE recurrent grant allocations for 2001/02 show a 4.2 per cent cash increase in the total sector funding for teaching, compared to 2000/01.

Within the Spending Review, additional funding of £50 million in 2001-02, rising to £110 million in 2002-03 and £170 million in 2003-04 was made available to support increases in academic and non-academic pay. This money is in addition to the 4.2 per cent increase for teaching already announced by HEFCE for 2001-02.

17. We recommend that HEFCE should give the highest priority to publishing their research on non-completion. We recommend that the HEFCE research on non-completion should be complemented by regular and more detailed studies of institutions where non-completion is significantly above the benchmark rate of comparable colleges and universities. We also recommend that HEFCE, working with other bodies such as the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and the Higher Education Statistics Agency, should establish more robust mechanisms to ensure sufficient data are available more swiftly, so that the nature, extent and causes of non-completion, and how these factors change over time, may be analysed (paragraph 72).

See response to Recommendation 4 above.

18. We recommend that HEFCE should give explicit guidance to all higher education institutions on the treatment for funding purposes of students who move from full-time to part-time study during the year, so that all concerned should be clear on the financial consequences for the institution of the individual student's decision (paragraph 73).

Baroness Blackstone wrote to the Committee in response to a question raised by the Committee on this issue during her oral evidence session.

We understand that HEFCE are considering amending the treatment of students who change mode during a year with a view to widening the definition of completion and will, as the Committee recommends, provide guidance to all institutions on this subject.

19. We recommend that HEFCE should refine and develop its work on benchmarks, so that universities and colleges can measure themselves against achievable targets in comparable institutions (paragraph 76).

We are aware that HEFCE have been reviewing all aspects of the performance indicators, including the benchmarks, and we understand that they will continue to do so.

20. We recommend that incentives for higher education institutions to widen access should include an element which is payable on the successful conclusion to students' higher education. This would provide an incentive not only to admit students from non-traditional backgrounds, but also to ensure they are properly supported until they have achieved a recognised qualification (paragraph 77).

Funding premiums are not intended as an incentive payment. Their purpose is to reimburse institutions for the additional resources they have invested in recruiting and retaining students from non-traditional backgrounds, a disproportionate share of which fall at the beginning of the course.

21. We recommend that any new programmes or initiatives by the Secretary of State to encourage higher education institutions to widen participation should be funded for a minimum of five years (paragraph 79).

The Government has been funding programmes to widen access since 1998. Government spending plans usually span three years. Our major programme to widen participation is through the 'Excellence Challenge'. Future plans will be considered in the light of evaluation of current activity and other pressures.

22. We would welcome a detailed study by the National Audit Office of retention in higher education (paragraph 80).

We understand that the NAO is carrying out such a study.

23. We recommend that the Regional Development Agencies and Learning and Skills Councils should seek to develop strategic partnerships between further education colleges and regional higher education institutions, in order to provide routes for mature students, and for students who have previously not completed a course of higher education, to be able to progress towards entry or re-entry to higher education (paragraph 81).

The FEFC (now the LSC), and HEFCE, have already created strategic partnerships, and promoting access to lifelong learning will be a key responsibility of the LSC. The 'Excellence Challenge' already fosters regional partnerships between HEIs, FE colleges and schools, involving HEFCE and the LSC. These partnerships will help develop more cohesive local approaches to raising standards and widening participation.

The LSC and HEFCE will want to discuss together their strategies for widening adult access to HE and we can consider what role the Regional Development Agencies might want to play in such a strategy.

24. We recommend that higher education institutions should consider whether students who have been outside the formal education system for some time need additional support to face the challenge of assessment early in their course. We recommend that institutions should give serious consideration to ring-fencing a small proportion of teaching and research funding to support students at risk of withdrawal (paragraph 83).

We note that this recommendation is directed at institutions themselves. The use of funding provided by the Funding Council as institutional grant is a matter for each institution.

25. We recommend that HEFCE should fund pilot schemes to offer institutions and individual students respectively financial support to provide and attend three-month induction courses over the summer months to prepare students from non-traditional backgrounds for their first year in higher education (paragraph 86).

We already fund summer schools through HEFCE for young people to give them a "taster" of higher education. It is already open to HEIs to run induction events, such as those recommended by the Committee, for which they are able to use their widening access funding.

