Point of view

Ann Bailey, head of education and training affairs, Engineering Employers’ Federation

The Dearing Report, Higher Education in a Learning Society, is exciting and challenging. It does not shirk from uncomfortable areas, and is not afraid to face up to reality or put important stakes in the ground without which the global competitiveness of the UK engineering industry will suffer.

At a time when the whole issue of the education and training of our future workforce has never been given so much attention, the report’s pragmatic and wide-ranging proposals for improving the standards of teaching and ensuring the consistency of qualifications in higher education should benefit the flow of well-trained graduates into industry.

Much has been made of the ending of ‘free’ higher education and the need for charging for tuition – something the engineering industry is well used to with many firms paying for part-time students on HNC or HND courses and part-time/work-based degrees.

The report’s proposal for the further expansion of higher education by removing the cap on numbers taking full-time degree and sub-degree level higher education courses is welcome. It should meet our need for an increased supply of engineering graduates and higher level technicians, where there is a very real shortage today.

The Engineering Employers’ Federation also supports the report’s view that more sub-degree provision should take place in further education colleges, and the suggested qualifications framework should take away much of the confusion surrounding levels, particularly with regard to the Masters qualification.

However, as far as I am concerned, much more important is the emphasis Dearing gives to the issue of the value and quality of teaching and degree standards. The quality of the teaching of engineering, in whatever discipline, is vital to our industry’s future success. It is accepted that research does inform teaching and provides a valuable input to the discipline being studied.

Therefore I welcome the recommendation for a professional Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education responsible for accrediting programmes of training for lecturers and commissioning research and development in teaching and learning practices.

The need for investment in staff training and development for learning and teaching is critical for all subjects and we hope all institutions will back this proposal.

Dearing is very clear that his concerns about standards are greatest in the areas of engineering and science, and he suggests a number of measures which the EEF strongly welcomes. I would, however, have liked an even greater steer towards the overhauling of the degree classification system, rather than the more open-ended comment that, in parallel with the introduction of The Progress File (individual record of achievement), ‘we envisage in due course the honours classification system will be replaced by awards and awards with distinction’.

However I, together with the EEF, applaud Dearing’s requirement for higher education institutions to develop a programme of specifications for each degree course which set out the outcomes in terms of knowledge and the types of skills which will be acquired – key cognitive and subject specific skills (including ‘learning how to learn’).

We welcome the enhanced role suggested for the Quality Assurance Agency and Dearing’s proposal for strengthening the external examiner system. This would be achieved by the formation of a wide pool of nationally accredited personnel from which institutions can select their external examiners to ensure that the ‘threshold’ standards have been met. These measures should lead to a greater rigour in the content and quality of science and engineering degree courses.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the report as far as engineering is concerned is Dearing’s views on the Engineering Council’s Sartor recommendations.

While I accept that the Engineering Council has recognised the EEF’s concerns about this document in many areas and has sought to address them, our concerns about Sartor’s emphasis on entry criteria to engineering degree courses, as opposed to outcomes, still remains.

Dearing reinforces our conviction that Sartor fails to address the question of how to measure the proficiency of those who graduate from university with engineering degrees.

The report states: ‘Given what we propose on programme specifications and standards, we believe that having clearly defined exit points at recognised levels will remove the need to specify entry criteria as a guarantee of standards as suggested by Sartor.’ The EEF believes that the Engineering Council should take note of Dearing’s recommendation and look again at this issue.

The EEF also welcomes Dearing’s suggestion that there should be a greater element of work experience in degree courses. The engineering industry already has a good record in providing work experience through sandwich courses and vacation and project work. In conjunction with organisations such as the Engineering Council and the Engineering and Marine Training Authority, we will be cooperating immediately by trying to identify ways to help develop a culture whereby engineering companies are willing to provide even more effective training and work experience.

We cannot say we want ’employment or work skills’ in graduates if we are not prepared to provide the opportunities for them to be developed. If we are to maintain the competitiveness of UK industry it is essential that we have a supply of well educated and appropriately qualified personnel.

In my view, the report’s recommendations are excellent. They are imaginative and yet practical, encourage collaboration, and provide a consolidated base for the future of higher education.

If they are implemented they will help to increase employers’ and students’ confidence in the content and standard of degree courses.

I am sure that if the recommendations are accepted, implementing them will not be easy, but the Government and higher education can be assured of the engineering industry’s full support in the fulfilment of the Dearing report’s proposals.