Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Committee for Employment and Learning

Higher Education/MaSN Cap

The Deputy Chairperson: I welcome Nuala Kerr, director of higher education; Kieran Mannion, head of higher education widening participation branch; and Patricia McVeigh, higher education policy branch.  They are here today to brief the Committee on the issue. 

 

Mrs Nuala Kerr (Department for Employment and Learning): Good morning, Chair.  Thank you for the opportunity to come along today.  I think that this is one of the Committee's regular briefings on the work of the various divisions in the Department.  We are here today to talk about higher education and our work in that division.  You will know that I have been here before with a different hat on, as director of skills and industry.  I am here this time as director of higher education, having replaced Fergus about nine weeks ago.  I will give you some indication of the work we are engaged in.

The higher education division has 38 members of staff.  We have a budget of about £620 million, which represents a very significant proportion of the Department's budget.  That budget includes about £200 million on student loans and about £500 million on research that takes place at the various universities.

The main focus of the work is supporting higher education provision in the universities, the university colleges and higher education and further education.  Some elements of the Open University activity are funded at present, but that will change.  In addition, the higher education division holds responsibility for the policy and funding of education and maintenance allowances, which amount to about £27 million of the figure I have just quoted.  This morning, I am conscious of your time constraints.  We have chosen to focus on five topics that are of particular importance to us.  If your time allows, Chair, we will make our way through them.

Patricia and Kieran are here to help me flesh out the particular areas of the higher education strategy and widening participation.  I am aware that the Committee will know something of the five topics that we are going to touch on this morning, from previous briefings it has received.  Our intention is to bring you up to date with where we are on a number of those.  Sir Graeme Davies, who is the interim director of the Office for Fair Access, has played an important part in the development of the higher education strategy.  He briefed the Committee previously on the issue.

Patricia will pick up from here and tell you where we are with the higher education strategy.

 

Mrs Patricia McVeigh (Department for Employment and Learning): Most of you may be aware of the development of the higher education strategy.  We started the process in 2009, with the appointment of Sir Graeme Davies to chair a steering group.  From the steering group, we established a project group and five expert groups.  As a result of all of that work, we produced a consultation document in June 2011.  On completion of the consultation period, we took cognisance of the consultation responses, the work of the expert group reports and the work that was supported through the steering group.  As a result of that, we are in the final stages of developing a higher education strategy for up to 2020 for Northern Ireland.  We hope to be in a position to launch that strategy document some time after Easter.

The document will have four key strategic themes.  They will be "responsive", "high quality", "accessible" and "flexible".  Those are the key major strands of the document.  By responsive, we mean that the higher education sector in Northern Ireland should be responsive to meeting the needs of the economy and to looking at the skills of the workforce, the upskilling and reskilling and the role that they have to play.  We also recognise the significant importance of research and development within the higher education sector.  We want to continue to support and grow that and, indeed, the knowledge transfer.  With regard to responsiveness, we have also been listening to employers and looking at the STEM review and the skills strategy.  We will also be looking at the current academic offering in the sector.

The next strand is quality.  There should be high quality within the sector.  Not only should the teaching be of high quality, but so should the whole experience of the student in terms of pastoral care and the opportunity for work placements, etc.

The sector should also be accessible.  Having listened to the presentation by Queen's and to some of the questions the Committee has asked, I know how it important it is that the higher education experience is accessible to all who can benefit from it.  My colleague Kieran Mannion will talk about the widening participation strategy, which will focus on issues of accessibility.  However, we feel that students should have high-quality information that allows them to make informed choices.  The role of the sector in its engagement with communities is another important factor in accessibility.  That is the focus of the work on accessibility:  building on the current relationships that the sector has, and improving engagement with communities.

The final key strand has to do with the sector's need to be flexible in issues around modular learning and part-time learning and funding for support for modular learning, and developing a qualifications framework that is fit for purpose. 

