Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
TUESDAY 1 MAY 2001
BICHARD, KCB, MR
40. My Director of Education in Surrey said
that the fact that Surrey schools have had relatively low vacancy
levels until this year is of little comfort to them in dealing
with their current difficulties. What comfort can you give to
Surrey and other education authorities that this September there
will be an increase in the number of teachers available to fill
this very large number of posts which have been made vacant.
(Mr Normington) It is true that there is increased
demand for teachers and in fact the extra money which is in the
system is being used to create extra posts. Compared with last
year it has created 7,700 extra teaching posts and that is part
of the reason why demand for teachers is increasing. In terms
of giving the Surrey Director of Education help, I would say a
number of things. One is that we have more teachers training this
year. For the first time for quite a lot of years it has turned
up, so we have more teachers training who will be coming out this
summer, so there is an increased supply. We are providing incentives
for those who have left teaching for some reason to come back.
About 12,000 to 13,000 return to the profession each year. We
need to try to raise that number. We are also trying to persuade
more teachers with incentives to come to take teaching posts as
a second career and providing incentives for them. By the way,
Surrey, along with most of the authorities in London and the South
East are getting extra money which was given in the Budget to
provide recruitment and retention incentives to schools with particular
41. On that very point they are saying that
it will be difficult to prevent some schools from bidding up the
market price for scarce staff because we are being asked to focus
the additional funding on approximately half of our secondary
(Mr Normington) As I understand it they are being
asked to focus it on those schools which have the greatest difficulties
in recruitment which seems to me to be the sensible way to focus
42. I want to follow on from this funding discussion
we are having and there is no doubt that extra money is going
through to the schools and they are all very grateful for that.
I represent an area not unlike Nick's but in Hertfordshire. We
are considerably bothered about the talk of the rejigging of the
funding arrangements, particularly as regards area cost adjustments.
We have been very pleased with the extra money but a cold wind
blew through the other day when we were told that this was under
review and that there was going to be a massive change with carloads
of money going from south to north. That bothered us quite considerably.
The idea of area cost adjustments is to reflect the extra costs
involved in providing a service within these high cost areas and
Hertfordshire is one of the highest in the country, not to cover
deprivation; there is a misunderstanding about that in some areas.
Could you comment on that?
(Mr Normington) There is a proposition on the table
in the Government's local authority Green Paper from the autumn
to reform local authority funding and education funding is at
the centre of that. It was a pre-emptive strike the other day
from those in the south to raise this issue because there is no
decision to shift money within the system. There have been no
decisions on that funding Green Paper at all yet, it is still
being consulted about. What is on the table in that funding Green
Paper is a number of options but one is to say that there is a
basic sum which is the basic cost of funding pupils' education
across the country. Then that needs to be adjusted by deprivation
factors and also taking into account the cost of high cost areas
as in London and the South East. That debate will rage because
obviously it is about how you distribute money around the system
and I suppose it is the one thing which causes us the most correspondence
in the DfEE.
43. Could it be that the SSA formula itself
is wrong in that authorities like Hertfordshire have to have area
cost adjustments added on top to reflect the costs they have in
providing the service?
(Mr Normington) The area cost adjustment is part of
the way in which local authority funding works. I would not want
to say every aspect of the current standards spending assessment
is right, indeed that is what is being looked at. Every local
authority in the country has written to us at some point to say
that the system operates unfairly against it. This is an argument
which will rage over the next few months.
44. May I shift just for a moment? You made
some comment on higher education and one of the things we picked
up when we were doing our inquiry into both access and retention
is that now and then we do have witnesses before us who have asked
what the rationale behind the 50 per cent is. What is the rationale?
It seems to be plucked out of the air by you or the Secretary
of State or the Prime Minister, but is there any logic? What is
the logic of 50 per cent? Perhaps there is only 45.5 per cent
of the population at any one time or at this moment who could
benefit from higher education. Why the 50 per cent? I ask you
this very seriously because a number of very well qualified people
this Committee have talked to asked what the basis was for the
(Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think we can scientifically
prove that 50 per cent is the right target. To some extent it
is an estimate. What you can do is look at the current rate of
participation, you can take a view on the demand for graduates
in the future, particularly as we move into the cliché
of a knowledge economy. You can take a view also of improvements
in your education system and assess whether or not you are going
to see an increase in the number of people who could take advantage
of higher education. From all of that you have to make an assessment.
