Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Welcome to the Committee of Public Accounts. Today we are considering the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report on Widening Participation in Higher Education in England. We are delighted to be joined by Mr David Normington, the Permanent Secretary to the Department for Education and Skills, and Professor Sir Howard Newby, the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Welcome. Mr Normington, perhaps I can start with you and go straight to Page 6, Figure 2, of the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report. You will see there under Figure 2 groups with historically low representation within the student population, and you will see that you are making good progress over the last six years with women, ethnic minorities and people declaring disabilities. However, there has been no progress whatsoever in terms of social classes IIIM, IV and V. I understand that from an historically low base, although data is not very good, that five to ten per cent—and we are talking about history going back to the Second World War—there has been a gradual rise but no progress within the last six years. Why has there been no progress, Mr Normington?

  (Mr Normington) I think it is absolutely right that the number of people from the lower socio-economic groups going into higher education has risen but the overall proportion has not risen. I think there are a whole number of reasons for that, but the most important reason, and I guess the reason we will keep coming back to and which the Report keeps coming back to, is about prior attainment. It is basically that not enough students from the lower socio-economic groups are getting good enough GCSEs and they are therefore not staying on in full-time education and they are not going on to get A-levels. Once you get A-levels your chances of going into higher education are very high. 90 per cent of those with two A-levels go into higher education and all the focus, therefore, of our policies is on helping and supporting people from lower socio-economic groups to get better GCSEs and to get better A-levels.

  2. Obviously colleagues will want to go into the fundamental aspects of this Report in more detail. If you stay on Page 6 and look at Figure 1, you will see the three targets there that relate to widening participation. How confident are you that these targets will be met? Will you meet the 50 per cent participation target?
  (Mr Normington) It is for 2010 so it is a long time off. I am as confident as I can be that we are putting in place the plans and policies to achieve it. We are at somewhere about 41 per cent now. That is quite a mountain to climb, but I am reasonably confident that if we pursue the policies that we are putting in place that we will have a very good chance of meeting it.

  3. You do not think the targets are too ambitious?
  (Mr Normington) The more difficult target is the one which talks about significant year-on-year progress in widening participation. I think it is difficult to increase participation but even more challenging to widen participation. For the reasons we touched on just briefly in the answer to the first question, I think that is going to be the bigger challenge. To do both of these things is the really big challenge. I think we will meet the third one, the 2002 target, and we are very, very close to it already.

  4. Sir Howard, if I could now ask you to please look at Page 9, Figure 8. You will see that some institutions there have a very small proportion of students from poorer social classes. What are you doing to persuade them to accept more students from poorer social classes or indeed to encourage more to apply?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) We have asked all the higher education institutions in England to provide us with their widening participation strategies which will include targets for improvement in this kind of area. They report to us on their progress towards these targets through their annual operating statement. There is a very wide variation. Many would suggest that they would like to see that variation much less than it currently is. It is, of course, very much tied up with the previous education and qualifications of the students submitted to these different institutions.

  5. You will see there that there are some very low figures indeed. I understand, if we just look at Oxford and Cambridge, that they do not, apparently, have too bad a record in accepting those from the poorer social classes who apply—about a third—but their problem is that people just do not apply. Is that correct?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That is correct.

  6. And what are you doing, and what are they doing to try and get over this culture of people simply not applying to Oxford and Cambridge from the poorer social classes?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Universities like Oxford and Cambridge, and it includes some others in addition to them, are already in receipt of what we call an "aspiration premium", which is money specifically directed to those institutions to pay for the additional costs of them going out into schools and colleges and into parts of the country which historically have had very low rates of participation in higher education generally, and entry to those universities in particular, to try to raise aspirations, to work with schools and colleges, to inform them about their admissions' policies, and to demonstrate that they operate on the basis of merit and no other basis.

  7. I am wondering if any of the mechanisms you are using are particularly effective. If you look at the Appendix, for instance, on Page 31, if I can just return to that, this is about trying to encourage participation from various postcodes. If you look at that figure there, postcodes with lowest participation, you have got that figure of 40 per cent. Reading that, it looks like even in those postcodes, which presumably are picked because they are supposed to be poorer classes, 60 per cent come from the better off classes anyway, so I am not sure how effective this mechanism is.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) We are reviewing it. First of all, I should say that the postcode indicator was introduced as an attempt to find a proxy for the kinds of issues that we are discussing. For a variety of technical reasons, we recognise that both in remoter rural areas and in some inner city areas like London, postcode is not a very good proxy. So we are reviewing this and my Board agreed only last week to move forward on the basis of a complete review of indicators like this to see whether we can find a means of directing the support we offer in a more specific and concentrated way to those who need it.

  8. Mr Normington, if I could ask you now to go back to Page 22 and look at Figure 19, you will see there that there is a bewildering array of funds to which students, particularly poorer students, can apply for support. What are you doing to make the system a lot simpler? The basic problem is, is it not, that if you come from a family which has no involvement traditionally in higher education, you yourself make a business decision "is it worth my while going on?" And you have got this completely bewildering array of possible support mechanisms in front of you. It is a bit off-putting.
  (Mr Normington) Yes, I think it is too complicated.

