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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420 - 439)



  Q420  Chairman: I want to try to get from you on this issue of the National Student Survey whether you feel generally that is an effective way of surveying students or whether there are other measures which are more important which are not included?

  Mr Raja: I really do not think that the NSS is a very good way to measure real student satisfaction. I must confess that I have not looked at many of the questions that the NSS puts up to its participants, but to measure student satisfaction we need to look at more hard indicators of what the good student experience would be like. For example, I was reading through the evidence taken with some vice-chancellors and I think you yourself, sir, pointed out that the university that ranks the highest in student satisfaction is perhaps Loughborough. One of the vice-chancellors pointed out that that is because that university has an intimate and personal environment which makes students feel satisfied about it. I do not think that if such variables are affecting student satisfaction we should take it very seriously.

  Q421  Chairman: Right, okay. Alasdair?

  Mr Farquharson: The student survey in principle is a very good idea. The problem is though that there is a great deal of apathy amongst the student community throughout the country. A lot of students—and the statistics show this—simply do not respond or bother and the student unions up and down the country have a great deal of trouble trying to persuade students to actually fill these surveys in. Another problem with the survey, of course, is the timing with regards to students in their final year because many students graduate at a time just before the survey is to be completed, and therefore you are not getting necessarily the final opinion from third year or fourth year students with regards to their experience at university in that survey, and that is a critical time really. Once you have completed your courses and sat all your exams you are then in a position really to comment on the entire experience but the timing is not sufficient to enable all the students at that point to comment accurately.

  Q422  Mr Marsden: I wanted to come to you, Carrie, because you had indicated that you wanted to say something about degree classification and we can obviously bring in other people's comments as well. Most of you were in the previous evidence session so you will have heard from the employer panel on whether they felt the current situation was satisfactory or not, but perhaps you would like to share your views on it, Carrie. The other point that occurred to me while we were listening to the previous session—and I just throw this open for people to think about while Carrie is speaking—was that there are issues about percentages and all the rest of it, and it did occur to me as an inveterate non-scientist that actually some of these issues about percentages and that are a good deal more difficult in the humanities and some of the social sciences than they are in the sciences. However, that is a separate issue and I just leave that for now because we have obviously got a mix of people here in terms of their own degree backgrounds. Carrie, do you want to say a few words about that?

  Ms Donaghy: After reading the evidence something that I really found particularly interesting and new was the proposed changes to the degree classification, and it was clear that some universities are piloting the new HEAR scheme. I do believe that the current degree classification is a little bit outdated and rigid. It does bear no reflection of students' contributions to sport and volunteering and things like that, so after I had read the evidence I spoke to some fellow students about it and they believe that the HEAR project is excellent, it is going to be an excellent way to keep the traditional elements of the degree classification that employers do recognise but also gives something further for employers to consider, because the ideal candidates think for jobs are often those who are involved with things like volunteering and sport, they are more social, they are team-players and team-leaders and the HEAR pilot will really see this through. Northumbria University is the university that I go to and it is currently trialling the system. I am not sure how it is going but I think the students have responded well to how it is going to fit in, and it is great to hear that it is going to be free and that it is going to be transferable for the whole of your professional career.

  Q423  Chairman: Are there any other comments on the issue of degree classification?

  Mr Raja: I would like to take contention with the idea that co-curricula activities like sports and joining societies should be considered in degree classification because I think there is a certain amount of, if you like, sanctity to education and to going to university. University is a place where you go to learn, just as a hospital is a place where you go to get treatment, it is not a place where you go for entertainment. Our universities are for learning; that should be kept in focus. Also the idea that including such variables in the degree would help employers make better sense of what a person is like is a good idea but it is not necessary to include those variables in the degree because you can always write about them in your CV. If you have participated in sports, if you have participated in societies then it will reflect in your personality as well so you already have it in you. I think in the status quo we achieve both aims; we achieve the sanctity of education, of the fact that university should be about learning and we also give people an opportunity to develop themselves generally, and that gets carried forward without it being included in the degree itself.

