Memorandum from Dr Elisabeth Bacon, University
of Greenwich (HE 122)
All University departments continue to be concerned
about poor retention rates. At the University of Greenwich we
successfully addressed the problem in Computing in the 1980s at
the time when national IT skills shortages required work permits
to be given to overseas graduates. We believe that the curriculum
modifications that we used successfully, currently in use in technical
universities in the Netherlands, have a much broader application
across other subject areas, and could be valuable for those in
short supply. This response will also address the current UK shortfall
in skilled Information and Communications Technology (ICT) graduates
where thousands of work permits are being contemplated for overseas
1.1 SUMMARY OF
1.1 Student experience affecting retention
1.1.1 Nature of the curriculum
18.104.22.168 Our computing degree curriculum modifications
made in 1980, resulted in intense undergraduate motivation and
engagement and proved that voluntary withdrawal, as opposed to
failure rate, could be reduced from 27% to 9% in one year. For
the period that this curriculum could be implemented i.e. 6+ years,
we were able to sustain an average of 6% withdrawal rate. This
was less than half the national average over that period for the
degree course. We therefore recommend ring-fenced staff allocations
for this curriculum modification planning and implementation.
22.214.171.124 Student motivation is the key to student
retention. We recommend using best Industry practice of Human
Resource Development with its proven techniques for staff retention
and motivation. We applied these techniques into our undergraduate
environment with great success. For example, we taught project
team building skills on practical courseworks, together with the
use of incentive schemes and reward systems, where appropriate,
for applying imagination and creativity effectively. These are
exciting and pleasurable, yet demanding activities for students.
Overall, we succeeded in reducing the negative experiences at
the earliest stages, building only on successful outcomes. We
therefore recommend that professional Computing staff be trained
and/or recruited in these areas (see paragraph 126.96.36.199 for further
1.1.2 Qualification structures
188.8.131.52 The distinction between part-time and
full-time students has blurred, now that most full-time students
have to work in order to support themselves through university.
We therefore recommend the flexibility of implementing a full
Credit Accumulation (and Transfer) Scheme i.e. CATS to allow students
to study for credits at their own pace. The associated implications
of flexible funding are detailed in paragraph 184.108.40.206.
1.1.3 financial considerations, paid work
undertaken by students during term-time
220.127.116.11 Industry supply of better quality, semi-skilled
computing work for students, with appropriate levels of payment,
would reduce the time consumed by current students on generating
survival earnings. We promised and delivered students with the
required skills in the early 80s. We recommend that bursaries
from both HEFCE and Industry should be linked to success, year-by-year,
and would encourage students to work hard and stay on the course.
Debt management counselling before starting courses would enable
students to be better prepared for university.
1.2 Quality of teaching as it relates to student
1.2.1 Level of academic support for students
18.104.22.168 The industrial experience and enthusiasm
of first year staff is critical to the retention of students.
We recommend a review of the balance of teaching and learning
in the future when we should be moving more towards enhanced student
learning experiences supported by on-line material.
1.2.2 Factors affecting recruitment of highly qualified
22.214.171.124 Computing salaries at Industry levels
are impractical for Higher Education pay structures, therefore
we recommend that Industry funded and based expertise must be
available on-line. Our new computing graduates, with extensive
undergraduate experience, can command salary packages of £37,000+
p.a. (as at 2001).
1.2.3 Relationship between teaching and research
We recommend a flexible delivery of research
findings to undergraduates.
1.3 Higher Education Funding affecting Student
We recommend that HEFCE policy should be modified
to include bursaries and ring-fenced funding. The full cost of
the fees should be publicised to students and first year fees
deferred until later years.
2. DETAILED PROPOSALS
2.1 Student experience affecting retention
2.1.1 Nature of the curriculum
126.96.36.199 In Computing at the University of Greenwich
we are now seeing some very demanding and knowledgeable applicants
who are looking for specific areas to be taught in the curriculum.
