Examination of Witnesses (Questions 364
WEDNESDAY 29 APRIL 2009
Chairman: Good morning. I would particularly
like to welcome our witnesses from the world of business and industry
and say how pleased we are to see them. For the record, we welcome
John Crompton, the Head of European Recruitment at Procter &
Gamble for the CBI, John Harris, the Higher Skills and Education
Manager for SEMTA, Mike Harris, the Head of Education and Skills
Policy from the Institute of Directors, and Andrew Ramsay, the
Chief Executive Officer from the Engineering Council UK. By way
of introduction, gentlemen, we are particularly interested as
far as this inquiry is concerned to get an employer's view on
the employability of undergraduates but, also, on some of the
problems which we foresee going through this inquiry which we
think affect graduate employment. I am going to ask my colleague
Evan Harris to begin this morning.
Q364 Dr Harris:
Thank you. I just want to keep it within the Harrises to start
with. Mr Mike Harris, are you a graduate yourself?
Mr Mike Harris: I am indeed.
Q365 Dr Harris: What degree and from
Mr Mike Harris: A history degree
from Birmingham University.
Q366 Dr Harris: What class, may I
Mr Mike Harris: First class.
Q367 Dr Harris: I am not suggesting
that your degree was not worthy of a first class, but there has
been an increase in the number of first class degrees obtained.
Just like with A-level qualifications, some in industry have suggested
that that is grade inflation. Is it your organisation's view that
the same applies to university degrees?
Mr Mike Harris: I think that is
quite a complex question to answer. As a general base, our members
are quite upbeat about the quality of education delivered by universities
but do recognise that the rising number of first class degrees
and 2:1s awarded can make it more difficult when recruiting to
distinguish between the top candidates. I do not think they would
support the view that this is representative of grade inflation,
although grades have risen, in the same way that `A'-level grades
Q368 Dr Harris: It is strange, because
I understand that the IoDI have vivid memories of Ruth
Lee and, I think, her successorscomplain every time the
A-level results improve, but you are sayingand I think
this is consistent with your evidencethat the follow-through
of those better qualified A-level students into getting better
degrees is not a problem. Is the IoD happy with that apparent
inconsistency in its position?
Mr Mike Harris: Our members are
most dissatisfied with early years education, because we still
see people with very good quality degrees with basic skills deficiencies.
The other target is employability skills. I do not think there
is an inconsistency in saying that there is a problem to distinguish
between candidates but still to say that there are weaknesses.
Q369 Dr Harris: I will put it in
stark terms: the A-level results come out and there are more and
more grade As. "Dumbing down," says the IoD. I am not
arguing with you, I am just saying what you say. You accept that.
The degree classifications also have seen an increase in the number
of first class degrees. You say, apparently, in your evidence
verbally now and in written evidence, that that is grade inflation.
That is the potential inconsistency I want you to address, because
if you take A-level improvement at face value, you would expect
degree improvement, would you not? You do not accept the A-level
improvement but you do not seem to object to what some people
would say is the consequential degree improvement. That is illogical,
arguably. Please explain why it is not.
Mr Mike Harris: We do not say
that standards have "dumbed down" at A-level; we say
that it is difficult distinguishing the best candidates. The same
is true at university level. Our members are genuinely upbeat
about the quality of education delivered by universities but perceive
there to be problems right throughout the education system, beginning
in schools and also in further education colleges, so that when
you get your ultimate employee there are particular skills weaknesses.
Q370 Dr Harris: I thought that the
IoD did complain about grade inflation at A-level.
Mr Mike Harris: No, we point out
that there is a gap between our members' perception of quality
and the figures that say "Three As".
Q371 Dr Harris: There is no such
gap for graduates. That is interesting to note. Your view that
you do not think that the current degree classification system
is broken appears to be at odds with Peter Williams, the former
Chief Executive of the QAA, who said that he thought it was "arbitrary
and unreliable" in the press last year, and he stuck to that
view in oral evidence to us some time after that. You disagree
Mr Mike Harris: We do disagree.
We do not argue the system is perfect but it is a very useful
and very simple metric very early on in the recruitment process
to give an indication of the overall calibre of an applicant.
There are problems with comparability of degrees from different
institutions that can present difficulties to employers and there
are difficulties with the overall number of top degrees awarded,
but the system itself is a very useful one. I think where the
Burgess Group went wrong is that it made too much of a play on
it being distracting and detracting from other information about
an applicant's abilities.
Q372 Dr Harris: It is strange. The
QAA, you would think, would know. You are basing your view, I
thinkand there is nothing wrong with thaton the
subjective views of your members.