Such events can be useful, but they do not replace the need to ensure that standard induction arrangements cater for the needs of a diverse student population. One of the aims of the 'Excellence Challenge' programme is to prepare students for higher education by developing closer links between schools, colleges and HEIs, enabling them to take part in tailored events, and giving them better advice and information about university life.

26. We recommend that higher education institutions should recognise that parents have a crucial part to play in providing all kinds of support for the individual student—and not just means-tested contributions to tuition fees and maintenance for those who can afford to pay—and that taking the family into account from the outset can provide valuable reinforcement for increasing continuation rates in the longer term (paragraph 88).

This recommendation reflects the Government's view. The 'Excellence Challenge' programme recognises the crucial role which parents play in decisions over whether to apply for higher education. Elements of the 'Excellence Challenge' include the provision of better information for parents about student support as well as involving parents in open days and other events, and developing and promoting the role of HEIs within the local community.

27. We recommend that HEFCE and the Secretary of State should explore measures for encouraging parents to pay the means-tested contribution to tuition fees, since 20 per cent of students whose parents are expected to pay fail to receive the full contribution with detrimental financial consequences for the students concerned (paragraph 89).

On the latest available evidence in the Student Income and Expenditure Survey (SIES 98/99), 92 per cent of students whose parents are assessed to make a contribution towards their fee support receive the full amount. DfEE publications to students and parents emphasise that parents are expected to make the contributions they are assessed for and we have measures in place to ensure that students who are estranged from their parents are not liable for a parental contribution.

The Government believes that the current approach ensures that the majority of parents recognise their responsibilities towards their children. We are however, keeping the issue under review.

28. We recommend that higher education institutions should be prepared to guarantee childcare places to potential applicants with children under school age (paragraph 90).

In 2000/01 we have provided support to full-time students for the cost of childcare through Access Bursaries and, from 2001/02, full-time students with children with registered or approved childcare will be eligible for a childcare grant of up to 85 per cent of the actual costs. The specific use of funding provided by the Funding Council as institutional grant is a matter for each institution.

29. It would help students make better informed choices of courses of study if they knew at the time of application how many UCAS points (based on A Level scores) they had. We recommend that higher education institutions should actively prepare to adopt a post-qualification applications system (paragraph 91).

The Government appreciates that all parties, including schools, FE colleges and the HE sector, must agree on the way forward and we are aware that the Local Government Association has been consulting on changes to the school year. We await the results of this consultation with interest.

30. We recommend that higher education institutions should be prepared to respond to situations where students wish to continue in full- or part-time employment with an employer with whom they have been undertaking a placement linked to their academic course by offering flexible provision allowing the student a choice of ways to complete what would otherwise be the final year of full-time study (paragraph 94).

This recommendation is a matter for individual institutions to consider but the Government does support the principle of flexible higher education provision. There are many benefits to be gained from integrating academic and work-based learning to ensure that students develop the full range of knowledge and skills that will enable them to pursue satisfying careers. It is for this reason that the Government is introducing new Foundation Degrees.

31. We recommend that the Quality Assurance Agency should help institutions work towards mutual recognition of first year level modules, so that students who have left an institution in their first year are not discouraged from returning to higher education at the same or a different institution by having to start all over again (paragraph 95).

The Government welcomes this recommendation. DfEE officials are promoting discussions and developments. The two main credit consortia are working closely with the QAA to see how credit accumulation and transfer can map onto the National Qualifications Framework. See also recommendation 5 above.

32. We welcome inclusion in the QAA qualifications framework of outcome descriptors that enable achievement below the level of the honours degree to be recognised and which facilitate subsequent resumption of studies (paragraph 96).

The Government fully supports the work that QAA has done to set out the qualifications framework to make higher education qualifications more transparent. The framework represents a consensus about the nature of standards and a commitment to the high quality of teaching and learning that is needed to deliver them. See also recommendation 3 above.

33. We recommend that higher education institutions should carefully examine whether teaching arrangements for students in their first year of study, particularly the deployment of highly experienced teaching staff, fully reflect the importance of providing students with a firm foundation for their higher education (paragraph 98).

This recommendation reflects the Government's view.

34. We recommend that the DfEE and the QAA should agree and publish clear guidelines for the Teaching Quality Assessment which will reduce the burden of paperwork and preparation on both staff and assessors. We recommend that the QAA should consider other forms of inspection—including possibly spot inspection—that might prove less stressful or time-consuming, and should spell out in detail how any lighter touch inspections would operate (paragraph 100).

