Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Dr Elisabeth Bacon, University of Greenwich (HE 122)


  All University departments continue to be concerned about poor retention rates. At the University of Greenwich we successfully addressed the problem in Computing in the 1980s at the time when national IT skills shortages required work permits to be given to overseas graduates. We believe that the curriculum modifications that we used successfully, currently in use in technical universities in the Netherlands, have a much broader application across other subject areas, and could be valuable for those in short supply. This response will also address the current UK shortfall in skilled Information and Communications Technology (ICT) graduates where thousands of work permits are being contemplated for overseas personnel again.


1.1   Student experience affecting retention

1.1.1   Nature of the curriculum Our computing degree curriculum modifications made in 1980, resulted in intense undergraduate motivation and engagement and proved that voluntary withdrawal, as opposed to failure rate, could be reduced from 27% to 9% in one year. For the period that this curriculum could be implemented i.e. 6+ years, we were able to sustain an average of 6% withdrawal rate. This was less than half the national average over that period for the degree course. We therefore recommend ring-fenced staff allocations for this curriculum modification planning and implementation. Student motivation is the key to student retention. We recommend using best Industry practice of Human Resource Development with its proven techniques for staff retention and motivation. We applied these techniques into our undergraduate environment with great success. For example, we taught project team building skills on practical courseworks, together with the use of incentive schemes and reward systems, where appropriate, for applying imagination and creativity effectively. These are exciting and pleasurable, yet demanding activities for students. Overall, we succeeded in reducing the negative experiences at the earliest stages, building only on successful outcomes. We therefore recommend that professional Computing staff be trained and/or recruited in these areas (see paragraph for further details).

1.1.2   Qualification structures The distinction between part-time and full-time students has blurred, now that most full-time students have to work in order to support themselves through university. We therefore recommend the flexibility of implementing a full Credit Accumulation (and Transfer) Scheme i.e. CATS to allow students to study for credits at their own pace. The associated implications of flexible funding are detailed in paragraph

1.1.3  financial considerations, paid work undertaken by students during term-time Industry supply of better quality, semi-skilled computing work for students, with appropriate levels of payment, would reduce the time consumed by current students on generating survival earnings. We promised and delivered students with the required skills in the early 80s. We recommend that bursaries from both HEFCE and Industry should be linked to success, year-by-year, and would encourage students to work hard and stay on the course. Debt management counselling before starting courses would enable students to be better prepared for university.

1.2 Quality of teaching as it relates to student retention

1.2.1  Level of academic support for students The industrial experience and enthusiasm of first year staff is critical to the retention of students. We recommend a review of the balance of teaching and learning in the future when we should be moving more towards enhanced student learning experiences supported by on-line material.

1.2.2 Factors affecting recruitment of highly qualified teachers Computing salaries at Industry levels are impractical for Higher Education pay structures, therefore we recommend that Industry funded and based expertise must be available on-line. Our new computing graduates, with extensive undergraduate experience, can command salary packages of £37,000+ p.a. (as at 2001).

1.2.3 Relationship between teaching and research

  We recommend a flexible delivery of research findings to undergraduates.

1.3   Higher Education Funding affecting Student retention

  We recommend that HEFCE policy should be modified to include bursaries and ring-fenced funding. The full cost of the fees should be publicised to students and first year fees deferred until later years.


2.1   Student experience affecting retention

2.1.1 Nature of the curriculum

Issues: In Computing at the University of Greenwich we are now seeing some very demanding and knowledgeable applicants who are looking for specific areas to be taught in the curriculum. These are generally the leading edge topics where the staff retention problems are at their maximum. If universities do not address this problem with support from Industry then student retention will be adversely affected. (see section 2.2.2 for related issues and proposals). Students who are not appropriately prepared for work in Industry will not see their course as relevant and are more likely to leave. This has been clearly demonstrated at the University of Greenwich by the tendency of students to select the options that are most closely related to leading edge industrial practice. It is one of the University of Greenwich's aims to produce resilient people capable of dealing with constant change and therefore academic concepts are taught within the context of industrial applications wherever possible.