Mr Mike Harris: I think we have
a legitimate input into that inquiry. When we were asked, "What
do your members think of that system? What do you think of that
system" they are broadly happy with it, because they are
familiar with it, they understand it, but they do not ever pretend
that it can distil into a single grade the entire breadth of somebody's
abilities and skills.
Q373 Dr Harris: My colleague is going
to ask you and the rest of the panel about the issue of comparability
between different institutions, perhaps Birmingham and other universities,
but leaving that aside, does anyone else from the panel want to
comment on that first question?
Mr Ramsay: I think that the issue
is really that British degrees/UK degrees have to exceed a certain
standard. If you have an honours degree, you have an honours degree.
The classification after that is really additional information
to help an employer or a user of that graduate's services in due
course to understand a little bit more about the person. To that
extent, it is probably not a big deal to compare firsts from different
universities: if somebody has a degree, they have a degree, and
that is a pretty comparable standard as a minimum across the British
university system. I think Peter Williams was saying that that
system of classification was broken, not that the quality of degrees
was at fault. I think there has been widespread misunderstanding
Mr Crompton: The CBI and also
my company P&G would like to see them marked; in other words,
you have a 2:1 but the different courses within that would be
useful. How good is your maths? How good are your engineering
and manufacturing skills? I think we have to get more involved
in individual course marks.
Q374 Dr Harris: Why have they not
given you that information? What possible reason could there be
for withholding that?
Mr Crompton: It depends. Say you
get a 2:1 and your average mark is 68%, you would normally put
that on your CV and you will list some of the courses, but some
people will just put 2:1 and not the list. With CVs, if you put
that on, it gives employers a chance of reviewing the CVs in more
detail before they bring people in for interview. I think individual
course marks is very different. Germany do it, as you know.
Q375 Dr Iddon: Mr Ramsay, are you
saying as employers that degrees are equivalent between universities
in terms of standards but different in terms of content?
Mr Ramsay: More or less. From
the point of view of the Engineering Council, we accredit degrees
in engineering and we effectively set a minimum standard. If degrees
meet that standard, then as far as we are concerned that is a
good starting block for becoming a professional engineer. We do
not say that particular universities provide better degrees than
other universities. Precisely the point that I think you are making
is that the content of degrees varies hugely in terms of the various
modules, the extent to which particular branches of engineering
are taken to a particular level, and that is inevitable. In fact
that is one of the benefits of the British degree system, that
there is such a variety of degree that you can match horses for
Q376 Dr Iddon: Does everybody on
the panel agree, because that is what universities have been impressing
upon us, that between all the universities a degree in engineering
of any kind and a degree of chemistry will be equivalent but there
will be different course content. Is that generally accepted?
Mr Ramsay: Yes.
Mr John Harris: Yes.
Mr Crompton: Yes.
Mr Mike Harris: Yes.
Q377 Dr Iddon: We are agreeing with
what the universities are telling us. Why is it that some universities
find it very easy to get their engineering or their chemistry
graduates into employment because they come from Oxford or Cambridge,
but some of the universities, which might not be as well-known
as Oxford and Cambridge, with an equivalent degree find it very
difficult to place their students?
Mr John Harris: Employers are
looking for other things, other than a degree. They are looking
for attitude of the individual and they are looking for certain
skills and attributes that individuals may or may not have, so
that will determine whether an employer employs a graduate from
this university or that university. It is not driven by the name
of the university or necessarily the degree classification. It
really is a lot of other things that are measured by employers
in the recruitment process.
Q378 Dr Iddon: When the "milkround"
is activeand it is perhaps not as active this year for
obvious reasonswhy does it miss some universities out and
go to Oxford and Cambridge and Manchester?
Mr Crompton: I think companies
target certain universities because they contribute to the courses,
they give sponsorships, sometimes scholarships, and work with
PhDs with some of the students. You cannot cover all the universities,
so I think most companies focus on, say, ten/15, and I think that
will vary from university to university and also on what the needs
are of the different companies. For engineering you will tend
to go to some, but for humanities you will probably go to others.
Q379 Dr Iddon: It is nothing to do
with managers in industry who have come from Oxford and Cambridge
going back to their own university?
Mr Crompton: Definitely not.
Mr Mike Harris: There is also
a resource issue. Seventy per cent of our members represent SMEs,
and it is simply not practical for them to operate a "milkround"
recruitment in the same way that it would be for a larger company.
They would tend to have much closer relationships with probably
a more local university, and probably have input into the course
and take people on work placements or internships, and operate
recruitment like that rather than seek to go around the country,
because they could not support such a programme.