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

Memorandum 39

Submission from Semta



  1.  Employers in Semta's sectors have identified significant skill needs at higher levels. They are therefore concerned that the "offer" of universities is fit for purpose, both for traditional full-time first degree students, and for the increasingly diverse population who will benefit in the future.

2.  Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics subjects may require additional support in the future, as the cost of delivery of these subjects at a high level must not influence the availability or quality of provision.

Semta, the Sector Skills Council

3.  Industry owned and led, Semta aims to increase the impact of skilled people throughout the science, engineering and manufacturing technologies sectors.

4.  We work with employers to determine their current and future skills needs and to provide short and long term skills solutions, whether that be training and skills development, or campaigning with government and other organisations to change things for the better. Through our labour market intelligence and insights from employers across our sectors, we identify change needed in education and skills policy and practice, and engage with key industry partners and partners in the education and training sector, to help increase productivity at all levels in the workforce.

5.  The sectors we represent are: Aerospace; Automotive; Bioscience; Electrical; Electronics; Maintenance; Marine; Mathematics; Mechanical; Metals and Engineered Metal Products. We also have cross-sectoral responsibility for issues relevant to scientific skills.

  6.  Semta is part of the network of 25 employer-led Sector Skills Councils.



  7.  Through the Sector Skills Agreements (SSAs), Semta's employers have articulated their need to have more employees reaching high levels of skills. The findings of the SSA process point clearly to an increasing need for technical expertise at Level 3 and above, and improvement in leadership and management. Science and engineering employers are supportive of the continuing expansion of higher education, in those subjects and areas where skills are currently in short supply, and where future demands will create shortages.

8.  However, they see little value in simple expansion of existing provision in the traditional three-year, full-time, first degree model. For HE to enter into a new relationship with business, this model cannot be the standard offering.

9.  In changing the standard offer, the process of admissions will necessarily have to change. As the offer expands to incorporate more flexible learning, which is part-time and vocationally-related, so the background and prior achievement of people approaching universities will be different.


  10.  Where employers are co-funding courses, the university may not be able to stipulate strict entry requirements in terms of prior qualifications—the employer may wish to nominate employees who have a wide range of prior achievement.


  11.  Even for traditional first degree admission, the planned expansion of apprenticeships will mean a larger number of individuals achieving Level 3 qualifications outside of A levels. Former apprentices who have completed BTEC National and Higher National qualifications, City & Guilds awards, and a whole range of NVQs at Level 3 will be considering if further study is an appropriate path for them. This will have implications for admissions services in universities, which will need to be clear and "fair" regarding which qualifications are appropriate for entry to which courses.

12.  Former apprentices will also expect to have the option to continue their learning in the same "mode" as they have studied during their work-based programme. This usually means day-release arrangements, and work-based projects.

  13.  We believe that there is scope to expand apprentice progression to HE, through improving admission service understanding of the content and rigour of non A level qualifications, and through more flexible delivery methods.


  14.  As the lead SSC for the development of both the Engineering and Science Diplomas, and one of the SSCs involved in the development of the Diploma in Manufacturing and Product Design, Semta has experienced first-hand the difficulties in raising awareness and acceptance of qualifications outside A level. The inevitable conundrum is: how can HEIs confirm that a qualification is acceptable before any students have completed the course? And how can students choose a course without knowing that successful completion will enable them to progress to HE?

15.  The Engineering Diploma Development Partnership has addressed this by the closest possible working with a wide range of universities, including Cambridge. Through their input and support, the Partnership has been able to devise content and assessment structures which will meet the highest standards of university entry. These efforts mean that students embarking on the Diploma in Engineering can be confident that their choice will place them on an equal footing with A level students. Indeed, some universities already consider elements of the Diploma in Engineering to be superior to A levels, particularly the Maths for Engineers optional module.

  16.  The proof of all this effort will come when Advanced Diploma students begin applying to universities in Autumn 2009. Until then, Semta and the Engineering Diploma Development Partnership will continue to work with consortia, universities, employers and students to ensure the Diploma opens as many doors as possible, and prepares candidates for the next step, whatever they might choose.

The balance between teaching and research

  17.  Semta remains unconvinced that funding for science and engineering taught courses adequately reflects the true cost of delivery for universities. Most first degrees relevant to our sector fall within "Band B" of HEFCE funding, with the cost weighting of 1.7, and some are eligible for extra funding under the "Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects" initiative. However, we still do not believe that this funding is sufficient to provide truly experiential learning through hands-on innovative study.

18.  Providing such a learning experience requires funding sufficient to ensure:

    — Capital expenditure on world-class facilities, maintained and operated by skilled technicians (an ongoing expenditure)

    — Highly skilled tutors, with industry experience and the ability to communicate enthusiasm for both the theory and the practical

    — Ongoing resource for utilities and non-reusable materials

    — Active links with employers

  19.  We believe that the current Research Assessment Exercise and Teaching Quality Assurance activity are too intensive and disruptive, with universities torn between their responsibilities as both employers and teachers.

  20.  Career academics in research intensive universities are encouraged from an early stage to gain an international reputation, for both themselves and their institutions. We believe it is possible that this may pressure some individuals to neglect their teaching commitment.

Degree classification

  21.  For engineering subjects, many degrees are accredited by a relevant professional institution. This enables professional bodies to give credibility to courses, and to ensure standards are maintained across a range of higher education institutions. With professional status in engineering recognised and supported by these processes, quality is more consistent. It also increases student and parent confidence when selecting an institution/course for study.

Student support and engagement


  22.  Student first degree "drop-out" is a significant concern to employers in Semta industries. We are well aware of the demands placed on students, particularly students of those subjects which are so vital to engineering and science companies—technology, mathematics, physical and biological sciences, and engineering. Surveys have repeatedly shown that the volume of work and amount of "class contact" time for these degrees is higher than in other subjects (eg The academic experience of students in English Universities, HEPI, 2007). However, this is not necessarily the sole cause of failure to complete.

23.  We believe that students are more likely to complete their course where a number of factors are in place:

    — Confident and effective teaching by tutors with industry knowledge and enthusiasm

    — Practical projects which demonstrate the "real world" application of theory

    — Excellent facilities which give them confidence that their studies are preparing them for work in exciting fields and companies

    — Links to employers and companies who are able to support delivery of the curriculum, through a range of means (visits to workplaces, workplace projects, visiting tutors from industry, careers information, etc).

  24.  A further factor in completion, that of financial support, cannot be ignored. Given the recognised higher workload in STEM subjects, we believe that students of these subjects may benefit from additional loan and grant arrangements. This would enable them to reduce any additional part-time work to support their studies which is financially necessary. The additional cost of delivering a STEM subject is reflected in the per-student funding which the university receives—perhaps students should receive the same consideration.

December 2008

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