We are committed to lighter touch arrangements for assessing the quality of teaching and learning and have invited HEFCE to discuss with QAA, Universities UK and SCOP, ways to further reduce the subject review workload while still providing reliable public information for students, employers and others.

35. We welcome the development of greater concern with the quality of teaching in higher education. We recommend that those universities and colleges that do not already do so should introduce clear and systematically monitored requirements for staff participation in appropriate teaching development programmes, not least in order to ensure that the needs of a more diverse student population are recognised and addressed (paragraph 101).

The Institute of Learning and teaching (ILT) was set up in 1999 as a professional body for all who teach and support learning in higher education, aiming to enhance the status of teaching, improve the experience of learning, and support innovation in higher education. It is expected that the ILT will become a forum where academic practitioners learn from each other and from the best research on all aspects of teaching and learning. It works closely with other groups and agencies including UUK, SCOP, HESDA and the HE teachers' professional bodies.

36. We recommend that the DfEE should conduct a review with the Department of Social Security and the Treasury of the interaction between tax, social security and student support with a view to providing the least well-off students with as seamless a service as possible to support their continuing in higher education (paragraph 103).

The DfEE already liaises closely on these interactions with other Departments, including the DSS and Treasury, and will continue to do so. As a result, the new childcare grant and travel/books/equipment grant introduced in 2001/02 will be fully disregarded by DSS for benefits purposes—whereas the lone parents grant, which is being superseded, was not. The childcare grant has been largely modeled on the Working Families Tax Credit childcare credit. We are currently reviewing with DSS how to provide better and clearer information to students about their entitlement to student support and benefits.

37. We expect the results of the research to be carried out by Universities UK into the effect of student debt on student retention to make a useful contribution to informed policy-making for future student financial support arrangements (paragraph 106).

We share the Committee's interest in this research and understand that the results of the project will be published in autumn 2002.

38. We recommend that the Government should commission as a matter of urgency research on the effect of new arrangements for students' financial support on completion rates, particularly with regard to lower socio-economic groups (paragraph 107).

Existing research shows finance to be only one issue affecting completion rates. Evidence from the SIES shows that in 1998/99 only 10 per cent of students had thought about dropping out for financial reasons. Our evaluation of the new arrangements will look at a number of factors including the impact on non-completion, where we will continue to monitor non-completion rates.

39. Some argue that the key features that need to be more widely broadcast to encourage wider participation in higher education are these:

·  undergraduate tuition fees are payable by those whose parents are means-tested as being able to afford them (approximately 50 per cent of students from 2001);

·  higher education is a good investment of time and money and worth borrowing for—within reasonable limits—because most graduates in general earn higher incomes in the long run;

·  student loans are subsidised; and are repayable only after graduation;

  • additional financial help is available for a few of the least well-off students.

We recommend that the Government should seek to tackle the problems of debt aversion and, where held, perception of student debt, insofar as they affect student retention by reinforcing its efforts to get across these messages (paragraph 108).

The Government already provides information for students about the generous repayment terms for student loans and the other support which is available. A recent advertising campaign has emphasised the benefits of higher education in terms of the greater earnings potential for graduates. We will continue our efforts to present this information in as clear and effective a way as possible, using the internet, radio and cinema as the media which prospective students are most likely to access.

Within the 'Excellence Challenge' we have commissioned research into the best ways in which we can get messages across to counter the perceived problems of debt aversion in lower socio-economic group families.

40. We recommend that the Government should tackle the consequences of student poverty for retention by improving access to financial support for less well-off students, raising very substantially the income threshold at which graduates have to begin repayment and addressing concerns about debt escalation (paragraph 109).

The Government has already put in place measures which will improve the financial position for less well-off students including quadrupling the amounts available through the Access and Hardship Funds to £87m in England this year, introducing Hardship Loans of up to £500, and providing school meals grants. Care leavers long vacation grant was introduced in 2000. From 2001/02 the parental income assessment threshold will be raised to £20,000; and a childcare grant of up to £6,360 based on actual costs in place of an Access Bursary of £1,000, a flat rate travel, books and equipment grant of £500 and an enhanced dependants grant will be introduced.

In addition, 50 per cent of all full-time students will not have to pay any contribution to tuition fees and Opportunity Bursaries worth £2,000 each will be available for younger students from disadvantaged backgrounds. By 2003/04 there will be a total of 25,000 Opportunity Bursaries.

