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

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


Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee:

  Mr Phil Willis MP, Chairman

Imperial College London students:

Mr Mark Chamberlain, Medicine, 3rd year

Mr David Charles, Biology, 4th year

  Mr Alex Grisman, Aeronautics, 4th year

  Mr Mark Mearing-Smith, Mechanical Engineering, 3rd year

  Mr Ali Mozaffari, Physics, 4th year

  Ms Hannah Theodorou, Medicine, 3rd year

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


  Mr Willis asked what factors had influenced each student's decision to apply to Imperial College and about the quality of advice available from the school careers advisers and from the College.

  Several students said that university was seen as a natural progression from school both by the school they had attended and by their parents. One student added that there was also peer-group pressure at his school to apply to university; and another pointed out that in the absence of such pressure he knew of students obtaining three As at A-level who could have gone to university opting instead to become electricians.

  Several said that for those interested, and proficient, in science subjects and wishing to go to university Imperial College was a prestigious choice in the top rank of UK universities. In deciding to which institutions to apply three students said they had consulted university league tables, though one conceded that with hindsight the tables did not provide an adequate basis on which to make a decision. Another commented that the tables were of limited value to prospective undergraduates as they focussed on universities' research activities rather than on the extent and quality of teaching. One student said that Imperial had been his second choice to Oxford.

  Experience of careers advice varied: one said it had been comprehensive and set out all the options; another said it had been too old-fashioned; and another said it had focused on a too narrow a range of careers, mostly in the armed services.

  On pre-application open days, one student had attended an open day at another institution which had influenced his decision not to apply to that institution. Those who attended open days at Imperial College said that they had been given a good impression of the atmosphere of the College but they lacked information about contact time or, one added, how much work they would have to do in comparison to other universities.


  Mr Willis asked whether in their experience the quality of teaching was enhanced by research carried out at Imperial College. The students saw some advantages in that they had access to leading researchers and first rate facilities. They also had the opportunity to work on projects informed by the latest research which was stimulating. On the negative side, undergraduates were sometimes left behind as resources were concentrated on postgraduates. The comment was also made that Imperial was striving for the model of teaching used at Oxford and Cambridge but was unable to underpin it with one-to-one tuition.


  Mr Willis asked the students about financial support and the part that debt played in their decision to study. All agreed that debt incurred in studying at university was a matter of concern. They pointed out that rents in London amounted to more than the annual student loan. The group said nearly all students worked during the summer and estimated that about 10% also worked during term time. As a consequence many students were unable to become involved in the full range of activities in the College. The scale of debt was a particular problem for those studying subjects such as medicine, which took six years. Several said that it was common for parents to fail to make up the parental contribution which exacerbated their problems.

  On the positive side, it was commented that the support system at Imperial College was good and that its bursary system was unrivalled, though one student said that the support system was not fully adequate for those in lowest socio-economic groups.


  Mr Willis asked what made for a good university experience. The students said that it was important to have a good group of friends and that Imperial College attracted like minded people who fitted into Imperial and would not at other institutions. One described the atmosphere as all geeks together.


  Mr Willis asked about the quality of teaching. The students said that the quality of teaching varied. One said that many younger lecturers put in much effort to prepare their material and to engage with students which was sometimes lacking in older staff. Several found lectures attended by up to 300 students to be less value than smaller groups of up to 30. One said it was almost impossible to ask questions in larger groups but another disagreed. The group identified two areas of concern. First, postgraduate students who taught struggled to explain basic concepts cogently. Second, medical students were often taught by NHS staff, some of whom appeared to have had no training in pedagogical skills, and they often left students standing around in hospitals without any work.

  Several students expressed concern about the quality of feedback from academic staff. While acknowledging that some academic staff gave detailed and useful criticism, others gave terse and uninformative feedback. It was frustrating to be given a relatively good mark or a single word comment such as good or fine without any indication of what parts of the work were strong and what needed improvement. The result was that students were unclear how to improve their performance and they were not being stretched sufficiently. Some work was also marked by postgraduate students who lacked proficiency in providing feedback. The students said that the College system of personal tutors was supposed to ensure that adequate feedback was given with each personal tutor reviewing and adding comments before work was returned to his or her students. Their experience, and that of other students, was that the extent and nature of personal tutors' comments varied and that the system needed improvement.

  Mr Willis asked about the use of IT in teaching. Several said that, while IT was useful, its use in the College did not address the absence of interface between students and staff as it flowed in one direction, from teaching staff to students. One commented that rather than send an e-mail to a tutor it was better, in some cases, to speak to him or her.


  Mr Willis asked whether plagiarism was a problem. The students said that the College had made clear what it was, that is the intention to deceive the marker. The group said that they were aware that it went on and said that particular areas were prone to it, for example, laboratory reports which followed a set pattern. It was pointed out that some international students without a detailed knowledge of technical and scientific terms in English could struggle to produce such reports from scratch. They pointed out that a number of factors could foster plagiarism. The College set too much work without indicating which should be given priority. The impersonal nature of some teaching and marking meant that academic staff did not develop knowledge of a student's style and could fail to notice plagiarised work in an unfamiliar style.


  Mr Willis asked whether they were aware of degree inflation. The students said that they had detected no degree inflation at Imperial College. They pointed out that they were expected to work very hard for their degrees. One said that he had advised people to go to other universities if they wanted an easier time. The group was clear that the quality of degrees varied between higher education institutions in the UK but pointed out that degrees from Imperial had considerable international standing. It was noted that many of those responsible for recruiting graduates attached greater weight to applicants with a degree from Imperial College.

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

March 2009

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