The report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, chaired by Sir Ron Dearing and published last month, made headlines with its proposals that graduates must pay £1,000 per year towards their university fees – a move subsequently adapted by the Government into a form that will leave many students seriously worse off.
But while students of the future may be strapped for cash, British industry could end up the richer for it, thanks to a whole package of proposals aimed at improving the standards of higher education teaching, and the authority of the qualifications offered.
‘It’s good for business and it’s good for the economy,’ says Dr David Potter, chairman of electronics group Psion, and one of just five members of the 18-strong committee drawn from business and industry.
‘It’s not some arcane report drawn up from ivory towers. It’s about core skills, and it has the wholehearted support of those in industry on the committee,’ he adds.
The Government has welcomed the report’s findings which will form the basis of reforms to higher education planned to endure for the next 20 years.
The reaction from the business community has been equally bullish, as the report faces up to the problems recruiters are experiencing right now in finding graduates with the right kind of skills: not only theoretical competence, but practical and commercial nous too.
Less appealing is the increasing financial burden placed on students. ‘Students from less well-off families might be deterred from entry into higher education,’ says Adair Turner, CBI director general. ‘And there are dangers that the Government’s decision to abolish student grants will have this effect.’
Whether engineering students in particular will be deterred is a moot point. Some believe engineering courses will benefit over others because of the extra opportunities afforded for work experience with engineering companies. Potter thinks the vocational element of engineering degrees will also help.
‘Graduates get a terrific premium in terms of their earnings, but there is a different level of premium for different jobs,’ he says. ‘Those in engineering get a good return from their degrees, and we now need to encourage people to get into production engineering jobs. This report promotes that.’
Ann Bailey, head of education and training at the Engineering Employers’ Federation, has suggested that more companies will go further than this by offering ‘golden hellos’ to entice top graduates and to pay off some of their debt.
But the potential problem facing engineering is that these extra annual costs facing students are likely to come in just as the length of the engineering honours degree is set to expand to four years.
Students will need to be sure that the extra time invested in their degree is worth the financial hardship and mental toil. Engineering employers, meanwhile, will want to know that the students coming through this system will be worth the premium salaries they will expect to be paid.
If this sounds a familiar dilemma, it’s because the questions surrounding how much and what kind of education is required for professional engineers are scattered in more general terms throughout the Dearing report.
Dearing proposes a further education system that is easier to get into, but also offers more exit points so that some students can leave after two years, say, with a recognised qualification.
This is similar to the Engineering Council’s Sartor (standards and routes to registration) proposals drafted last year which suggest a four-year course leading to Chartered Engineer status, with a three-year course for Incorporated Engineers.
‘I’d like to think that the main strand of thinking coming through in the Dearing report has been drawn straight from our own work on Sartor,’ quips Professor Jack Levy, the Engineering Council’s acting director of engineers’ regulation, charged with drawing together the revised Sartor procedures.
In reality though, there are differences, and these have to be resolved before the new Sartor procedures can be published.
The biggest one is on entry criteria. Dearing believes there is a possibility of doing away with tough A-level entry criteria for further education courses, including those in engineering, by offering an HND qualification as an exit point after two years for students who choose not to go on with the three or four-year degree.
As the report puts it: ‘clearly defined exit points at recognised levels will remove the need to specify entry criteria as a guarantee of standards as suggested by Sartor’.
But the Engineering Council disagrees. ‘Sir Ron has got it wrong. It simply doesn’t work like that,’ says Levy. In real life, he says, students come in with A-levels and start straight in on a three or four-year degree course. ‘In this case, you need a filter at the start to make sure they can handle the course. And that means selecting on A-level grades.’
Sir Ron wrote to the Engineering Council immediately after the report was published requesting a meeting to iron out these differences. Talks are imminent.
‘I don’t feel there will be any conflict,’ Levy says. ‘In fact, the solution as we see it is suggested a few pages further on in the report – in the form of a qualifying exam at the end of the students’ first year.’
Such an exam is already contained in the latest formulation of the new Sartor admission plans. Not every engineering department will have to set it: only those admitting a certain percentage of students with A-level grades below a threshold limit – which is currently 80% of students with an A-level score equivalent to at least 18 points.
The Engineering Council, which was waiting for the Dearing report to be published before pushing on with Sartor, still believes it is on target to publish the new Sartor in September this year, with implementation to start with the intake of 1999. The first of the new-style first-year qualifying exams would be set in June 2000, starting with departments where only 50% of students meet the A-level score threshold, with that percentage rising each year to 80% in 2002.
‘I would give Dearing credit for the emphasis on maintaining and restoring standards,’ says Levy. ‘But we need this exam. You can never really uncouple input standards from output standards.’