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


Memorandum 61

Submission from Imperial College London

INQUIRY ON STUDENTS AND UNIVERSITIES

Context

  1.  Imperial College London aims to understand and solve the scientific, engineering and medical problems of tomorrow and to transmit that knowledge. Its graduates often become leaders of professions, business or academia. The student population is of high quality, with the average tariff points score of entrants being 355 in 2007-08 (where 120 points is an A grade). Around 45% of the student population come from outside the UK and approximately 28% are from outside the EU. About one-third of all students are postgraduate. 35% of staff are non-UK nationals.

SUMMARY

  2.  Quality should underpin all activity undertaken by the sector. The UK has four universities ranked in the top 10 in the World and, as such, strong Government support should enable the sector to maintain and enhance its position both as a world-leader and as one of the very best performing UK sectors.

3.  Key priorities should be to nurture, recognise and reward excellence in all its forms, to enable and ensure financial sustainability and to maintain institutional autonomy and diversity. The College's main points are thus:

    — The strength of the UK higher education sector is a consequence of, and will be sustained by, continued institutional autonomy.

    — Each Higher Education Institution (HEI) is necessarily different and will contribute in a unique way to the continued development of the UK higher education sector.

    — Specific Government objectives should determine HEI priorities only where relevant and appropriate and at the discretion of the HEI concerned.

    — Funding should be directed towards supporting a high quality student experience, thereby benefiting the student personally and the economy and society more generally.

    — The future of the UK's economy will depend on ensuring that its graduates have the specialist subject knowledge to equip them with the understanding and skills to address global problems.

    — A world-class research base, and selective funding of the highest quality research, is necessary to ensure that the economic and social benefits of higher education are realised fully.

    — Research assessment and other measures of quality should be able to identify the highest quality research and be able to distinguish the best research from that which is very good.

INTRODUCTION

  4.  A key strength of the UK higher education sector is the heterogeneity of its constituent institutions. Each has a different mission, ethos and history and thus its priorities and contribution will vary significantly. Institutional autonomy enables HEIs to respond, where appropriate, to Government priorities in a manner which accords to their wider mission and recognised strengths. It enables an appropriate balance between teaching and research to be achieved across the sector as a whole and facilitates the provision of a variety of excellent educational opportunities. The successful US university model, where institutional autonomy is paramount, illustrates this point further.

5.  Diversity in mission and contribution is to be expected and encouraged and Government policies should, in recognition, not stipulate a "one size fits all" approach. A recent paper by Evidence Ltd (commissioned by HEFCE) on Strategically important and vulnerable subjects stated: "Differentiation of mission and practice between universities is a powerful means through which vulnerability may be mitigated…a centrally directed university system will be less flexible, responsive and effective than a system in which individual institutions have considerable autonomy." It is thus important that core priorities and excellence are supported and not discouraged (perhaps even indirectly).

ADMISSIONS

  6.  In accordance with its mission, the College aims to recruit those students most able to benefit from its courses. It remains committed to selecting students on the grounds of academic ability, potential and aptitude, irrespective of background. The College's entrance requirements are high (the average tariff point score for students on entry being 355 for 2007-08, where 120 points is an A grade) since students have to demonstrate that they are likely to be able to cope with, and thrive on, the high academic standards of College courses.

7.  The Joint Council for Qualifications showed, in August 2008, that the percentage of A grades awarded at A-Level had increased from 12% in 1990 to 25.9% in 2008. However, this improvement in A Level grades has not been accompanied by a comparable increase in knowledge and understanding. This is a particular issue for the College since its subject base necessitates prior subject knowledge as an important pre-requisite for entry. The College is thus considering various methods to support its student selection processes, including the possible introduction of an entrance exam and the development of more complex interview procedures.

  8.  Any new school qualifications must contain sufficient academic content to prepare students adequately for undergraduate, and potentially postgraduate, study. The College remains concerned that the new forms of qualifications being developed do not provide sufficient academic content and rigour. For example, the present restriction on the advanced specialist learning element of the Advanced Engineering Diploma to the equivalent of 1.5 A levels means that the Diploma would not, by itself, contain sufficient academic content to demonstrate that students could cope with College courses.

  9.  The future of the UK's global economy will depend on its ability to supply sufficient graduates with specialist subject knowledge, supported by transferable skills developed at university. Many high value and innovative areas of the economy require graduates with specialist knowledge and skills of the highest order. Thus funding of strategically important subjects must continue. Equally, the resource required to teach and stretch the most talented students is often the greatest.

  10.  Many of the submissions to the DIUS State of the Nation Review (which may inform the development of the Higher Education Framework), encouraged the provision of more flexible learning methods for students, including a growth in part-time provision, modular courses and teaching at evenings and weekends to accommodate students who are also in employment. Any such developments should, of course, recognise the distinctive contribution of individual HEIs. In particular, funding should not be diverted away from the conventional modes through which many of the most innovative of our workforce are likely to continue to graduate and must not discourage academic and research careers.

  11.  A broad range of widening participation and outreach activities are undertaken across the sector. The role of each HEI can, and should, vary in accordance with its mission and purpose. Each contributes in many different ways; for some there is a direct correlation between those involved with outreach activities and entry to that particular HEI, for other HEIs their role is to widen aspirations and awareness of higher education more generally. Both are important and valid contributions.

