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


Memorandum 65

Submission from the Royal Society of Chemistry

RSC response to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee inquiry into Students and Universities

  The RSC welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee inquiry into Students and Universities.

The RSC is the UK Professional Body for chemical scientists and an international Learned Society for advancing the chemical sciences. Supported by a network of over 46,000 members worldwide and an internationally acclaimed publishing business, our activities span education and training, conferences and science policy, and the promotion of the chemical sciences to the public.

This document represents the views of the RSC. The RSC's Royal Charter obliges it to serve the public interest by acting in an independent advisory capacity, and we would therefore be very happy for this submission to be put into the public domain.

  The document has been written from the perspective of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  1.  The RSC would like to highlight the following points to the Select Committee:

    — In order to meet government targets for HE participation, diversity of course provision and geographical location must be a priority. Chemistry has gradually lost provision at the HND/HNC level as departments have closed (particularly in the post-92 sector) and others have moved away from part time to full-time honours degree provision. The former change limits opportunities in chemistry restricting diversity of course provision, and the latter limits opportunities for more flexible ways of studying which will affect mature students in particular.

    — The RSC has been running a very successful widening participation outreach scheme called Chemistry: The Next Generation (CTNG). The aims of CTNG are to raise the aspirations of under-represented school pupils and to widen and significantly increase participation in HE chemical science courses. Recent independent evaluation of the scheme has shown that it is having a positive impact. Such widening participation and outreach schemes should be increased to maximise HE participation.

    — Research Assessment has concentrated Funding Council derived research funds into fewer universities. Strategically it makes sense to resource institutions well to allow them to invest in state of the art resources. However, over concentration may lead to areas of the country where particular HEI research expertise are lacking. In addition, some HEIs put an emphasis on raising research funds which can lead to an overly competitive culture which predicates against cooperative research and also serves to put a number of people off research careers, in particular women.

    — The RSC concurs with the view of many in that the degree classification system is out of date. It is only relevant to UK HE and poorly understood elsewhere. This could hinder the portability of UK degrees. The UK should be moving towards a more universal grade point average system with greater use of diploma supplements.

    — An RSC study has found that student debt has a clear impact on post-graduation options, with many final year students stating that they would have to forgo further study as a result of debt. Geographical locations where graduates could work would be limited by having to live with their parents or not being able to afford to travel far to work leading to a negative impact on chemical science employers in the UK.

INTRODUCTION

  2.  The RSC is the UK Professional Body for chemical scientists and an international Learned Society for advancing the chemical sciences. Supported by a network of over 46,000 members worldwide and an internationally acclaimed publishing business, our activities span education and training, conferences and science policy, and the promotion of the chemical sciences to the public.

3.  This document represents the views of the RSC. The RSC's Royal Charter obliges it to serve the public interest by acting in an independent advisory capacity, and we would therefore be very happy for this submission to be put into the public domain.

  4.  The document has been written from the perspective of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

ADMISSIONS

The effectiveness of the process for admission to Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), including A-levels, Advanced Diplomas, apprenticeships and university entrance tests

  5.  The RSC believes that at this point in time, chemistry departments within HEIs are able to discriminate between candidates for admission using the current process for admission. Exceptions to this could include the most selective institutes, for example, Oxford and Cambridge.

6.  The RSC has concerns regarding the amount of students achieving a grade A at A-Level. The fact that a large proportion of students essentially achieve the same grade is not a good driver for ambition.

The UK's ability to meet government targets for Higher Education (HE) participation and the relevance of these targets

7.  Chemistry has gradually lost provision at the HND/HNC level as departments have closed (particularly in the post-92 sector) and others have moved away from part-time to full-time honours degree provision. The former change limits opportunities in chemistry restricting diversity of course provision, and the latter limits opportunities for more flexible ways of studying which will affect mature students in particular.

8.  One issue which may affect the government targets for HE participation is the geographical diversity of HE courses. Students may live with their parents or not being able to afford to travel far to study. There needs to be a comprehensive geographical coverage of HE courses to maximise HE participation.

The implementation and success of widening participation initiatives such as Compact

  9.  The RSC has been running a very successful widening participation outreach scheme called Chemistry: The Next Generation (CTNG) for over four years. Funding for the scheme has been provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The aims of CTNG are to raise the aspirations of under-represented school pupils and to widen and significantly increase participation in HE chemical science courses. The number of students studying chemistry has increased by 32% over the last five years returning to a level that was last seen in the late 1990's.

10.  CTNG is a national programme that operates on a regional level (currently in six English regions) and involves partnership working between HEIs, schools, colleges, industry, employers and STEM organisations. 25 universities offer outreach activities as part of CTNG. Over 47,000 students from 800 schools have been involved with the scheme over the last two years. 70% of the students involved in activities are from an Aimhigher cohort (students with no heritage of HE in the family).

  11.  Recent independent evaluation of the scheme has shown that it is having positive impact in three key areas:

    1. Raising school students' awareness of HE

    2. Influencing students' future intentions (future study and careers plans)

    3. Enhancing students' understanding of the relevance and usefulness of chemistry

  12.  Good practice was particularly noted around the extent of collaboration and multi-agency working that is being achieved in delivering the CTNG project.

