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

Memorandum 89

Submission from Professor Barrie W Jervis


  Owing to the expansion in university places, the entry requirements to some Honours Degree courses are now minimal, in order that the universities can fill the places. This leads to low ability students receiving Honours degrees. These graduates cannot satisfy all the demands of their eventual employers. There are a wide range of possible entry qualifications, some of which rely on high coursework elements and are unjustly awarded. These students are not prepared for university studies. The resultant lowering of academic standards calls into question the meaning and purpose of universities and of degree courses. Adjusting entry requirements to admit more less-qualified students from poorer backgrounds is likely to be counter-productive as these students may not be prepared for the demands of university, may not catch up, and may not complete their courses. Plenty of routes exist to allow motivated students to qualify. There would be more confidence in degrees if only the most academically able students took them (top 20%, say). This would also reduce the drop-out rate. Other young people would benefit from technical training at different levels, satisfying a national demand. Good teaching and good research are mutually supportive, but in most cases lecturers have too much teaching and administration to devote much time to research. The current research system is wasteful, and many foreign research students take their knowledge home to our competitors, leaving little behind. Better remuneration and career structures for researchers are recommended. Degree classifications include an element of luck, and degree standards vary considerably between courses. The external examiner system does not guarantee a uniform standard and needs revision. The degree certificate could be accompanied by a general statement by the university about the skills the degree was intended to foster. Degree courses could be ranked nationally, and external examining could be anonymous. Plagiarism should be severely punished. The academically more able should receive full grants or scholarships for their degree courses; the rest should receive loans. Twenty recommendations are offered for consideration.


  2.1  I am a fairly recently retired Professor of Electronic Engineering with particular teaching interests in communication engineering (signal transmission), and have published many research papers. I have taught in two English ex-Polytechnic universities, in an American university, and have tutored for the Open University. I have also worked briefly in a German company and in a French university research laboratory. I have taught students with HNC qualifications through to final year Honours Degree and MSc students, including their final projects. I have supervised and examined MPhil and PhD students in the UK, and have been an external examiner for French PhD and Habilitation candidates. I come from a poor family, but obtained a place in a Cambridge college, thanks to my state Grammar School education, and obtained an Honours Degree in Natural Sciences. After some years in English industry I obtained a PhD at Sheffield University and undertook post-doctoral research. I have strong views about universities and the scientific and engineering education they provide, derived from this experience.


3.1  Admissions

  3.1.1  There was a time when the minimum entrance requirements for university were set at 5 GCEs and two A-levels, and this system seemed to serve well the smaller number of universities then extant. There are now a large number of universities and their expansion and independence has been accompanied by a corresponding burgeoning in the number and type of acceptable entry qualifications. Since there are now more places than well-qualified and motivated students, many universities enrol students with minimal qualifications. For example, the entry requirement for some BSc (Honours) courses in engineering is the possession of GCSEs in English and maths and a stab at a technical A-level, or equivalent. Few such poorly qualified students have the skills to study at degree level, yet most obtain an Honours degree, because their lecturers are encouraged to pass them at all stages. The argument goes that, if you are qualified to enrol on a course, then you must be capable of succeeding. Any failures must therefore be the fault of the lecturers.

3.1.2  Some of these entrance qualifications are of doubtful value. At one extreme they are achieved almost entirely by coursework assignments, and I hear stories that many teachers are pressurised to pass their students, however poor their knowledge and understanding, if they want to keep their jobs.

3.1.3  Clearly the country needs as many qualified and trained people as possible, and the government has set a target for 50% of the annual cohort to enter higher education. It is questionable that all these students, or the country, will benefit by them all studying for the current three or four year degrees. The expansion in the numbers of university first degree students and in the number of universities themselves has been acknowledged by many university lecturers and industrialists alike to have resulted in a serious overall lowering of standards. Not only are many graduates "not fit for purpose", but the very definition of a university and a degree course and their purposes is called into question. Courses other than degree courses should be available for the less academically gifted. For example, there is a shortage of skilled technicians.

  3.1.4  The current policy of requiring universities to enrol a quota of less qualified students from poorer backgrounds is likely to be counter-productive. The intellectual abilities of students with lower qualifications may not be as well developed, and it is possible that this handicap will not be overcome at university, and may lead to them dropping out. Students with a desire to succeed have many possible routes to follow including universities with lower entrance requirements, local colleges, part-time courses, and evening classes. It might take longer, but the opportunities are there.

3.2  The balance between teaching and research

  3.2.1  This is a difficult issue. Ideally teaching and research should reinforce each other. However, for different individuals with different enthusiasms in different universities in different circumstances one may dominate the other by choice or necessity. Probably the more common situation is that teaching and administrative duties take up most of the time, with little being left for research. There is a valid argument for concentrating research in a few universities, leaving the remainder as teaching universities. Some lecturers are happy to only teach, but they may not be as enthusiastic about their subject or as competent at it as those who are pushing back its boundaries. If all lecturers should undertake some research to stimulate their teaching, then this would have to be reflected in their recruitment and by a maximum teaching load.

3.2.2  The present system of research in UK universities seems to me to be rather wasteful and inefficient. Research projects are proposed and directed by lecturers, who generally lack sufficient time for the task, and are carried out by research students and post-doctoral workers, who are temporary. Because research students are badly rewarded financially, a high percentage of them are foreigners, seeking to improve themselves in their own countries. After completion, they usually return to their own countries. These people are the repositories of the latest research and technical knowledge, so when they leave, they take it with them, both depriving the UK of it and at the same time transferring it to what are probably our competitors. It is difficult to imagine a more unsatisfactory scenario.

