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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380 - 399)



  Q380  Dr Iddon: We have heard quite strong views while we have been hearing this inquiry that the degree classification is probably out of date—John Crompton was hinting at this a moment ago—and that really we ought to have a complete academic record and, perhaps more than just the academic record, as you have been saying, the more rounded education should be included: Did the guy row? Did the guy play for the rugby team? and so on and so forth. So that, instead of just looking at the degree classification, we should have a completed form with all this evidence on, for employers to be able to employ the right people. What is your view on that? Should we abandon the degree classification and replace it with a diploma and lots more information?

  Mr Ramsay: We go along with the Burgess Report, which is to say that the Higher Education Achievement Record would be more useful for employers and people who are selecting graduates if they need to drill down and find the particular skills and abilities of the graduate, but, as a broad rule of thumb, most employers still use the classification system to decide between different potential employees. I think the issue really is that it is unwise to move too fast in these sorts of areas. The Members of this Committee will be very familiar with the issues involved in Burgess and the whole situation with regard to the university system, but for a lot of employers, particularly SMEs, it takes a very long time for them to catch up with changes to education. From the Engineering Council's point of view, we constantly have problems with employers still expecting to find people with HNCs or with O-levels, because 20 years of educational change had passed them by. I think it is important to move not desperately slowly, perhaps, but sedately towards a better system, so that employers can keep up, otherwise they will not know what they are getting.

  Q381  Dr Iddon: So degree classification with a bit more information than at the moment.

  Mr Ramsay: Yes.

  Mr John Harris: I would support Andrew's view. Employers do not say to us they have a problem with the current classification of degrees. They understand it, they use it, and they do not flag it up as a problem, but the record of achievement and current classification running together for a time would be very interesting and useful, I think.

  Mr Crompton: I agree with that.

  Mr Mike Harris: I think the real issue is a question of balance and getting the Higher Education Achievement Report, including some judgment of the overall grade, is useful. I think that where we have got to with the Burgess Group is a useful endpoint. We would not want to see that summative judgment phased out. We think that would be a mistake. It would be particularly bad news for SMEs, I think, to distinguish between all of the information you get in here. I think it is important to challenge this underlying assumption that employers just use 2:1 and above, because they do not, particularly within the SME end of the market. They are interested in getting the best candidates, and it is often just a starting point and not a finishing point. All the research we have done—and I think this is echoed by the work that the CBI has done—is emphasising wider skills, employability skills, looking at degree subject, way before you get to overall degree classification. I think we need to challenge that there is some artificial cut-off point and everything else is not taken into account. That is not our experience.

  Q382  Dr Iddon: We have been getting the argument from some of the professional organisations—and John's SEMTA is one of them—that the whole system would work better if professional organisations like SEMTA, or the Royal Society of Chemistry, or the Institute of Biology, accredited degrees in their subjects from the different universities. I remember when that was done in chemistry. You could rely on the Royal Institute of Chemistry, as it was then, to accredit chemistry courses across the universities. What do you think about professional accreditation of the same degree courses across all the universities?

  Mr John Harris: In the engineering profession we value the accreditation of courses. It gives us confidence in certain degree courses that have been accredited by professional institutions. It is not a role for the SEMTA as a sector skills council to do that. It is not in our remit, but certainly we do value that and our employers value that. It is very useful.

  Q383  Dr Iddon: What about Engineering Council UK?

  Mr Ramsay: Obviously we are fully committed to accreditation of degree programmes. The graduates of those programmes and the employers who employ them value the information, the evidence that degrees are accredited. We are aware that there are a number of degree programmes that call themselves "Engineering" or "Something Engineering" around the university system in the UK, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. In engineering, we have a long and—as you probably know because you have been looking into it recently—unhappy history of deciding that engineering is this and anything that is not inside it is not, and new societies and new organisations then spring up as a result. The example I have in mind is computer games. The University of Abertay in Dundee established an international reputation for the quality of their teaching and their graduates who were studying, effectively, how to design computer games. At the time it seemed a very trivial branch of engineering. Now it is well-established as an important contributor to the economy. People who can design computer games, not only in the games industry but also in other industries, are highly sought after. It is not necessarily so that accreditation is the be-all and end-all, but from the point of view of the mainstream engineering profession, it is bound to be very helpful.

  Q384  Dr Iddon: What is the view of people like Procter & Gamble?

  Mr Crompton: The accreditation is very important. I think the important thing about it is that a lot of it is done by the institutions or the institutes but it is people from industry who are going in there to do the accreditation. P&G supplies people to the Institution of Chemical Engineers to go and do the accreditation. The Royal of Society of Chemistry as well.

  Q385  Dr Iddon: It is valuable.

  Mr Crompton: Yes, it is.

  Q386  Dr Iddon: What is the view of the IoD?

