Examination of Witnesses (Questions 251
MONDAY 28 JANUARY 2008
Q251 Chairman: I welcome the distinguished
group of witnesses that includes Professor Madeleine Atkins, Professor
Steve Smith, Richard Wainer and Susan Anderson. Thank you for
coming, and I apologise for the delay. As you know, for 20 days
we will be discussing the European treaty, and that was the start
of the votingit was on a programme motion, I think. I hope
that now we will not have any more interruptions for a considerable
time. You will be aware that this is our first major inquiry as
the new Committee for Children, Schools and Families, and we are
very keen to get to the bottom of the questions around testing
and assessment. We are particularly keen to speak to the end users,
such as the universities and employers. We always give witnesses
a chance to say something to get us started, or they can go straight
into answering the questions. You know the topic: is our testing
and assessment system fit for purpose? When you wander around
the world answering questions about UK education, a lot of people
say, "We would like to know more about how our students perform,
but not like the United Kingdom, which tests at seven, 11, 14,
15, 16, 17 and 18." They go through the catalogue of testing
that they are sure that we have. Are we where we want to be in
testing and assessment? You can answer that question, or you can
introduce yourself and say what you want to say.
Professor Atkins: I am Madeleine
Atkins, Vice-Chancellor of Coventry University. I would like to
make two comments on your introductory questions. First, I question
whether we have got the balance right between a deep synoptic
understanding of subjects at AS and A2-level, as opposed to having
a broad range of quite superficial knowledge. As we move our curriculum
towards problem-based and activity-led learning, which is very
much in line with what the employers say that they want, we are
finding that a gulf is opening up in the way in which students
are prepared to learn as they come into university. My second
comment is that as we move further towards the knowledge-based
society, we find that many young people coming from school and
college underestimate the amount of mathematics and numeracy that
is required in higher education vocational programmes. I am delighted
to see that Diplomas will have numeracy as a requirement in the
new 14-19 Diplomas. Nevertheless, I wonder whether we have got
the balance right.
Chairman: Thank you.
Professor Smith: Very briefly,
I am here as Chair of the 1994 group of research-led universities.
As Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University, a member of the Prime
Minister's National Council for Educational Excellence, a member
of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service board and
a member of the UK Post Qualification Admissions Delivery Partnership,
I am particularly interested in answering questions and discussing
issues of fair access and wider participation and the way in which
the current assessment regime at A-level supports those aims.
Given the nature of our intake. I am also very happy to talk about
Exeter's experience with A grades and the prospect of grade A*
at A-level, which opens up a series of issues, and also the accuracy
of A-level predictions. I am very happy to talk about all those
issues as well as the measures that we have to put in place as
a university in order to cover the knowledge gaps that we identify
in the existing A-level curriculum.
Chairman: We invited you as individual
vice-chancellors, Professor Smith. Universities UK did not feel
that it could add any value by appearing before the Committee
on this subject, as it could not get any agreement among its members,
which rather surprised us so we thought we would go for individual
vice-chancellors instead. I was surprised at Universities UK's
reaction, but never mind.
Susan Anderson: I will make a
comment for Richard Wainer and myself. Our key message is that
employers recognise and understand GCSEs and A-levels as high-quality
qualifications. They see value in the new Diplomas, but they understand
GCSEs and A-levels. We have concerns about literacy, numeracy
and employability skills, and also about the number of students
studying science and maths A-levels, because we are not getting
enough young people choosing to study the science subjects at
university that employers want. Those are the key points that
I would like to emphasise in my opening remarks.
Q252 Chairman: I shall go back to
the point that I was making earlier and want to question the two
vice-chancellors. This morning, I visited Southfields Community
College, which is a fascinating place, to look at what it does.
It is an extraordinarily interesting, innovative college. I popped
into some of the sixth-form courses and, as I usually am, was
absolutely amazed at how hard the students work.
We hear vice-chancellors and other organisations
saying that they get people who they do not think have the depth
or breadth of knowledge that they should have, which surprises
me because such visits to schools point me in another direction.
