Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-339)



  320. It is a prediction.
  (Mr Normington)—based on the best evidence you have at the time done by the statisticians.

  321. I do not mind if you choose to call a projection guesswork or not, I call most projections pure guesswork, it may be informed guesswork but it is still guesswork. Can I go on to ask about courses that may collapse. We know one of the problems with further education colleges is that they set up a number of courses, try to involve the students, try to encourage students to join them, and then they do not get enough students to make it worthwhile, so they cancel the course. Does that happen at all in higher education?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Only in exceptional circumstances, by which I mean that some members of staff may leave unexpectedly to go to another institution. In some cases there has been a collapse in admissions or in applications, which means the course is non-viable, but I have to say where that occurs the responsibility to existing students is always taken seriously and they are what we call "taught out", that is the first year students continue through their course. One can never say never in this sort of instance, but it is very rare that what you describe would take place.

  322. Let me tell you why I am concerned about this. I met an old university friend only yesterday, since our last meeting, and he told me his daughter had been due to go to a further education college and had been accepted, all was fine, she went up there the very first day and found the course had been cancelled because not enough people had gone on the course and they had to cancel it otherwise they would have lost money on it. As a result of that, she went on to a different course at the same college—they found her another course but it was a different course—and within a fairly short period of time she realised the course was not quite her thing, in very much the way this Report says often this is the reason why students drop out. Clearly, if you have to change courses at the last minute because your course has been cancelled, there is a much higher chance the course is going to prove to be "not your thing". If this were a serious problem in the higher education field, it might be one reason for the drop out rate.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Indeed, but I can assure you it is not a serious problem. One reason for that is that we do not fund courses, unlike the Learning and Skills Council, we fund in the form of a block grant to universities, so the universities can and often do run courses at a loss in order not to produce the situation you have just described.

  323. Another problem which I guess we have all met as MPs is when people write to us to say they are worried as mature students about going back into university because they are told when they become students they lose all rights to benefits and they have to go on to student loans. Particularly where it is a married person, that can be a very, very big incentive not to take up higher education again. Have you looked into what effect it would have if you changed the benefit system in some way, so people could at least retain part of their benefits while studying?
  (Mr Normington) The way we have chosen to tackle it is to greatly increase the support, for instance through child care grants and other support for mature students, which does appear to have had an effect. It was very concerning that there began to be a serious decline in mature students in the late 1990s. What has happened in the last in-take last autumn is that there has been a really significant turn round, which I think one can only put down to the changes in support. There has been a 9.5 per cent increase in mature students coming into university last autumn, which is a really encouraging turn round, and it suggests actually the way in which we have introduced support for mature students has had a real impact on that. We do keep the benefit issues pretty closely under review, we have a standing group with the Department of Work and Pensions to have a look at that all the time. I think the benefits system can act as a disincentive and we do not want it to.

  324. I went to a very strange school—

  Chairman: We all know about that!

  Mr Rendel:—and qualified by the age of 15 to go to university but decided not to and stayed on to do a whole series of more A-levels and then to take no less than two years of gap year. I have to say I am very pleased I did that, I would have been quite useless as a student at the sort of age when I first could have gone up. I suspect those who take gap years, from my experience of my own children and their friends, tend to get a lot more out of their university than those who do not. They go up a lot maturer, they carry out their university courses a lot more effectively as a result. Do you think that is true and, if so, do you encourage people to take gap years? Do you encourage institutions to encourage people to take gap years?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) We do not encourage institutions to do that although institutions and UCAS—the Admissions Service—do allow students to defer their entry in order to take a gap year without penalty so to speak. My view on this is that the gap year can be useful because it separates two processes which otherwise are combined, that is the process of leaving home and establishing yourself as an independent person to live your own life on the one hand, and the inevitable educational challenges which are involved in going to university on the other. I would only say that I think it is important that the experience of that gap year is used constructively and in a way as far as possible which has some relevance to the eventual university course which students take.

  325. Have you done any analysis of whether the drop out rate is higher or lower amongst those who have gap years?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I am not aware we have.

  326. I would have thought it would be very useful research to do.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Thank you.

  327. Can I then ask about what I call "first term blues". It seems to me that a lot of students go up to university with enormous optimism, thinking they are going to have a really good time, they have been told by their older friends it is wonderful to be at university, and a lot of them then find in their first term everybody else seems to be having a good time but they are not, and it is usually in the second term and particularly the third term and the second year that students really find how worthwhile the university experience is. I wonder if there is any value in putting particular effort into more pastoral care or perhaps giving people better information about what university is, leading them to expect not to enjoy their first term very much, because most of them will not, and to expect that things will get better thereafter.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) First of all, I very much accept the analysis you have made. It is indeed true that the highest drop out rates are in the first year and often in the first term of the first year, and the factors you have mentioned I have no doubt have some role in that. Indeed, my personal experience as a university teacher would support that view. Yes, there is a rather romantic image of university education, which is clutches of students talking about Jean-Paul Sartre over mugs of Nescafé into the early hours of the morning, and I am afraid I can report that university education is not like that for the great generality of students. What are we doing about it? We are doing a lot more, first of all, to offer students the opportunity of coming up during the summer before entry to university to learn more about what actually goes on and also, where appropriate, to give them some learning skills tuition. Secondly, the student counselling services are very well aware of this problem and I would say a disproportionate effort goes in during the first year from both student counselling services and—and I have to pay tribute to them here—the student unions as well in assisting the students through these, as you rightly say, first term blues.