Proposals: Professor Mantz Yorke, the first witness to the Select Committee, stated that he thought that one of the key factors in student retention would be better support in the first few weeks of term, for first year students and our approach addresses this totally. We recommend that our approach at the University of Greenwich be adopted whenever there is a major problem of student retention. Our method was developed in 1979/80 when the systems design team were briefed to look into the problem and decided to model their approach on successful Human Resources Development Programmes used in Industry to retain staff e.g. team building skills, incentive schemes, structured reward systems and so on. This, together with the simulation of project team working in the first weeks of the course, emphasises the inter-dependency of the students as colleagues for all the subsequent exercises of practical team-working. The methodology used to retain first year students employs extensive project management skills in the context of large groups of undergraduates and has a threefold aim:

    —   To extend the network of friendships to enable the individual to feel less isolated and more engaged with the numbers - up to 100 then, now nearer 250 per group - of people they were meeting and working with.

    —   To strengthen the relationships between the students in a professional context as colleagues on project teams.

    —   To add value to the investment of the undergraduate, whilst improving their capabilities during the first year, such that the momentum of their success carries them on to the rest of the course.

Description of the project-team working The professional team-building experience was based on a company survival simulation. Students were put into groups and their task was to manage the day-to-day working of a simulated company and make a profit. The programme was run over several weeks at the start of the course for about two hours per week. A student survey was taken on the first day of the course to identify current skills, experience and expertise. This survey was used to spread the balance of existing skills between the teams. Each students was asked to role-play one of four separate management roles in teams of eight students. For the project team membership, we did not allow existing friends to work together and consequently they started to establish colleague relationships from the beginning and, in the long-term, friendships that our graduates have since remarked on. Professional communications were required at all times both within the team and to project management (staff). The outcomes of this strategy were group presentations, video taped for student feedback, with reports written to international standards. The feedback from the students was extremely positive. They never had the opportunity to feel homesick as they found their new colleagues very supportive in the aim for the team to succeed in their mission. As a direct outcome, their capability, confidence and long-term employability was ready for the Industry environment and commented on by their employers. It should be noted that this approach was particularly beneficial for the women on the course who, with their parallel processing skills, had a natural management ability which made them valuable to their male colleagues. We emphasise that experienced computing staff should carry out the inculcation of management skills, for credibility reasons. The experience in the Netherlands has proved that it could not be grafted on by management staff, it must be a fully integrated approach with design proposal outcomes. Initially there were critics of the methods used to assess group work. We overcame this by placing the responsibility, for allocating proportions of marks between the team members, in their hands. At the beginning of each project, the tasks were sized and allocated to team members. This was the basis of the first negotiation of the allocation of marks within the team. Subsequently, during the project, re-negotiation would take place with the agreement of the project management team (staff). The final aggregate mark for the whole group, assessed at the end of the total project was then allocated proportionately. This, of course, encouraged all team members to contribute as equally as possible and the role of Quality Assurance Controller within the team became a key element of this measurement of contribution. The self-evident fairness of this system generated a powerful work ethic and the overall results achieved were of a higher quality than any previous results that we had seen. The rest of the year incorporated a number of similar exercises in different topic areas. This enabled rotation of the Team Leadership role, which generated a healthy respect for the difficulties to be encountered in the real world. This was identified by employers, again and again, as the most value-added aspect of our modified curriculum for both the undergraduates and their companies. As a consequence, we had the highest retention rate of any Higher Education establishment in the UK in Computing Science degree courses for the period 1980-87. Staff at the University of Greenwich have been over-stretched since the early 90s due to the modularisation of courses, the semester system and high student-staff ratios and this has prevented us from continuing with this approach.

Self-help groups Within the team building exercise, students found a need to skill up all members of the team and the investment of student time and effort in doing this was seen as vital to the results then and in the future. Following on from that, we also discovered that students were setting up informal groups to help support each other with difficult topics on the course. We formalised this by persuading every member of the student cohort to offer some expertise to support their colleagues. This gave a tremendous sense of cohesion and an enhanced intention to stay on the course. A group dynamic was generated such that every single member became valuable and even the weakest students fought to stay, despite perhaps achieving disappointing results at the end of the year. This dynamic transmitted itself across different year cohorts by, for example, second year students offering to help with first year project-team case studies as "consultants". Once again this friendly cross-fertilisation encouraged first years emphasising, as it does, the enjoyable progression into second year status. Likewise, our students and graduates in Industry would come to recruit the next generation of our products.

