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

Memorandum 8

Submission from the British Computer Society (BCS)



    — The present student population is quite different in character and expectation from its predecessors; the Beloit College Mindset List[9] is slightly strange but interesting in this regard. The BCS response is conditioned by the belief that:— It is vital to encourage, to excite and to thoroughly motivate students. The context in which ideas are taught is an important aspect of this and the educational issues need careful consideration and planning.— There is much talk of rate of change; that will only increase in the coming years. But rarely do educators really address that issue. The present set of students will be at their peak of productivity in around 2025-2030 and we need to prepare them for that.— Part of the above involves placing an emphasis on innovation, creativity, wealth creation but doing this in a setting to which the student can relate.

    — As far as the latter is concerned, that has huge implications. Some organisations (such as Google) have created environments intended to foster these very qualities and we can all learn much from their ideas.


  1.  With over 65,000 members, the BCS is the leading professional and learned society in IT and computing.

2.  BCS is also responsible for setting standards for the IT profession. It is spearheading the Professionalism in IT programme and is also leading the change in the public perception and appreciation of the economic and social importance of professionally managed IT projects and programmes. In this capacity, BCS advises, informs and persuades industry and government on successful IT implementation.

  3.  BCS, as a Learned Society, also has direct responsibility for leading, encouraging, promoting, supporting and developing all aspects of teaching, research and technology transfer in the disciplines of, and relating to, computing, computer science and information systems.

  4.  BCS commends IUSS in its timely review of this particular topic. We certainly regard this as very important. As an institution, BCS undertakes accreditation activity and almost all of our universities and institutions of higher education have degrees accredited by the BCS. As a consequence BCS has access to a significant number of assessors and insights into the very questions you are asking.

  5.  In preparing this response, there has been input from BCS members in Scotland. Many of the questions have a strong orientation to the situation in England and Wales (eg mention of the English Funding Council but not the Scottish one) but our responses are intended to have UK-wide relevance.



    — the effectiveness of the process for admission to Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), including A-levels, Advanced Diplomas, apprenticeships and university entrance tests— the UK's ability to meet government targets for Higher Education participation and the relevance of these targets— the implementation and success of widening participation initiatives such as Compact agreements, and the impact of the current funding regime on these objectives

    — the role of the Government in developing and promoting fair access and admissions policies for the UK Higher Education sector


  6.  It is important that the best institutions remain accessible to the best students. Admissions requirements must not ultimately be dictated by wealth.

7.  It is also important that students are able to follow a reasonably broad curriculum until they reach the stage where they can sensibly make informed choices about future study.

  8.  The government target of widening participation to under-represented and disadvantaged groups such that half of 18-30 year olds enter Higher Education by 2010 appears to have stalled and it appears unlikely that the target will be reached. This is evidenced by the provisional figure for the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) for 2006-07 of 40%, down from the final figure for 2005-06 of 42%[10]. This is also despite the fact that universities are trying to attract a wider cross-section of school-leavers by introducing courses with a more vocational aspect such as music technology, sports therapy, circus skills.

  9.  However, more students does not mean better students. "Widening participation has changed standards". Higher education 'may need to redefine and expand the concept of academic standards… Standards should be right for today' said Sir Peter Williams of the Quality Assurance Agency with reference to the degree classification system"[11].

  10.  The need for change in Higher Education to suit the needs of today's society has been voiced by Professor Keith Mander, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Planning and Resources, University of Kent. He talks of the trend from undergraduate to postgraduate education, with the bulk of postgraduates aged 30-45 and studying part-time. The majority of these students are re- and up-skilling to improve their employability. Professor Mander speaks of the need to devise new delivery methods accessible in a global marketplace such as making course material available free across the web but charging for assessment thus enabling proof (via a respected brand) of one's knowledge.