Those are the key strands.  I should say that when we talk about higher education, we are not just talking about the universities but higher education from level 4 up to level 8, to postgraduate level.  We see higher education within that spectrum, along with the key roles that further education colleges play in supporting those qualifications and pathways and the role that they could have in improving geographical accessibility.

 

Mrs Kerr: I should say that the document will comprise the strategy and the projects that we plan to undertake in the immediate future.  As Patricia said, we hope to launch the document a couple of weeks after Easter.  One of the key issues that we have touched on is the question of widening access.  It was originally envisaged to be an integral part of the higher education strategy, but we considered that the work on that was of such significance and substance that it ought to be separated out from higher education and have a strategy devoted to it in its own right.  I am going to ask Kieran to touch on some of the main issues associated with that.

 

Mr Kieran Mannion (Department for Employment and Learning): This is the third opportunity that I will have had to brief the Committee on the development of an integrated regional widening participation strategy paper for higher education.  However, I am conscious that there may have been some changes in the Committee's membership, so it might be useful to recap where we were.

In order to take forward this work, the Department established a higher education widening participation regional strategy group made up of various experts from education and the public, private, community and voluntary sectors.  They worked for about a year to explore the issues around widening participation and of non-participation, and, eventually, produced the document that we have in front of us.  Essentially, the consultation document explored the issues and made a number of recommendations.  They can be summarised as suggesting that the Department should prioritise a list of under-represented groups to be targeted by a strategy and with a range of participation initiatives; that there should be a range of integrated initiatives and programme-based solutions to address identified barriers to participation in higher education; and that we should improve the funding formats and the management systems that were used to develop that strategy.

That went out to consultation, and we got over 30 responses.  The responses were largely positive and supportive of the analysis and of the document itself. Most people agreed with the Department's vision for widening participation and with the groups that we had identified for special attention.  People stressed that they felt that there should be a single co-ordinated approach to promoting higher education in Northern Ireland that should be based on collaboration between partners.  Existing recruitment practices were seen as being fair, but people said that we needed to understand the nature of the earlier barriers that some groups faced when it came to higher education.  There was also considerable support for the use of contextual data in applications.  That is support for a holistic view of an applicant when applying for higher education.  Then, of course, there was support for an enhanced application for stubborn pockets of under-representation. 

As Nuala has pointed out, we have been working to develop that strategy and come up with some key action plans around it.  That work continues, but, essentially, it is condensing around seven key action points that we want to take forward with our stakeholder partners.  We have proposals to develop more appropriate mechanisms to gather information on widening participation.  One of the issues that we have at the moment is that, if you use the definitions that we currently use but add up everyone who is within those definitions, you get a very wide picture of what widening participation is.  We need to target a little bit better to make sure that the support goes where it is required.

We will develop and implement a central awareness campaign on the benefits of higher education and skills.  We will work with partners to expand the range of aspiration- and attainment-raising programmes.  Those do not just take place in schools; we want to widen that out to FE colleges, the community and the workplace.  We encourage the institutions to develop regional programmes for application routes of exceptional circumstance for disadvantaged and disabled individuals.  We will also develop some additional support measures to help those who are targeted as being within the widening participation cohorts in order to help them to stay in and progress through college and to come out the other side with a qualification.

We have plans to work with community groups and interested bodies to develop and pilot some philanthropic bursaries and scholarship programmes across Northern Ireland that are targeted at widening participation.  That, in turn, should help to get greater co-operation and cohesion between the higher education institutions and local communities.  Finally, we plan to expand the employer-demand-led foundation degrees to better link employers with our educational institutions.

As Nuala has said, because we put out three consultation documents last year, the intention was to put out one single higher education strategy for cohesion purposes.  However, as the work has progressed, we have realised that a lot of people are going to be involved in delivering the strategy, which takes it quite outside DEL's remit.  Therefore, it is necessary to publish a separate strategy for widening participation.  That work is well under way, but we will need more discussion with our partners, so it will be a month or two behind the higher education strategy.  We plan to publish that in June.