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

  13.  No Comment.

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

  14.  The RSC believes that the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) has driven most universities to have bias towards the research element. Teaching and learning is a fundamental responsibility of universities and should be both recognised and rewarded as such.

The quality of teaching provision and learning facilities in UK and the extent to which they vary between HEIs

15.  The quality of laboratory equipment varies considerably across HEIs within the UK leading to non-equal opportunities for students studying chemistry. Efforts are required to ensure consistency throughout the UK.

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

16.  Assessment of teaching in chemistry has not been carried out in chemistry by Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) since 1993, and when it was done it was part of the pilot stage of teaching assessment.

17.  Assessment of research has significantly affected the research in universities generally and in chemistry departments specifically. The RAE has used peer review as its main element and this approach has the confidence of the community. The community remains sceptical about proposals for the use of metrics in the new Research Excellence Framework (REF) and looks forward to examining the results of the pilot studies.

18.  Research Assessment has without doubt concentrated Funding Council derived research funds into fewer universities and this has had an effect on the viability of some chemistry departments which have consequently closed. On the other hand that concentration of funds has also meant that the higher rated departments have been able to strengthen their research infrastructure and provide a better environment for research.

  19.  The question arises, however, as to whether it is appropriate to concentrate research funding to such a degree. Strategically it makes sense to resource institutions well to allow them to invest in state of the art resources. On the other hand over concentration may lead to areas of the country where particular HEI research expertise are lacking.

  20.  Another consequence is the emphasis that (some) HEIs put on raising research funds either directly, through grant applications, or indirectly, by maximising the RAE grade. This emphasis can lead to an overly competitive culture which predicates against cooperative research and also serves to put a number of people off research careers, in particular women.

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

  21.  The RSC recognises the introduction of the compulsory teaching qualification for all new academics as a positive move forward and stresses the need for future analysis of whether this qualification has proved to be effective.

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

22.  (a) Many universities have systems in place to assure the quality of teaching within their institution. The Government and HEFCE need to ensure that each institution has an adequate internal monitoring system.

23.  (b) The RSC feels that it is the duty of the HEI to define their own strategies regarding the balance between teaching and research in HEIs.

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

  24.  The RSC concurs with the view of many in that the degree classification system is out of date. It is only relevant to UK HE and poorly understood elsewhere. The UK should be moving towards a more universal grade point average system with greater use of diploma supplements.

The advantages and disadvantages of the UK's system of degree classification and the introduction of the Higher Education Academic Record

25.  Recent years have seen increased controversy about degree class inflation somewhat mirroring arguments about grade inflation at A-level. Degree classifications have long been part of the UK higher education system but, as with any grading system, suffers the disadvantage that candidates with almost the same mark can end up with different degree classes. The degree class system has some advantages for discriminating between groups of candidates for jobs or for higher degree funding, but remains a crude discriminator at the end of a long period of study.

26.  Systems like the HE Academic Record provide a more sophisticated method for discriminating between graduates. For example, in a subject like chemistry where different branches of the subject require different skills, a potential employer will be able to judge more easily whether a particular candidate has the skills profile required for a specific role.

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

27.  Universities should continue working with the Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies (PSRB) through their accreditation systems and so ensure degree programmes are professionally relevant.

The relationship between degree classification and portability

28.  The Bologna Declaration has put in motion a series of reforms needed to make European Higher Education more competitive and more attractive for Europeans and for students and scholars from other continents. The UK degree classification system does not mirror the recommendations from the Bologna Declaration, is out of date, only relevant to the UK HE and poorly understood outside of the UK. This could hinder the portability of UK degrees.

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

29.  No comment.

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

  30.  The RSC feels that it is good practice to involve students in the decision making process and welcomes activities such as the National Student's Survey.

How the student experience differs in public and private universities

31.  No comment.

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

32.  Many students find the transition from school to university very difficult and as a result may choose to leave university. The RSC-managed Chemistry for our Future programme (funded by HEFCE as part of the Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects (SIVS) programme) is operating a number of projects aimed at improving the transition process for students on chemical science courses. www.rsc.org/cfof

33.  The projects are focussing on:

    — better preparation for the HE experience for incoming undergraduates

    — supporting the students through mentoring schemes

    — providing access to e-learning resources for the purposes of revision and as an alternative to traditional teaching methods

    — developing first year curricula to provide better matching to students' prior learning

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

  34.  As part of the RSC-managed Chemistry for our Future programme, a study has been undertaken by the Warwick Institute for Employment Research and the Higher Education Careers Services Unit into the factors affecting the post-university employment of UK Chemical Science graduates. Student debt was found to have a clear impact on post-graduation options, with many final year students stating that they would have to forgo further study as a result of debt. Some students also commented that the locations where they would be able to work would be limited by having to live with their parents or not being able to afford to travel far to work (see paragraph 8). This could have a negative impact on chemical science employers in the UK if they are unable to attract qualified applicants who are willing to relocate to particular areas of the country.

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

35.  No comment.

December 2008






 
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