Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-279)



  260. I know that a lot of universities are having to do this but this of course is a very expensive way of doing it, is it not? It is much cheaper to do it in school.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It is very resource intensive, yes.

  261. If you look at page 19 you can see that the proportion of students succeeding in their studies varies from nearly 100 per cent to under half. Perhaps, Sir Howard, you could tell us a bit about why there should be such variation between different institutions.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That variation is largely a correlation, as Mr Normington said just now, of the prior educational qualifications with which students enter, so that in general progression rates are related to that prior educational qualification. I have to say that at the Funding Council we would recognise that this variation is too wide and we do need, to use the former Secretary of State's phrase, to bear down upon this problem, which is what we are doing.
  (Mr Normington) We have in fact in the previous recommendations (not the most recent ones but the previous ones that the Secretary of State sent) focused on this issue and asked the Council particularly to focus on the under-performing institutions. It is important that they do that because the variations are wide, even within bands.[1]

  262. Carrying on this theme, obviously it is the entry qualifications that may determine success in higher education, but I think what many people may want to ask is why are we encouraging applicants with low qualifications into these institutions and what are we doing to encourage them to take more appropriate courses for their qualifications and their aptitudes?
  (Mr Normington) Overall the performance is excellent. It is important that everything we say today is set against that. We have the second lowest drop-out rate from universities in the OECD and therefore, although there is a very wide variation—and there are some reasons for that—and the variation needs bearing down on, it is against a backdrop of success. We are talking about a relative issue, is the first thing to say.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) There is, as the report makes clear and we agree, a problem about students having the quantity and quality of information they need to make informed choices about the kind of course and the kind of institution which most suits them. Sometimes there are wider factors involved in their choice because, as you know, many students move away from home when they enter higher education and sometimes the factors which are involved here include whether they have managed to settle into a new town or city in a different part of the country that they are not familiar with. We have worked hard to try to improve both the quantity and the quality of information available, and there are examples of that in the report which we can examine in a moment if you wish, but we do recognise that we need to continue to improve on this issue; it is vitally important to the students and their parents.

  263. If you look at paragraph 2.19 on page 16, and this was I think taking up a point which one of my colleagues asked on Monday, some institutions have not been honest with applicants because of financial pressure to increase student numbers. I think you will recall you had a question on this theme on Monday. Some students, it seems, do not discover until too late that their courses are not professionally accredited. What are you doing to prevent this mis-selling?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) This is an issue which the Quality Assurance Agency specifically looks at. It looks at the claims which are made in both prospectuses and other kinds of course material which students receive either just before they go to university or immediately on entry, and to ensure that the aims and objectives that are set out there are valid and that they are indeed met over the lifetime of the course. We do indeed need to ensure that, as the report puts it, there is no over-selling either deliberately or inadvertently.

  264. If you turn to paragraph 2.8 on page 15, this is now the subject of students who actually leave their courses, more than half of students who leave do not talk it over with staff. What are you trying to do to ensure that students are given more support, more encouragement, staff more help to ensure that they talk to each other?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) We have instituted a programme as part of the former Secretary of State's recommendations that we bear down on non-completion and that involves them working through this team we have created called Action on Access which is both establishing and disseminating good practice on matters like this and then advising specific institutions, particularly those which are below their benchmark, on how they can improve their particular performance and effectiveness. I have to remind the Committee, however, that this performance is taking place against a very considerable drop (until three years ago) in the amount of money which universities received per student and of course staff/student ratios have gone up over that same period, and it has been more difficult to sustain one of the traditional strengths of British higher education, which is the personal nature of the tuition between student and teacher.