High Profile successes Part of the reward system was to support enterprising student initiatives with the professional body, the British Computer Society (BCS). As a result, the University of Greenwich sent the first student member of any branch committee, the first student member of BCS Council, set up the first Student/Young Professionals Group of the BCS providing the first Chairman for it. In addition, students at Greenwich set up the first European entry to any of the USA based ACM International Programming competitions. Subsequently, in 1985 our students organised and hosted at Greenwich, the European finals for the ACM competition. Fifteen teams entered from countries including West Germany, France, Finland, Belgium and Switzerland. This is evidence of the enthusiasm, enterprise, involvement and initiatives which came out of the momentum of this strategy. This led to staff at the University of Greenwich winning the Peugeot-Talbot Enterprise in Higher Education Partnership Award in 1990 and subsequently receiving numerous invitations for national and international seminars on our strategy. Staff continue to be involved at the national level, on bodies such as the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee (PITCOM), to keep public policy considerations in front of our students. We also operate BCS monitored Continuous Professional Development programmes for students from their industrial training year, as well as for staff.

Impact of our approach Holland appears to be one of the first European countries to fund their technical universities on successful outcomes. For this reason the Dutch (beginning in Eindhoven) invited University of Greenwich staff over to train them in our approach and we continue to provide our packaged material to this day. We have had extensive and long-term feedback from a wide variety of Industry supporters including Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Conoco, British Telecom, Hewlett-Packard etc. that our approach produces undergraduates with clear mission orientation and grasp of task completion to deadlines which is vital for staff effectiveness. We recommend this approach to other universities and in other subject areas.

2.1.2  Qualification structures

Issues: Full-time students often drop-out because of financial and/or personal pressures. We are clear that many could continue and be successful if they were able to study at their own pace i.e. take some of the study in part-time mode. The problem is that there are significant financial advantages to remaining a full-time student e.g. lower fees, council tax exemption, access to student loans. Part-time students are traditionally seen as being seconded from companies and therefore earning a good salary (see paragraph for financial implications). Earlier evidence to this Select Committee had touched upon the potential problems with modular multi-choice degrees that can lead to the alienation of individuals rather than the group ethos developing, which we know is vital for retention.

Proposals: Our recommendation is the funding of a positive Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) for all students so that we reward students for successful completion of units and allow full-time students to continue their studies in part-time mode without financial or other penalties. (See financial proposals in paragraph We agree that modular multi-choice courses can be alienating. For this reason we recommend that, to enhance our approach, all the students should be studying the majority of their subjects together. Our research has shown that the enhancement of the group dynamic is an on-going and continuous process supported by interpersonal contact throughout the course day-by-day.

2.1.3  Financial Considerations, paid work undertaken by students during term-time

Issues: Financial problems are frequently cited as a major factor in student retention. Now that students have no grants, and we charge them fees, many students have no alternative but to work whilst studying at university. Many universities offer low paid jobs within their university in order to help students financially and most limit the number of hours that they will employ students for, in order to minimise the effect on student studies. This does not however always support them sufficiently to avoid the need to seek additional employment elsewhere and many full-time students are having to work more than, say 15 hours per week, in order to support themselves because the wages are so low. Not only does this work reduce time for study but often the employment hours will clash with scheduled classes and therefore some students will not attend classes as a consequence. This inevitably affects their achievement on the course, often leading to failure and exclusion from the next stage.

Proposals: With Industry skills shortages in computing, we consider that input from Industry is very significant for both financial and staff support. From our experience of working with Industry, we know that they are focused on students from year one, if we can enable the undergraduates to describe their skills - sometimes illustrating with assessed courseworks! - during professional British Computer Society and ACM branch meetings. Their interest in the students increases during the course and grows in a major way at the point of deciding industrial placements. At the University of Greenwich we were aware in 1980-87 that companies would compete over access our students even before we have finished preparing them for Industry. We therefore have included below elements of industrial input that would both motivate and enhance the course for our students. Extending the oral evidence given by Sir Howard Newby of HEFCE who proposed a comprehensive bursary scheme, we would recommend that this is linked with successful completion of each subject within an academic year. This would encourage year completion, perhaps in part-time mode. In addition, co-operation with Industry should provide further bursaries to support individual students. Industry could then auction additional bursaries based on end of year results, thus motivating students to study. This is for the most able students. The HEFCE bursaries would apply to all students. Our Computing students are semi-skilled professionals and capable of working in hi-technology and application areas with Industry support. This arrangement would need to be a negotiated settlement between companies and universities. If employers provide the part-time work (both vacation and term-time employment), then universities can provide the semi-skilled undergraduates specific to their needs. Companies would need to work around the committed timetable of the undergraduates. Students would be paid as semi-skilled workers and therefore have to work fewer hours to survive than if they worked in poorly paid jobs. The experience would not only support their studies by bringing them real-world experiences, but leave them more time to study. Following on from the issues raised in and the proposals in regarding the proposed change of qualification structures to support a credit accumulation model for all students, the financial incentives to remain full-time need to be reviewed. The proposal is that all students are supported in completing their studies regardless of whether they are classified as full-time or part-time. This will allow students to work their way through university and study at the pace that is appropriate for them. If the financial support offered were means-tested (as is currently the payment of fees), then this support would be available to poor students and exclude relatively "affluent" part-time students who are not suffering from the same financial pressures. Potential students can be put off by the fear of debt, therefore better debt management advice and support needs to be publicised to this group. Our students undertook a similar exercise successfully for 10 years, to market our courses in schools. This was done on a voluntary basis, when grants existed, however current students could be paid to visit schools and colleges to talk about their experiences.


