Education: How Dearing's numbers fail to add up

The Dearing report on higher education, the landmark study which paved the way for the introduction of tuition fees, contains statistical errors. These may be misleading ministers as they finalise policy, leaving part-timers with a rough deal. Lucy Ward explains how the numbers don't add up.
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Mistakes in data published in the Dearing report mean employers appear to be contributing far more to part-time students' university study than they are in reality.

The errors, the results of flawed calculations by researchers commissioned by Sir Ron Dearing's committee on higher education, suggest eight out of ten employers are paying fees for their staff, when the number is just over half at most. Some educationists believe fewer than a third may be contributing.

It has also emerged that researchers did not distinguish between students receiving full payment of fees and those who get only a partial contribution.

In addition, the study, carried out by the Policy Studies Institute, excluded students from the Open University - the single largest provider of part-time higher education courses in the UK with over 200,000 students.

The flaws in the survey figures, which were discovered last week, are highly significant because they led Sir Ron's committee to conclude that employers were already making a substantial contribution to part-time students' education and therefore should not be obliged to pay more.

Critics of the Dearing report, including the National Union of Students, claimed business and industry had escaped lightly in being asked only to make further voluntary contributions towards higher education.

The over-estimate of the employers' role will also have contributed to the committee's decision not to recommend any extension of the student loan scheme to include part-time students, who make up one third of the 1.6 million students in higher education. The move outraged adult learning campaigners who believe people from poorer backgrounds are being denied access to higher education through lack of funds.

Sir Ron reasoned that, since employers were voluntarily contributing to higher education, their private funding should not be substituted with state cash. Ministers have said they have no plans to allow part-time students access to loans, though pounds 2m is being made available for fee remission for the unemployed.

The Policy Studies Institute, which has alerted Sir Ron to the data errors, has drawn up a revised set of figures from its survey. Dr Claire Callender, who carried out the study, told The Independent mistakes had been made in the weighting of the original survey sample.

The Open University had been excluded by agreement with policy makers working with the Dearing committee because its students were considered unrepresentative of part-timers in general. The OU's own figures show only 16 per cent of its students get help with fees from their employers.

A spokesman for the Dearing committee, which has now been dissolved after reporting last July, said the committee had accepted the survey findings in good faith. He said: "It is regrettable this mistake was made and the committee might obviously have formed different conclusions on the basis of different figures."