Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-359)



  340. I had heard 91 million. I have also seen the Mantz Yorke figure of 200 million. Is that wrong?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) We would sustain our view it is 90 million.

  341. It was work commissioned by you yourselves, was it not?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, it was but, I am sure you appreciate, we do not control the outcome of research projects we commission. We would simply agree to differ on the precise costings.

  342. It is a very big difference, which begs the question of how you do the measurement.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Indeed it does.

  343. How do you do the measurement?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It is a very complicated issue because you have to work out the fee income which a student will lose by non-continuation—they pay the fee, or someone has to pay the fee on their behalf. There is the cost of non-completion after the end of the first year where, as I explained earlier, there will be costs which the institution will have incurred. There are the student's own living costs which are involved here as well, which it could be said is a cost they have not received a return on, as well as some direct costs as well in terms of provision of teaching materials and equipment and so on.

  344. Whether it is 200 million or 90 million, it is a big allocation of resources.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It is indeed. All I would say to you is, we must all continue to work to get that down but we must not get it down so far that we then begin to worry about the fact that students who have clearly failed their courses—we are back to a standards issue—will be somehow retained within their courses because we do not want to see this figure too large. In other words, we must not give distorted incentives to institutions to lower standards.

  345. I understand that. That brings me on to standards. I was interested in what you said about modularity. I take it you mean modular courses?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes.

  346. "Modularity has contributed to students not having the same basic level of attainment one might have expected a generation ago." How much money do you think is being spent by universities or by the British education system in the universities on teaching students things which they ought to have known before they got there?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I did not say that the general level of attainment was lower, I said that modular courses at A-level meant that students could know an awful lot, in fact a lot more than they used to know, about some areas of, let us say, mathematics—

  347. But they did not have the basic tool kit?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby)—but in other areas they would know very little, if anything. That is the difficulty. When they come to university—and the example raised in the Report was engineering courses—we cannot assume that all students have the particular kinds of mathematical knowledge which are suitable for engineering.

  348. There is obviously a curriculum point here.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It is indeed.

  349. Is that being addressed? If modularity is not working because it is producing this outcome—
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Two things have happened. One is that the number of examination boards at A-level has been reduced and that has helped substantially. The variance now is much less than it was a decade ago, and that is a good thing, but we are still finding in the university world that additional first year teaching in mathematics is still required to deal with the problems you have just described.

  350. You mentioned claw-back earlier and therefore if people do not complete the first year the universities do not get the money. Is there a difference in the way you account for this between the students who do not complete the first year and non-continuation following the year of entry, in other words, people who complete the first year but then do not go on?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes. What happens is, if they do not complete the first year we apply—a technical term—an in-year claw back, that is to say, the universities do not get their money for those students.

  351. How much money do you get back via claw-back?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I will send you a note on that. We do know the figure.[9]

  352. I take it this 91 million is the net, net, net cost?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) It is indeed.

  353. It is all wrapped up in this claw-back?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes. If a student drops out in the second year, the institution will have received funding in respect of that student for their first year but they will not receive it for the second year.

  354. We discussed on Monday the fact that the present finance system is in itself, as they indicate in Scotland, a deterrent and that it is possibly not as economically effective as a finance system could be. Do you think there would be merit in simplifying the system of student finance, not least so that you can identify more accurately the cost of an individual student going through, the cost of completion or dropping out, more clearly?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think it is common ground between ministers and my colleagues in the Funding Council that we do need to simplify the system. As I understand it, that is one of the objectives of the review.

  355. Perhaps I should ask Mr Normington: are you therefore proposing to give each student a student number or something like that? How do you propose to measure more accurately the total cost involved of taking each student through?
  (Mr Normington) I am not sure we are going down that route.

  356. I thought Sir Howard just said it was common ground between you.
  (Mr Normington) It was common ground, he said, we need to simplify funding and the student finance system.

  357. Would not one of the outcomes of simplifying it be that you would more accurately and more easily be able to measure the cost of an individual going through?
  (Mr Normington) That could be the case.

  358. Part of the point is that some of the money appears to be going to people who do not need it and that increases the deterrent effect on the cusp of the people who really do need it.
  (Mr Normington) That may be so, but that is a bit different from tracking every student with a number.

  359. Indeed, but if you cannot measure accurately where all the money is going, it is difficult to say where you should put it instead.
  (Mr Normington) But we can measure accurately what we are giving in terms of student—


9   Note by witness: The gross holdback (also known as `clawback') figure for 2000-01 is 41.7 million and for 2001-02 is 29.3 million. This is not solely holdback related to non-retention. This is the sum of holdback exceeding the contract range plus holdback for not delivering additional student numbers at the first attempt. It does not take into account Maximum Student Number (MaSN) holdback, the re-instatement of grant for delivering additional student numbers at the second attempt, or moderation. Back

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