3.4  Degree classification

  3.4.1  There may be differences in the methodologies adopted for degree classifications. One system is to base the classification on the aggregated marks gained. These could be for the final year, but sometimes this mark is combined with some percentage of the second year mark. Sometimes a mark from an industrial, sandwich year might be included. Compensation may be applied. A poor mark in one subject may be compensated by a good mark in another. Some judgement is exercised in deciding this and the class boundaries, thus introducing a small element of luck from year to year. Another system is to allocate a higher class to a candidate who may have shown exceptional ability in one or two exams. This introduces subjectivity, and therefore an element of chance. A common assumption has been that the student cohort varies negligibly from year to year, and so the same distributions of classification are often ensured by processing the marks statistically. This is invalid, if there are significant variations in the students' abilities from year to year. There may be an argument for ensuring that the process itself is uniform nationally.

3.4.2  Certainly in science and engineering there is a wide disparity between university departments in how the students are taught and assessed, and in the expectations of them regarding motivation, independence, and originality, and in how they perform. Teaching covers the gamut from a demanding intellectual formation down to rote learning. Assessment varies from rigorous examinations, to primed questions, to assessment by coursework, and may include practical project work.

  3.4.3  The external examiner system, which is supposed to ensure parity of standards, frequently fails to do so. External examiners usually do not know the details of how the students have been aided in various ways or how closely the material in examination questions has been covered. They may not know how the raw marks may have been treated before appearing on a final spreadsheet. Rarely are boundary cases the subject of a student interview. The external examiners have probably been appointed through personal knowledge. My view is that degree standards in a subject vary greatly between universities.

  3.4.4  It seems to me that formally providing more information about a candidate's marks beyond the degree classification may have as many disadvantages as advantages. For example, if these corresponded to a poor lower second, would they harm the graduate's chances of employment? On the other hand, it could be helpful to the student for their tutor to informally discuss them with him. A report on the student's skills is perhaps unlikely to be perfectly honest. However, the university could provide a general statement of the qualities the graduate should possess as a result of his education.

  3.4.5  There would be more confidence in degrees, if only the more academically qualified young people took them (20% or less of the age group). There is a strong case for reducing the number of degree courses and replacing them with training certificates or diplomas for technical education. Perhaps something could also be decided about the role of a university as opposed to a technical training college.

  3.4.6  One might consider appointing anonymous examiners to courses.

  3.4.7  One might consider ranking degree courses.

  3.4.8  I have come across widespread, unmistakable cases of plagiarism, which were predominantly committed by non-EU students, despite them having been warned against it. My view is that this might be allowed once, but not twice. The first time, the work should be repeated and the student should be required to pay a marking fee, whilst the lecturer should be paid for the additional work. The second time, the student should be expelled from the course with no refund of fees.

3.5  Student support and engagement

  3.5.1  Students who lack the necessary skills and knowledge should not be enrolled on degree courses since there is an increased risk of non-completion. This means setting the entry qualifications sufficiently high and holding an interview in at least the dubious cases.

3.5.2  Loss of motivation is another problem. Students should be encouraged to discuss any disillusions regularly, and their tutors should attempt to overcome them, including persuading the university to make any necessary and possible changes.

  3.5.3  In my opinion all students on degree courses should receive a full grant. Perhaps this cannot be afforded when 40-50% of the year-group attend university. In this case it makes sense to award the full grant to the, say 20%, best qualified upon entry, so that any others will have to rely on loans. Alternatively, there could be an equivalent scholarship scheme. Students will have to consider whether obtaining a degree is going to benefit them, or whether an alternative education would be more advantageous for them.


  4.1  National minimum entry qualifications for all degree courses should be set, both in level and in the nature of the examination.

  4.2  The marks for coursework in each subject in both qualifying and university examinations should be a small percentage of the final mark.

  4.3  Abandon entry quotas for less qualified students from poorer backgrounds, and ensure multiple routes to universities are available.

  4.4  Ensure lecturers have time for research by restricting the amount of teaching and administration they have.

  4.5  Ensure lecturers recruited are capable of research.

  4.6  Develop a better pay structure and career path for UK researchers.

  4.7  Restrict the numbers of temporary foreign researchers according to the economic importance of the research.

  4.8  Develop a network of specialised research centres where the lecturers and researchers undertake their research. Consider the French model for this.

  4.9  Consider a national process for determining degree classifications and distributions.

  4.10  Appoint external examiners on a national basis.

  4.11  Require at least two examiners to be present for an examination board to be validly constituted.

  4.12  Universities should consider providing a general statement of the qualities the degree course was intended to develop in the student.

  4.13  Only the more academically able students should attend degree courses.

  4.14  Provide more technical training courses at different levels.

  4.15  Decide the meaning and purpose of a university.

  4.16  Appoint anonymous examiners to (anonymous) courses.

  4.17  Officially rank degree courses.

  4.18  Students committing plagiarism should pay for remarking in the first instance, and, if it is repeated, should be expelled without refund of fees.

  4.19  The department should actively solicit any expressions of disillusion and attempt to remedy the situation.

  4.20  Award full grants or scholarships to the most qualified degree course entrants only.

January 2009

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 2 August 2009