These are generally the leading edge topics where the staff retention
problems are at their maximum. If universities do not address
this problem with support from Industry then student retention
will be adversely affected. (see section 2.2.2 for related issues
188.8.131.52 Students who are not appropriately prepared
for work in Industry will not see their course as relevant and
are more likely to leave. This has been clearly demonstrated at
the University of Greenwich by the tendency of students to select
the options that are most closely related to leading edge industrial
practice. It is one of the University of Greenwich's aims to produce
resilient people capable of dealing with constant change and therefore
academic concepts are taught within the context of industrial
applications wherever possible.
184.108.40.206 Professor Mantz Yorke, the first witness
to the Select Committee, stated that he thought that one of the
key factors in student retention would be better support in the
first few weeks of term, for first year students and our approach
addresses this totally.
220.127.116.11 We recommend that our approach at the
University of Greenwich be adopted whenever there is a major problem
of student retention. Our method was developed in 1979/80 when
the systems design team were briefed to look into the problem
and decided to model their approach on successful Human Resources
Development Programmes used in Industry to retain staff e.g. team
building skills, incentive schemes, structured reward systems
and so on. This, together with the simulation of project team
working in the first weeks of the course, emphasises the inter-dependency
of the students as colleagues for all the subsequent exercises
of practical team-working.
18.104.22.168 The methodology used to retain first
year students employs extensive project management skills in the
context of large groups of undergraduates and has a threefold
To extend the network of friendships
to enable the individual to feel less isolated and more engaged
with the numbers - up to 100 then, now nearer 250 per group -
of people they were meeting and working with.
To strengthen the relationships
between the students in a professional context as colleagues on
To add value to the investment of
the undergraduate, whilst improving their capabilities during
the first year, such that the momentum of their success carries
them on to the rest of the course.
Description of the project-team working
22.214.171.124 The professional team-building experience
was based on a company survival simulation. Students were put
into groups and their task was to manage the day-to-day working
of a simulated company and make a profit. The programme was run
over several weeks at the start of the course for about two hours
126.96.36.199 A student survey was taken on the first
day of the course to identify current skills, experience and expertise.
This survey was used to spread the balance of existing skills
between the teams. Each students was asked to role-play one of
four separate management roles in teams of eight students. For
the project team membership, we did not allow existing friends
to work together and consequently they started to establish colleague
relationships from the beginning and, in the long-term, friendships
that our graduates have since remarked on.
188.8.131.52 Professional communications were required
at all times both within the team and to project management (staff).
The outcomes of this strategy were group presentations, video
taped for student feedback, with reports written to international
standards. The feedback from the students was extremely positive.
They never had the opportunity to feel homesick as they found
their new colleagues very supportive in the aim for the team to
succeed in their mission. As a direct outcome, their capability,
confidence and long-term employability was ready for the Industry
environment and commented on by their employers. It should be
noted that this approach was particularly beneficial for the women
on the course who, with their parallel processing skills, had
a natural management ability which made them valuable to their
184.108.40.206 We emphasise that experienced computing
staff should carry out the inculcation of management skills, for
credibility reasons. The experience in the Netherlands has proved
that it could not be grafted on by management staff, it must be
a fully integrated approach with design proposal outcomes.
220.127.116.11 Initially there were critics of the
methods used to assess group work. We overcame this by placing
the responsibility, for allocating proportions of marks between
the team members, in their hands. At the beginning of each project,
the tasks were sized and allocated to team members. This was the
basis of the first negotiation of the allocation of marks within
the team. Subsequently, during the project, re-negotiation would
take place with the agreement of the project management team (staff).
The final aggregate mark for the whole group, assessed at the
end of the total project was then allocated proportionately. This,
of course, encouraged all team members to contribute as equally
as possible and the role of Quality Assurance Controller within
the team became a key element of this measurement of contribution.
