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

Memorandum 77

Submission from the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining



  Admissions: By and large the system works well but universities which require a minimum of three "A" grades find it increasingly difficult to identify the best students on this basis. Admission tutors need more dedicated support and there is a need to share best practice. More guidance is needed on admission criteria for wider participation.

    — Teaching vs Research: High quality research is a prerequisite for an inspirational and creative teaching environment. The need to maintain a high rating for research and thereby an elevated research income means that equal effort cannot be devoted to research and teaching without working long hours. Current workloads are such that striking the right balance is increasingly difficult.— Degree Classification: Degree quality across the UK is not as diverse as it may be supposed. Degree classification is not always reflected in subsequent postgraduate performance. Plagiarism in examinations assisted by access to electronically based sources of information is a growing problem.— Student Support and Engagement: Effective student support and engagement is a demanding activity and further increases time pressures on academics. New models of teaching may need to be considered.

1.  Admissions

  1.1  The UK has a well honed A-level based admission route into higher education institutions (HEIs) and this is well calibrated and well tried. It is sometimes difficult to differentiate at the high end of A-level grades, and some HEIs which set a minimum of three "A" grades are considering setting their own entrance exam. Interviews and open days are a good added dimension. It is difficult to be prescriptive, but clearing for residual remaining places is a tough time for tutors and applicants alike, and something of a lottery in comparison with UCAS based applications. It may be difficult to change this, but it is not the best way to channel our young talent across the UK. Possibly admission tutors need more dedicated support and more best-practice could be shared.

1.2  Some HEIs are doing well at widening access, but delivery is variable and depends on local motivation as well as the effectiveness of the Government's financial model. Widening participation also requires follow-through with greater student support, as for overseas students with, for example, language. It is especially important to focus resources to support such students in their first year when behaviour and learning patterns are established.

  1.3  More guidance on admission criteria for wider participation would help calibrate our approach and make the system fairer.

2.  Teaching vs Research

  2.1  Research sets the backdrop to teaching quality, since a motivating research environment often defines an inspirational and creative teaching environment. Clearly methodology and technical tools need to be provided, but we are in danger of losing the enthusiasm of charismatic teachers by boxing them into norms of structured teaching. Student and staff feedback is now well developed, and is an excellent way of maintaining standards.

2.2  A spectrum of resources exists across HEIs for teaching vs research, but this does not always reflect on teaching quality which is more people driven. However, it will not help that the high pressure on research excellence will continue with simultaneous greater demand on teaching quality and productivity. The inevitable consequence of long working hours and immediacy of expectation will have a damaging long-term effect, on strategy, with adverse effects on the culture in which students are brought up. This is regardless of how "correct" the paper chase of documentation and teaching governance might appear.

  2.3  Training in teaching, particularly for new staff, is well organised and usually obligatory, so is a powerful influence on personal priority setting as regards teaching vs research.

  2.4  Government influence on the teaching to research balance and learning opportunities is good at the macro-level, but cannot readily impact on coalface activity any more than it can influence local research quality. The latter must come through teaching leadership at local level, and the application of local levers.

  2.5  Formally, equal regard is paid to teaching as to research, including for promotion, however the self-image of a HEI is hugely dependent on its research and much less so on its teaching. Indeed the death of research in a HEI is likely to mean the death of vibrant teaching programmes so research should be seen as an aid to a world class student experience. Government should recognise that teaching quality monitoring has been a blunt tool and cannot measure the value to a young person of motivated, charismatic teachers. A handful of such teachers is more valuable than the accumulated evidence of quality by a teaching Governance Committee. Motivated teachers will not emerge in an era when academics do not have time to achieve a 100% satisfying effort in teaching. This is not the best way of generating a virtuous circle of good teaching, satisfactory student progress and high teaching reputation.

3.  Degree Classification

  3.1  The guardians of degree standards are rightly the external examiners. They do not achieve perfect standardisation, however, because of the huge change to curricula with new advanced knowledge entering the arena and the diversity of courses that fuse two or more subjects. Degree quality is not as diverse across the UK as may be supposed; what is different are the skills and aptitude that is passed on, for example, applied and practical vs intellectually focussed. Employers make their own calculations regarding these differences when they compare HEIs. Whatever the degree classification, factual recall decays exponentially, and so the significance of a degree classification is not as long lived as many would have us believe; it does not always translate to differences in postgraduate performance, except perhaps at the extremes.

3.2  Plagiarism is a growing problem and is facilitated by easy access to relevant information on the worldwide web. The potential acceptability of this approach to new generations of students is a serious concern. Strict counter-measures do not resolve this aberrant attitude to learning.

4.  Student Support and Engagement

  4.1  Student support is discharged reasonably well through the tutorial system. However, this is a demanding activity and does not necessarily eliminate problems, notably of non-completion. If general standards are to be maintained, as long as student support is constrained by lack of additional resources, it is difficult to see how failures will not increase with wider participation.

4.2  A world class experience for students has its roots in the vibrant research that teaching staff are pursuing. The Government may expect productivity but this, and quality, lie in enthusiastic academics. Exceptional pressures on academics beyond critical levels do not sit well with their role-model responsibilities. Students are very sensitive to the realities on the ground facing their teachers.

  4.3  Government needs to quantify pressures on academic time, make a judgement on what is required for good teaching preparation, delivery and assessment, and then offer mechanisms to enable staff to achieve this, recognising that quality as well as quantitative teaching productivity with more students cannot both be achieved without new models of teaching.

January 2009

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