Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-399)



  380. When can we expect the poorest to be raised to the level of the best?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think I can best answer that question after the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review. I have to say that we have made considerable strides over the last decade.

  381. Can you quantify that for me? I am not quite sure how you do so. Give me a feel for this.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) We have made strides with regard to teaching resources, as I have described. We have actually converged the resources into a narrower band.

  382. So that just continues to reflect the inequalities. If you are seeking to improve the standard of teaching in the lowest institutions, surely they ought to be getting much more?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) With respect, that is why I need to run through each funding stream in turn, so you build up the overall picture. As I say, we have done that with regard to teaching. Research is something rather different where I do not believe that we should be aiming at equality of funding for research, for reasons I can go into. Then you raised the issue of capital funding where, I agree, there is a historical backlog there which we have addressed and continue to address.

  383. Could I ask Mr Normington, to what extent do you think it is possible for the universities themselves to redistribute amongst themselves so that they all have competing internal pressures? Would it not be better if this were handled directly by the Department? The self-interest amongst the universities must be substantial. Would it not be better if we had greater centralised control of these methods of distribution?
  (Mr Normington) You mean in terms of the distribution of money?

  384. Yes.
  (Mr Normington) We do have the Funding Council.

  385. So you run it, do you?
  (Mr Normington) They run the funding system within a framework which the Government sets, which is updated each year. There are some things we cannot do.

  386. What can you not do?
  (Mr Normington) We cannot interfere with admissions, we cannot interfere with the way in which universities recruit their staff, and there are some other things too.

  387. In terms of the inequalities of funding, you can sort all that, so if that is not sorted within a reasonably short period, that is your fault, is it?
  (Mr Normington) The Government could attach conditions of grant. It has actually been part of this process of the convergence of changing the way the capital is issued and the widening participation; the Government has been part of that. So governments can influence that. They do set the framework.

  388. It is a bit slow, though, is it not?
  (Mr Normington) I do not know. I think it has moved quite a way in the last ten years.

  389. So with the rate of progress that we have at the moment, when can we expect there to be equality between institutions?
  (Mr Normington) I think it depends what you mean by that.

  390. Absolutely. You indicated to me that you are moving in the right direction, so you must have had something in mind about how you assess it.
  (Mr Normington) I was answering the question in terms of funding. There will always be, I imagine, a hierarchy of universities. I do not see how one will ever get away from that. That will be related to the nature of the degrees which are offered above the minimum standard and the people who are taken in.

  391. There will always be a hierarchy of universities, and presumably there will always be a hierarchy of people in society generally. That is a fairly fatalistic view. Anyway, can I turn to a slightly different subject.
  (Mr Normington) I am not saying that. I just think it is unrealistic not to think there will not be a range of universities offering a range of degrees.

  392. We are all going to die eventually, so there is not much point in making an effort in the meantime, is that right?
  (Mr Normington) No, I am not saying that.

  393. I see. Can I ask you a point about added value of universities. I have seen some statistics in here, and I am not sure whether they are all highly satisfactory. When I was involved in education in Scotland we used to rate schools and departments by expectations, in terms of measuring, say, the inner social deprivation and what the anticipated results would be. We found that some of the schools with the best results were in fact delivering the least added value. I am not certain, from the statistics here, whether or not that is done by yourselves for not only individual universities, but also individual subjects, because we did find that the added value by subject within individual schools varied really quite considerably. Can you clarify that?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, we do not do that at the moment, but I said on Monday, you may recall, that we were looking at the basis for our widening participation premia, and I certainly do not rule out looking at added value as one measure we might use.

  394. You astonish me actually. I am not just raising this in the context of bringing in students from poorer backgrounds but in terms of simple value of money. I would have thought you would want to know whether students coming from the same backgrounds—and this comes back to choosing your parents well—were doing as well in one institution as in another, and to find out you have no statistics on that at all I find astonishing. Why have you never developed that in the past?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think we are talking at cross-purposes perhaps. There is data available on the educational performance in higher education from students from poorer backgrounds, whether by gender, social class or ethnicity, but I did not think that was your point.

  395. No, it was not actually. If you have students coming from the same social class who are expected to do well, you do not know—is this right—whether or not they are doing better than anticipated at one institution rather than another in one subject rather than another because you do not do that sort of research? Is that right?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That has been true so far. As I said, I think that is something we need to look at.

  396. Is it not surprising that you have never done any of that up to now?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, because it is only very recently we have had a sufficient range of students entering higher education from different backgrounds to make any kind of measure meaningful.

  397. Not even students from the same background, even the same school background, from public school backgrounds who have been going to universities for some considerable time? Is it not a matter of interest to discover whether or not students from the same background going to different institutions in different subjects get more value added in one than another? You have never bothered assessing that before?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) By "value added" do you mean over their lifetimes? Whether, for example, they have earned more over a lifetime or added value in terms of their educational experience?

  398. Mr Rendel went to Eton I think. If everybody who went to Eton who went to Manchester came out with thirds, yet if they went to Oxford they all came out with firsts, all other things being equal I would assume that Oxford had given them a better education and added more value than Manchester. Maybe it is the other way round. But you do not assess that at all?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, we do not.

  399. Okay. Mr Normington, do you think this is evidence that the universities are just too cosy, too comfortable, and examine their entrails insufficiently to see whether or not they are providing value for money?
  (Mr Normington) If the question is about value for money, I think the universities do have systems for looking at their value for money. If the question is, have they been sufficiently focused on widening participation, we said on Monday and would repeat, until recently I do not think some of them have.


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