Examination of witnesses (Questions 480
THURSDAY 1 FEBRUARY 2001
and MR NICK
480. I am encouraged to hear that. You have
talked about the relationship between research and teaching and
the importance of that integration of the process. Would there
not then be a case, as Professor Roger Brown and others have argued,
for a joint assessment exercise of universities and of university
departments which involved both teaching and research at the same
time so that we did not have this apartheid in the system in terms
of brownie points and perception in the world outside?
(Baroness Blackstone) I would not rule that out but
it is a matter for the sector itself to consider whether it would
be less intrusive, less bureaucratic. There are complaints about
that as far as both the RAE and the QAA work on teaching quality
481. It means you would then have one rather
than two inquiries.
(Baroness Blackstone) Yes, as long as you could do
it in such a way that it did not impose an impossibly tough burden
because you would be doing a single big exercise all at once,
whereas the work done by the QAA and by the RAE is spread. The
RAE is done at one time; the QAA also does it on a subject-by-subject
basis, so you would have to think through the practicalities of
that really and not end up with really turning a university upside
down whilst you were crawling over every aspect of the work, which
I do not think would be helpful.
482. Are you in a position to rule out the imposition
of top-up fees by universities in the next Parliament, assuming
you are still in power?
(Baroness Blackstone) I think you asked me that question
when I came to the Committee last time.
483. He always asks it!
(Baroness Blackstone) I will give you exactly the
same answer as I gave you before. Top-up fees are not part of
the government's policy: we have consistently said, both David
Blunkett and I, that we are opposed to top-up fees for the reasons
I gave you before, and we have taken out reserve powers to prevent
484. But you cannot rule it out?
(Baroness Blackstone) Since the Teaching and Higher
Education Act of 1998 no university has charged top-up fees; I
do not expect any university to do so, and our policy has not
Dr Harris: I have been asked to ask you this
again, because those were the same words you used
Chairman: We are supposed to ask our own questions,
not somebody else's!
485. My constituents reminded me that, before
the last election, that was exactly the same phraseology you used
about proposals to introduce tuition fees and abolish maintenance
grants for poorer students, so do so you understand the scepticism
with which people greet your suggestion that you have no plans
for top-up fees but you refuse to rule them out in the next Parliament?
Surely you could rule them out, just to make me happy?
(Baroness Blackstone) I will not comment on what was
said in our last manifesto; it is not true but I do not think
it would be helpful to go back into that. All I want to say, yet
again, is that neither David Blunkett nor I are in favour of top-up
fees. We do not think this is the right approach: it is not part
of our policy. When we get to the general election, maybe we will
be able to talk to you again but it is a little way ahead and
I will let you know whether the government is prepared to rule
them out or not in good time.
486. I think that is helpful. Are you acquainted
with the work of Professor Callender?
(Baroness Blackstone) I am, indeed.
487. Right. This was research done for the DFEE.
She arguedand, indeed, their press release, and I raised
this yesterday so you may have warning of this, suggestedthat
student debt has tripled since 1995/6. The DFEE press release
covering the release just before Christmas said that a spending
survey shows a rise in student income. How do you go from their
version that student debt has trebled as the main finding to your
version of a rise in student income as the main finding?
(Baroness Blackstone) I do not think they are inconsistent
at all. You can borrow more money and, therefore, raise your income
by borrowing more money so there is no inconsistency, but let
me just comment on the suggestion that student debt has trebled.
Of course, student debt has gone up because, if you move from
a system where you provided maintenance through grants as well
as providing for student loans and then you move towards a system
where you rely on a loan scheme, you are going to have students
borrowing more money than they borrowed before. We have really,
however, to look at this, I think, in a sensible, rational way,
namely that the loan scheme is a fairer one than existed before;
it is income contingent from the point of view of repayment; it
has no real interest rate; and 75 per cent of students now take
out a loan, which is a considerably higher proportion than was
true in the past, so of course in that sense debt has gone up.
But students are also spending more than they were, including
spending more on things like entertainment and, if they want to
borrow additional money over and above the student loan to cover
the cost of entertainment and so on, that is entirely a private
matter for them.