The balance between teaching and research

    — levels of funding for, and the balance between, teaching and research in UK HEIs, and the adequacy of financial support for the development of innovative teaching methods and teaching/research integration— the quality of teaching provision and learning facilities in UK and the extent to which they vary between HEIs

    — the suitability of methods of assessing excellence in teaching and research and the impact of research assessment on these activities

    — the availability and adequacy of training in teaching methods for UK academics and the importance of teaching excellence for the academic career path, including consideration of the role of teaching fellows

    — the responsibilities of the Government and HEFCE in assuring (a) the quality of teaching provision and learning opportunities in UK HEIs; and (b) the balance between teaching and research in HEIs


  11.  There are huge issues here. Despite protestations from institutions to the contrary, the reality is that research dominates in terms of promotions, status, and so on. Often good researchers are highly focused individuals who will not devote time to anything other than their research interests and that is what makes them effective. But in terms of relating to students, for example, ensuring they have a sense of belonging, integrating them into the HE family, motivating them, then different skills are needed. Many academic staff devote much time to this and their contribution is often undervalued or even not appreciated since it does not bring money in the traditional sense of research grants.

12.  It is our strong view that something akin to the US National Science Foundation is needed to reverse that situation. Its priorities are to support teaching and learning and to bring innovative methods that have the effect of transforming the universities; there are grants to support this and these carry considerable kudos, on a par with research funding. There is not the space here to develop this but the NSF CPATH[12] program is worthy of study. But words such as "transforming" are needed to convey the scale of change that must happen to make many institutions truly effective as places that attract, motivate and inspire young people.

  13.  The teaching fellowship concept is good. But debates rage over whether such recognition should be gained via self-promotion or via support from colleagues. Certainly much depends on the quality of candidates put forward for such recognition. Without a good pool and commitment from institutions including the best, this is difficult territory. BCS is keen to see the best educators recognised and facilitated in their endeavours. To date their reward often tends to be being given more teaching, and that is not always best for them or for the system.

Degree classification

    — whether the methodologies used by UK HEIs to determine degree classifications and the distribution of degree classes awarded are appropriate, the potential methodologies for the standardisation of degree classifications within, and between, HEIs, and the effectiveness of the Quality Assurance Agency in monitoring degree standards— the advantages and disadvantages of the UK's system of degree classification and the introduction of the Higher Education Academic Record

    — the actions that universities, Government and others have taken, or should take, to maintain confidence in the value of degrees awarded by universities in the UK

    — the relationship between degree classification and portability

    — the extent to which student plagiarism is a problem in HE, and the availability and effectiveness of strategies to identify, penalise and combat plagiarism


  14.  There will always be debates about degree classifications, and it is important to continually revisit the issue. (See paragraph 9 above). Historically the present classification system was introduced for the benefit of employers who wished guidance on degree attainment. The present system also has the merit of encouraging excellence, and encouraging students to strive to achieve their maximum potential.

15.  Inevitably any system tends to be exploited; unless an institution has very strict (and fair) rules, examiners tend to spend enormous amounts of time on borderline situations over whether a student merits one classification or another and then the existence of a champion (or otherwise) from the staff can greatly influence events. That may be appropriate but it is not always either fair or reasonable. Anonymous marking often helps but can mean that exceptional circumstances are not taken into account.

  16.  Any new system needs to build on the positive aspects of the old while removing weaknesses of the old. (See also point 9 above).

  17.  Given the great variety of degrees, comparisons across institutions and between disciplines are difficult and indeed dangerous. BCS believes that retaining this diversity of degrees and institutions is an important matter and a great strength of the present system. Inevitably there are weak areas and these ought to be reduced. Having said this, some cautionary notes are desirable:

    17.1 It is not clear whether the present quality procedures are effective; historically the quality arrangements have been of benefit mainly to support services within institutions, but they also have introduced additional levels of bureaucracy leading to undesirable results, for example, leaving Heads of Department more remote from the Vice-Chancellor's office. What has often been sacrificed in this process has been the fun and excitement of academic life, attention to what is taught in the classroom and how it is taught. BCS believes this is a step in the wrong direction.

    17.2 Having overseas students is wonderful, a richness for our own students and our systems and often a recognition of excellence. However, and we need to be cautious in our comments, having large numbers (90-95%) of overseas students in a Masters class is not always a recognition of excellence nor is it always in the best interests of UK students or UK plc. So there are delicate balances here.