I went into an English class where people immediately wanted to
know whether I knew Simon Armitage, because I am from Huddersfield,
and what I thought of Shakespeare as a poet rather than as a playwright.
They were fascinating and stimulating young people. A recent report
from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) suggested that
students, having worked through sixth form frenetically to achieve
good results to get into university, are actually not worked very
hard when you get hold of them, and that we have the most easy-going
university regime in the developed world. If it is true that they
are not that good, why do you not work them harder? Professor
Smith, will you answer that?
Professor Smith: I will happily
answer that. I actually think that university students work very
hard, and the evidence supports that. There are, of course, questions
about the evidence, but the basic evidence, alongside the number
of 2.1 and 1st grades, is the proportion of people completing
courses, the proportion of people satisfied with the experience
and, crucially, the proportion of people moving into graduate-level
jobs. The HEPI study is a good study, but please note that it
talks about contact hours, full stop. I think that it is absolutely
crucial to distinguish between being in a lecture theatre in some
of the continental countries with 500 people present for an hour
and doing seminar and tutorial work for an hour. I think that
the HEPI study has limitations because of its methodology, but
students at universities in the UK work hard and the results objectively
Q253 Chairman: What about the first
point? How do they arrive with you? It is a gross term to use
these days, but are they oven ready when they get to you in Exeter
Professor Smith: Oven ready might
not be quite the right term. Let me put it this way: we need a
certain degree of subtlety. I have read all the transcripts for
the Committee's previous sittings and think that the key point
is that it is neither one thing nor the other. By that, I mean
that the students come with skills that are different to those
of people who went to university 20 years ago or 35 years ago,
when I went to university. They are different sets of skills.
In preparation for today, we asked all the admissions
tutors at Exeter what they find. You get two basic sets of comments:
first, with regard to the right sets of study skills, they are
actually rather well prepared, with the exception of independent
critical thinking, which is why the extended project in the Diploma
looks very exciting; secondly, there are differences in the subject
knowledge that they arrive with, especially in some of the sciences.
You might wish to push on that a bit more. In Exeter, for example,
the level of maths that the students come with is a major issue.
We put on additional maths in the first year from the business
school right through to biosciences, physics, engineering and
computer science because we do not think that everyone comes at
the right level. Equally, in our English school they actually
put on additional study skills modules for people in the first
year because gaps were identified there as well.
Professor Atkins: We would say
the same sort of thing. With regard to mathematics, our colleagues
in science, technology, engineering and mathematicsSTEMwould
say that the range of mathematics now studied in the sixth form
is much wider than it used to be, but that there is less depth,
particularly around subject topics such as calculus. For example,
for students reading engineering subjects, we have to put on supplementary
work so that studentseven those with a grade A or B at
mathematicscan cope with things like fluid dynamics, heat
transfer and engine cycle calculations. That area seems to trip
up our inbound students. I absolutely endorse what Steve has said;
there is a requirement for mathematics and numeracy right across
the vocational field. Particularly in nursing and professions
allied to medicine, we find that students who dropped mathematics
at 16, having got their grade A to C at GCSE, forget it. It is
not like riding a bicycle. Also, if they have learned maths as
a selection of discrete random techniques, they arrive to learn
about drug medication, for example, and cannot quite remember
which bit to put above which bit when calculating the percentage.
That is quite worrying. The amount of additional confidence-building
that we have to do with numeracy, as well as the actual mathematics
input, is quite considerable. As with Exeter, we fund a large
maths support centre that tests 800 students coming into Coventry
University on the induction week and continues to offer drop-in
sessions. We see about 2,000 students a term on a drop-in basis.
This is a major issue. It is not a problem just in STEM subjects,
but in business, nursing and other areas. I also agree with Professor
Smith about academic writing. We find that there are problems
in the ability of students to do two things. First, we are having
to focus on bringing independent critical analysis to web-based
materials or Internet-based sources. Students are very able to
source materials on the Internet from many different places, but
are not quite so able to bring critical appraisal to those sources.
For example, they get information from "Wiki" and it
arrives in the essay without any greater consideration. Secondly,
students are often unable to structure a report at length, rather
than produce a short piece of writing. They do not always understand
that writing is a recursive process that needs to be worked at.