488. The findings of this report included that
60 per cent of all full-time students and 40 per cent of part-timers
reported that they thought that financial difficulties had negatively
affected their academic performance, and that 37 per cent of all
full-time students and a similar proportion of part-time students
had not bought all the books they needed because they could not
afford them and this rose to 67 per cent among lone parents studying
full-time, and it is on the record from yesterday that one in
ten of both full and part-time students have thought about dropping
out for financial reasons. Now, that was in 1997-8 before your
government removed the grant from those poor students who, under
a means test, were getting grant and replaced it by a loan. Does
this now give you pause for thought about whether it was wise
to make these hard-up students facing these financial pressures
more hard up by abolishing their grant?
(Baroness Blackstone) We are not making them more
hard up because the amount we are lending them is rather higher
than the amount they had in total to cover their basic needs,
which is what student support is aboutit is not about paying
for holidays, it is not about expensive entertainment, it is about
providing an adequate income for a student to survive on without
severe hardship, and I believe that is the case. Now, the Chairman
mentioned the fact that we were at university together and I can
say that when I was an undergraduate I had a perception that I
was hard up. That has always been the case, and that was in a
period when there were no loans whatsoever but a grant system.
Students are always going to think that they are hard up because,
by dint of being a student, they have to make some sacrifice in
relation to the amount that they have to live on because they
are investing in their future and their earnings will be very
substantially higher as a result of becoming graduates.
489. I thought the first part of your reply
was astonishing: that is that, by taking the grant away from poorer
students and replacing it with debt, you had not made them more
(Baroness Blackstone) No. I am sorrycan I just
490. Just let me ask the question because I
will give you a straightforward question to answer: if I were
to take the money you have in your handbag there away from you
myself and loan it back to you at a rate of interest, would you
feel better off, worse off or no different? Would you be grateful
to me or somewhat annoyed? I think that is the best analogy.
(Baroness Blackstone) I do not for a moment accept
your analogy. I think the point you were asking was whether these
perceptions that you quoted about being short of money and feeling
you were in financial hardship were ones that should make us think
again about the scheme we have introduced. My answer to that is
that I think students have always had these perceptions and they
have always felt that they have to manage on a relatively small
amount of money. It is true and it has always been true, but the
whole point of the student support scheme is to provide students
with enough to live on during the period in which they are students;
not to provide an enormous, lavish, sum of money that would allow
them to live in a lavish way, and the taxpayer would not allow
us to do thatnor would any sensible government think that
was appropriate. I know of no evidence to suggest that more students
have dropped out as a result of the changes in the student support
system that we have introduced. The latest figures indicate that
around just over 17 per cent of students drop out and the figures
for two years before that were just under 19 per cent so, if anything,
there has been a small reduction in dropout rates.
491. Nick St Aubyn made the point earlier which
I concur with that, if you have not got an increase in the number
of poorer students going in, you may have a self-selected sample
and there is evidence from the DFEE's own research which I would
like to quote to you to get your reaction. One piece of evidence
is the research paid for by Professor Callender which states,
in terms, "61 per cent of full-time students agreed with
the statement that `Changes to student funding have deterred some
of my friends from coming to university'. The proportion of students
agreeing with this statement was highest among students from social
classes IV and V (68 per cent), black students (68 per cent) and
women aged 25 (68 per cent), the very focus of widening participation
strategies." Does that trouble you?
(Baroness Blackstone) I would be very troubled, I
think, if there was clear evidence that, as a result of the reforms
to the student support system, there was a reduction in the number
of students coming from low income homes but there has not been
and we have been monitoring this very carefully indeed
492. But there has not been an increase.
(Baroness Blackstone) so I would not be particularly
worried about what are purely perceptions if the evidence about
behaviour is very different. What I would also want to do, however,
is to try to convey to students just what the actual facts are
so that their perceptions might be somewhat modified by knowing
what the evidence is.