  265. Can I ask you ask you about a specific point? I know you want to give an entirely honest reply to this from your very long experience in this world. Despite all the fine words that we have been hearing are we in danger of having a two-tier system in our universities of the sort that exists in America, that there is a huge difference in the sort of degree that you get from some of the older institutions and some of the very newest ones?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) My honest answer is that describing it in terms of a two-tier system is too simplistic. We have a much wider diversity of higher education institutions than can be categorised in simply two tiers. As you know, they range from leading research intensive, world class universities on the one hand through very strong civic universities with a mixed economy of research and teaching through to the new universities with their emphasis on vocational teaching and on into very specialist colleges of higher education in areas like the performing arts and so on. Yes, there is wider differentiation. That will probably continue, that diversity, but to call it two-tier is frankly too simplistic.

  266. You did mention in the question I asked you before—this was your own answer—that one of the strengths of the older universities is that there is still much more personal contact because they are based on the old tutorial system. Is it fair to say that in some of the new universities that simply does not exist, that they say they have not the money to do it, and often students may only see their tutor once a term as opposed to every week and this means that if things start to go wrong, particularly in the early stages, they are not being given the sort of advice they should be given?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I would not go so far as to say it does not exist but what I would say is that the degree of personal contact between teachers and their students has been very much attenuated over the last generation and it is particularly prominent in the newer institutions.

  267. My last question is on promotion. In the universities you do not get promoted, do you, because of your skill in dealing with your students? You get promoted because of the learned papers you have been writing and the books you have been publishing. In the older universities there always was the don who may not have been the foremost research authority but he was absolutely brilliant with students. Do you see this as a problem in terms of promotion?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, I do see it as a problem. There is an issue about how we can redress the balance between the rewards for research and for teaching in higher education institutions and that is something my Board will wish to address in the next few months. Many institutions are beginning to develop schemes for rewarding outstanding teachers but I think we need to do a lot more. We also need to do what we can to develop a parity of esteem between research and teaching. I am afraid it is true all over the world that on the whole the academic profession gives higher esteem to excellence in research than to excellence in teaching. That means that we have to work that much harder to go against the grain of that kind of culture and ensure that outstanding teaching is recognised and appropriately rewarded.

Mr Steinberg

  268. Higher education is now in my view much broader in definition than it was, say, 15 years ago. Would you agree with that?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes.

  269. Fifteen years ago it would have been unthinkable that anybody would get into a university if they did not have GCSE or GCE in English and maths. They might as well not even apply because unless they had those two subjects at that particular level they would not have got into university. Is that fair?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Not quite. I am sorry to be so personal about this. When I applied to university in the mid sixties even at that stage not every university by any means demanded an O-level (as it then was) in both English and maths, although most did.

  270. So every university did not. My experience was that it was very difficult to get into university if you did not have the basic subjects. It appears now that we are moving down a road where the basic education that one would expect a student to have they do not need any more and yet they go into higher education and I just think that is an anomaly; misnomer would probably be a better word. How can you go into higher education if you have not got the lower education?
  (Mr Normington) In fact what has happened in the last 15 years, particularly as higher education has expanded, is that the A-level points you require to get in have gone up, not down. It has gone up to 19 from 18, the average A-level points score. I understand what you are saying and I think there probably is some evidence of that, but in terms of A-level performance there has been a slight increase, despite the increasing numbers of places that are on offer and the new institutions coming into the sector, so it does not all point one way in this evidence.

  271. On page 7, paragraph 1.5, it talks about institutions and it says: "Some are able to set the highest GCE A-level entry requirements, while others have to more actively recruit to fill places on their programmes." I have got real mixed feelings about this. I was a teacher from, I suppose, the old school where one expected people to have reasonably good GCSE or GCE results before they went to university and now they do not. Is that not quite simply lowering standards for people who are going into higher education?
  (Mr Normington) I do not think it is. None of us has any interest in seeing standards going into decline. We want people in universities who can benefit from those courses. As we were saying on Monday it has never really been the case that A-levels or GCSEs, formal qualifications, are the only thing that will be taken into account in terms of entry. It is really important that universities have very good admissions procedures and are assessing whether the individual can complete the course. I do not think there is lots of evidence that standards are in decline. On the contrary, the A-level points score is slightly higher.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) As you say, it is a complex issue. If we are talking about standards in higher education we should be focusing, I would submit, on output standards. We have to ensure that the standard of the degree or other qualification which students leave with has not declined. That is rather different from assuming that standards have declined because the entry into higher education has been broadened. The danger is that if you broaden entry and retain standards of graduation then it is possible that universities would take more risk over admissions and I think what is pleasing about this report is that the evidence is there that on the whole they have not, that they police entry, if I can put it that way, compared with most other countries really quite effectively.

