Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)|
MONDAY 10 FEBRUARY 2003
20. The whole point of the document here is
to look at the future of higher education for some years to come
in every respectstudents, expansion of students, competing
with world-class universities and so on. Presumably all the different
calculations must be based on some sort of estimate of what is
the gap in funding for the universities now and how is that gap
going to be filled by the Government or by top-up fees or business
sponsorship over the next 5-10 years. What is the gap that you
base your calculations on?
(Margaret Hodge) It is very difficult to be completely
specific about the size of that gap because it depends on views
you take around, for example, pay differentials that exist between
here and the United States, and try as we might to home in, if
I take that as an instance, on what the gap in pay is, it was
very difficult to bottom that out, so there is a range of figures
around. I think we can be pretty specific about the capital gap.
There have been quite good studies done on the lack of capital
investment both in teaching and research facilities and on the
need for investment and maintenance. It is much more difficult
to look at the revenue gap, and equally it is very difficult when
you are talking in terms of gap, for example, to be totally specific
about the additional costs of educating somebody from a disadvantaged
background. HEFCE are raising that premium for teaching somebody
from disadvantaged background we hope from 5 to 20%, which I think
fits in well with the deliberations that you had when you looked
at this issue a couple of years back, Chairman, but is that enough?
Only time will tell whether that meets the real additional costs
both in teaching and support that are required to ensure that
students from disadvantaged backgrounds do get a fair chance at
university, so we have not been specific but for very good reasons.
21. You said you could be fairly specific on
capital gap and less on other areas. Can you give the Committee
the figures, specific or not, that you have worked on in producing
in this document?
(Margaret Hodge) No. That is why I have said to you
we have deliberately not used a figure on the gap although we
have been clearly looking at areas like the issue of pay, like
the additional costs of teaching, to try and ensure whether or
not we have enough money. We have got Universities UK's own assessment
of what the gap will bethat is one we have regard toand
we hope that we are making, over this comprehensive spending review
period and with our proposals around in the introduction of variable
fees, some real progress towards ensuring that we can put universities
on a sound financial footing and give them some independence of
funding from government as well which is another purpose. I am
not going to give you, if that is what you are after, a figure
for what we think the existing gap is because it is far too difficult
and complex to calculate, and if the Committee has managed it
I would like to look at that with interest.
Chairman: I promised Andrew Turner who
is on a Standing Instruments Committee shortly that he could ask
you a question slightly out of sync in terms of flow.
22. I am tempted to take advantage and ask how
on earth you think you can set up a policy which fills the gap
if you do not know what the gap is?
(Margaret Hodge) We do know that the Conservatives
23. Yes. I know that as well but could you answer
the question and tell me what the gap is? You could not answer
it in the chamber of the House, and you are now trying to convince
us that you have filled the gap but you do not know how much the
gap is. That is absurd.
(Margaret Hodge) No, I have not. I have said there
are huge difficulties in putting forward a clear figure which
would properly reflect the need for universities to pay market
rates on their salaries and which might, for example, properly
reflect the additional costs of teaching students from disadvantaged
backgrounds, and I gave those as two examples. What I am clear
about, and I will be delighted if you accept this, is that a 36%
cut in unit funding which the Conservative Government are responsible
for left the universities in a dire funding state, and the further
6% cut that the Conservative Party at that time proposed in university
funding would have left us our universities in a totally perilous
state, unable to compete globally and unable to meet the demands
of students in this country.
Mr Turner: I am sure that does not answer
Chairman: Ask another question then.
Mr Turner: I would like an answer to
the question I have already asked.
Chairman: Put it another way or ask another
question. I do not think it is enough just to say that it is not
Mr Turner: Do you think the response
of the institutions to your comment about Mickey Mouse degrees
was unfair or defensive?
24. And why did you demonise Mickey Mouse? Why
has it never happened to Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny?
(Margaret Hodge) Most people understand it. The context
in which I said that is something which I feel passionately is
really important. There are some universities where the drop-out
rates are just too high. On the whole, as a nation, we do well
on drop-out rates. We have one of the lowest drop-out rates and
the best completion rates among the OECD comparable countries,
but in some universities it is just too high. The last figures
I saw for the University of North London had a drop-out rate of
45%; University of East London and Central Lancashire had drop-out
rates of 33%. That is too high. Setting students up to fail is
pretty unforgivable and that is really the context in which I
was talking. Now, why do students fail? The main reason from all
the research we have seen is the course. It is not to do with
the financial circumstances in which they find themselves; it
is the nature of the course. So in that context, if you do not
have a course of sufficient intellectual rigour with a clear purpose,
it is a Mickey Mouse degree which should not be offered by a university.
25. And your judgment is largely that it can
be demonstrated by drop-out figures. Could you give some examples?
(Margaret Hodge) No, I am not prepared to. I know
it is something that the Conservative Government used to love
doingnaming and shamingbut I am not prepared to.
