Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-199)



  180. How was it arrived at? How did anyone decide that 50 per cent was the right target?
  (Mr Normington) As I understand it, it was largely based on something I referred to earlier, which was a forward projection of the number of high level jobs there were going to be in the economy. The National Skills Task Force projected about 1.75 million but most of the growth in jobs was going to be in that area, and therefore there would be a demand for high level skills. It is not a precise science.

  181. When was that prediction made? Is that in a published document?
  (Mr Normington) The National Skills Task Force prediction of 1.75 million jobs was I think in 1999. It was a report in 1999 or 2000 by the National Skills Task Force.[8]

  182. I am glad to have the name of that particular body mentioned because I see in the Spectator this week the Secretary of State was asked where the numerical target came from and she replied, "Some body or other, the one that looks at the skills needs of the nation, set the target."
  (Mr Normington) She was right, it was the National Skills Task Force.

  183. What is the current participation rate? I think I heard you say you thought it was 41 per cent, is that right?
  (Mr Normington) Yes, we think it is just over 41 per cent.

  184. I understand the Minister for Higher Education said to the Select Committee 44 per cent in oral evidence earlier last year.
  (Mr Normington) I do not know about that. I am quite confident it is just over 41 per cent.

  185. What counts as a person participating in higher education? What are the 41 per cent? What are they doing?
  (Mr Normington) The 41 per cent is all courses of one year or more which lead to a qualification awarded by a higher education institution or a widely-recognised national awarding body like the Institute of Management.

  186. If that is how the 41 per cent is measured, presumably that is what is going to be measured when we decide whether or not you have met the target in 2010?
  (Mr Normington) With one qualification to that. The Government has said quite publicly that it has sought advice on which short qualifications should be included. At the moment that does not include professional qualifications. It has asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to say whether they meet the test of higher level qualifications. Even if those are included, it will only have a marginal effect on that figure, but it seemed important to make sure we were counting all higher education qualifications. So it is broadly this one but with that qualification.[9]

  187. But given you have set the target at 50 per cent, because that is how many you needed to go through university in order to meet your skills requirements or whatever, and you have measured it in a certain way—and this target was presumably set given the type of measurement you are making now—is it not rather odd to then start including other bits in that figure? Clearly, you are more likely to meet the target if you include more students. If you go on including enough different qualifications, you can meet the target today probably.
  (Mr Normington) Yes, and there is no point in doing that, and we are not in that game.

  188. Exactly.
  (Mr Normington) I think it is important to include all true higher education qualifications. The oddity about the initial entry rate, as it is called, the measure we now have, is that it has a sort of duration bar, it is about one year courses, and I do not think that is flexible enough. But we will not fiddle with this, we will have the initial entry rate, the only issue is the one I have described which will have a marginal effect on the figures.

  189. I am delighted to hear you say you will not fiddle with it because I have to say I have my suspicions. I have here a series of quotes. The Prime Minister said in February last year, "By 2010 I want to achieve a university participation rate of over 50 per cent among under 30 year olds." In the general election manifesto they said, "We want to see half . . .", not over half, ". . . of all young people under 30 going to university." Then the DfES in a press release in April said, "Our aim is that by 2010 50 per cent of young people will have the opportunity to benefit from higher education. . .", not necessarily university. Two months later the DfES were saying, "Our target of providing 50 per cent of under 30s is with having the opportunity of a higher education. . .", perhaps not even necessarily going into higher education and participating, simply having the opportunity of it. Then in November last year, the DfES was saying, "The Government's target is that by 2010 50 per cent of young people will experience higher education by the time they are 30", presumably it could just be going to see an open day at one university, that would give you experience of higher education. It does seem to me the thing is slipping and slipping quite quickly.
  (Mr Normington) The question is how we are going to measure it. We are going to measure it by the long-standing definition.

  190. You are not, because you are changing the definition.
  (Mr Normington) We are going to use the initial entry rate, which is based on the long-standing way of doing it. I have described openly, as have ministers, the one way in which we may change it. It is not lots of ways, it is that one way.

  191. Can we go on to the education maintenance allowances, which were mentioned by Brian Jenkins I think earlier. You said that there was some evidence they were working well in terms of increasing participation among 16 year olds. Can you explain a bit more why you think they are working well?
  (Mr Normington) I think they are working because they provide financial support to students post-16. I think there goes along with them though very good advice and support in those areas where they apply. I do not think it is just about finding the money. Indeed, as I was saying in answer to one of the earlier questions, it is about quality of provision and the quality of advice and the financial support.

  192. So financial support has some effect in increasing participation?
  (Mr Normington) Yes.

  193. Would the same system of increasing financial support work to increase the participation of 18 year olds in higher education?
  (Mr Normington) I do not know whether precisely the same one would, but the review we are carrying out acknowledges that one of the aims should be to provide more up-front support for students from less well off families, and therefore that is acknowledging there is an issue about providing financial support to students from less well off families.

  194. One of the things which has always struck me as very illogical is that the Government, I think quite rightly, went in for education maintenance allowances in order to provide funds for maintenance for young people between 16 and 18—the education of course at that stage is free—but then said that education itself should be paid for and there should be no maintenance grants once you are post-18. I really do not see why it is a good thing to give it to the 16 to 18 year olds but actually takes it away from the 18 year olds-plus.
  (Mr Normington) I think the principle is that the returns on higher education are much greater, and the support between 16 and 18 was to get them up to a level where they could benefit from higher education. You could argue there are different justifications for that. We are looking at it again.

  195. Good. Do you think the Scottish funding system is more likely to encourage young people to into higher education?
  (Mr Normington) I do not know. It may do, but I do not know. There are slightly higher participation rates in Scotland anyway.

  196. Do you accept there are nowadays more Scottish students going to Scottish universities, whereas there are fewer Scottish students going to English universities? Would you accept that that indicates that the Scottish students are telling you that system of funding is a better system of funding?
  (Mr Normington) I think that is factually true, but I do not know whether it is directly related to funding. I do not think we have the evidence of that. It is possible.

  197. Margaret Hodge, the minister, in the House magazine article she wrote, said, giving reasons for doing the review, "We must also ensure that cost and debt fears are not deterring some young people", and I think that tallies with something you have said earlier. She said that we should provide more up-front support for students from poorer backgrounds. The Secretary of State said in the Guardian, "I recognise that for many low income families, fear of debt is a real worry and could act as a barrier to higher education. I want to make sure our future reform tackles this problem." That indicates to me quite heavily that young people can expect that the review will produce a better financial package for them, particularly if they come from poorer sections of the population. Would you accept that is what they have been led to expect?
  (Mr Normington) You have described some of the aims of the review, and those are the aims. We have not finished the review yet, we do not know whether the review is going to achieve those aims or when we consult about it what people's reactions will be.

  198. But the aim is clearly that they will get a better financial package if they come from a poorer background?
  (Mr Normington) The aim is to provide more up-front support to students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and also to tackle the problems of debt and the perception of debt. The Secretary of State is on record as saying that, and so is the Minister of State.

  199. If you were told that the financial package for students was under review, and that the package in the year 2003 might be better than the package in the year 2002 as far as you were concerned, if you knew you came from a poorer background, would you be inclined to put off going up until 2003?
  (Mr Normington) You might be.


8   Note by witness: Research produced for the National Skills Taskforce by the Institute of Employment Research Projections of Occupations and Qualifications 2000/01 indicated that between 1999 and 2010 there would be a growth of 1.73 million jobs in those occupations that typically recruit graduates. Back

9   Ev 49, Appendix 1. Back

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