Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness(Questions 420-439)

MARGARET HODGE MBE, a Member of the House of Commons, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education, Department for Education and Skills, was examined.

Wednesday 12 December 2001

  420. You said that in terms of the European average that was where we have to get to. We can judge you a little on this, can we not?
  (Margaret Hodge) On how much progress we have made?

  421. On how much progress you have made.
  (Margaret Hodge) I go back again to this comprehensive spending review. It is critical for the post-16 sector, both FE and HE.

Mr Chaytor

  422. I have one final question on the RAE. The Chief Executive of HEFCE appeared before the Committee on Monday of this week and he gave a strong indication that the trend towards concentration of research in a small number of universities would be intensified by this week's announcement. Do you see any tension between this trend and the importance of devolution? The thinking behind my question is that for 700 years the UK has been dominated by the Oxford/Cambridge/London triangle and some of us would like to see the Manchester/Leeds/Sheffield triangle come in. Other European countries are now understanding the importance of regional development and the universities are a driving force in terms of regional development. Do you see a tension between the concentration of research in the south east and the importance of devolution?
  (Margaret Hodge) I see those as complementary missions. That is why the fundamental review work is pretty important. In terms of UK plc it is very important that we fund the best research properly. If that leads to a concentration that is appropriate. I do not think that our concentration is any greater, for example, than in the US. I believe that you have visited many universities. Proportionally I believe that it is about the same. That is right. Equally, there is an important and growing role for the universities and their regional funds which the HEIF and HEROBC third stream funding have begun to address. I think we need to ensure that that is properly embedded and funded to build that regional capacity. There is an obvious relationship between the two because you do not carry out research without turning it into developments. Cambridge is one of the most successful universities at converting its new technology and new concepts into ideas. Equally, it may be that some of the applied work that goes on under HEIF and HEROBC funds will lead to "blue skies" research elsewhere. You cannot see them as discrete functions. If we get a concentration of research to compete globally, we have to have another incentive to ensure a regional spread.

  423. That implies some greater intervention to adjust the balance.
  (Margaret Hodge) It requires different incentives for funding.

  424. Coming on to student numbers, the manifesto refers to 50 per cent of young people progressing to higher education. In your opening remarks you referred to 50 per cent of young people having the opportunity to participate. What is the difference between the two?
  (Margaret Hodge) I do not think there is anything particularly magic about that. What does the manifesto say?

  425. Progressing to higher education.
  (Margaret Hodge) I think "participating" is better because you can progress to and not participate in.

  426. You said the "opportunity to participate". Someone with the necessary qualifications would have the opportunity to participate if there was a place, but they would not necessarily take up that place.
  (Margaret Hodge) No, "would participate".

  427. So it is numbers in universities.
  (Margaret Hodge) Numbers in universities.

  428. Not numbers with the appropriate qualifications?
  (Margaret Hodge) No.

  429. Would those be people on three-year degrees or how do you define participation?
  (Margaret Hodge) As you know, when the Secretary of State came to see the Committee she told you that it is one of the issues at which we are currently looking. We have to bottom out what we mean so that we can ensure that we know how many more we need to bring into the system to meet the manifesto objective and target. That has never been done before. No one has tried to measure it in this way before, so we need a base from which to make the measurement. The way we currently measure it is on the nature of the qualification and on the length of time studied. At the moment the measurement is over a year and the qualifications are not all three-year degrees. Some are HNDs, HNCs, foundation courses and other qualifications which will count as higher education. We shall start from that base. We are looking at a number of qualifications that it seems that one can complete in less than a year, but they are of a nature that warrants them being higher education qualifications. They are courses in nursing, in law and in business and management; they are professional qualifications. We shall ask QCA to look at those to validate them to ensure that they are of an appropriate quality to justify an HE label. Those are the only other ones that we may bring into the definition.

  430. Does that not suggest that you are inflating the nature of certain qualifications to meet the target artificially?
  (Margaret Hodge) No. We have never had to have a baseline before. We are trying to get the right baseline from which to measure progress. All we have had before is the initial entry rate. That is the only thing we have ever measured. We are now trying to measure participation in higher education and we have to have a baseline against which to measure progress. I would be interested in the Committee's views on this. We do not have a preconceived view. It seems to us that there are these professional qualifications that I believe are valid HE qualifications. We need the QCA to do that objectively for us.

  431. Does it, therefore, follow that if the Government is to consider redefining the nature of HE qualifications, that 50 per cent of the target could be achieved without any increase at all?
  (Margaret Hodge) No. If we were fiddling the definition, we may be closer to the target. We are not in the business of fiddling the definition. We are in the business of establishing a strong baseline. I say to the Committee that there is a valid question to be asked in relation to professional qualifications in subjects like nursing, law and business and management that can be done in less than a year. I believe we should think about those in relation to our current baseline. It would not be up to us, but if the QCA validate them that is a pretty objective way of doing it.