493. But I think we have some evidence that
it is already happening. If you take mature students, which I
think the government has accepted, and I would certainly support
your efforts to say that we need more mature students because
within that population are people from poorer backgrounds who
missed out on the chance to go to higher education, there was
some research that was published which eventually you put in the
library that was presented to you on February 4, 1998 by Continental
Research which said that a third of 202 respondentsthese
are mature students all aged over 25said they were less
likely to go to university as a result of the new arrangements
being introduced in that summer. After that, you introduced the
cut in grants. Are you surprised, therefore, that this year it
has happened frequentlyand we have commented on this beforethat
there has been a drop in the number of mature students at the
age of 25 and over applying to go to university this year when
everything else you say you want to do, and I support your aims,
goes towards increasing the number of those mature students applying
to higher education? Are you not disappointed and, if not, are
you not complacent?
(Baroness Blackstone) Of course, I am utterly committed
to making it possible for the maximum number of qualified people
who wanted to study in HE over the age of 21, which is the normal
definition of a mature student, being able to do so but, if I
could come back to what happened after we introduced the changes,
both the introduction of tuition fees and, indeed, changes in
the grant loan balance, first of all, very few mature students
studying full time pay tuition fees and 85 per cent or more pay
no tuition fees whatsoever. When the scheme was initially introduced,
however, mature studentsor potential mature studentswere
not totally aware of what was happening. It was more difficult
to get material to them than it was to young people in FE colleges
and sixth forms. There was a reduction in the first two years
of the scheme, and this was something we were concerned about.
However, when we looked into itand I think I mentioned
this to the Committee beforewe found that quite a lot of
that reduction is explained by a demographic decline in the numbers
of people in their mid-20s which is where the largest group of
mature students are drawn from; quite steep decline actually.
A second factor which is certainly of very considerable significance
is the very tight labour market and the fact that there are a
lot of good, well paid jobs, more than there have been before,
for people in this age group who have some qualificationswhich
they do. So those are two very important factors.
494. Can I leave you with one example from my
own constituency? This is from Harris Manchester College which
caters specifically for mature students from poor backgrounds.
The Principal there wrote to me on 22 January: "Over the
past 5 years, applications by mature students to the university
of Oxford have dropped by 23 per cent, and we believe this is
largely due to the introduction of fees in 1998 and the phasing
out and subsequent abolition of the maintenance grant in 1999.
Prospective mature students often have financial and family commitments,
and are unable to commit themselves to more loans [or debt] to
fund their university study", and the drop is from 405 applicants
in 1996 to 311 in the year 2000. Are you not worried by that in
(Baroness Blackstone) I would want to check the statistics
that this letter is quoting before I really commented on them
because they are not in line with national figures. I was just
about to go on to say in my earlier response that the actual number
of mature students wanting to study full time who were admitted
to universities at the beginning of this session went up by 1.1
per cent so there has been an increase in the numbers applying.
We have done quite a lot more in terms of additional help for
mature students over the last two years especially for those who
have dependants, and I think that must help in terms of their
living costs, but we need to look at mature students also in the
context of full and part-time numbers. There has been a continuing
trend for mature students to prefer to study part time. There
is I think quite a long-term decline in the number of full-time
mature students as part-time opportunities increase, and as the
economy and the job market has been so buoyant. I think overall,
therefore, I am reasonably happy about the numbers of mature students
that are coming in because you need to look at part-time figures
as well where, of course, we have been able to hugely help part-time
students compared with previous governments in that we have made
the loan system accessible to them and, where they are on benefits
or lose their jobs as part-time students, we have offered them
495. I think you have been in correspondence
with one of my constituents who is a working class, very bright
student who has gone to King's College London, and who has no
access to parental support in terms of finances. Do you accept
that there is a problem for some students going to areas where
living costs are very high with trying to meet all those costs
within the loan that is available, and would there be a case for
extending the loan which is available at preferential rates to
those types of students? I think he is left with something like
£25 a week to live on in London which, even with very limited
entertainment and eating, would be extremely difficult and I feel
he would have to go cap-in-hand to banks at relatively high interest
rates and, therefore, his loan repayments would be that much greater.
Have you considered that?
(Baroness Blackstone) I am very sympathetic to students
in that sort of position and, as far as London is concerned, there
is already a higher loan rate which is meant to take into account
the higher costs of living in London. That needs to be regularly
reviewed; I think it does genuinely reflect what the calculations
are on the higher costs but perhaps it needs to be looked at again.
