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

Memorandum 111

Submission from Dr Garth Ratcliffe

  1.  The subjects of this letter are:

    (a) the structure of HE

    (b) the management of universities

    (c) the inadequate responses of universities in educating and training graduates for the low carbon economy/green jobs/future sustainability of UK.

  2.  My qualifications for expressing views on these issues are (a)my nearly 40 years lecturing in HE in maths, physics and environmental science predominantly at Manchester Polytechnic/Manchester Metropolitan University (b) subject qualifications plus professional qualifications as a trained teacher, educational research and educational management plus expertise in sustainable energy, low carbon economy , sustainability and departmental careers adviser in these areas and green careers.


  The structure of HE needs to return to the pre 1992 pattern which featured a binary system of universities and polytechnics. In that era the universities focussed on research and restricted their student entry to those with evidence of academic ability and potential. The Polytechnics focussed on vocational courses and these were particularly appealing to part time students and mature students.

The Polytechnics were an unprecedented success.

The majority of today's university students are not academic because most do not study academically challenging subjects at A level. Unfortunately many of these students enrol for academic courses for which they are not suitable. Consequently the courses become diluted in academic rigor and the students become disillusioned. In particular students are certainly not interested in doing research as a career or being enlightened about the latest research findings, however they are very interested in securing a career especially in this economic recession. But what evidence is there that universities are preparing students for a career by teaching work related personal skills and providing work experience? In USA and Canada , internships are arranged by the universities for all students. Why not in the UK?

  Many developed countries with a major commitment to HE have a structure of specialised elite universities which focus on research and others which focus on teaching for the needs of the majority of students. This system seems to deliver HE more efficiently and more effectively than the present UK system which leaves many universities financially unsound and most students dissatisfied with their university experience. Even the top universities seem dissatisfied with their ability to fund a world ranking status.

  Surely a system that is not fit for purpose needs changing radically? Logically a review of the causes of the present inadequacies needs to be undertaken first.—here is my analysis.


  The universities have currently no control over the quality of the ability of the student intake because they have no control over A level syllabuses or assessment. Although today's students are the subject of much criticism and complaints by university lecturers I take the view that students are victims of a poor UK education system and inadequate career advice.

First the national curriculum introduced in 1986 or so is a complete failure because it has led to a lowering of standards in every direction and in particular GCSE study does not prepare students adequately for A level study. Specifically GCSE science and maths have brought enormous damage and caused the problem of insufficient STEM students. In addition the forms of assessment involved with GCSE and A/S and A levels have led to narrow understanding of subjects caused by focussing towards assessment rather than a holistic approach to subjects.

  But universities should recognise these deficiencies and take remedial actions ,rather than just complaining, by increasing class contact hours and doing more teaching beyond a few hours per week for two terms. An initial assessment of all new students on all courses should easily identify those students in need of urgent assistance and help provided until satisfactory standards have been attained. When a university accepts a student onto a course they must accept responsibility for ensuring that the willing and able student passes, otherwise they are failing to deliver at a fundamental level.

  In one of your views on your website you state that you were appointed as a head after an hours interview and put in charge of a large budget with no training. This is typical of the appointment of heads of department and vice chancellors of universities. These people are appointed on the basis of completing an application form and performing at an interview. They lack teaching qualifications, educational research qualifications or management qualifications but they do posses research qualifications. It is not clear to me how research qualifications and the ability to promote one's own career qualifies anyone to manage the delivery of educational programmes.

  The present system selects those individuals to positions of authority in universities who are best at managing their own careers. Consequently, concern about the careers of lecturers and students is not on the agenda of these pseudo managers and this is why the UK HE system is a failure.


  In Australia, applicants for promotion must qualify to apply by serving a required minimum period at the lower level, doing the required training and constructing a portfolio of their work and providing authenticated evidence of support from students, colleagues and line managers.

  A similar system could be adopted in the UK but I would also introduce a three year contract with annual reviews and renewal subject to support from academic staff. Currently many heads of department do no teaching, so how are they qualified to manage teaching and judge standards of education?


  The UK government has embraced the need to adapt to climate change by constructing a low carbon economy and this is an integral part of a need for the UK to become progressively environmentally and economically sustainable throughout this century. In particular schools, colleges and universities need to teach sustainability and prepare students for careers in the new green economy and the new green market. In fact there have been substantial achievements as a result of the development of ecoschools programmes, new schools incorporating energy efficiency features and renewable energy and universities are actively trying to reduce their carbon footprints. Additionally, the newly formed institute for energy technologies will make a valuable contribution to research into new sources of energy generation.

Currently many UK multinational corporations are concerned about the development of talent intended to become the new future leaders who will have to take the companies into this new green marketplace. They will need to be able to drive corporate social and sustainable responsibility in the context of the low carbon economy.

  But how are universities educating and training such graduates? They seem to be preparing many people for research careers when there are limited opportunities in that field.

  HEFCE have "advised" universities that sustainability should be taught on every undergraduate course, but this is not being done.

  There are few undergraduate and postgraduate courses in sustainability and little evidence that traditional courses are including modules on sustainability. But universities are supposed to maintain up to date curricula—why isn't this being done?


  1.  A great deal of taxpayers money is being wasted by an inefficient and ineffective UK higher education system. I object to my taxes being wasted and I want something done about it.

  A few years ago a head of the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences was appointed at MMU. In three years he did no research, no lectures, no tutorials, no project or research supervision. This was a complete waste of taxpayers money orchestrated by the management of MMU.

  2.  I have written to DIUS ministers expressing views on HE a couple of times but with disappointing responses. The replies give me a case number and explain why they cant reply in detail. I have more experience and qualifications in HE than anyone at DIUS, why haven't these people the sense to make use of these qualities?

  3.  I understand that DIUS is planning a revision of HE shortly. Hopefully this will include some of the points that I have made.

  4.  DIUS and university vice chancellors must be made more accountable to stakeholders, the UK taxpayer, the student, the lecturer, employers. These two must provide evidence that they are delivering what stakeholders are paying for. Currently this evidence doesn't seem to exist.

  5.  This paper that I have written provides arguments that demonstrate failure on all these counts.

  6.  What to do about it? I suggest that before DIUS rushes into print about a revision of HE , your select committee should interview the secretary of state and minister of HE to establish what they are proposing to do about the present inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of universities that are wasting taxpayers money.

  7.  Subsequently a meeting with the university vice chancellors committee which explored what they intended to do about improving the quality of HE being delivered and the employment prospects of graduates and post graduates. In particular , what are universities doing about the teaching of sustainability on all courses and providing education and training for careers in the low carbon economy. The UK government has been promoting the low carbon economy for years without planning for the manpower needed to deliver such eg the shortage of scientists and engineers to work in the nuclear power industry has led to reliance on French and USA designed nuclear reactors. Is the same pattern to be repeated with the low carbon economy?

  8.  The formal remit of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee is to examine the administration, expenditure and policy of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, including further education, higher education, skills and the Government Office for Science which has responsibility for science across all Government departments.

  The issues that I have raised clearly fall within the remit of your select committee and therefore I hope that you will find an opportunity to address them.

May 2009

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