The self-evident fairness of this system generated a powerful
work ethic and the overall results achieved were of a higher quality
than any previous results that we had seen. The rest of the year
incorporated a number of similar exercises in different topic
areas. This enabled rotation of the Team Leadership role, which
generated a healthy respect for the difficulties to be encountered
in the real world. This was identified by employers, again and
again, as the most value-added aspect of our modified curriculum
for both the undergraduates and their companies.
18.104.22.168 As a consequence, we had the highest
retention rate of any Higher Education establishment in the UK
in Computing Science degree courses for the period 1980-87. Staff
at the University of Greenwich have been over-stretched since
the early 90s due to the modularisation of courses, the semester
system and high student-staff ratios and this has prevented us
from continuing with this approach.
22.214.171.124 Within the team building exercise,
students found a need to skill up all members of the team and
the investment of student time and effort in doing this was seen
as vital to the results then and in the future. Following on from
that, we also discovered that students were setting up informal
groups to help support each other with difficult topics on the
course. We formalised this by persuading every member of the student
cohort to offer some expertise to support their colleagues. This
gave a tremendous sense of cohesion and an enhanced intention
to stay on the course. A group dynamic was generated such that
every single member became valuable and even the weakest students
fought to stay, despite perhaps achieving disappointing results
at the end of the year. This dynamic transmitted itself across
different year cohorts by, for example, second year students offering
to help with first year project-team case studies as "consultants".
Once again this friendly cross-fertilisation encouraged first
years emphasising, as it does, the enjoyable progression into
second year status. Likewise, our students and graduates in Industry
would come to recruit the next generation of our products.
High Profile successes
126.96.36.199 Part of the reward system was to support
enterprising student initiatives with the professional body, the
British Computer Society (BCS). As a result, the University of
Greenwich sent the first student member of any branch committee,
the first student member of BCS Council, set up the first Student/Young
Professionals Group of the BCS providing the first Chairman for
it. In addition, students at Greenwich set up the first European
entry to any of the USA based ACM International Programming competitions.
Subsequently, in 1985 our students organised and hosted at Greenwich,
the European finals for the ACM competition. Fifteen teams entered
from countries including West Germany, France, Finland, Belgium
188.8.131.52 This is evidence of the enthusiasm,
enterprise, involvement and initiatives which came out of the
momentum of this strategy. This led to staff at the University
of Greenwich winning the Peugeot-Talbot Enterprise in Higher Education
Partnership Award in 1990 and subsequently receiving numerous
invitations for national and international seminars on our strategy.
Staff continue to be involved at the national level, on bodies
such as the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee (PITCOM),
to keep public policy considerations in front of our students.
We also operate BCS monitored Continuous Professional Development
programmes for students from their industrial training year, as
well as for staff.
Impact of our approach
184.108.40.206 Holland appears to be one of the first
European countries to fund their technical universities on successful
outcomes. For this reason the Dutch (beginning in Eindhoven) invited
University of Greenwich staff over to train them in our approach
and we continue to provide our packaged material to this day.
220.127.116.11 We have had extensive and long-term
feedback from a wide variety of Industry supporters including
Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Conoco, British Telecom, Hewlett-Packard
etc. that our approach produces undergraduates with clear mission
orientation and grasp of task completion to deadlines which is
vital for staff effectiveness. We recommend this approach to other
universities and in other subject areas.
2.1.2 Qualification structures
18.104.22.168 Full-time students often drop-out because
of financial and/or personal pressures. We are clear that many
could continue and be successful if they were able to study at
their own pace i.e. take some of the study in part-time mode.
The problem is that there are significant financial advantages
to remaining a full-time student e.g. lower fees, council tax
exemption, access to student loans. Part-time students are traditionally
seen as being seconded from companies and therefore earning a
good salary (see paragraph 22.214.171.124 for financial implications).
126.96.36.199 Earlier evidence to this Select Committee
had touched upon the potential problems with modular multi-choice
degrees that can lead to the alienation of individuals rather
than the group ethos developing, which we know is vital for retention.