Those are some of the areas where we have to put in additional
time, help and resources to aid students' academic writing.
Q254 Chairman: Thank you. That evidence
will be familiar to you, Susan. It is the sort of thing that the
CBI has been saying for some time.
Susan Anderson: Those issues certainly
resonate with us. When we talk to employers about graduate skills,
more often, they are concerned about the quantity of graduates,
particularly in the STEM areas of physical science, maths and
engineering. They are in very high demand among employers, not
just in the specialised manufacturing or engineering sectors,
but in the financial services. Employers are concerned more about
the quantity than the quality of such graduates. Sometimes, an
employer from a pharmaceutical firm, for example, will say that
somebody has come to them with bioscience or another relevant
degree, but has not done the particular bits that they want. It
would not take much to fix that. Often, major employers are working
with universitieswhether in the IT or the pharmaceutical
sectorto see how they can get courses in those disciplines
that reflect business needs. That is an area where we in business
can work more closely with universities and that is happening.
On literacy and numeracy, we are more concerned about school leavers
at 16 and 18 than about graduates. I emphasise that when we ask
employers for their views on school leavers and graduates it is
literacy and numeracy that they are concerned about. We get very
few complaints about IT skills. That is rather different from
the work force, where there are some issues with IT. Only 2% of
employers say that they have any problems with graduates' general
IT skills and about 8% say that they have problems with those
of 16 or 18-year-olds. For whatever reason, in some areas there
are very few problems; that is probably because those areas are
reinforced by home use. It is important to us, and we have worked
closely with the Government, to establish what we mean by basic
literacy and numeracy. We are happy to expand on that, as we have
in our paper. Similarly, on the employability skills that employers
are looking for, we do not label them in quite the same way as
universities do. But we know that young people are getting those
skills as we have defined themself-management and team-workingfrom
their school and university experiences. What they are not always
very good at is calling them by the right labels, or being able
to talk about and demonstrate how they have worked as part of
an effective team on a university project, or become an effective
self-manager. Sometimes the problem is with labelling and terminology,
rather than the fact that particularly university graduates do
not have those skills at all.
Q255 Chairman: So, does your organisation
aspire for well rounded graduates with a broader competence?
Susan Anderson: Our bigger problem
is lack of STEM graduates. If we have an issue to address, we
are saying that those areas come pretty much top of the list.
Employability skills are also important, but we think that universities,
at least the good ones, really get those skills, and understand
that employers are looking for people who can apply their literacy
and numeracy skills in the workplace. For the university graduates,
it is often a question of talking the language that employers
talk and understand, and being realistic. For example, if you
say that you are going to go into a business environment and be
a leader, you will not be a leader on day one. Sometimes, graduates
need a bit of realism. Primarily, when we talk about quality,
that refers to employability skills, but the key concern is quantity
of STEM graduates.
Richard Wainer: I would like to
add to that. While the quantity of STEM graduates is probably
the primary concern in HE, you are right about employers wanting
well-rounded people coming out of university. Our surveys show
that about 70% of graduate jobs require a specific degree discipline,
because employers are looking for a well-rounded person with good
literacy and numeracy, and good employability skills.
Q256 Chairman: Someone with a Diploma?
Richard Wainer: Quite possibly.
Our members have looked at the Diplomas and, in principle, they
can see them working. But there are many issues to work on between
now and September, and going through to 2013, to ensure that they
really are a high quality route for young people, both into university
and into employment.
Chairman: I am not saying this to take
a pot shot at you in the CBI, but some of us who were around at
the time thought that the original Tomlinson reforms were rather
stymied by the CBI attitude. But, we will come back to that and
drill down on it. What I want to get out of this sitting is whether,
if things are not quite as you want them now, is it because of
the supply chain, what is happening down there, too much teaching
for tests? I see the Permanent Secretary has just come in and
is sitting behind you. Is it something that the Government have
been doing over the past 10 or 20 yearsnot limited to one
Administration? Is something in the schools not quite right for
giving the right kind of product? Do not answer that now, but,
by the end of the sitting, that is what my colleagues hope to
be able to drill down and try to discover.