  12.  The profile of the student population at each HEI is, to an extent, impacted by its entrance requirements. The Independent Schools Council has shown wide variations in A Level performance between different types of schools, with the percentage of students from independent schools achieving top grades at A Level being significantly in excess of the state school sector. Similarly, the number studying science subjects is far higher in the independent school sector (with 30.1% of the A Level students in independent schools studying Mathematics in 2006 compared with 17.2% in state schools). Thus for HEIs which should not, in the national interest, lower or amend their entrance requirements, the socioeconomic profile of students will be very different.

THE BALANCE BETWEEN TEACHING AND RESEARCH

  13.  World-class research enables teaching to be informed by the latest research knowledge. Researchers will enthuse their students with their findings and the students themselves will stimulate further thought in the researchers. Research findings facilitate the development of a knowledge-based workforce and equip graduates with the understanding necessary to address pressing national and global challenges (eg climate change, energy production, security, global health). Little or nothing would be gained by funding an artificial integration of teaching and research in HEIs whose strengths do not lie in the latter.

14.  Internationally excellent research is, by its very nature, expensive. As such, a world-class research base can be maintained only through a policy of the selective funding of the highest quality research.

  15.  Significant research advances are achieved often though blue skies thinking and thus funding needs to continue to be provided to HEIs in a discretionary non-targeted manner, with the freedom for the HEI to determine its own strategic priorities and to direct its funds accordingly. Discretionary funding, inter alia, enables the pursuit of research which is independent of non-academic agendas thereby preserving the Haldane principle. Secondly, it protects institutions from interruptions in funding caused by reorganisations in other parts of the system (as demonstrated by the hiatus in funding prompted by the dissolution of PPARC and CCLRC and the establishment of STFC).

  16.  The success of the policy of research selectivity depends not only on the availability of sufficient levels of funding but also on an appropriate mechanism to recognise, and distinguish sufficiently, between different levels of research excellence. The College considered the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to be fit for purpose since it involved peer review and was not expensive when compared with alternative assessment and allocation methods or with the amount of funding allocated both directly and indirectly as a result. As a pilot institution, the College is contributing to the development of its replacement, the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The implementation of any new system of research assessment should though, occur only when it can be demonstrated that it is robust, fit for purpose and able to identify the highest quality research across all subjects.

  17.  Increasingly, and particularly during times of recession and thus competing economic priorities, those in receipt of public funding are required to demonstrate the impact, benefit and contribution of their activities. Measuring impact cannot be prescriptive since it can be felt in many different forms, over different time periods and the scale and significance will vary depending on its nature. Impact must be measured in terms of quality, excellence and advancement. Applicability alone should not be a measure of quality.

  18.  The UK research base needs to be on a sustainable footing with research projects funded on a full economic basis to ensure future economic prosperity. Only a small subset of research sponsors (namely UK Research Councils and some, but certainly nowhere near all other Government Departments) formally use full economic costing (fEC) to determine funding, and only at a rate of 80% of fEC for Research Councils.

  19.  The balance between teaching and research is a matter solely for each HEI. A sufficient number of sources of both teaching and research income exist in the UK for each HEI, as a business, to determine for itself the optimum balance, taking due account of external demand for both teaching and research, the supply of staff having appropriate expertise and abilities and the availability of appropriate infrastructure.

DEGREE CLASSIFICATIONS

  20.  By virtue of institutional autonomy and diversity of mission, degree standards are not uniform across HEIs or subjects. It is thus important that all stakeholders (including applicants, students and employers) are aware of this and that uniform standards are not inferred including, for example, in League Tables.

21.  Individual HEIs themselves have responsibility to ensure that degree classifications are consistent and comparable across the institution and across different years. The College's percentage of I/IIi degrees awarded during the last ten years has changed very little. Thus, transparency and clarity of standards are maintained by a system of institutional autonomy accompanied by external regulation. It is primarily the responsibility of each HEI to operate robust internal mechanisms for setting, maintaining and reviewing standards supported by periodic review by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). The current degree classification system should thus remain since there is no better alternative.

  22.  The College supports the aim to develop a credit framework for England which enables portability and recognition of our UK degrees worldwide. However, experience with the Higher Education Achievement Record (HEAR) has shown that there is still some way to go to achieving this. Any framework would need to be developed with recognition that learning and knowledge based outcomes are of paramount importance and thus should be the main measure of the educational progress and achievements of each student.

STUDENT SUPPORT AND ENGAGEMENT

  23.  The provision of appropriate levels of support and assistance to students is possible only when HEIs are able to charge fees which, with Funding Council grant, reflect the full costs of their provision. Such fees would enable appropriate investment in staff, infrastructure and facilities available to students. The current cap on the level of tuition fees able to be charged to Home and European Undergraduate students is artificial, misleading and not based on a full consideration of costs. It should thus be lifted.

24.  The College aims to attract students of the highest quality and would not want financial considerations to deter prospective applicants. Removing the tuition fee cap would enable HEIs to provide bursaries at the levels necessary to attract students who might not otherwise be able to afford to pursue their programmes.

CONCLUSION

  25.  The diversity of the UK higher education sector provides its strength and resilience. Any intervention or change should be undertaken in a cautious manner so to not destabilise a successful model which has been built around excellence and quality.

December 2008.






 
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