What I have said is that the criteria I would use would be, firstly,
about the rigour of the content of the course and, secondly, about
the purpose of the degree so it had a clear purpose. Universities
themselves are pretty clear about which degrees they offer which
do not have the appropriate rigour and appropriate purpose. What
I can reflect on is the drop-out rate.
26. Are you saying you are not clear or you
are just, for some reason, prepared to conceal this information
from the Committee?
(Margaret Hodge) No, I am not prepared to make my
own personal judgment. I think this is a judgment that universities
themselves must make.
27. So the Department does not have a view?
(Margaret Hodge) The Department does have a view on
the importance of having courses that are of appropriate rigour
and content and purpose, and that we should not set students up
to fail and they can complete their studies, get their degree,
and take with them the benefits that that degree offers.
28. So basically the Department has a view on
those broad philosophical issues but it is not prepared to give
advice, even to people who may be committing three years of their
lives and a good deal of their money?
(Margaret Hodge) It would be inappropriate, as you
well know, for us to interfere with the academic freedom of institutions
to determine their own courses and set their own degreesthat
is a pretty basic tenet of a university. What we are doing to
deal with this problem is opening up universities to better public
account, and I will give you two or three ways in which we are
proposing to do that in the White Paper. Firstly, we are going
to have this annual student survey which will be validated by
the National Union of Students working together with HEFCE, and
I think that will give students much better information on which
to make a judgment of which university to go to and which course
to follow. Secondly, we are going to publish external examiners'
reports which has not been done before, which I think also will
give a pretty strong take to potential applicants about the quality
of a course and the content. Thirdly, there is the continuing
QAA institutional assessment which we will proceed with. All that,
plus allowing the market a rather stronger force to bear on which
courses are on offer raising the level on which student numbers
are based, will give better information to students to make their
judgments, but if you are asking me to intervene and tell universities
which courses they should or should not offer, I think that would
be an unacceptable intrusion on academic freedom.
29. That is why I was not asking you to do that.
(Margaret Hodge) You were actually, but never mind!
30. No. The record will show I did not ask that.
What you seem to have done, then, is illustrated as some examples
those universities which have a high drop-out rate. Can one conclude
that those are Mickey Mouse universities?
(Margaret Hodge) That is not what I was saying.
31. Minister, I think you know my own opinion
of the comment you made, and I regretted that you used that phrase
because a lot of other people have used the phrase and they tend
to conjure up courses they particularly do not like. When we have
looked at those courses, many of the courses that those people
do not like are perfectly good courses with good intellectual
content where the graduates graduate and get very good jobsindeed,
people are queuing upand media studies is one which is
much used and abused. The fact is that any of us can come up with
prejudiced views of which courses would fit that particular silly
nameand it is a silly name, Minister, you must admit. Let
me push you a little further and go on to say that as we expand
higher education and try to draw people from poor backgrounds
in we are going to need a much tougher prospect, and when this
Committee looked at retention what we found in terms of our research
and the evidence that we took was that, although student debt
played a role in putting students off from poorer backgrounds,
the real key was that it needed to be the right course in the
right institution in the right place, and very often it was not
even the fact it was the wrong course; it was by clearing or not
getting to the institution and the course they wanted that they
got on to a course where they were poorly advised. So it was the
quality of advice.
(Margaret Hodge) Firstly, I have interestingly enough
always defended the media studies courses because they have a
good record of employment after people have studied, so that is
not a course that I have particularly questioned. Secondly, you
are quite right to say that the advice and counselling that prospective
students get before they embark on their course is very important
and I agree, and I did say this in that particular speech, that,
when it comes to clearing, trying to fill your numbers without
giving appropriate advice and support to ensure that students
do go on courses which suit their talents is a worry. Having said
that, however, I still think it is the case, if you were to look
at it, that there are some courses where the content is not of
sufficient rigour and where the purpose is not sufficiently well-defined,
and where after a year or so people will think, "What am
I wasting my time on?"
Chairman: Perhaps this is a subject the
Committee should look at in some depth.
32. You have mentioned a number of times the
market in higher education and you have talked about the White
Paper encouraging market forces. Why do you want to do that?
(Margaret Hodge) I think the introduction of a regulated
market in a higher education will ensure that the supply of courses
meets the demand of students, and I think that is really important;
it will drive up the quality of what is on offer in our universities;
and over time it will lead to an increase in standard and output
from those who go through our universities; also, as higher education
becomes more globally competitive, it is important that within
the nation state we maintain our competitive edge, and introduction
of regulated market forces within United Kingdom higher education
will support our global competitiveness.