  Mr Mike Harris: I do not think we have an established view. My instinctive reaction is that where it makes sense is where both parties gain and establish credibility. Then it is perfectly welcome. Of course there will be a multiplicity of subjects which do not have a professional institute for which that would be appropriate, but I can see how both sides gain out of that arrangement where it works well.

  Q387  Mr Cawsey: Good morning. I would like to ask a few questions about skills and what people should be looking at if they are going into their graduate education now. On the BBC News this morning there was a report from high-flyers showing that final year students were quite gloomy about their prospects of finding employment, with 52% saying that they thought the prospects were very limited and 36% saying they did not expect to get a graduate job this year. On from that, I am interested in what you think you would be looking for from graduates as they move into the employment market. The IoD memorandum stated that, increasingly, employers were looking for the wider employability skills rather than the specific, although lots of people in this study were studying for specific careers. As well as that, should people be looking at high-level technical skills, here and now graduates that can move straight into the employment market like you are saying, or those who just prove that they can respond well to problem-solving in the complex and changing world that the future is going to hold? If you were advising people about to begin graduate education now, where do they go?

  Mr Mike Harris: From our members' point of view, it is employability. I appreciate that can be a bit of a woolly term, but they take it to mean a mixture of basic skills, personal qualities, good attitude, genuine employment skills, meeting deadlines, being reliable, and personal qualities. That really means, aside from the technical skills and the academic knowledge that you have picked up during the course of your degree, what is it that makes you function particularly well in the employment situation? It is that professionalism, it is getting on with people, it is being flexible and it is being reliable. That is what we have found to be valued above all other things when our members are recruiting graduates. It is that emphasis on employability and fitting into the workplace. The technical skills and the technical knowledge acquired through a degree have a much lower profile when they are recruiting. In terms of the message for what to do, I would focus on work experience, getting greater exposure to the workplace, even bringing your professional skills to bear in a work setting. That is what employers are using to distinguish between some very able candidates.

  Q388  Mr Cawsey: We have also heard from other people saying that we do not have enough people training to be engineers and scientists for the future, which is kind of at the other end of that scale.

  Mr Mike Harris: Both are true.

  Q389  Mr Cawsey: Where is the balance in all of that?

  Mr John Harris: As a sector skills council, our Sector Skills Agreement has indicated that up until this recession we have had serious shortages of engineers and scientists. I think that may be caused by the pipelines into higher education and not enough people with STEM backgrounds coming into the universities, so the output, therefore, is not enough to meet our employers' needs for engineers and scientists. The issue about the actual skills that employers are looking for is an interesting and a complex area, because employers recruit different types of graduates for different types of roles, so there is not one role model that will fit every kind of graduate. The argument goes on and I think the argument that is winning is that more employers are saying that they want graduates who have a really good understanding of engineering principles and scientific principles—that is very important—and who then are able to apply those principles. So it is that, coupled with some practical skills to solve problems and go into the workplace and do their job without too much on going training. It is a real solid education of engineering and scientific principles, with lots of hands-on experience in the university laboratories and workshops to turn that understanding into practice. On top of that, as you have rightly said, employers also want the other things as well. They want people with a good attitude, they want people who can communicate.

  Q390  Mr Cawsey: They want their cake and eat it.

  Mr John Harris: They do. One of the best ways of doing all of that, as we do with some courses, is sandwich degree courses, where undergraduates go out into industry for a summer placement or a year's placement and they do a real job of work for an employer and they acquire a lot of these employability skills. They learn how to communicate, they learn how to work with other people, they learn how to put their education into practice. That is very valuable.

  Mr Crompton: I think each company knows the skills that are needed for people to be successful in that company, and they will vary from company to company. When they go on campus they will check people's skills coming in versus those criteria. At P&G we have nine criteria that we look at. I do not want to go into it in too much detail, but we know that if people are going to have those criteria they will be successful in the company. On top of that, especially for STEM, we need the basic academics. So we are after having cake and eat it.

  Mr Ramsay: We take regular surveys from employers and we also rely on surveys by organisations such as SEMTA and the Royal Academy of Engineering. We use these to try to determine what particular selection of skills employers seem to be looking for. We also are able to triangulate this because we are members of two major international protocols where we are developing and adopting graduate attributes for engineers that are comparable around the world. We have an insight into what other countries are looking for from their graduates. As John was saying, no two employers are the same. Employers have a variety of jobs where they require different skill sets. They may be looking for engineers—and what I am talking about is engineering alone—but quite what they want to do with them will vary across disciplines. As you have said, often engineers are sought after simply because of their problem-solving skills, they are not looking for a particular technical content. But in other cases, really specialised industries are looking for a particular technical understanding of metallurgy or fluid dynamics or something.

  Q391  Mr Cawsey: Mike, in your answer you alluded to the work experience that people may have done before they come out of university. We were in Washington last week looking at their universities and the student experience. One of the figures we got there was that an average American student works 30 hours a week alongside doing their degree course. Is it taken across all four of you that a graduate improves their employability by doing work experience through their student years or even perhaps before they get to university?

