MPs warned of risk to quality from student funding squeeze

January 19, 2001

University standards are being hit by a lack of cash, higher education quality chief John Randall admitted this week, writes Alan Thomson.

But Mr Randall, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, said that although the amount of cash per student affected quality, universities still had to prove to the QAA that they could cope with the resources available.

Mr Randall was giving evidence to the Commons education select committee on Wednesday as part of its higher education inquiry. Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman Evan Harris asked Mr Randall whether a lack of funding could result in a drop in quality. Mr Randall said: "Of course it can, but the impact depends on how well and how intelligently funds are managed by the institution. There is always a risk that that will happen, and that is one of the reasons we are in existence."

Mr Harris also asked whether he thought that student poverty affected university dropout rates. Mr Randall said that he had no evidence of this but he intuitively believed it would have an impact.

Last week the committee heard that government changes to student finances had almost certainly deterred poorer people from university. They were told that the axeing of maintenance grants in 1999 had compounded student hardship, leading to higher dropout rates.

Mantz Yorke, professor of education at Liverpool John Moores University, said that his advice to government would be to increase grants to the poorest. Against this, he put the cost of university drop-outs at £200 million a year.

Professor Yorke warned that the dropout rate, and by implication, cost were likely to rise as universities recruited more people from poorer backgrounds in line with the government's policy on widening participation.

He said: "The government must look at how access impacts on retention. The issue is one of creeping debt. I think the changing regime made students think rather harder about the implications of going into higher education. My advice would be to increase grants."

Sir Howard Newby, president of Universities UK and chief executive designate of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, was due to give evidence to the committee yesterday.

He told The THES : "More resources are needed for mentoring and counselling students who may be struggling."

Interested parties still have a week left in which to submit written evidence to the student retention inquiry.

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