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

Memorandum 80

Submission from The Royal Society


  The Royal Society welcomes the opportunity to respond to this consultation. Our response is based on the Royal Society's reports entitled A Degree of Concern? and A higher degree of concern (provided in hard copy as background material) and other relevant policy documents. This submission has been approved by Professor Martin Taylor, Physical Secretary and Vice-President on behalf of the Council of the Society.This response is arranged under the headings of the enquiry's terms of reference, and clear signposts are given to the relevant document which deals with the issues more fully.

The Higher Education system underpins the UK's ability to do well as a nation. In the context of an increasingly competitive and inter-connected global economy, this means that HE must equip students individually with the knowledge, skills and aptitudes to hold their own with the best in the world. At the same time HE must provide the basis for a skilled workforce that meets the UK's needs quantitatively and qualitatively. We emphasise:

    — the need to place UK developments in an European and global context, including the contributions that both students and staff from overseas make to UK HE;

    — the importance of a high degree of flexibility throughout the education system;

    — the importance of looking in detail at individual disciplines, not just broader subject groupings;

    — the lack of fluency in basic mathematical skills shown by many entrants to undergraduate courses;

    — the significant premium placed on STM graduate skills by employers.

  For further details of our position on this issues, please see A degree of concern? (2006) and A higher degree of concern (2008)


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

  Research commissioned this year by the Royal Society and the Institute of Physics (Relative difficulty of examinations in different subjects, 2008) showed that some subjects at A-level were more difficult than others and that it was easier to achieve top grades in subjects like Media Studies and Psychology than it was when taking subjects like Maths, Physics and Chemistry. The research from Durham University's Curriculum, Evaluation and Management (CEM) Centre ran contrary to a report released by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) in February this year, the "Inter-Subject Comparability Study", which stated that there are "no substantial or consistent differences in standards between any subjects at any level".

With UCAS points, derived from A level grades earned, being the clearest determinant of where a student will attend university, there is concern that students are influenced towards taking "softer" subjects to obtain the highest points score and hence the best university places. High grades also assist a school's position in annual, exam results-based, league tables.

A system that collects and publishes annual data on the relative difficulty of subjects should be introduced by Ofqual to allow open but informed discussion on the topic. The introduction of an annual report that exposes the relative difficulties of A-levels would encourage a transparent, market-led approach, helping universities to choose between the brightest candidates. Honesty about the level of assessment in different subjects will also encourage the brightest students to tackle the more challenging subjects, in the knowledge that their achievement will be recognised and will result in the greatest rewards.

The worry is that some good students are put off taking Maths and Science A-levels because it is harder to get a good grade in them. Anything that discourages students from taking these subjects, which are so important for the future prosperity of the UK, is to be deplored.

  For further details on this issue, please see Relative difficulty of examinations in different subjects.

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

  We support the Government's efforts to increase the percentage of 18 to 30 year-olds in the UK who have had some experience of higher education to 50% in the UK and believe that there should be no barrier to able students, regardless of socio-economic background, ethnic group or other factors, entering HE. Inevitably, the greater proportion of the UK population now entering HE has meant that a wider range of individuals are studying at UK universities than in the past. Universities therefore have to cope with the challenges involved in teaching a more diverse student body. There have also been large increases in the number of students who pursue postgraduate study.

We believe the UK should also move towards a system of "credits" whereby someone who leaves university after two years isn't regarded as "wastage", but can claim credit for having had two years of college, and feel free to return at a later date. There is concordance, not conflict, between sustaining excellence and widening access.

  For further details of our position on this issue, please see A higher degree of concern, 2008; and the 2008 Anniversary Address.


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

  The Society would like to see a diverse HE sector, in which independent universities draw upon their individual strengths to undertake teaching, research, community & business engagement and maintaining international links. These universities should be funded in part by Government, through mechanisms that meet the requirements of accountability but also allow institutions and researchers the freedom and authority to undertake excellent teaching and research of all kinds, on a sustainable basis. The dual support system should be retained, augmented by third stream funding from businesses and charities. Teaching must be fully funded.

More emphasis must be given to a collaborative approach to learning between universities and industry, including employer engagement with curriculum development, matching the emphasis that has already been placed on knowledge transfer and commercialising research.