33. I accept entirely that you are putting some
regulation into it but is not one of the problems with markets
that people with less money generally do less well because they
have less to spend? One of the concerns we were discussing last
week in the seminar is that, in spite of the very welcome reintroduction
of some grants for poorer students and the back-ending of tuition
fees, there is still a certain perception, and I was interested
in your response to our earlier paper where you say: "We
know from research that potential students from non traditional
lower income backgrounds tend to be more deterred by the prospect
of incurring debt". They are going to be looking at this
and saying, "Okay, if I go to my local university then I
can live at home which is going to reduce my outgoings; it is
a course which is charging £1,100 which I do not have to
pay as opposed to one which is charging £3,000". Do
you think you have done enough to encourage these students against
the benefits which are very obviously there for the better off,
middle-class students who are already going and who are going
to be less put off by incurring higher debt?
(Margaret Hodge) I do not think any of us are running
away from the fact that the issue of fear of debt and actuality
of debt is a particularly important constraint on behaviour among
students from lower income backgroundsworking class students.
I put that in the context of saying that getting them to stay
on in school and achieve higher and aim higher is as important,
if not more important, so it is one of several factors which has
led to our failure to close the social class gap in participation
in higher education over the last 40-50 yearsonly one.
That is the first point to make. Then, if you look at whether
we have done enough, I think we have done one heck of a lot because
we are introducing grants and you will remember those are on top
of the loans, so for a student from a low income background they
will get their whatever-it-is
34. A very low income background.
(Margaret Hodge) Well, the £1,000 grant will
be available to 30% of the cohort. Grant will be available to
30% of the cohort, I think that is the right way of putting it,
so having a grant reintroduced for 30% of the cohort is not bad,
and remember it is on top of the loanSecondly,
getting rid of the upfront fee was a great inhibitor. It was another
perception issue, reallyit was perceived as an additional
burdenand I think bringing that to an end will help.
35. But you kept saying to this Committee on
previous occasions that the upfront fee did not deter anyone.
Consistently you said that an upfront fee did not deter anyone
and you said the departments were comfortable with that and now,
I do not know why, you are totally reversing yourself, Minister.
(Margaret Hodge) Chairman, I have always said, and
I will reiterate it here this afternoon, I think the other factors
are more important. I think the issue of prior attainment, getting
people from a working background staying on at school, getting
them to see that university is an option for them and not just
for other people are the vital issues. What I do accept is that
fear of debt is an additional factor in inhibiting the choices
of young people who get the qualifications.
36. You used to give examples of students drinking
lots of beer, smoking cigarettes, you regaled this Committee with
(Margaret Hodge) Now it is mobile phones.
37. Can you see what a dramatic conversion this
has been, Minister.
(Margaret Hodge) I would accept that it is a factor.
I think the more recent research we have had has demonstrated
that probably more forcefully.
38. So this is a research-based policy?
(Margaret Hodge) Our policy is always evidenced-based.
Just to come back to what students do with the income they have,
that is different from how debt and the fear of debt inhibits
access, inhibits choice and determines an individual's choices.
Have we done enough? I think we have. The other thing I was going
to say is the only argument that I think has some validity, and
we have put our mind round, is whether variable fees will particularly
inhibit those from low income backgrounds who, more than anybody
else, have a fear of debt. I think my answer to you there would
be that the mixture of the grant, not having the up-front fee
and the introduction of bursaries by those universities that introduce
variable fees will tackle that inhibitor. We have to be very careful
as we implement this policy to ensure that we do not add an inhibitor
in there. The other thing I would say to you is the Access Regulator,
who will ensure not just that the admissions procedures ensure
a fair and level playing field and will also expect institutions
to achieve against their own ambitions, I think will support us
in a once in a lifetime opportunity to break down the class gap
in participation in higher education.
39. I agree entirely that it is not the only
indicator raising aspirations and doing a lot of other things
to encourage people who had not considered going to university
before which is important. It just seems to be very strong in
terms of variable fees. If somebody says that you can go down
the road to Leeds or Sheffield, or whatever, to somebody who lives
in Jeff's patch then they will think about doing thatof
course I would say that Sheffield is better anywayinstead
of saying, okay, we can go to Oxford or Cambridge which, regardless
of what we think, is a good idea. We know that there is a differentiated
university system, we know that certain universities are seen
as better than othersI would not encourage people to go
there as opposed to going to Sheffield, obviouslybut if
we are saying that people from all backgrounds ought to have the
same level of choice and variable fees if they do particular courses,
for example medicine or dentistry, or whatever, costing more than
something else, and people where perhaps nobody in their family
has been to university before are thinking about it for the first
time are they going to go for the local university and the cheaper
courses rather than either a prestigious university or one that
is further away or a more expensive course?
(Margaret Hodge) I think you have accepted in what
you have said that there is a differentiated situation that we
are dealing with. If you look at Cambridge as an instance, they
actually take 9% of their students from the lower 3 socio-economic
classes as against their benchmark of 13%, so they are not meeting
1 Note by witness: The Government's intention
is that 30% of the cohort will receive the full £1,000 grant. Back