Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380
WEDNESDAY 29 APRIL 2009
Q380 Dr Iddon: We have heard quite
strong views while we have been hearing this inquiry that the
degree classification is probably out of dateJohn Crompton
was hinting at this a moment agoand 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
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 doneand I think this is echoed
by the work that the CBI has doneis 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 organisationsand
John's SEMTA is one of themthat 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
Q383 Dr Iddon: What about Engineering
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 andas you probably
know because you have been looking into it recentlyunhappy
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
Q385 Dr Iddon: It is valuable.
Mr Crompton: Yes, it is.
Q386 Dr Iddon: What is the view of
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 principlesthat
is very importantand 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 engineersand what I am talking about is engineering
alonebut 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,
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