Participation at the moment is over 33 per cent and over a period
of time our belief is that we need to increase that. We are talking
about 50 per cent of 18-30 year olds and 2010 is the year we have
said; it is quite a long period of time. It seems to me, with
the current state of our knowledge, not an unreasonable target
to set but we need to keep it under review.
45. What I am asking is that you have been the
Permanent Secretary over this period of time, have you not at
any time either asked your Minister or he asked you on what basis
the 50 per cent is agreed? Is it on the basis of some estimate
which came out of Dearing? Is it out of international comparisons
of where we should be? There must be some derivation or did it
come from spin doctors who say that 50 per cent sounds like a
nice plump figure?
(Sir Michael Bichard) No, it does not come from whatever
spin doctors are. Part of it is about whether you believe there
are going to be more people capable of taking advantage of HE
or what our competitors are doing and whether or not graduates
are getting an economic return on their education. The demand
for graduates is still high. We believe it will increase and in
those circumstances 50 per cent over a ten-year period when the
current performance will be at least 35 per cent actually does
not seem an unreasonable assumption. We need to keep it under
46. What you have described sounds eminently
(Sir Michael Bichard) I am pleased at that.
47. It is a very different picture from the
one the Government is trying to get over. You suggested that demand
will grow organically, that the economy will create a demand,
that more people will have the school age dedication which makes
them able to reach that. That is not how it is being sold by the
Government. The Government is selling it by saying they will get
50 per cent of people through there. Certainly the perception
which is coming through is that it is almost that they will get
the 50 per cent through whether or not they are actually able
to benefit from it.
(Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think the Government
would accept that and I certainly would not want to present it
on that basis. Everything we have been trying to do in schools
to drive up standards is about ensuring that we have more people
who are capable of taking advantage of higher education and can
make a contribution to our economic success. It seems to me that
the two pretty obviously go together. If the media have been unable
to make that connection, then I apologise on their behalf, but
it seems to me to be a pretty obvious connection for me.
48. We have had two quite significant reports
out of this Committee this last year on higher education. The
evidence which came throughyou mentioned global competition
across the university, global economy, global competitionis
that perhaps our universities were not as big or as well managed.
That was not the problem which came to us most often during our
deliberations and the taking of evidence. The predominant one
was how long we can continue paying university staff relatively
low salariesand I know I took this up with you a year ago
and you will know of my interest in this and you will have even
greater interest in a couple of weeks' timethe fact of
the matter is that the evidence does suggest that we cannot any
longer pay as little as we do in university salaries and continue
to provide high quality competitive institutions in a globally
competitive environment. Is that or is that not the case?
(Sir Michael Bichard) I do not want to go over the
debate we had last year about this.
49. The old debates are the best ones.
(Sir Michael Bichard) I accepted then and acknowledged
then and I acknowledge now that there are some subjects where
it is difficult to recruit, partly because the disciplines are
under great pressure in our national market and in some of the
cases internationally and in those disciplines, in those subjects,
universities will need to pay more to compete. The Government
have actually made available a significant increase in funding
this year to universities, part of which is to enable them to
increase pay. The issue has been acknowledged, something has been
done. Whether or not it is enough, we shall have to wait and see.
50. This is not just the Committee or the Chairman
of this Committee being negative. This is the Chairman of the
Committee saying we took the education part of this Committee
to Manchester. We spoke to five university Vice-Chancellors. The
Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University said he was doing all
right, he was a research rich university, he had done very well
out of this Government. The extra money for research had made
his life very much more interesting and he had benefited a great
deal. He turned to the teaching universities around the table
and said they were the people who were struggling. That is the
concern of this Committee that if we are going to provide good
teaching, then we have to help those universities which spend
more of their time teaching than researching. That does seem to
be a problem and that is not what I said last year to you, it
is a concern that this Committee in its deliberations found in
terms of doing the hard work we did over the year.
(Sir Michael Bichard) There is always a debate to
be had as to whether or not Government has invested enough. Let
us look at the facts and statistics in this current year. There
is an extra £412 million going into higher education and
that is 7.6 per cent which is one of the reasons why we produced
an increase per student for the first time in 15 years. Next year
another £268 million, another 4.6 per cent, the year after
£300 million, five per cent. It is not as though there is
no additional money going into HE, some of it has been targeted
particularly at pay. I am quite prepared, indeed keen, to find
common ground with you, which is around the fact that we need
to keep this closely under review because we do need to maintain
and protect our competitiveness. Once again I shall be looking
forward to pressing this from a different direction.
Chairman: We will be hoping to see you at the
parliamentary university group.