  9. How do you make it more simple?
  (Mr Normington) There are two things to say. I think the basic support arrangements through a contribution to tuition fees and the loan, that basic system which applies to most people, is not that complicated, and it is only those two things that apply to many potential students. It is all the discretionary and hardship funds which are difficult to understand. It is not that they are just difficult to understand, I think it is also there is very little certainty, if you are poor, as to whether you will get them, and the answer is that we have this review going on of student finance, the first aim of which is to simplify the system, particularly as it relates to all these discretionary funds. It looks particularly complicated. Some of these arrows apply to only very small numbers but I agree very much with the general thrust of what you have said and what the Report says.

  10. When will the review report?
  (Mr Normington) The review will report soon. I cannot tell you precisely when.

  11. Do you think it would be helpful if you had a one-stop shop for students to go to?
  (Mr Normington) This is something else we are looking at. At the moment there are two sources of assessment, one is the local authority and one is the higher education institution. The reason we concentrated a lot of the hardship and access funds on the universities was because they are best-placed to judge whether that student is in hardship as they are applying and when they are in the university. Some of this is the function of trying to target access and hardship and discretionary funds very precisely on those students who are in most difficulty. I think, though, that it has created a complicated system.

  12. If you now go back to Page 11 and look at Figures 9 and 10—and this is going back to the point you were making earlier about groups not participating in higher education because they leave education at age 16—when do you think that your initiatives that you are taking will have some impact on this problem?
  (Mr Normington) We are beginning to see already the first signs of improved levels of attainment at GCSE for pupils from poorer families and from poorer areas. That is partly as a result of the Government's efforts to raise attainment in the inner city areas through its Excellence in Cities programmes. We are begining to see that happening and to see faster improvement in those areas than overall and as soon as that starts happening it ought to begin to knock on into staying on rates in further education and post-16 and into A-levels. There are some other things that are necessary and will, I hope, help. One is the great efforts that are going on to link up universities and schools much earlier so that you raise the ambitions of children much earlier. I think you have to get to them much earlier than 14 or 15 because by then they are already taking decisions about what they are going to study. We are also providing better advice through the Connections Service and we are providing support for poorer students beyond 16 through Educational Maintenance Allowances. The combination of those things will, I think, very shortly begin to see more poorer students coming through. I answered the first question by saying that this is the big challenge and you can see from Figure 9 why that is.

  13. You sound very confident so to go back to my first question, that first figure, that rather depressing graph that I pointed out to you that showed no progress, you are confident that we are going to see that edging upwards?
  (Mr Normington) I said that it was a very tough challenge. I am confident that we are putting in place the arrangements to do it. Eight years before we have to hit the target I am confident we are getting the policies in place.

  14. Sir Howard, could I now ask you to turn to Appendix 3, Paragraph 8, Page 31. This is talking about these benchmarks. They are just benchmarks, they are not targets so I was wondering what you are doing to change the regime to encourage a real improvement.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) As you say, these are benchmarks and they are designed to reflect back to the institutions how well they are actually performing compared to how well we feel they could reasonably be expected to perform. Looking forward to the future, we have it in mind to set targets. These targets would be set not just for individual higher education institutions but for higher educational institutions working in partnership with schools and colleges so that over a period of time and broken down into different localities we could try to hit the 50 per cent participation target and do something about widening participation as well.

  15. This is the last point on this theme. If you go back to Page 18, Figure 16, Sir Howard, we are talking here about the activities to raise aspirations, but a lot of this is just attracting people who would go on to higher education anyway. How are you trying to target the right people who you want to get into higher education who have not hitherto enjoyed it?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) The way forward is to develop something we are calling "Partnerships for Progression". I very much agree that the problem is a 14 to 19 educational progression issue. We come in at the end of that and that is why to take really effective action we have to work in collaboration with schools and colleges within a local area and so with our partners we need to move on several fronts at once. We need to raise aspirations. Schools and colleges will need to raise levels of attainment. We in the higher education sector need to make sure that the courses we are offering are attractive and fit for purpose for students and that our admissions policies are fair and equitable.

  16. Do you accept that this is a very serious problem and there are some council estates where not a single person historically is going on educationally post 16?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I certainly do.

  17. Do you think that the measures you have got in place to tackle this very serious problem are effective and likely to deliver results?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) We believe so, on the basis of the knowledge we have at the moment. Obviously the proof of effectiveness will come when we start to do it. I have to say that working out where particular policy instruments can be rendered most effective is difficult. Nationally we have a rather thin evidence base on which to work here and the evidence is not that great in other countries either.

  Chairman: Thank you. Mr Geraint Davies?

Geraint Davies

  18. Mr Normington, you started off by saying the real challenge, or words to this effect, is really in GCSEs and A-levels, as opposed to going to university, for those people with poorer social backgrounds, but would you not agree that one of the issues is not simply the attainment of the necessary conditions to go but the risk aversion of people from less well off backgrounds to taking out massive loans and their affordability?
  (Mr Normington) That is a factor as well. There is a range of factors. I think the prior attainment and the ambition to go to university is overwhelmingly the most important factor, but there is evidence, of course, that people from poorer families with few means of support are worried about debt.

  19. Would you be surprised to know that many of my constituents have come to me where they have taken a number of years and taken a job to save money because they cannot afford to go, particularly in London because of the price of housing, and they then find themselves unable to go to college? Would you be surprised by that?
  (Mr Normington) I have met, too, potential students who have been deterred. I think I would like to sit down and argue with them that there was a package of support which would help them. I do not think it is quite as bad a package as they think. However, the perceptions, the misunderstandings about it, the perception that there is very little support and fears about debt, are considerable amongst some people.


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