  Q424  Chairman: Ed, do you have a view on degree classification?

  Mr Steward: I was actually going to say broadly similar to what Anand said. I have been involved in my union quite heavily for three or four years and certainly when I graduated I was in no way bitter that it was not on my degree. My degree is my academic achievement in my time at university and what I did with the union was wholly separate, and while the union and university together provide the full university experience, students certainly appreciate them being kept separate and doing union activities very much as enjoyment, not because they are a part of their degree. The entire point in union activities is that they are not part of their degree, it is an escape from the degree. Your degree is very much academic and from the university rather than the union.

  Q425  Mr Marsden: Chairman, just before you bring Evan in can I just make one point which I think is quite an important one and I wonder if we are slightly losing track of it now. The issue about the statement, at least in my understanding, is not simply an issue about, as Anand said, things that you could put on your CV; it is fair to say that it arises from some concern that the mere fact that you get a 2:1 in geography or a 2:2 in psychology without any accompanying narrative of the sorts of courses you have done or, for that matter, how you might have fared between one course and another, is also a legitimate issue, so I wonder if people in their responses might want to look at that aspect of it as well.

  Mr Chotai: I strongly disagree that a degree should purely be academic. So many activities encourage enterprise and things like that, all the soft skills that just the previous panel said they were looking for, and they were not just looking for an academic experience, they were looking for a rounded individual who had a lot of key skills, so definitely it should be included. In regard to the question about whether marks should be included to show the weaker and stronger subjects, definitely it does need to be included. If somebody who is scoring 61 is achieving a 2:1 and somebody who is scoring is 69 is achieving a 2:1, yet they are only a 2:1 in the eyes of employers, it is quite important because there is quite a big separation that needs to be identified, especially if somebody is stronger in, say, mathematics and science-based subjects in comparison to written subjects and that also needs to be identified. It will be useful for employers to see where they may need to provide additional training or additional resources to help that individual grow within an organisation.

  Mr Farquharson: I tend to agree really with everything that Anand and Ed have said with regards to extracurricular activities and academia, you cannot really blend the two and if you do you are likely to devalue the degrees that we are getting from universities really, so we have to be very cautious there. With regards to the comments you made, Mr Marsden, concerning evidence as to what you studied, you do have the transcripts from your degree so if you have a 2:2 or a 2:1 then attached to that you do have access to the transcript of all the subjects you have studied. I should have thought that that would suffice.

  Mr Marsden: That varies from university to university.

  Q426  Chairman: It is not always the case.

  Mr Farquharson: I have been to two universities now, the University of Wolverhampton where I am at the moment and the Open University,- and they are completely different types of organisations—and in both cases you can apply for a transcript.

  Q427  Chairman: You would agree with Ricky that that level of transparency should be made available to employers.

  Mr Farquharson: It should be made available to employers, yes, it should, but we are just concerned that students end up doing a lot of extracurricular studies and other activities and less academic work and therefore devalue overall the degree they are getting.

  Ms Jerome: With regard to some kind of review of the classification system the potential benefits are that there are aspects of the degree that are not assessed. For example, I have to attend seminars which do not attract any degree of assessment, even though they are considered part of my personal development in my degree subjects, so some extra detail in an alternative classification system would allow people who have come through strongly in conversational skills or maybe public speaking, which would come out of a seminar, to show that, which might be appropriate to their chosen employer as well.

  Q428  Chairman: Ed, you wanted to come back quickly and then the last word on this is to you Carrie.

  Mr Steward: I was just going to say broadly the same. It seems from what I can gather that Ricky's arguments are based on the assumption that when you apply to firms for graduate employment you just say your degree and your degree classification, but I know when I apply I will be attaching a transcript of my three years of university which I have access to, because my university has to keep all those grades in order to come to my final degree classification. I will also be writing down everything that I did outside of my academic life there on a side sheet. On a separate note, the only thing I am cautious about here is that we do not get to a point where the transcript of university ends up being a short synopsis of every course you have done and you end up handing a booklet over to your employer outlining every skill you have ever learnt from every course and all of it says the same for every single course—the transfer of skills, essay-writing skills, and we end up with far too much information for employers.