On the issue of the student who is really finding considerable
difficulty for those sorts of reasons, that was why we introduced
the hardship loan so that a student could take out an additional
loan if he were in financial difficulties and we are now also
providing hardship funds for such students although we have asked
that those should be focused especially on mature students, because
they are the ones most likely to have high costs. Lastly, for
students who come from backgrounds where there is no tradition
of going into higher education and whose families are on low incomes,
we are piloting opportunity bursaries designed particularly to
provide start-up funds for the student who has to move, who has
maybe to buy things like desk lamps as well as the normal costs
of books, who may have quite high travel costs initially. It is
particularly geared to the sort of student you have just described.
496. I am glad you mentioned the opportunity
bursaries and also that you mentioned the issue of student loans
for part-time students. The majority of mature students are part-time
and, as somebody who taught at the Open University for 15 years,
the majority of my students would have been delighted to have
had access to those loans. Going on to the opportunity bursaries,
which obviously are a new and welcome innovation, how proactive
can they be at linking in with other aspects of the government's
educational policy in terms of student retention? Excellence in
Cities obviously is a key part of that process but at the moment
those areas which are included in phase 3 of Excellence in Cities
are not eligible for opportunity bursaries. I understand the time
lags involved in that but what can we do to speed up and dovetail
the side of the government's education policy which is talking
about encouraging students to go into university from secondary
level and then supporting them and, therefore, reducing rates
of dropout when they are in it?
(Baroness Blackstone) Of course, they are a pilot;
we want to see how effective they are. As and when we have the
relevant evidence, it may well be possible to make this a national
scheme. Meanwhile, we want to extend them and, in fact, the Secretary
of State has announced today that they are going to be extended
to education action zones.
497. That is very welcome. You would not agree
with Michael Bett who came before us last week and cited these
sorts of things as "sticking plaster"?
(Baroness Blackstone) No.
498. You do see these pilots as a key part of
the government's widening and retention policy?
(Baroness Blackstone) Absolutely.
Mr St Aubyn
499. The dropout rate for students from less
well-off backgrounds who achieved at least three `B's at `A' level
is less than a third of the drop-out rate of those from the same
background who did not achieve such good `A' level results. Is
this linked to the fact that they are less confident that when
they have finished their degree they will reach the earning power
that will make repaying their debt a problem-free challenge for
them? In other words, given you have a threshold at which debt
has to start being repaid of £10,000, do you recognise this
might be a factor which, for those struggling with their degree,
might mean they decide "Well, I am never going to earn enough
or my prospects of earning are not sufficient that I should carry
on ratchetting up this debt. I had better quit while I can pay
off what I owe already", but if you had a higher threshold
they can say, "Well, if I have to earn that much before I
have to start repaying the debt, then I know I will be better
off and I will go ahead and finish the course". In other
words, do you recognise there is a real issue about thresholds,
and is your government prepared to look at it?
(Baroness Blackstone) I would be very surprised if
a student making a decision not to continue with a course is getting
into that kind of detailed calculation about when his earnings
will reach a point which triggers repayments and then decide,
"Well, as it is where it is rather than maybe £2,000
or £3,000 more", or whatever. I just do not think that
kind of calculation is usually done in all my experience of working
with students. I think it is much more likely that that kind of
student drops out firstly because they are having some difficulty
on straight academic grounds; secondly, that they have chosen
the wrong kind of course and it does not really suit them; or,
thirdly, possibly because they have decided that it was a mistake
to have gone to university in the first place. Sometimes students
are a little uncertain and they make the wrong decision. Again,
from past experience, quite often that sort of student was not
ready for the independent living, the self-starting that you have
to have in terms of being in a much freeer environment from the
point of view of study rather than a structured one, but they
do come back as mature students and they sometimes do very well
when they have a second crack at it. It is much more likely to
be that range of factors than that they are going to have to start
repaying a small amount. You have to remember that, when they
reach the threshold, the amount they have to pay back per month
is very small and the fact that it is income contingent I think
is an encouragement to stay on rather than that you ask a student,
as happened under the old mortgage-style scheme, to pay back exactly
the same amount whether they are earning £150,000 a year
or £15-16,000 a year.