We will continue to develop well-targeted help for those in most need, as we have done in tripling disabled students allowances, and extending them to part-time and postgraduate students.

Repayment of student loans through the tax system, with a threshold of £10,000, was introduced in April 2000. The threshold is being kept under review. We are also committed to a review after the first year of operation of the impact on small firms of collecting repayments through PAYE.

ANNEX II

Response from the Higher Education Funding Council for England

The Select Committee's recommendations are in bold text.

1. The HEFCE welcomes the Select Committee's report, which it believes makes a valuable contribution to the development of its policies to increase student success through improved progression and completion. A number of the Select Committee's recommendations are directed at the HEFCE, and our response to these recommendations is as follows.

Recommendation 4

We recognise that the UK has a strong record in the proportion of students who complete their higher education and achieve a qualification at the end of their studies. This is a matter in which the higher education sector should take considerable pride. Nevertheless, we look to the Government, the HEFCE and to higher education institutions to take action to reduce as far as possible the number of students who do not achieve a recognised qualification.

2.  It is good to recognise the UK's strong record in the proportion of students who complete their studies, but we agree the Select Committee that we should aim to do better. The publication of performance indicators provides management with a useful tool for this purpose. In addition, we have commissioned work intended to identify institutions with a particularly good track record in this, in order to enable other to benefit from their experience.

Recommendation 9

We recommend that the HEFCE should, as a matter of urgency, audit the impact of casualisation of higher education staff contracts on the support and pastoral care of students, particularly those from a non-traditional background and part-time or mature students. If this audit highlights structural weaknesses in the support systems for students because of changes in patterns of staff employment, we recommend that higher education institutions should ensure that staff who are not on casual contracts, and who have sufficient time for student support activities, are responsible for support and pastoral care for students. We also recommend that HEFCE should investigate further the reasons why higher education institutions are employing more part-time and fixed-term staff, and in the course of doing so, propose ways of tackling the underlying problems.

3.  The question of staff contracts and arrangements for providing teaching are a matter for institutions themselves. Nevertheless, we recognise that the issue raised by the Select Committee is an important one which has sector wide implications. We will investigate to discover if higher education institutions are employing more part-time and fixed term staff. If this is the case then we will discuss with the institutional representative bodies how we might take forward the suggestion of a review of staff contracts and their impact on the support and pastoral care of students.

Recommendation 10

We are concerned that the overall quality of teaching should not suffer as a result of the emphasis placed upon success in the Research Assessment Exercise. We recommend that the DfEE should seek wide representation from higher education staff on the impact of the 2001 RAE on their workload and responsibilities. In the light of this, HEFCE should consider the possibilities of a joint teaching and research quality assessment to reduce the bureaucratic demands made on institutions and to give a more balanced view of overall performance.

4.  We plan to consult the sector about any future Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) following that in 2001, and we will include in the consultation, as the Select Committee suggests, the question of the impact on workloads and responsibilities. We have just conducted a very extensive review of our research policy, and included in this review was the future of the RAE and the question of whether a separate RAE continues to be appropriate. The conclusion of the review, widely supported in the subsequent consultation, was that as long as research was to be selectively funded, a discrete exercise for assessing its quality would be required. The review also highlighted evidence that good quality research is associated with good quality teaching, which is in turn associated with good rates of student completion.

Recommendation 11

We recommend that HEFCE and individual institutions should look carefully at earmarking funds for outreach activities and pastoral care, and ensure that excellence shown in these areas, especially by younger academics, should enhance rather than jepordize career advancement and promotion.

5.  Significant sums are provided by the HEFCE for widening participation, including retention. While the sums are not earmarked, institutions are asked to state their plans for their use, consistent with strategies which they have been asked to prepare. We agree with the Select Committee that excellence in outreach activities and pastoral care should be a positive factor in advancing the careers and promotion prospects of academics.

Recommendation 13

We recommend that the HEFCE should urgently commission research on the impact of demographic changes and retirements among senior staff over the next ten years, with a view to further recommendations to the Government on funding initiatives for key subjects at risk.

6.  We have recently reviewed the age structure of academic staff, and in general, it seems that the age balance is actually improving. However, this varies between different subjects, following the Select Committee's suggestion, we will look again at this question by subject.