2.2.1   Level of academic support for students

Issues: Since the early 1990s as in most computing departments, staff numbers in our department have not kept pace with the increasing student numbers, currently about 2000 students. Government policy on widening access - with its range of student backgrounds - plus fashionable modular and semester-based approaches have all increased the demands on staff and consequently diminished the time available to support students, in particular first years. This problem is accentuated in the new universities where student:staff ratios are running as high as nearly 35 students to one member of staff.

Proposals: There needs to be more staff available specifically to support first year students. Our experience shows that the most enthusiastic and charismatic staff at this stage can help retain the students by the infectious nature of enthusiasm. We recommend that funds should be ring-fenced for the staffing of the professional skills development of first years undergraduates. Our approach to finding additional qualified staff would be to recruit recently retired Senior Project Managers from companies we have co-operated with over the years in Industrial Training placements. For future approaches to academic support, it is proposed that the contact the staff have with students, should be focused less around the delivery of lectures to large numbers of students and more on student learning and supporting that learning via electronic means. Ideally the students would only come together for staff managed student development, lectures would be turned into task-oriented learning environments. At the University of Greenwich we already have examples of this style of teaching.

2.2.2  Factors affecting recruitment of highly qualified teachers

Issues: Salaries are the main hurdle in recruiting and keeping highly-qualified staff. The fast moving nature of computing developments mean that retention of leading-edge staff is almost impossible e.g. in e-commerce where we have lost staff to Industry. Industry input into developing and delivering advanced material is vital, but Industry professionals are already over-stretched and on high salaries. Even our new graduates can earn very high salaries. For example, one of our final year students has recently been offered a salary package of £37,000 p.a. plus shares, plus medical insurance etc. with the promise of rapid increases. This is more than the average Higher Education lecturing staff annual salary by the time of retirement. There is therefore little interest from Industry leading-edge professionals in paid part-time teaching, so this is not a solution. Existing staff in higher education have the skills to be able to keep up with the leading-edge technology. However it is extremely time consuming for staff to teach themselves or costly to attend external training courses.

Proposals: We recommend that Industry funded and based staff with specialist expertise should use on-line video conferencing to provide input into seminars and lectures. For example they could use the Web to transmit lectures from Industry sites, hold seminar discussion with groups using interactive and video conferencing software and thus keep demands on Industry based staff to a practical minimum level.

2.2.3  Relationship between teaching and research It is vital that leading-edge research feeds the curriculum at all levels as this provides the buzz and excitement that enthuses students, which in turn helps retention. However the leading-edge researchers maybe too busy but, we recommend from our experience, that appropriate enthusiastic colleagues are used to convey the material in a positive way to the students.



2.3.1 Inevitably Higher Education funding impacts on the resources to support students in their first year at University. Many of those issues have already been addressed above. In addition, the implement of fees has brought about a culture change in students. They now have unrealistic expectations of Higher Education in that they are taking less responsibility for their own learning and increasingly expect to be spoon-fed by staff.


2.3.2 The full cost of the fees should be publicised to students so they are aware that they are only contributing small proportion. In addition, the fees could be removed for the first year students and deferred until later years, so that staff have time to engender a different culture within the student body.


  3.1 In submitting this material we are conscious of the specific nature of the problems of the computing / ICT environment. However, we feel that the wide applicability of our approach across all subject areas in the university sector - every subject at least has a need for research and analysis - enables a project team building approach, with its motivating elements, to be used. Based on the experience that we have had in this area, with its extremely positive outcomes, we would wish to be again in a position to deploy the approach. It is an irony that our approach is still used in Holland whilst we have been unable to offer this at the University of Greenwich in the past decade.

Dr Elisabeth Bacon
University of Greenwich
January 2001

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