Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)

MONDAY 10 DECEMBER 2001

SIR HOWARD NEWBY AND MR BAHRAM BEKHRADNIA

  60. Given that far fewer than 34 per cent of 18 to 34 year olds will currently have some experience, the increase required is not just the increase from 34 per cent to 50 per cent, it is a much more significant increase than that?
  (Sir Howard Newby) I do not quite follow the logic of that actually.

  61. If we assume as each cohort goes by the participation rate increases, which it has done for the last ten years, those who are currently now in their mid-20s will not have participated to the same degree as those who are currently 18—
  (Sir Howard Newby) I see what you mean.

  62. —therefore the overall participation rate of 18 to 30—
  (Sir Howard Newby) It would if you held the demography static, yes. Of course the other fluctuation is that the number in each cohort changes from year to year because of demography. To hit that target, our estimate is that at least 90 per cent of the increase would have to be in the ages 18 to 21.

  63. The key to achieving that is increasing the number of young people with relevant qualifications, Level 3 qualifications?
  (Sir Howard Newby) That is quite true.

  64. If you were to recommend to your board they ought to make a submission to the Government, given the crucial importance of increasing the qualifications of 16 to 19 year olds, would it not follow that one of your recommendations ought to be the student support system should be increasingly biased towards encouraging young people to stay beyond 16?
  (Sir Howard Newby) Yes, I would say that, but not in a way which is mutually exclusive. As I said earlier, we are looking at a 14 to 19 progression problem, so there are existing incompatibilities between the way in which, in terms of student support, full-time and part-time students are treated and the way in which FE and HE students are treated.

  65. But if the size of the cake is fixed, would you argue for a redistribution towards the 16 to 19 age group?
  (Sir Howard Newby) I am not going to be drawn into that argument because I think it is a mistake to—

  66. This must be crucial. You have admitted you want to see more people with Level 3 qualifications, and that means more young people have to stay on beyond 16, and one of the ways of achieving that is to provide appropriate support for them.
  (Sir Howard Newby) If it comes to this level of argument, I would argue very, very strongly it should not be either/or, that it should not be a zero sum game. In other words, I think we need to invest in both 16 to 18, to ensure their education progression, and in post-18 to ensure we can attract and retain the students we have.

  67. But if the size of the cake is fixed and you think we should invest in both, that inevitably means you are arguing for a redistribution because we are investing in 16 to 19 years at the moment.
  (Sir Howard Newby) But I do not wish to choose those grounds on which to argue. I believe it is a mistake we should assume the size of the cake is fixed. I think this country still needs to invest far more in education than it currently does. We are well behind the OECD average.

  68. In terms of education overall or student support especially?
  (Sir Howard Newby) In terms of education overall. On student support specifically we actually pay rather more than the OECD average.

  Ms Munn: Which comes back to my point earlier.

Mr Baron

  69. Do you think targets are helpful in this respect?
  (Sir Howard Newby) Yes, I do. Whether it is set at the right level—

  70. Whether it is set at the right level or not, at the end of the day surely the answer must be to put the right policies in place and hope the improvement comes through. If you set targets, is there not a danger, particularly if the resource does not come through, you will lower the quality you are offering generally?
  (Sir Howard Newby) There is always a danger that targets distort the behaviour beyond what would be advisable or appropriate. But I do think in this particular area sensible targets are advisable because I think it does create a focus and unity of purpose across the different parts of the education system which otherwise would not be very well joined up.

  71. Is this a sensible target?
  (Sir Howard Newby) It is a very challenging target.

  72. You should be a politician!
  (Sir Howard Newby) Was that a compliment?

Chairman

  73. The one thing which worries me from this first phase of questioning is that I have known you as really not a bureaucrat and you have always led from the front in all the jobs I have known you in, and you seem to be a bit wishy-washy today, in the sense that here is the Government having a cross-departmental review of student finances which is really going to impact on your organisation and the future of higher education, and you are going to sit there and wait until it all happens and say, "Then we will take a view on it"? I do not even like or approve of boxing but surely you should be in there knocking on doors, pushing against them, doing all the things you should be doing to lobby for the higher education sector you love?
  (Sir Howard Newby) I recognise the force of that comment, Chairman. If I seem wishy-washy let me explain the kind of dilemma I find myself in, and perhaps you could advise me. The nature of advice that I give to ministers I assume has to remain confidential. I think that does present me with a little bit of a difficulty because I am still finding my way in this job and I do not know how far I can be frank with you in terms of my personal opinions and how far the nature of the advice and the infighting I am conducting, and I am conducting it, should remain confidential to myself and to ministers.