Scholarship is necessary as a background to any professional activity in the universities and might include undertaking research, reviewing existing knowledge, understanding the needs of students and the potential users of research outcomes and funding colleagues to attend and participate in seminars here and overseas. It is fundamental to the concept of HE that students, particularly those on honours first-degree courses, are both exposed to at least some frontiers within their subjects of study, and enabled to continue to keep abreast of developments into the future. It is also important to recognise that "research" means differing things even within a discipline and certainly across disciplines. It includes the generation of new knowledge, and the novel analysis of, and synthesis from, existing knowledge. There is a wide range of costs associated with these.

  For further details of our position on this issue, please see A higher degree of concern, 2008.

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

  It is important to recognise the diversity of education provision that is covered by the terms "higher education" and "undergraduate education". Within the UK the usual major distinction is between "first degree" and "other undergraduate" courses, but the latter cover a wide range (eg HND, DipHE and some Open University courses). When developing policies to widen participation and to broaden access to existing courses, it is important to consider what component of HE is being looked at.

The Society maintains that the Government's emphasis should be on achieving the highest quality learning environment, which includes not only teaching but also "a culture of intellectual enquiry, sustained by continuing familiarity with original research". Teaching standards will also be improved in turn by a better understanding of the needs of the learner and enabling these needs to be fulfilled. This requires a better appreciation of the different skills of research and teaching and the need for initial training to be available to new lecturers. It is also important that the overall work of the department—undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, curriculum development, research, and outreach to the community—is distributed appropriately. Needless to say, the ability to recruit and retain staff of the highest calibre requires salaries that are commensurate and competitive.

  For further details of our position on this issue, please see our response to the White Paper on the future of higher education, 2004.

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

  The Society responded to HEFCE's consultation on research assessment earlier in 2008. In our response we strongly endorsed the current dual support system of financing research in UK higher education, and stated our belief that this should continue post-2008. The Society believes that dual support is an effective mechanism to sustain excellent research.

"The future success and sustainability of the research base involves a number of broader research-related activities such as public engagement, innovation and engagement with user communities, and contributions to policy. The Society believes than an overall research funding system, that includes the Research Excellence Framework (REF), must properly recognise these activities. We expressed concern that the consultation was not offering an integrated perspective that considered how the REF will link with a consideration of these other aspects. There will be a need for peer review regarding the recognition and rewarding of these activities. Our response stated that we believe that existing and proposed metrics should be used as indicators only, and that to fully assess the quality of research peer judgement is a necessary part of assessment for all science subjects."

  For further details of our position on this issue, please see the Society's response to HEFCE consultation on research assessment, 2008.


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

  The funding available to students, in the shape of grants, loans or bursaries, can be used to influence student choice, and therefore encourage (or discourage) the study of particular courses or subject areas. The Government is able to encourage more students to study a subject where there is an undersupply of graduates, or encourage particular career paths through providing greater financial assistance to students who choose these options rather than other paths of study. This is already happening for teacher training courses.

UK-domiciled undergraduate students now pay a contribution towards their tuition fees (although the situation varies between the component parts of the UK). The result of this, alongside the shift from student grants to student loans, is that many UK students graduate with sizeable debts. There are many implications arising from this changing financial situation including how students view themselves, how well they achieve, the courses they choose to take and the career pathways open to them.

We also believe that the appropriate advice, preparation and support should be available to students at all educational stages, allowing individuals to make choices about subjects and study options based on a full understanding of their implications in the medium and long term.

  For further details of our position on this issue, please see our response to the White Paper on the future of higher education, 2004.

December 2008


  Royal Society 2003, Response to the White Paper on the future of higher education

Available at

  Royal Society 2006, A degree of concern?

  Available at

  Royal Society 2006, Response to Education & Skills Committee inquiry into the future sustainability of the higher education sector: purpose, funding and structures

  Available at

  Royal Society 2008, A higher degree of concern

  Available at

  Royal Society 2008, Response to HEFCE's consultation on research assessment

  Available at

  Institute of Physics and Royal Society, 2008, Relative difficulty of examinations in different subjects

  Available via

  Royal Society 2008, Anniversary Address

  Available via

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