Q257 Stephen Williams: I would like
to start with some factual questions to the two vice-chancellors.
What is the social composition of undergraduates at Exeter and
Coventry? How many, as a proportion, come from private schools,
and how many come from the lowest socio-economic group?
Professor Smith: At Exeter, 74%
of undergraduates come from state schools, and, I would need to
be absolutely sure, but I think that 17.2% come from the lowest
Professor Atkins: At Coventry
97% of undergraduates are from state schools and 38% are from
black and minority ethnic groups. Depending on how the indicators
are cut and used, the figures are 41% from the lowest socio-economic
groups and 21% from the lowest participation neighbourhoods.
Stephen Williams: Flipping the figures
around, 26% of undergraduates at Exeter are from a privately educated
background compared with 3% at Coventry. How does that fit in
with the targets that the Office for Fair Access sets you as institutions?
Presumably Coventry is meeting them comfortably?
Professor Atkins: We exceed our
Professor Smith: You will be pleased
to know that Exeter now exceeds its OFFA benchmark. When I arrived
five years ago, there were 66.9% from state schools and, from
recollection, the OFFA benchmark by 2010 will be 73%. We are ahead
of that, which is a deliberate policy of the institution.
Q258 Stephen Williams: I guess that
for some subjects your admissions tutors have an over-supply of
good candidates coming through. How do you differentiate between
those candidates? Is it from their predicted grades or do you
Professor Smith: We have 24,000
applicantswe are 12th in the country on applications by
place. We do not interview everyone because it would be practically
impossible to do so. We take predicted grades. An important point
about predicted grades is that 67% of grades predicted are accurate
within one grade either side. For a student who is taking three
A-levels, that means that predicted grades are not perfect. However,
out of all A-levels, 84% of predicted grades are accurate within
two grades either side. In a sense that is pretty accurate and
we use those. The problem we havedifferent institutions
will have different problems and Madeleine will have one story
and we will have another partly reflecting our hinterlandis
that the crucial determinate of all the issues you are putting
your finger on is the entry grades required. As you know, 25%
of students get an A and 4% get three As.
Q259 Stephen Williams: Out of the
Professor Smith: Out of the whole
population of 660,000. Those figures stand. The problem is, in
some major areas of work, the average entrance grade is A, A,
and A. Thus a major issue is how to discriminate between the applicants
who have three grade As. Of course, as you also know, 31% of students
who get an A come from the independent schools sector even though
they educate only 7% of the population. Going back to Susan's
point, in the shortage subjectsin the STEM subjects and
in some of the languageswell over 50% of As come from the
independent schools sector. We have a very nice dilemma to deal
with. As an institution, the more we use A-levels and predicted
A-levels, the more we move towards certain social groups.
Professor Atkins: There is a slightly
different picture at Coventry. First, our ratio of applicants
to places has been on average 5:1. We use predicted grades as
the basis on which to decide whether or not to make a standard
offer for the course. We find that very low predicted grades correlate
with difficulties in completing the course and with drop-outs.
We find that there is less correlation between medium and good
predicted grades and the ultimate outcome of degree classification.
Over the last four years, as A-level grades have gone up, we have
raised our grade ask. To give you a precise example, four years
ago, for business studies we would have been asking for something
like 160 UCAS tariff points. We now ask for 260 UCAS tariff points.
That is a change over a four-year period. We put most weight on
the predicted grades and actual grades achieved at GCSE and AS.
We obviously look with care at the reference and at the personal
statement, but the predicted grades and actual grades carry the
most weight. We find that the predicted grades where there are
external and independent assessments, such as AS and A2, are more
accurate for our purposes in predicting whether the student will
do well on the course than some of the vocational qualifications,
where there is a much higher proportion of internal assessment
and there is not necessarily the same guarantee of coverage of
the syllabus. We find that GCSE, AS and A2 are better predictors
for our purposes, but we do not differentiate our standard offer;
once we decide to make an offer, it is the standard offerwe
do not differentiate by board or widening participation category.