 

Mrs Kerr: I want to draw the Committee's attention to the review of initial teacher education.  The Minister announced it in December last year in the Assembly.  He signalled his intention to commission a two-stage review of initial teacher education.  The first stage is, essentially, a financial analysis of the two main teacher education providers, Stranmillis and St Mary's.  Once the financial positions have been made clear, there will be a second stage.  His intention is to appoint consultants to undertake that work.

The second stage of the exercise will build on the financial implications.  It will take a different form, which is yet to be decided.  The first stage is out to tender at present, with a closing date of the end of this month.  We hope to appoint the consultants very soon — within a week of the end of this month — to begin the work on that first-stage review.

I also want to draw your attention to the education maintenance allowance (EMA) work that is being undertaken.  You will be aware that that work affects young people at school and after they leave.  It is a joint piece of work between us and the Department of Education.  You will be aware that PricewaterhouseCoopers carried out a review of the scheme for us, and we are picking up on the work that came out of that review.  The key message from the review was that EMA helps many students to stay on in full-time education, but a significant number of the students — 64% — indicated that they would have stayed on in full-time education even without the support of EMA.  Therefore, we have taken the view that we need to consider whether EMA could be better targeted, and the indications are that it could be better targeted at those in the lowest income groups to make sure that the EMA offering is tailored to the needs of the people concerned.  We are planning to go out to consultation on a number of options about how to take that work forward, and we hope to present that to the Executive in the near future and to launch public consultation after that date.

The Committee specifically asked for an update on maximum student number (MaSN) figures.  I have set out the latest position on MaSN in the paper, and I have included a little of the history.  It explains that MaSN is a mechanism for controlling the number of full-time undergraduate places in universities.  It was introduced as far back as 1994 to constrain public expenditure, specifically on student support costs.  The MaSN relates to the total of full-time undergraduate students from home and from the EU, but it does not include part-time undergraduates or postgraduates, with the exception of postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) students and students from outside the EU. 

Since its introduction in 1994, the MaSN has significantly increased, with almost 5,000 full-time undergraduate places.  More recently, the Minister announced an additional 700 places focused on STEM.  In the paper, you will see the table about how those places are distributed.  The places have been allocated to the two universities and to higher and further education.  The table sets out the distribution.  By 2014-15, Queen's will get 308 additional places; the University of Ulster will get 322 places; and higher and further education will get 70 places, bringing that to a total of 700 places.  The uptake of those 700 places is included in the Programme for Government. 

The decision about where the individual places for the universities are located is a matter for the individual institutions, but I understand that the University of Ulster plans to allocate all its 322 places to Magee.

 

The Deputy Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation.  The further education college in Omagh is crying out for more places.  Some 70 places have been allocated to the further education colleges across Northern Ireland; I think that number is small.  It is more than they were getting, but I would like to have seen that number increased.

 

Mr McElduff: I support you in that, Chair.  It is generally held to be a good thing that a significant percentage of higher education is delivered through regional colleges.  It is sitting at around 20% at the minute.  What could we do with those regional colleges that are significantly below the average figure and need to catch up?  From a departmental point of view, what are the pros and cons?  How do you look at the idea of increasing the number of places delivered through FE colleges?  Secondly, can you be more specific, Nuala, on the timeline for taking forward the EMA review consultation?

 

Mr Mannion: We conduct an annual review of the allocation of MaSN across the FE college sector, which is based on achieving an equitable distribution of those places.  It is based on a fairly extensive formula that takes into account the overall demand for higher education in the area and a projected demand as defined by the number of 18- to 56-year-olds that live in that area, and we come up with an equitable number for each college.  That process is ongoing again this year, and we have reached no conclusions yet because we are still meeting with the colleges and hearing their bids.  At the end of the day, we have a set number of places, and, if you give to one, you are taking from another.  That always proves quite difficult. 

Nonetheless, looking specifically at the south-west, from memory, I think that we have increased the number of places there by more than 160 over the past two years.  At this point, I cannot tell you that there will be more places for the south-west this year; that exercise is ongoing.  However, there will be a focus on the STEM subjects when it comes to deciding how to allocate the extra places that will be given out this year.  I do not see that as being just a random distribution across all of the colleges.  We will be looking at the extent to which the colleges are meeting the Department's priorities, particularly around STEM subjects.

