Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-406)



  400. Because of the nature of science teaching and its attractiveness to students, my concern is that we will be narrowing the base from which ultimately we recruit doctors.
  (Dr Brown) That would probably be true if you are thinking of 18 year olds entering our university now but there is a big move, as you are probably aware, and in fact Nottingham itself has an initiative to open a graduate medical school entry in 2003 and our requirements there are a first degree in anything, it does not have to be science at all. You can teach medicine to any interested and able person, they do not have to have a science background in that sense.

  401. But they will probably for the foreseeable future be a minority entering in that way, what I am suggesting to you is that if science was more attractive to students we might broaden the base from which we are able to recruit doctors.
  (Dr Brown) Yes. I am torn because I am the Director of Biomedical Sciences, which really is biochemistry, chemistry and so on, as well, so I worry from that side. From medicine alone certainly a broader base would be fine. The core curriculum we need for medicine is very much smaller than we would need for biochemistry.

Mr Dhanda

  402. Is there anything that could be done at the assessment level at 16-18 to prepare those students better for yourselves? Are there any changes that you would make to the assessment structure?
  (Dr Brown) I feel guilty saying this because I think we could be criticised in exactly the same way and yet I come back to the point I made earlier about teaching in small packets and examining in small modules. We do that and we are seeing disadvantages of it now and I think schools are. What we would like is for schools to examine one year, or maybe even two years, of a course as a whole so that students do not see things in isolation but they can bring information from different areas to bear on a question. I used to coach some A level maths myself, and the syllabus looks similar now to how it did 15 years ago but when you look at the exam questions they are different, they are split up into bite sized pieces which lead the students through. Students are very capable of doing that but the minute you give them a question that is a big synoptic thing, they are lost. I would like to see them have to answer questions requiring knowledge of the whole course.
  (Professor Ruxton) I think there is a lot of good practice in design and technology that can be used using project based assessment. It is actually worth looking at what is happening in design and technology. Design and technology has the lowest truancy rate of any subject.
  (Professor Haines) I would like to be sure that coursework was actually done by the students themselves. That is an issue for universities as well. There is a great deal of plagiarism now occurring across universities and it seems to me that the students have learnt that plagiarism before they come to us. There is one other thing that I would like to see happen which is perhaps slightly outside the point you were asking, which is when you see comparisons of A level grades of students who get a particular grade, let us say in mathematics, and you see even in the IT computing A level they get an average one grade higher, I would like to see the grading of A levels carried out in such a way that a student who has defined a particular skill gets the same kind of grade in the various subjects. It seems to me quite crazy now.

  403. You are talking about students from poorer areas, for example, or where the school has not been up to the same standard as other schools and has been graded up? Is that what you are saying?
  (Professor Haines) No, no. There have been studies done on students who get a particular grade in a particular subject, and I will give you the example of maths because I am more aware of that particular data, comparing the students who get a Grade C, for example, in maths and then looking to see what grades they get in other subjects that they have taken. It is quite clear that mathematics, certain sciences and certain foreign languages in that sense are much more difficult to get a grade in than other subjects. The difference between somebody who gets a Grade C in maths, for example, and takes art is almost two grades, the art being almost two grades higher on average.

Dr Iddon

  404. It seems to me from the evidence that we have taken so far from the different witnesses that this Committee, along with you, is going to have to resolve a dilemma. The dilemma is this: that everybody who has talked to us says that there is far too much in each respective curriculum, whether it is chemistry, physics or maths, everybody says that we are not attracting students to study science and it would be helpful if we did some scientific literacy. That is the dilemma and in order to resolve the dilemma surely we have to exclude a lot of factual knowledge from each of the different curricula to put the scientific literacy in. My question to you is are you prepared to redesign your entrance requirements and all of your university courses to meet this changing situation?
  (Professor Ruxton) We have already started doing that in engineering. We have redesigned the courses. Some of the courses are designed for Key Stage 4, so it is for mathematics and double science at Key Stage 4. I am specifically talking about engineering technician degrees and incorporated engineering degrees, subject like sports technology, music technology, media technology, so you do not need the design and the research content. It is more the application side. It is already happening.

  405. Do you find that your colleagues in the other departments, in the chemistry department, in the physics department, in the maths department, are doing the same or is engineering in your institute leading the way?
  (Professor Ruxton) In Staffordshire University we have driven that really hard. The point is we have been forced into it because if you look at the number of acceptances nationally has dropped from 23,000 in 1993 to 15,000 last year. There has been acute pressure on engineering departments to change because if they do not change we go out of business. Indeed, a lot of engineering departments, as you are probably aware, are closing down especially in the new universities.

  406. So chemistry at Cambridge and Oxford, because they are not short of students, is likely to remain the same and it is the newer universities, the ex-polytechnics, that are going to change the most, that is what you are saying?
  (Professor Ruxton) That is what I am saying, yes.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. On that rather revolutionary note can I thank you very much for your time. Again, we could have gone on for hours on this area. You have helped us on the big issues in this area. Thank you very much for taking part.


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