188.8.131.52 Our recommendation is the funding of
a positive Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) for
all students so that we reward students for successful completion
of units and allow full-time students to continue their studies
in part-time mode without financial or other penalties. (See financial
proposals in paragraph 184.108.40.206).
220.127.116.11 We agree that modular multi-choice courses
can be alienating. For this reason we recommend that, to enhance
our approach, all the students should be studying the majority
of their subjects together. Our research has shown that the enhancement
of the group dynamic is an on-going and continuous process supported
by interpersonal contact throughout the course day-by-day.
2.1.3 Financial Considerations, paid work
undertaken by students during term-time
18.104.22.168 Financial problems are frequently cited
as a major factor in student retention. Now that students have
no grants, and we charge them fees, many students have no alternative
but to work whilst studying at university. Many universities offer
low paid jobs within their university in order to help students
financially and most limit the number of hours that they will
employ students for, in order to minimise the effect on student
22.214.171.124 This does not however always support
them sufficiently to avoid the need to seek additional employment
elsewhere and many full-time students are having to work more
than, say 15 hours per week, in order to support themselves because
the wages are so low. Not only does this work reduce time for
study but often the employment hours will clash with scheduled
classes and therefore some students will not attend classes as
a consequence. This inevitably affects their achievement on the
course, often leading to failure and exclusion from the next stage.
126.96.36.199 With Industry skills shortages in computing,
we consider that input from Industry is very significant for both
financial and staff support. From our experience of working with
Industry, we know that they are focused on students from year
one, if we can enable the undergraduates to describe their skills
- sometimes illustrating with assessed courseworks! - during professional
British Computer Society and ACM branch meetings. Their interest
in the students increases during the course and grows in a major
way at the point of deciding industrial placements. At the University
of Greenwich we were aware in 1980-87 that companies would compete
over access our students even before we have finished preparing
them for Industry. We therefore have included below elements of
industrial input that would both motivate and enhance the course
for our students.
188.8.131.52 Extending the oral evidence given by
Sir Howard Newby of HEFCE who proposed a comprehensive bursary
scheme, we would recommend that this is linked with successful
completion of each subject within an academic year. This would
encourage year completion, perhaps in part-time mode. In addition,
co-operation with Industry should provide further bursaries to
support individual students. Industry could then auction additional
bursaries based on end of year results, thus motivating students
to study. This is for the most able students. The HEFCE bursaries
would apply to all students.
184.108.40.206 Our Computing students are semi-skilled
professionals and capable of working in hi-technology and application
areas with Industry support. This arrangement would need to be
a negotiated settlement between companies and universities. If
employers provide the part-time work (both vacation and term-time
employment), then universities can provide the semi-skilled undergraduates
specific to their needs. Companies would need to work around the
committed timetable of the undergraduates. Students would be paid
as semi-skilled workers and therefore have to work fewer hours
to survive than if they worked in poorly paid jobs. The experience
would not only support their studies by bringing them real-world
experiences, but leave them more time to study.
220.127.116.11 Following on from the issues raised
in 18.104.22.168 and the proposals in 22.214.171.124 regarding the proposed
change of qualification structures to support a credit accumulation
model for all students, the financial incentives to remain full-time
need to be reviewed. The proposal is that all students are supported
in completing their studies regardless of whether they are classified
as full-time or part-time. This will allow students to work their
way through university and study at the pace that is appropriate
for them. If the financial support offered were means-tested (as
is currently the payment of fees), then this support would be
available to poor students and exclude relatively "affluent"
part-time students who are not suffering from the same financial
126.96.36.199 Potential students can be put off by
the fear of debt, therefore better debt management advice and
support needs to be publicised to this group. Our students undertook
a similar exercise successfully for 10 years, to market our courses
in schools. This was done on a voluntary basis, when grants existed,
however current students could be paid to visit schools and colleges
to talk about their experiences.