 

Mr McElduff: Just before Patricia answers, I see in the paper a commitment to retain the EMA and to target it at those in greatest need.  Is it fair to say that?  Can you say more about the timeline?

 

Mrs McVeigh: I was going to add something on the HE and the FE.  As I tried to outline at the beginning, when the HE strategy is implemented, one of the key strategic aims will be about the flexibility of provision and the flexibility of the modular learning.  Over time, you may see a change from what people perceive as a full-time offering, in that that would be a modular-based learning.  That would help people to access HE whether they were working or unemployed or where they were sited geographically.  We see a role for the FE colleges to work with the HE institutions to look at some of the flexibility issues.

 

Mrs Kerr: You are quite right about the EMA question.  The PwC report findings indicated that there was real value in EMA in encouraging young people to remain in education.  It is not our intention to have it removed, but rather to have it refined and better targeted at those who could benefit most from it. 

I cannot give you much more precision on the timeline.  We are in active discussions with our colleagues in the Department of Education, and we are hoping to finalise the consultation options in the near future with the agreement of both Ministers.  We will then need to take it to the Executive.  The timing of all of that hinges on our ability to be able to complete that work and get the Executive's approval before proceeding to consultation.  We would like to think that we would have it finished by early autumn, although the summer is not an ideal time for consultation.  However, it is not completely within our gift to say when.

 

Mr Lyttle: Thank you for your presentation.  With regard to the widening participation strategy, the University of Ulster's Step Up programme seems to be getting positive reviews.  Is that being examined in the review, and is consideration being given as to how it can be developed?

 

Mr Mannion: Yes, it is.  You are right, that is a very good programme.  It has been reviewed several times, and the results are excellent.  When you consider that that programme runs in schools that have significant under-representation in higher education, and, in some cases, no representation, and that 93% of the graduates from that programme go on to higher education, you can see that it is quite remarkable.  It is a very good programme and an exemplar of what we are trying to do.

Going forward, I think that we will want to develop more of that type of provision in our strategy.  We will also want to open it up to others to come forward with other ideas through which they can engage with young people and communities and really assist them with attainment.  There is always an element of raising aspirations and people wanting to go to university.  However, at the end of the day, if they do not have the qualifications, they cannot go.  We will be putting much more of a focus on programmes with attainment-raising elements.  We very much want to see more of that.

 

Mr Lyttle: Is that something that the Department of Education feeds into?  For example, a positive by-product of the Step-Up programme is increased attainment at GCSE level.

 

Mr Mannion: We have been working on the development of the strategy with the Department of Education.  It will be a key partner in taking this forward, and we want to see that.  If it were to introduce other programmes in lower school, if I can put it that way — primary schools or early in secondary schools — that would be very welcome.

 

Mr Lyttle: Thank you.

 

Mr Douglas: Thank you for your presentation.  Nuala, you mentioned the education maintenance allowance.  During the plenary session on, I think, 13 February, we talked about the education maintenance allowance.  It was clear that there is all-party support for that type of allowance being given to young people on pre-vocational schemes such as Include Youth's Give and Take scheme, which we are all aware of.  The Minister wrote to the Chair of this Committee:

 

"Within this framework, I have asked officials to examine the potential to provide an allowance to young people participating on such programmes."

 

Has any progress been made on that?  I have a couple of other questions on aspects that I have mentioned to the Minister.  Do you have any idea of how many young people on the Give and Take scheme and similar schemes could be brought into this scheme?  Roughly, how much would that cost?

 

Mrs Kerr: I do not wish to avoid the question, but I am not well versed in that area.  The education maintenance allowance that we are looking at here is for young people who are in school and further education.  As you will know, there is a separate training allowance for those who are in the Training for Success programme and similar programmes.  That is a different allowance.

