Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420
WEDNESDAY 29 APRIL 2009
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
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 studentsand the statistics show thissimply
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 sessionand I just throw this open for people
to think about while Carrie is speakingwas 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
Q426 Chairman: It is not always the
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 organisationsand 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
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 coursethe 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
Q430 Dr Iddon: Can I just follow
this conversation up before we move onI want to look at
plagiarism in a minutebut 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 choicesthey 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 timeand the availability of a direct
rail route in those days under British Railhence 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 primarilybut 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 nowbusiness
management and things like thatemployers 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 hereI
am going to agree with Rickyis 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