  Q429  Chairman: Carrie, you have some support and not some support.

  Ms Donaghy: I have to totally agree with Ricky and disagree with the others. I do agree that you go to university to learn and it is one of the most fundamental things but to go to university and be involved in societies, volunteering or whatever and for it not to be recognised I think is silly. It is how you gain most of your interpersonal skills and that is what is needed most in the workplace. You go to university to learn how to be part of a team, not just to learn from a book.

  Chairman: Okay, that is very powerfully put.

  Q430  Dr Iddon: Can I just follow this conversation up before we move on—I want to look at plagiarism in a minute—but what about the equivalence of degrees. You heard us discussing with the previous panel and we have discussed it elsewhere in this inquiry, as to whether a degree in a given subject from Salford or Wolverhampton is the same as from Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College or any other university. What is the view of the panel on equivalence of degrees; are they just different or are they equivalent?

  Mr Raja: They are not equivalent at all; there is a massive difference in quality that universities provide. Across disciplines and across universities there is, I would say, a hierarchy in quality and that needs to be taken into account. Universities are different from schools because in schools you have a general course that everybody has to follow and the only difference between, say, a private school and a public school is how they are taught. Universities are very different because universities decide their own course and the quality of the staff that teaches students is massively different. If you have a teacher at Oxford, all other things remaining the same he would be better than a staff member in university XYZ. He would have different ideas about what to teach and how to teach and all that will be reflected in the quality of the degree. There is a great amount of hierarchy in this respect.

  Q431  Dr Iddon: It is not just the reputation of the university, there is a difference.

  Mr Steward: In terms of the quality of the degree a lot of how employers see degrees is dictated by the university league tables, so you have Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and all of that straight down the line. Employers will say a degree from Oxford, perfect, the top university in England, but there is a lot more to it and not enough employers drill down on that data enough to see that in fact a degree in history may be fantastic at Cambridge but a degree in sport sciences may be better from Loughborough. Depending on who you are employing and the background you want them to have, employers need to drill down on the data more and see that even though Loughborough may be further down in the league tables specific degrees from that university may be better than those offered at Oxford. It is a flaw.

  Q432  Mr Marsden: I accept entirely what you have just said, Ed, but do other members of the panel not think that that is beginning to happen already? Certainly the evidence we have had from other students elsewhere would suggest that people do make choices—they make choices about going in, not just on the university but on the actual course. I am just wondering if it works the other way round.

  Mr Steward: I am aware of that but it is only beginning to happen.

  Q433  Dr Iddon: Let us go to Alasdair because I have accredited a degree course at Wolverhampton in the dim and distant past so I am interested to hear your view on Wolverhampton today.

  Mr Farquharson: I am from London and I moved up into the Shropshire area many years ago before I went to work out in the Far East because of the cheaper property prices there at the time—and the availability of a direct rail route in those days under British Rail—hence I ended up in Shropshire. I chose the University of Wolverhampton really because it was very close to where I am, it was for financial reasons primarily—but I found it to be an excellent university really. It compares equally with Aberystwyth and Birmingham and the College of Law with regards to the law studies there, so I do not think necessarily that a university in a former heavy industrial area like Wolverhampton is necessarily a lesser university than, say, one of the colleges at Oxford. But there is a problem of course with regards to the fees now. Since students pay fees for their courses students regard themselves as customers and there is a tendency because of the league tables for universities to worry about how can they make ends meet; if they aim at too high an academic level they are going to lose students and therefore lose funding, so it is not such an easy situation to grapple with really. If students did not pay fees then all universities could aim to have a very rigid, high academic standard, but that is not necessarily the case now because of the fee structure and the way universities have to survive. If they cannot attract sufficient finance from industry for research projects et cetera then there is a slight problem there. Yes, the University of Wolverhampton is as good as any other university really and we have some excellent staff there in the department that I am with.