  18.  Plagiarism in its various guises is a massive and growing problem in HE which threatens to undermine standards and yet this is recognized only by those who are truly conscientious. The problem is so serious that BCS believes that new ways of assessing student work (normally coursework) need to be found. Institutions will claim to have mechanisms in place to deal with plagiarism and to some extent they do. But typically institutions are terrified of legal action and their processes are typically heavy on bureaucracy because of these inevitable legal connotations. When faced with a class of 100+ assignments, looking for plagiarism could absorb massive amounts of time and finding it could be something of a lottery. It would also be quite unreasonable to expect external examiners do catch this on a systematic basis.

  19.  Tacking plagiarism poses huge challenges. Automatic methods have a role to play but they can be compromised as well. BCS believes this problem can only be resolved by reviewing what is done in the educational system as a whole.

Student support and engagement

    — the effectiveness of initiatives to support student engagement in the formulation of HE policy, and how the success or otherwise of these initiatives is being assessed— how the student experience differs in public and private universities

    — examples of reasons for, and potential strategies to reduce, the non-completion of higher education programmes by students

    — the adequacy of UK higher education (HE) funding and student support packages, and implications for current and future levels of student debt

    — any further action required by the Government and/or HEFCE to ensure that UK HEIs offer students a world class educational experience


  20.  In the UK there is only one private university but when looking at the education system in the USA, private universities tend to be characterized by small classes, intense support and tuition from staff, and the expectation of a good strong work ethic amongst students. An effect from all this is that students do work hard outside the classroom and are expected to do so. But the students pay large tuition fees, and typically are highly committed. Achieving this in publicly funded institutions, while certainly desirable, would have considerable financial implications.

21.  Positive steps need to be taken to draw the students into the "university family". They need to have a feeling of belonging and accompanying that a feeling of genuine support; often that is missing in the early years and that can lead to students feeling isolated at an early stage.

  22.  There is also a view that the first courses which students encounter set both the scene and the standard for much of what follows. This happens almost within the first week affecting attendance, commitment, standard of work, attitude. If these initial courses are viewed as trivial or not sufficiently demanding by students, this can have an adverse effect on the entire cohort.

  23.  Also important is the perennial feedback issue which provides the opportunity to condition students' expectations. In large classes it is often difficult to provide significant amounts of feedback because of the resource issues. Yet great attention ought to be given to these classes; in part they ought also to give students a feel for the new and exciting aspects of the disciplines so that the students can make an informed decision about committing to a particular course of study. Opportunities for transfer ought to exist if needed and there should be no disincentives to staff if this occurs.

  24.  BCS wishes to bring your attention to a major difficulty which particularly faces those teaching Computing. Students entering higher education now have lived through the mobile phone, internet revolutions and have frequent access to IPODs, social networking sites and so on. This means that these so called "digital natives" have a relatively advanced level of technical knowledge typically spread over a narrow front. Keeping them involved whilst at the same time bringing other students up-to-speed is a challenge.

  25.  At a departmental or subject level, university staff can help schools to make computing exciting. Such outreach activities can also provide a means of staff development but it should be noted that pressures relating from the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) tend to mitigate against such activity.


  26.  Although this is out of scope of this consultation, BCS wishes to stress the importance of considering how the curriculum should be delivered. As mentioned in paragraph 24, today's "tech-savvy" students are different from previous generations. Universities need to find new approaches to engage, motivate and generally educate them in ways that they enjoy and from which they gain benefit. Of course, educators have to face up to them repeatedly since the scene—particularly in computer science—is rapidly changing and universities need to keep finding new and more effective ways of meeting these challenges.

27.  There are also, of course, challenges at a disciplinary level, particularly in computing, by ensuring that what is taught is relevant to the needs of the employers. Again, addressing that is a major consideration, but lies outside the terms of reference of this consultation.

December 2008

9 Back

10   DIUS Participation Rates in Higher Education: Academic Years 1999/2000-2006/2007 (Provisional). Back

11   see

12   NSF's Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing Education (CPATH) Back

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