2.2.1 Level of academic support for students
188.8.131.52 Since the early 1990s as in most computing
departments, staff numbers in our department have not kept pace
with the increasing student numbers, currently about 2000 students.
Government policy on widening access - with its range of student
backgrounds - plus fashionable modular and semester-based approaches
have all increased the demands on staff and consequently diminished
the time available to support students, in particular first years.
This problem is accentuated in the new universities where student:staff
ratios are running as high as nearly 35 students to one member
184.108.40.206 There needs to be more staff available
specifically to support first year students. Our experience shows
that the most enthusiastic and charismatic staff at this stage
can help retain the students by the infectious nature of enthusiasm.
We recommend that funds should be ring-fenced for the staffing
of the professional skills development of first years undergraduates.
Our approach to finding additional qualified staff would be to
recruit recently retired Senior Project Managers from companies
we have co-operated with over the years in Industrial Training
220.127.116.11 For future approaches to academic support,
it is proposed that the contact the staff have with students,
should be focused less around the delivery of lectures to large
numbers of students and more on student learning and supporting
that learning via electronic means. Ideally the students would
only come together for staff managed student development, lectures
would be turned into task-oriented learning environments. At the
University of Greenwich we already have examples of this style
2.2.2 Factors affecting recruitment of highly
18.104.22.168 Salaries are the main hurdle in recruiting
and keeping highly-qualified staff. The fast moving nature of
computing developments mean that retention of leading-edge staff
is almost impossible e.g. in e-commerce where we have lost staff
to Industry. Industry input into developing and delivering advanced
material is vital, but Industry professionals are already over-stretched
and on high salaries. Even our new graduates can earn very high
salaries. For example, one of our final year students has recently
been offered a salary package of £37,000 p.a. plus shares,
plus medical insurance etc. with the promise of rapid increases.
This is more than the average Higher Education lecturing staff
annual salary by the time of retirement. There is therefore little
interest from Industry leading-edge professionals in paid part-time
teaching, so this is not a solution.
22.214.171.124 Existing staff in higher education have
the skills to be able to keep up with the leading-edge technology.
However it is extremely time consuming for staff to teach themselves
or costly to attend external training courses.
126.96.36.199 We recommend that Industry funded and
based staff with specialist expertise should use on-line video
conferencing to provide input into seminars and lectures. For
example they could use the Web to transmit lectures from Industry
sites, hold seminar discussion with groups using interactive and
video conferencing software and thus keep demands on Industry
based staff to a practical minimum level.
2.2.3 Relationship between teaching and research
188.8.131.52 It is vital that leading-edge research
feeds the curriculum at all levels as this provides the buzz and
excitement that enthuses students, which in turn helps retention.
However the leading-edge researchers maybe too busy but, we recommend
from our experience, that appropriate enthusiastic colleagues
are used to convey the material in a positive way to the students.
2.3 HIGHER EDUCATION
2.3.1 Inevitably Higher Education funding impacts
on the resources to support students in their first year at University.
Many of those issues have already been addressed above. In addition,
the implement of fees has brought about a culture change in students.
They now have unrealistic expectations of Higher Education in
that they are taking less responsibility for their own learning
and increasingly expect to be spoon-fed by staff.
2.3.2 The full cost of the fees should be publicised
to students so they are aware that they are only contributing
small proportion. In addition, the fees could be removed for the
first year students and deferred until later years, so that staff
have time to engender a different culture within the student body.
3.1 In submitting this material we are conscious
of the specific nature of the problems of the computing / ICT
environment. However, we feel that the wide applicability of our
approach across all subject areas in the university sector - every
subject at least has a need for research and analysis - enables
a project team building approach, with its motivating elements,
to be used. Based on the experience that we have had in this area,
with its extremely positive outcomes, we would wish to be again
in a position to deploy the approach. It is an irony that our
approach is still used in Holland whilst we have been unable to
offer this at the University of Greenwich in the past decade.
Dr Elisabeth Bacon
University of Greenwich