  Mr Mike Harris: I think probably there is a distinction between part-time employment, which might be bar work or something like that, and having the opportunity to have a two-week or three-week internship with a company and trying to apply more of your knowledge and skills in a way which takes that from an academic setting into a real world setting. This can be demanding, to ask students to subsidise their studies and then to have to take greater periods of work experience. That is why I think it is important to emphasise that employers are very willing to play their part in that. When we have done our research studies, we have had almost overwhelming results saying, "Yes, universities should be actively seeking to cultivate these skills" but almost exactly the same percentage saying "Business has to play its part in helping to develop it." I think there is that distinction between a routine job and having an opportunity in a much more structured fashion to do an extended project in an employment situation.

  Q392  Mr Cawsey: Do people generally agree with that?

  Mr Crompton: Yes.

  Q393  Mr Cawsey: Okay. In your memorandum to us, Mike, you said that employers are generally happy with the quality of graduates and the standards they have achieved. That was something that Evan picked up with you earlier. Is that a consistent message over several surveys or is that showing signs of improving in more recent times?

  Mr Mike Harris: It is a mixed bag. We asked absolutely "What do you think the quality of education delivered by universities is?" and they were broadly supportive. We also asked them to give their opinion on what had happened over the past ten years, and there they were slightly more negative. Interestingly, that tallied very much with a simultaneous poll we did of admissions tutors, asking for their experience, over the course of their experience in university admissions, of what had happened to the quality of their undergraduates at the beginning of their courses. It was the same sort of picture: some said it had improved; a body in the middle said it had stayed the same; and some said it had deteriorated. We see maybe a very slight slide over time but, broadly, the core product is still a good one and valued and respected.

  Q394  Mr Cawsey: That is almost a bit inconsistent with what you said to Evan before about an increasing number of first class honours and no problems with that.

  Mr Mike Harris: I hope I have not been inconsistent. Perhaps I did not get the opportunity to expand on what I said. The overall picture is positive but there are caveats. There are caveats in particular skills and there are caveats in particular subjects.

  Mr Cawsey: Thank you.

  Q395  Mr Marsden: I would like to ask one or two questions about the changing nature of higher education and how that is perceived by them, particularly in respect of issues around admissions and wider participation. Perhaps I could start with John Harris and Andrew Ramsay. In the written evidence from your respective organisations you have queried the sense that we can carry on with the status quo. John, in the SEMTA evidence you talked about the process necessarily having to change with the incorporation of flexible learning and part-time and vocationally-related learning, and of seeing little value in simple expansion of existing provision in the traditional model. Andrew you have also made the point, which I think is widely recognised, that the demographic changes mean that we are going to have a far smaller number of 18-year olds from 2007 onwards, and, therefore, that again puts a premium on a more flexible range of applicants. All of that I absolutely agree with, incidentally. John, perhaps I could ask you to start with: Do you think universities have caught up with this or, indeed, some of the HR recruiters in the employment world?

  Mr John Harris: Universities are responding because there has been a lot of activity around the Leitch Review on the need to upskill the current workforce. When you talk to employers, they are generally very supportive of that view but are worried about losing employees for periods of time from the workplace. When universities are able to deliver the learning in a flexible part-time way, that is obviously to the advantage of the employee and the employer. In fairness to universities, they are responding to that. There is a big change going on.

  Q396  Mr Marsden: Is it fast enough?

  Mr John Harris: Nothing is ever fast enough. It takes time. These things take time. But they are responding. I do not know of one university that I go to that is not trying to promote the needs of employers. They are trying to respond, but it takes time. It does take time.

  Q397  Mr Marsden: Andrew, could I ask you the same question. While I am not asking any of you to name and shame particular universities, if you do feel that there are particular areas where a university is not moving fast enough in this respect, we would be grateful to hear from you.

  Mr Ramsay: I wish I could help you there. I think the issue is probably that engineering has a long tradition of accepting mature students, and, indeed, having work-based learning alongside higher education.

  Q398  Mr Marsden: Women mature students?

  Mr Ramsay: Women? Mature students, yes.

  Q399  Mr Marsden: I have asked the question about women because another body I am associated with, the National Skills Forum, has produced a report recently and I think there has been a lot of evidence that there are still far too few women going into these kinds of subjects, either at a younger level or at a mature level.

  Mr Ramsay: I absolutely agree. We are involved in various fora and various initiatives to try to do something about that, but we have not found the magic bullet. What is disturbing is that amongst developed countries Britain does seem to under-recruit women into STEM subjects, engineering in particular, but a lot of effort is going into trying to encourage more young women in schools to consider these professions. Their A-level scores in things like physics and maths are improving, sometimes ahead of their male counterparts, and yet—

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