  328. What effect do you think the introduction of AS-levels has had in encouraging people to stay on at school and then go on to university?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I would say it has been positive. I would also say it has allowed universities to make conditional offers to students with a good deal more reliability and certainty than was the case over A-level offers when you had no examination experience to go on. I think students who are now doing A-levels this year will have a much clearer idea of where they stand in terms of their own educational performance and how realistically they can achieve the standard offer which has been offered to them.

Mr Bacon

  329. I would like to start where Mr Rendel left off. Sir Howard, if you think gap years are a good thing, will you start encouraging institutions to encourage it, and will you do research on whether there is a difference in the drop out between those who have taken them and those who do not?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I am certainly prepared to do the research, I think that is very important. I just want to caution though. I do not think gap years are an unalloyed good thing. I think a lot of students waste a gap year by having an experience, of whatever kind, which is not really appropriate to their study, and I think a lot of them lose what I can only describe as the routine of learning and the rhythm of learning and find it quite difficult sometimes to re-enter into that.

  330. I am interested to hear you say that. I do not want to spend too long on this but has there been any academic work done on this?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Not that I am aware of.

  331. So what you are saying is just anecdotal then?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Indeed. Well, my own experience as a university teacher.

  332. I sold coconut rum punches in the Caribbean in my gap year, it had no bearing on what I did in my studies—

  Mr Jenkins: Look where you finished up!

  Mr Bacon: If Mr Rendel is right, and we do not know this, that there is a big difference between those who have done gap years and those who have not in terms of the continuation rate, there is actually public interest in finding out more about gap years, is there not?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, there is. I accept, I think we do need to find that out and, on the basis of what that research will tell us, that is the time we need to formulate the appropriate guidance.

  333. You mentioned in your experience as a teacher of students that the first term blues is the big problem. Paragraph 2.8, on page 14, talks about the fact that, "Less than half of the non-completers involved in [the] qualitative research had talked over their decision [to leave] with staff." What steps are you and the universities taking to encourage staff to become better pastoral carers?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That refers to the action we are proposing to take on the bearing down, which the previous Secretary of State invited us to do on this. We do recognise there is a need, first of all, to offer more training to not just counselling staff at universities but to lecturing staff at universities, so they can recognise problems early and either refer them to the experts who can help or tackle the problem earlier themselves. There is more we can also do to inform students more about the services which are available and to encourage them to be more active in presenting themselves to both counselling staff and lecturing staff during their first year.
  (Mr Normington) There is also a quite urgent review looking at student support services which we are doing jointly with the universities to get at this best practice, so we have a basis for spreading it.

  334. Can I ask more about this bearing down. I notice you and Mr Normington used the phrase, which was used in the 29 November 2000 letter of guidance to Sir Michael Checkland, who was the Chairman of HEFCE, from the Secretary of State, and you just said, "the bearing down you were proposing to do". This Education Report was published in March 2001, and the letter was November 2000, that is a year, 14, 15 months ago. You actually were explicit in your last answer that you have not yet started the bearing down. You said, "the bearing down we are proposing to do".
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I was explicit in my last answer that the report back to the Department on what we are doing and what we propose to do will be with them very shortly. We have already been bearing down through the range of activities which are set out in the Report on page 11.

  335. What results has that bearing down had so far, or is it too early to measure?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It is too early, I am afraid. If you think of the timescale you describe, the letter of guidance came to the Council in November 2000, therefore any bearing down we would do to initiate it at the level of the institution would only take place with regard to students coming in this year, and of course they have only been there less than six months at present.

  336. I appreciate what you said at the beginning, that we do have one of the lowest drop out rates, and it is surprising how low it has stayed given the expansion which has taken place, but, looking at your own performance indicators, it may only be 8 per cent—and this is non-continuation following year of entry—which is a respectably low figure, as I said, nonetheless it is 17,000 people who are plainly in the wrong place. I hear what Mr Jenkins said earlier about the fact they may gain something out of it, but there is all the emotional as well as the financial problem of being in the wrong place, which comes back to the question of more information at an early stage, paragraph 2.19, which the Chairman was talking about earlier. What steps are being taken to make sure that institutions do provide better information? The Report talks about, again in paragraph 2.19, "Students described prospectuses which gave out misleading information . . .", and you said yourself earlier that there was a need to do more to push out more information earlier.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, I think we need to operate on many fronts at once. First of all, we must clearly, if I may use the phrase again, bear down very heavily on clear cases of misselling and we must do that and we do do that, but, as you will appreciate, this is a much wider problem than that. A new technology has come to our aid a very great deal here. UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, now has an array of services which students can obtain on-line. We have also established HERO, the Higher Education and Research Opportunities database, which is another web-based service, and the vast majority of students these days get their information that way. The private sector has also helped. There is now a plethora of student guides, some of which purport to give the low-down on what particular universities and courses are really like. In this case, I think the more relevant information that students can obtain, the better.

  337. Nonetheless, the Dearing Report was talking about it five years ago, was it not?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It was, yes.

  338. How much has been done in five years, would you say?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) We have established HERO in the last five years and UCAS has established its website in the last years. I remain somewhat alarmed—and I am being anecdotal here—by the number of students I encounter who still seem to pick up a lot of rather anecdotal information about the universities and courses rather than going to these kind of sources.

  339. Can you say how much in total the 8 per cent, the 17,000, who do not continue into the next year—and I want to include mature entrants—costs? I know there are lots of different figures bandied around.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) The best estimate we can offer is 90 million.[8]



8   Note by witness: According to the performance indicators relating to 1998-99, 10 per cent of all full-time first degree entrants (young and mature) were not in higher education following the year of entry. This represents approximately 23,000 higher education students in England. Back

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