Mr St Aubyn
51. The numbers going to university from poorer
homes virtually doubled in the ten years up to 1997. In the first
three years at least of this Government the numbers stood still
or in fact slightly declined. Do you think there is any connection
between this and the new system of student support which the new
(Sir Michael Bichard) I do not have access to your
52. They are in the Select Committee report
and they come from UCAS.
(Sir Michael Bichard) My statistics suggest that the
number of younger students, by which I mean under 30, coming from
non-professional homes has not changed greatly over the last 20
years. I am not sure of your definition of poorer families.
53. Those from the non-professional families
are much lower numbers.
(Sir Michael Bichard) There has never been a significant
increase in the number of children from those families.
54. The Dearing Report, in its section on access,
which I think is section 6, actually says the number from the
poorest homes doubled and also showed that the proportion coming
from less well off homes, the percentage, virtually doubled. That
is the source of the statistic up until 1997.
(Sir Michael Bichard) I need to refresh my memory
of Dearing because I think one of the concerns I have about the
system generally is that we have not seen more young people from
non-professional families going to university. Of course there
was a debate at the time as to whether or not tuition fees and
changes to student support were going to make that even more unlikely.
The Government's view was that the only way you were going to
get an increase in poorer family representation in universities
was to expand provision and move towards some higher target. The
target is now 50 per cent. In order to achieve that expansion,
you needed some injection of new resource, which is what tuition
fees and student support have achieved. It is a question that
we shall have to keep an eye on as to whether that does turn out
to be the case.
55. Is not the big impact the abolition of the
grant and replacement by a system of loans which have to be repaid
not at the same threshold level which the Government inherited,
but a new lower threshold of £10,000. Why was that figure
of £10,000 ever chosen?
(Sir Michael Bichard) That is a matter of judgement
but you are right to say that is the key. It is not the tuition
fees but the student support arrangements. The Government need
to keep an eye on the perception of debt and whether or not that
becomes a disincentive to the people, from whatever class, going
56. Just for the record, there was no scientific
or evidential base on which the figure of £10,000 as income
threshold for repaying loans was based, it was simply a judgement
by the Minister at the time.
(Sir Michael Bichard) With all of the information
and evidence available. There is no scientific judgement you can
make that it should be £10,000 rather than any other figure.
57. Is there a rationale you can summarise for
the Committee or give to the Committee in writing as to why £10,000
was, in the view of the department, the right figure to choose?
(Sir Michael Bichard) The Government were looking
for a figure at which it seemed reasonable that people should
be expected to repay some of the loan and that was the figure
they chose as reasonable.
Mr St Aubyn: No more basis than that.
Chairman: Just a nice round fat figure.
58. One specific point on that access question.
It seems to me that the critical test is whether you are actually
seeing fresh faces coming into the higher education system in
constituencies like the Secretary of State's over in Sheffield
Brightside. In mine, in Sheffield Hallam, I have no doubt people
are still going in in large numbers. It has been difficult to
get those figures. Do you in the Department look at the figures
down to that kind of detail where you can actually see whether
there is a change in time from specific geographical areas where
you know it is likely that there has been no history of university
attendance? Do you make those available in any way?
(Sir Michael Bichard) The figures must be available
on a sub-regional basis but I do not have them.
I shall look to see whether we have them available but the figures
I am basing my conclusions on are, I accept, national figures.
May I just say that if that is going to change it will only change
if we have in Sheffield Brightside, as I am reminded most days
of the week, an education system which is delivering higher standards.
That is what the whole of the school improvement programme and
all the other things we were talking about is there to achieve.
Mr Allan: I do not disagree with that. There
has been some reluctance for the very localised figures; the sub-regional
would not help if you wanted to look at the two sides of Sheffield.
There has been some reluctance to release that because of perceived
market sensitivity and seeing who is going where is perceived
as a market sensitivity question.
59. We also now know with some great clarity
since last November where students come from on a post code basis.
We recommended in the Education Sub-Committee report that the
premium for taking children from the lower social and economic
post code areas should be raised from five to 20 per cent. It
sounded along the grain of what you were saying that you quite
approve of that. Are we going to see the department embracing
that recommendation quite soon?
(Sir Michael Bichard) Not within the next week, no.
There is a live debate around that and I am often told by Vice-Chancellors
that that is the thing that would change the participation most.
It is a more complex issue than that but I am sure a new Government
of whatever colour will want to have a look at that.
1 See page 13. Back