Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Note of informal meeting with staff at Imperial College London on 19 March 2009


Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee

  Mr Phil Willis MP, Chairman

Imperial College London

Sir Roy Anderson, Rector

Ms Michelle Coupland, Director of Planning

  Professor David Lloyd Smith, Dean of Students

  Professor David Nethercot, Head of Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

  Mr David Robb, Chair of Admissions Committee

  Ms Melanie Thody, Director of Access and Head, Imperial Outreach

  Mr Willis put a number of questions to the Rector and staff and this note records the points made in reply.


  Mr Willis pointed out that applicants for places in higher education were coming forward with better A-levels than previously and more potential students had grade A's than any other grade. He asked what effect this had had on Imperial College's admission policies. In reply it was pointed out that although the number of A grades has increased in state schools, fewer pupils were studying mathematics and the science subjects necessary for admission to Imperial College. The Rector and the staff were clear that Imperial College could not adjust its entry criteria as the College had to maintain the standard of its degrees, which had international recognition and prestige, and that it was essential to attract the best students. After a fall in the number of applications to the College in the 1990s the number of applications had increased in recent years. It would be in no-one's interest to admit students who could not cope with courses. Imperial College did, however, have a clear and successful strategy for making access as wide as possible. The Rector said that the key was to ensure that teachers in state schools encouraged and inspired pupils to study mathematics and science and to challenge those who encouraged the study of softer options. The College had underpinned this approach with its Inspire programme to improve the quality of science teaching in schools. It had a number of schemes which placed students in London schools, concentrating on schools that were under-represented with pupils going to university.

  Mr Willis asked whether Imperial would follow Cambridge and introduce a requirement for an A-star grade for admission. The staff explained that Imperial College had introduced a requirement for A-star for mathematics in a number of its departments. This was because grade inflation in mathematics had been disproportionate to that in other subjects; a table was circulated to illustrate the difference between mathematics and other science subjects. The Rector commented that the requirement on applicants to have proficiency in mathematics acted as a break on over-expansion and ensured that standards were maintained.


  Mr Willis asked what difference the research programmes undertaken in the College made to teaching undergraduates. The staff explained that the most able researchers wanted to carry out teaching and that researchers such as Professor John Burland, who had corrected the Leaning Tower of Pisa, were an inspiration to undergraduates, enabling teaching to be informed by the latest research developments. The College would not be able to attract the academics if they were restricted only to teaching. The Rector said that in his experience the best researchers were often the best teachers. Staff were required to undertake training and qualifications in teaching, which was underpinned with a review of teaching performance.

  The Rector said that staff listened and took note of students' views. Student surveys had identified a need for more tutorials and a perception that feedback needed to be improved. These were matters which the College was examining and would be addressing. All staff were required to have the PGCE qualification, which was underpinned with a review of teaching performance which had a external element. The Rector said that one of his top strategic objectives was to improve the student experience at the College. On feedback, the Envision 2010 project in the Faculty of Engineering, which was examining how the Faculty could improve its educational ethos, its facilities and infrastructure and its level of educational innovation, had identified the need to challenge students with more feedback and less activity. The outcome would be more discourse between staff and students.


  Mr Willis asked whether there had been degree devaluation at Imperial with greater numbers of firsts and upper seconds awarded that a generation ago. The Rector said there had been none and that consistent standards had been applied. He said that the performance of the Russell Group had been distorted by Oxford and Cambridge. Other staff pointed out that the lower second was still frequently awarded at Imperial College. Some academics at the College had noticed that masters students who graduated from other universities with first class honour degrees sometimes struggled at Imperial College. When staff from Imperial College acted as external assessors for other institutions that did not have a previous history of producing first rate students they often found within these institutions a small band of excellent students who were the equal of the best at Imperial but the profile of students' abilities, in contrast to Imperial College, often fell sharply.

  No one agreed with UUK's view expressed to the Committee that the level of understanding required between different universities was broadly equivalent.


  Mr Willis asked what value external examiners provided to the assessment of degrees. The Rector said that they were good at identifying potential issues and bringing them to the attention of the Colleges. For example, while students from Imperial matched the intellectual abilities of those from Oxford and Cambridge, additional support was often needed to enhance and develop their presentational skills. Most of Imperial College's external assessors came from institutions in the Russell Group, though they also included industrialists who had a clear view of the requirements and standards expected by employers. The staff at the meeting believed that external assessors should be trained.


  Mr Willis asked whether plagiarism was a problem. The staff said that, to ensure that standards were maintained, it was essential to bear down on plagiarism. The College used a number of IT programmes to assist in the detection of plagiarism and that, when detected, punishment was swift and severe—for example, for a first offence all examination and course results for a year would be cancelled. To avoid the risk of inadvertent plagiarism students were given guidance during induction and staff in the library were on hand to give additional advice during the year. Often differences in cultural attitudes to plagiarism needed to be addressed.


  Mr Willis asked whether prospective students were given an indication of who would be teaching them if they came to Imperial College. In reply, it was pointed out that some departments in the College had over 50 members of staff each with a particular specialism and so it was impossible to say who would be teaching individual students until students' elective modules in the fourth year, when they could select which module to study.


  Mr Willis said that the students he had met earlier had been concerned about the costs of studying in London and about the level of debt that they would be incurring. The staff said that they were aware of students' concerns. The staff pointed out that the College had taken steps to ease the transition to university—for example, by guaranteeing a place in a hall of residence during their first year. The Rector commented that it was the pattern in the US for students to work and that universities there employed students where possible on campus—for example, in garden maintenance. Both outreach and financial supported were noted to be advanced by the fact that Imperial College employed over a thousand students to act as role models for outreach into schools and other organisations. In addition, about 100 students each year volunteered to go to classrooms in primary and secondary schools to assist teachers, share specialist knowledge and to provide positive role models. There were also benefits to the students: some were paid for these activities and they could refine their communication skills. The schools benefited with extra tuition and the pupils found out what it was like to go to university. Mr Willis asked for a note setting out the work done by Imperial College as outreach giving details of the projects.

  Mr Willis then asked whether Imperial College was likely to increase its tuition fees to the maximum if the Government raised the cap on fees next year. he Rector pointed out that, unlike Oxford and Cambridge, Imperial College had no endowments and therefore had a greater dependence on state support and income from fees. He said that the College hoped to expand its income from international students as there was a large pool of students with high proficiency in mathematics and science subjects looking to come to universities in Europe or North America.

  Mr Willis thanked the Rector and staff for taking the time to meet him and to answer questions.

March 2009

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