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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 364 - 379)



  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 where?

  Mr Mike Harris: A history degree from Birmingham University.

  Q366  Dr Harris: What class, may I ask?

  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 have risen.

  Q368  Dr Harris: It is strange, because I understand that the IoD—I have vivid memories of Ruth Lee and, I think, her successors—complain every time the A-level results improve, but you are saying—and I think this is consistent with your evidence—that 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 with him.

  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 think—and there is nothing wrong with that—on 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 of that.

  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 courses.

  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 active—and it is perhaps not as active this year for obvious reasons—why 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.

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