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

Memorandum 40

Submission from the Institution of Engineering and Technology



    — The changing nature of school education is putting new pressures on the traditional teaching methods of universities.— The result of focusing the majority of university funding on the Research Assessment Exercise has diverted attention away from teaching. — The levels of funding allocated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) fall significantly short of the cost of teaching many engineering disciplines.— There is little or no standardisation across universities regarding degree classification methodology.

    — The current degree classification system is in need of review.

    — Universities must take responsibility for eradicating plagiarism.

    — There is a concern within higher education that the "teach to test" regime in schools is leading to an increase in students with problems of poor motivation and attitude to learning.


  1.  As a result of the widening participation initiatives, many universities are admitting students with a range of different learning styles. Traditionally, universities tend to teach engineering as an academic subject. It is likely that the universities will be increasingly challenged to provide "practical" based study, particularly when faced with the expectations of fee paying students who have come through the "practical" diploma route.


Research and Teaching.

  2.  The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) has had a major impact on the balance between teaching and research because of the importance attached to it by everyone employed in universities from Vice-Chancellors downwards. Quite apart from the impact that the outcome of the RAE will have on a university's reputation, the fact that significant amounts of baseline funding are linked directly to performance in the RAE means that in general universities cannot afford to neglect optimising RAE scores across all departments. This means that any department which performs badly in the RAE runs the risk of closure, regardless of the quality of the teaching delivered by its staff. The inevitable consequence is that heads of department place a very high priority on maximising the research performance of their staff, particularly in universities that regard themselves as research-intensive. From the point of view of individual staff members, exclusion from the RAE spells disaster in terms of career progression and it is therefore not surprising that they should devote a disproportionately large amount of their time to the development of a strong research portfolio.

  3.  The requirement that academics should both teach and carry out research does allow one activity to fertilise the other. As professionals, academic staff do not generally neglect their teaching duties, although the pressures imposed by the RAE can mean that an academic who is intent on furthering his or her career through research is unlikely to devote a significant proportion of their time and energy to the development of innovative teaching and learning methods. Evidence to support this view comes from the extent to which staff engage in continuing professional development (CPD) activities related to teaching and learning. Most universities lay on a comprehensive programme of in-house CPD activities in the form of seminars and workshops on matters relating to teaching quality enhancement. However, many staff in the research-intensive universities do not see engagement with these activities as a priority for their career development and so will tend to avoid them as far as possible. The result is that teaching-related CPD activities are invariably populated by a minority of staff comprising the few who are not prepared to compromise teaching quality in order to further their research and those who have become disaffected by the dominant research ethos that has gripped universities.

Funding Shortfall.

  4.  There is evidence to show that the levels of funding allocated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) fall significantly short of the cost of teaching provision in some disciplines. In the case of engineering, for example, a detailed study of the costs associated with engineering degrees was commissioned from J M Consulting by the Engineering Technology Board (ETB) and the Engineering Professors' Council (EPC).[119] On the basis of four case studies using TRAC (Transparent Approach to Costing for Teaching) data it was found that engineering departments were operating with shortfalls in funding for teaching of between 15% and 41%.



  5.  For degrees to be truly valued, it is important that the needs of the "user" (eg an employer) are taken into account during any review of the classification system.

  6.  The conclusion reached by the Burgess Group[120] was that the present UK honours degree classification system is no longer fit for purpose. The arguments put forward in the Burgess Group report are highly persuasive and lead to the conclusion that a more comprehensive record of student achievement should be introduced in the shape of the Higher Education Academic Record (HEAR). To quote from the Executive Summary of the Burgess Group report:

    "The HEAR will be a single document, based on, and developed from, the current academic transcript, and incorporating the European Diploma Supplement. It will contain a wider range of information than the current academic transcript and will capture more fully than now the strengths and weaknesses of the student's performance."

  7.  This is very timely and a welcome step in the right direction, however steps will need to be taken to ensure that there is no bias in the achievements recorded.


  8.  At present there is little or no standardisation across universities in the UK when it comes to the methodologies used for determining degree classifications. Most institutions use a weighted average of the marks achieved in assessments carried out at various stages in the programme of study with the final year normally being given the highest weight. Marks achieved in earlier years may be incorporated with lower weight or in some cases may be excluded from the degree classification calculation altogether.

9.  In recent years a number of universities have modified their regulations relating to degree classification by discounting (ie excluding from consideration) a proportion of the assessed modules in which students have achieved the lowest marks. This can result in some students gaining a higher overall mark which may take them across a degree classification boundary. The net effect is that these students will graduate with a better class of degree than they would have gained had all of their module results been taken into consideration. The IUSS Committee may wish to investigate the academic justification for doing this.