  272. I will come back to that in terms of drop-out and results. I understand that if you want to have a higher participation rate it is common sense that you have to reduce the qualifications to get in because everybody is not brilliant; everybody cannot get three A-levels at A grade. Therefore you have to lower the qualification rates. What I do not like is discriminating in favour of people who have not actually done well in the basic education. This worries me, that by doing that you are lowering standards because you are discriminating. Take, for example, something which was in the first report that we did on Monday. I think it was an example of Bristol University. It was example five. Have you got that with you today?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I have.

  273. It was Bristol University. They examined their relationships between what students got at A-level and what they did not achieve and what they had achieved at school. As it is written down it looks as though they are really innovative but in fact what they are doing is just looking for ways to get people into university who have not got the necessary qualifications. I am not sure whether that is a good thing or not.
  (Mr Normington) If they were doing that I do not think it would be acceptable. If I can just take your first point, it is possible for us to go on working at getting more potential students to higher levels of A-level performance and equivalent. That has been happening steadily over the last ten to 15 years. It is possible and it is really important that we go on doing that because that is the best way of ensuring quality of entry. I entirely agree with you. I do not want to see—the Government does not want to see—standards being lowered in order to achieve this target. It just not in any of our interests. It is not in the universities' interests.

  274. And it is not in the students' interests either.
  (Mr Normington) It is not in the students' interest.

  275. I am in favour of discrimination, if you like. We talk about social classes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. I am in favour of discrimination in favour of class 5 provided that they have the qualifications. Would you agree with that?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, I would agree, but I would also add that discrimination implies that this is a zero sum game: if we take in more students from one category we must necessarily take in fewer from another. I would just point out that that is not the case. Looking forward, to meet the target there will have to be an overall expansion of the numbers coming into higher education from which everybody can gain. What we are really talking about therefore is whether, looking forward, there will be proportionately more people coming in from social classes 4 and 5. We all intend that there will be. The point I want to make is that they can come in and it will not be at the expense of other well qualified students elsewhere.

  276. If I understood you correctly you talked about lowering standards to be able to get in but ensuring that at the end of the course the degree was of the same quality. Is that basically what you said?
  (Mr Normington) That is what he said. I think we have to be really cautious about "lowering standards". I think it is right to look at what the student is capable of. Sometimes you will take more than just their raw A-level performance and that is what some universities do.

  277. We lower entry qualification standards; we do not lower standards. Students get into university but because they are not capable of doing the course they then drop out. Is that not a huge waste of resources?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, it can be a waste of resources and that is why we need to bear down on this problem. I come back to the point that despite the very large expansion in the numbers going into higher education over the last decade, the drop-out rate has remained steady. That shows to my mind that the universities have done a good job in making very difficult judgements about whether any particular student would benefit from higher education, even where their formal academic qualifications are lower than might have been deemed acceptable a generation ago.

  278. You say that the drop-out rate, if I interpret you right, has not worsened over the years.
  (Mr Normington) That has not changed.

  279. That is not the impression I get, I must admit. If you turn to page 4, figure 1, you tell us that in some cases you can have a situation where—ah, that is not so much drop-out; that is more on the qualifications at the end of the day.
  (Mr Normington) That is drop-out. The middle line there is drop-out.


1   Note by witness: The `recommendations' referred to were contained in a letter Higher Education Funding and Delivery to 2003-04, to the Chairman of HEFCE from the Secretary of State for Education and Skills dated 29 November 2001. Back

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