My understanding is that the Department will look in a different way at funding for those young people who would otherwise be NEET.  I am not sure whether the kind of schemes that you are talking about would be specifically captured in that, but I assume that they would as they do not fit readily into this scheme. 

We are reviewing the offering that we have at present and the eligibility.  The work that you have referred to is progressing elsewhere, and I think that those responsible will report to you separately.

 

Mr Douglas: I want to ask another quick question, and I am not sure if you would have the information.  The UK's £1 billion package for youth unemployment has been mentioned a couple of times.  We looked at the Barnett consequentials for that, and they show that we will get about £26 million.  Has any progress been made on that?

 

Mrs Kerr: I apologise, but I am not in a position to update you on that.  That is being dealt with elsewhere in the Department.

 

Mr F McCann: I want to follow on from what Sammy said about EMA.  I take it that the final mechanism that will allow you to target EMA at students who may require it will come back to the Committee for scrutiny.  If you say that you are targeting social need or using different methods of means-testing, that can sometimes exclude people.

 

Mrs Kerr: We propose to look at different possible options.  EMAs are paid, and young people can also receive performance bonuses, if you like, based on their attendance, how they perform at college or school, how they hand in their coursework, and so on.  So there are allowances associated with that, as well as the weekly allowances that are paid to them.  The thresholds for when we start to pay the money and the kind of bonuses that are paid are all part of the options that are being considered.  Our intention is to put out to public consultation the implications of those various options, and, once we understand the public's view on them, we will have to formulate what we are going to do.  That will go back through the system through the usual process, but the consultation document will go to the Executive before it goes out to the public.  So there will be a number of stages at which we can interact with the Committee during that process.

 

Mr Ross: Some members have said that they want to maintain EMA, and you have said that it will be maintained.  I presume that we are talking about a greatly reduced figure being spent on EMA, given that 64% or 65% of it is effectively — I do not like to use this term — dead weight, in that it does not necessarily keep young people in education.  We have looked at the scheme in the Committee before, and many young people are saving the money or spending it on clothes and whatever else.  I do not think that any politician can argue that that is a good use of public money.  You are going to keep the allowance, but presumably the amount will be greatly reduced and fewer people will be able to access it.

 

Mrs Kerr: What we spend very much depends on the kinds of issues that have been mentioned in response to the other question; that is, the threshold and when you start paying it.  We pay it at a threshold of a family income of £22,000.  There is also a threshold of about £16,000, which is where free school meals kick in.  So there are considerations around that.  Whether we pay bonuses, at what level we pay them and what we pay by way of weekly allowance are all factors in determining the number of people who become eligible and what we are going to pay them as individuals.  However, the outcome ought to be a reduced expenditure.  The desire is to focus on those who need it most and who will get the greatest benefit from it.

 

Mr Ross: On a more cynical note, should we really expect any decisions to be taken on any of these issues, given that we know that the functions of this Department will go in one of two directions and that, depending on which direction it goes in, the new Minister may have a contrary view to the current one?  So, there may be consultations as part of the review of initial teacher education and the review of EMA, but is it likely that this Committee, in its current form, will ever be given the decision to scrutinise, given that we could end up in a position where the policy is reversed and the functions are spread out?

 

Mrs Kerr: That is well above my pay grade, I would think.  [Laughter.]  I am not being facetious there.  On the EMA issue, there will be a joint initiative with the Department of Education.  I would hope that, if we were, hypothetically, to end up in the Department of Education, the progress and work that we have done to date would continue as part of that.  We still think that we will be around doing things like this, regardless of which Department we work for.  Obviously, the policies of each Department will impact on how quickly we can take that work forward.

 

The Deputy Chairperson: Thank you for coming along today and giving your presentation and answering questions from members.  We, too, hope that you are still around when DEL is gone.

 

Mrs Kerr: I touched on only five topics today.  We simply cannot cover everything that we deal with in the division, but perhaps we will have a chance to come back to brief you further and pick up on the rest of the topics that we deal with.  Thank you.

 

The Deputy Chairperson: Thank you.

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