  10.  The exclusion of certain modules from the methodology used for determining degree classification also calls into question whether students graduating from one of these programmes can reasonably claim to have demonstrated that they have met all of the intended learning outcomes. From an external viewpoint, manipulation of the degree classification system in this way is likely to be interpreted as a lowering of standards and can only serve to weaken the reputation of the UK higher education system. For this reason alone the abolition of the degree classification system and its replacement with a system based on academic transcripts is to be wholeheartedly welcomed.


  11.  Plagiarism is a growing problem and there is a suspicion that much of it is going undetected or is simply being ignored. That is not to say that the universities do not take a hard line if it is discovered. The ICT revolution has made the copying of text through cutting and pasting from one document to another an enticingly simple and straightforward process. This enables students to copy material from online resources (most notably Wikipedia) and also from one another with remarkably little effort. Fortunately the same technology that has facilitated the surge in plagiarism also provides the means for its detection. Some of the measures that have been introduced recently to combat plagiarism can be quite effective (for example, plagiarism detection software using web-based search engines such as Turnitin), although universities will only succeed in eradicating the problem if these measures are applied rigorously and consistently.

12.  When students arrive at university, they are not always aware that simply copying information without attribution is wrong. It is therefore important that schools help in the fight against plagiarism by encouraging an ethos of original work.

  13.  Experience suggests that there are cultural differences in attitude to plagiarism which is something that needs to be handled sensitively when it comes to clamping down on poor practice. This is often dealt with on induction but it takes more than a chat to change deep rooted attitudes.

  14.  The current take up of tools like Turnitin can at best be described as patchy and in general universities are a long way short of being able to claim that student work is routinely and consistently being screened for plagiarism. If they are to make progress towards this goal, they will need to ensure that teaching staff are willing to accept the submission of student work in electronic form and are properly trained in the use of plagiarism detection tools. They must also create a culture in which all teaching staff routinely and consistently use anti-plagiarism software to scrutinise any work handed in by students for assessment. Currently a student who indulges in plagiarism may only stand a 10 or 20% chance of being found out (although this figure will vary widely depending on the teaching staff involved) and this may lead some students to think that the risks involved are worth taking. We need to move quickly to a position where the probability of detection increases to 80 or 90%, at which point one would hope that the vast majority of students will recognise that the risks involved are unacceptably high.


Motivation and attitude.

  15.  Students that are highly motivated to study their chosen subject are more likely to complete the course and graduate with a degree than those that are not. This sounds fairly obvious, but a sizeable proportion of today's students appear to have problems of poor motivation and a less than ideal approach to learning. Whereas students with a deep-rooted desire to learn and understand the subtleties of a subject will probably succeed regardless of the environment they are studying in, those that are poorly motivated will tend to adopt a far more superficial approach to learning. Students in this latter category may view the learning process as little more than the accumulation of disconnected items of factual information that are to be stored only for as long as necessary to regurgitated them in response to an examination question. In this situation there is a severe mismatch between the expectations of the lecturer (who is really trying to cater for the deep learners who are keen to develop their understanding of the subject) and the expectations of the student (who would really just like to be told the answers to the examination questions so that they can be remembered and reproduced in the exam room).

16.  Students who adopt a superficial approach to learning are unlikely to become skilled practitioners in their chosen subject. They almost invariably perform badly in examinations, although this is not always the case—some examination questions almost encourage a superficial learning style. Turning a poorly-motivated superficial learner into a highly-motivated deep learner is by no means straightforward and is very demanding in terms of the time and effort required from tutors. In terms of motivation and overcoming learning difficulties students would undoubtedly benefit from more personal contact with their tutors ("personalised learning") and this could be the single greatest factor that would help to improve student retention and lower non-completion rates. In a higher education system that has seen massive reductions in the unit of resource over the last twenty to thirty years and in which many staff are distracted from teaching by the RAE (see comments above) such intensive levels of student support are unlikely to be forthcoming.

17.  Many lecturers in universities believe that the teaching experienced by students in secondary schools is at least partially responsible for the current attitude taken by students to the learning process. They point to evidence of schools "teaching-to-the-test", where students are drilled to remember key facts that are likely to feature in assessments so that they will be able to regurgitate them when they sit the test. Schools have been accused of resorting to these tactics because they are faced with the need to optimise their pass rates and grade rankings in order to enhance their performance in national league tables.

Further Action

  18.  We believe that student fees for degree programmes in the UK can discourage students from pursuing the longer programmes that lead to professional qualification. In the UK, Chartered Engineers need to have an accredited Masters level (MEng or MSc) degree which entails four years of study; this is consistent with EU Directive 2005/36 on professional recognition within the EU, which specifies a minimum time of HE study of four years for Level E Professionals. Financial support for the extra year of study beyond the standard three years would mitigate the disincentive of the extra cost, and provide an opportunity to promote subject selection.

December 2008

119   "The Costs of Engineering Degrees", ETB/EPC Report commissioned from J M Consulting, November 2007 (available from Back

120   "Beyond the Honours Degree Classification: Burgess Group Final Report", Universities UK, October 2007. Back

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