  Q434  Dr Iddon: Let us have a look at Salford next. Certainly when I taught at Salford we had no trouble placing our chemistry students but of course the university did the smart thing, it closed that department down. What about the rest of the subjects at Salford, are they equally rated to the rest, Ricky?

  Mr Chotai: We discussed it in the last session in February and said that there was a football league within universities; there clearly is and employers clearly are aware of it. A degree in business management from Salford is not comparable to a degree from Manchester because employers perceive a degree from the University of Manchester as being so much higher and it is a higher and more worthy student from there.

  Q435  Dr Iddon: I am sorry to interrupt you but let us drill down into this; is it because of the reputation of the other universities with employers or is there really not an equivalence in the teaching quality which Anand was referring to, which I find difficult to believe.

  Mr Chotai: It is a mixture of both. There is so much emphasis put on league tables and how the university is performing as a whole. Employers do know; when they are looking for specific subjects, employers are aware that in some universities a degree in, for example, military history may be so specific that only five institutes offer it. Salford may be one of those, Salford may be the leading player in that and if they are looking for someone with that degree they will know that Salford is the best place to recruit from, but in respect of general degrees which a lot of students are studying now—business management and things like that—employers perceive Manchester as much higher with better teaching and a better standard of students than at Salford.

  Q436  Dr Iddon: I just want to give the other guys a chance to comment on this. Carrie and Gemma have not had a comment on this particular aspect.

  Ms Jerome: Universities are necessarily branded and there are positive and negative implications to that. It is helpful for students to be able to navigate their way through the application process and have the league tables there to compare institutions but from an institution perspective there seems to be a trend that is appearing where universities are attempting to brand themselves in a more specialised manner. For example, I am at the University of Liverpool and we have three institutions in our city which obviously creates quite a competitive market for student applications. Currently the University of Liverpool is experiencing the throwback from an RAE assessment and because of that there are certain things for students to regard as to what they are looking for from an institution, whether it is a civic institution or whether it is an institution that specialises more in non-vocational subjects. It is not as simple as to say that league tables are not helpful or they are, the issue is quite a complex one and obviously funding comes into that with regard to whether it is a strong research institution or a strong teaching institution. It is quite a difficult arena.

  Q437  Dr Iddon: We will hear from Carrie and then I will move on to plagiarism.

  Ms Donaghy: The main issue here—I am going to agree with Ricky—is perception. People will probably look at more traditional universities and see that the degrees are maybe better but that is down to perception really. In Newcastle there are two universities, there is the traditional University of Newcastle and then there is Northumbria; employers are swiftly moving away from the traditional universities where everything is read from a book to go on to the more hands-on universities which lets the students experience life almost.

  Q438  Dr Iddon: Alasdair is bursting to make another comment.

  Mr Farquharson: You need to bear in mind the social and economic area that the majority of the students come from at a particular university. If you are a student at Oxford then generally you come from a more affluent background and, therefore, where people probably have a poor perception of some universities is because of the students' attitude. If students are given work placements and simply do not turn up because they are from a background where not turning up to work or being late et cetera is not exactly frowned upon, and people around them act in that way, then that can impact negatively on that university and affect the prospects of all students from that university with regards to how students from that university are regarded, and this is something that the students union at the University of Wolverhampton has had to bring up, where people have been given work placement opportunities and not even bothered to turn up or let the employer know. Next time of course that employer is not going to look necessarily favourably on another student from the same university.

  Chairman: I am going to stop you there because we really want to move on to other issues.

  Q439  Dr Iddon: I want to move on to plagiarism and if I remember we discussed this with you last time, Ricky, Anand and so on. We have looked at this a little further since we last met those of you who were on the panel previously so let us turn to the people who were not here before. Who was not here last time?

  Mr Farquharson: I was not here last time.

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