Chairman

  432. Would they be level three or level four?
  (Margaret Hodge) That is a good question. They would be beyond level three. That is a QCA issue. I would hate to prejudge that. Over the coming period, we shall look at this range of other qualifications to see whether they should be counted in the baseline or not.

Mr Chaytrr

  433. You would accept that most parents and young people and those working in the higher education sector would assume that the target was intended to be met by increasing the number of graduates? You are saying that we are looking at a target that could be achieved without any increase in the number of graduates?
  (Margaret Hodge) No, I am not saying that at all. Equally, we hope to grow the number of people doing foundation degrees. We have only just launched them. Despite reports to the contrary, they have been pretty successful. There has been an 85 per cent take-up rate so far. Lots of them are part-time courses. If you look at how HE may change over the period, I believe that we shall see more part-time study rather than full-time study. There will be a growth of first degrees, a growth of HNDs and HNCs and foundation degrees and other professional qualifications. I think that is perfectly valid. Fifteen or 20 years ago nursing would not have been considered a higher education discipline for qualification. Now it is. Things move on.

  434. Within the overall target of 50 per cent, will there be subsidiary targets in relation to the number of students expected to have done three-year degrees or foundation degrees?
  (Margaret Hodge) No, we have not considered that.

Chairman

  435. I would like to press the Minister on one point. Sir Michael Bichard came before this Committee at its final session before the election. When pushed to assess where the 50 per cent came from, for example, from international comparisons, from scientific surveys or was it just a nice, round, juicy number, we came close to the view that it was a nice, round, juicy number. Do you know from where the 50 per cent came? Who was responsible for that figure? It is a very tough target. If you look at it in detail, a lot of the people you are talking about are going through the system now and you have to bring them back into the system post the age of 21 or 22. It is a tough target. Forensically, do you know from where that figure came and do you consider it to be a realistic target?
  (Margaret Hodge) I do not know its origin. I think that it is an ambitious and realistic target. It is an important target, both in terms of economic growth and in terms of social inclusion. On the growth side, research carried out for the Skills Task Force showed that a 10 per cent increase in participation would lead to a 3.5 per cent rise in GDP. That is no mean improvement. Also out of the new jobs that will be created in the knowledge economy over the next decade, 1.7 million—80 per cent—will require the kind of qualifications acquired through higher education. In terms of inclusion, we have been through the argument, but we have to make higher education something that is available for everyone. It is tough. It will depend to a large extent on our ability to deliver a much better staying-on rate and a better level of qualification rate. That is why working together through the 14 to 19 year-olds agenda that we are doing across the department is so crucial. We have to raise this prior attainment level. It is fascinating that we have just established the Excellence Challenge Programme, which is a £190 million programme which is about trying to change the culture and attitudes towards university. There is a shocking statistic that 40 per cent of young people from C2, D and E socio-economic groups do not hear about university as an option for them as they go through their compulsory school years. The Excellence Challenge Programme partly funds activities of universities into the schools and local communities, partly funds activities at the school level and Opportunity Bursaries and partly funds an advertising campaign. There are four elements to it. When I go around the country talking to universities, to LEAs and to LSCs, really good stuff comes out about how students go into schools and make a difference; how bringing the kids into summer schools at universities is making a huge difference; how teaching staff at HEs and schools are finally beginning to talk to each other which is making a difference. We have not tried this before. We have never had a really concerted effort at raising aspirations. We shall have to do a lot of that kind of work over the coming period. The growth required is 1 per cent per annum.

  Chairman: We shall return to the subject of 14 to 19 year-olds, but we are pleased to hear that. Some of us who went to the US found that they were very professional, whereas some of the staff here, although well-meaning, are rather amateur. Universities are good at following the money. If there is good funding and if the approach is professional we would welcome that.

Mr Chaytor

  436. What happens beyond 2010?
  (Margaret Hodge) Onwards and upwards. I do not know.

Chairman

  437. Presumably you will still be in the job?
  (Margaret Hodge) Absolutely. We shall have abolished age discrimination by then.

Mr Chaytor

  438. Would it not be better to establish a more modest target for 2010 and then progress after that? The young people going to university in 2010 are about to start their secondary education now.
  (Margaret Hodge) Targets are really difficult. You want to make them realistic and you want to make them ambitious. I think we have this one about right. Time will tell. We shall have to improve on our current performance. We shall have to improve on attainment levels at level three. We shall have to change aspirations. We shall have to get the funding right. We have to get all kinds of things right to make it happen.

  439. Therefore, you envisage a higher target for 2015?
  (Margaret Hodge) I do not have a clue.


 
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