Recommendation 17

We recommend that HEFCE should give the highest priority to publishing their research on non-completion. We recommend that the HEFCE research on non-completion should be complemented by regular and more detailed studies of institutions where non-completion is significantly above the benchmark rate of comparable colleges and universities. We also recommend that HEFCE, working with other bodies such as the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services and the Higher Education Statistics Agency, should establish more robust mechanisms to ensure sufficient data are available more swiftly, so that the nature, extent and causes of non-completion, and how these factors change over time, may be analysed.


7.  Research into non-completion

a.  The analytical team within the Council have nearly completed an investigation of the impact of policy changes on participation levels. Once this work is complete, we plan to concentrate on analysing student completion rates.

8.  Research into best practice among institutions

b.  HEFCE's action on Access Team are looking at relative completion rates and the factors involved in this as part of their current year's work programme, and we will publish and disseminate the results as soon as they are available.

9.  Timeliness of data

c.  The data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) forms the basis for the statistics the HEFCE produce on non-completion.

d.  We have already got agreement from UCAS to provide a service to institutions that should lead to improved the quality of data in their HESA returns. This should eliminate the need to patch HESA data with UCAS files, and speed the production of performance indicators.

e.  We are also working to reduce the `turn round' time for publication of performance indicators. We have already had some success in this area—in the first year performance indicators were published in December, in the second year they were published in October and this year we are aiming to publish them in September.

f.  We plan to hand over publication of performance indicators to the HESA thereby enabling the performance indicator verification process to be integrated with the data collection process. This will allow publication of performance indicators earlier in the year than is currently possible.

Recommendation 18

We recommend that HEFCE should give explicit guidance to all higher education institutions on the treatment for funding purposes of students who move from full-time to part-time study during the year, so that all concerned should be clear on the financial consequences for the institution of the individual students' decision.

8. We will, as the Select Committee recommends, provide explicit guidance to all higher education institutions about this. This will be incorporated into this year's HEFCE early survey of student numbers which is used for funding allocations. We have also asked HESA to further emphasise the guidance in returning the individualised student record which we use to confirm their early return.

Recommendation 19

We recommend that HEFCE should refine and develop its work on benchmarks, so that universities and colleges can measure themselves against achievable targets in comparable institutions.

9. We have been reviewing all aspects of the performance indicators, including the benchmarks, and will continue to do so. We take steps to overcome the impact of poor quality data, and to provide institutions with a detailed toolkit to check their data prior to publication. However, despite these efforts, we believe that the data used in the PI calculations still contains significant errors. There is little point in having a very sophisticated benchmark before this problem is resolved.

10. However, we do plan to help institutions compare themselves with institutions that they judge to be comparable. This will be through a web based facility enabling them to create benchmarks based on their own 'mini-sectors' of selected institutions. This facility will assist institutions in setting achievable targets.

11. We believe that the current benchmarks capture the most important factors relating to non-completion in measuring institutional performance. We think there are advantages to keeping the form of the performance indicators stable and would not wish to make changes in a piecemeal manner each year. There is also a technical issue in that the introduction of more factors into the benchmark entails a move from simple arithmetic calculations to statistical modelling. For these reasons, and the outstanding data quality issues described above, we do not think it would be wise to change the benchmarking method in the short term. In the longer term we will be considering having more sophisticated benchmarks, using the approach taken in producing benchmarks in respect of the indicators of employment.

Recommendation 24

We recommend that higher education institutions should consider whether students who have been outside the formal education system for some time need additional support to face the challenge of assessment early in their course. We recommend that institutions should give serious consideration to ring-fencing a small proportion of teaching and research funding to support students at risk of withdrawal.

12. This recommendation is addressed to institutions, and it will be for institutions themselves to consider. However, we do provide a premium for mature students in recognition of the additional costs involved in supporting students who have been outside the formal education system for some time.

Recommendation 25

We recommend that HEFCE should fund pilot schemes to offer institutions and individual students respectively financial support to provide and attend three-month induction courses over the summer months to prepare students from non-traditional backgrounds for their first year in higher education.

13. The HEFCE administers access and hardship funds on behalf on the Department for Education and Employment, but we are not responsible for monies or policy in respect to student maintenance and support. We already fund summer schools of various kinds, and, in the context of the foundation degree, provide funds for study during the summer period for students progressing to an honours degree. This recommendation represents a further development of the use of the summer, and it is certainly one which we will consider.


1  Fourth Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 2000-01, Higher Education: Access, HC 205, paragraph 53. Back

2  See HC 124, Appendix 17, pages 216-223 Back


 
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