  74. Our rich experience with other public officials can give you quite a range of behaviour.
  (Sir Howard Newby) Let me assure the Committee, yes, I have given private advice to ministers on this matter and, yes, I do have quite strong personal views because I come from a background which benefited from a previous round of widening participation, although that term was never used then. I hope I am doing good work but I hope it is by stealth at the present time.

  75. Let us move into the next phase of questioning. If you look at the recent report on student debt and student aversion to debt by the Sutton Trust, that makes quite a powerful contribution, does it not? We did not find in our original investigation the strength that would say "this is the most important thing, student debt, aversion to debt". We did not find that because the time had not elapsed. Has the time elapsed, with the Sutton Trust and your own experience, that you can now say "this is up there as one of the greatest priorities that we are facing"?
  (Sir Howard Newby) I think if we are talking about the category of students that we are all agreed we have to attract into higher education, that is those from poorer backgrounds, I think aversion to debt is a major factor, yes. If we are talking about students in general I am not so sure. I think for those whom we have traditionally recruited and where the expansion has taken place I am by no means convinced that aversion to debt is anything like as high as it sometimes seems because many of those students have gone into debt to finance a lifestyle as much as anything else. For students who cannot get the kind of parental support which students from more affluent backgrounds receive and have been accustomed to, aversion to debt is a major issue.

  Chairman: Jonathan is our expert on lifestyle. Do you want to ask a question?

  Mr Shaw: On lifestyle?

  Chairman: Professor Newby is making the case that some of the debt and the work that students do goes to maintaining a lifestyle rather than paying off or worrying about debt.

  Mr Shaw: Do you want me to answer questions from there or shall I leave the room?

  Chairman: This is a kind way of knowing you have to leave at five and getting you a quick question in.

  Mr Shaw: I am stumped.

  Chairman: You do not want one?

  Mr Shaw: No.

  Chairman: David?

Mr Chaytor

  76. If I can come in on the evidence because in all the papers that we have read the comment comes up time and time again that the evidence about the relationship between debt or the perception of debt and participation is inconclusive. My question is I do not understand why it is inconclusive because it must be possible to track the cohorts since 1998 and consider the relationship between the numbers of students in each year in each social class and see if there is a differential emerging, and that is those students in social classes C, D and E with two or three A levels are disproportionately not continuing to higher education.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) There are only two years we have been able to look at because the fee has made no difference to the poorest. The change in Student Maintenance Arrangements was introduced in 1999. So we have got 1999-2000 and 2000-01, as the two cohorts we have been able to look at.

  77. What does the evidence say?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) The evidence, such as it is, is that we have not perceived any change in the relative propensity to come into higher education from different social groups. We really have to be careful, it is very early days, and the fact that we have not detected any does not mean to say that there is not any but that we do not have the evidence to say the changed level of debt has provided a disincentive.

  78. So over the last three years the number of applications has continued to increase and there is no differential between the different social classes?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) We have not detected a differential between the different groups.

  79. We have also got evidence of what happened from 1990 onwards when the part loan first came in. In that period 1990-98 was there any evidence that there was a class factor, that students from social classes C2, D and E were not coming forward because of the partial abolition of the maintenance grant from 1990?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I am not aware of any research looking differentially at different social groups at that time but what happened was that the numbers increased very rapidly for the first three or four years of that period and then plateau-ed for the rest of it. I am not sure whether you can read anything into that, I am not aware of any differential investigation of that kind.


 
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