Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-399)



  380. But you do make a three A level requirement, so students will inevitably pare down their work load to focus on their three lead subjects.
  (Professor Haines) Most universities have taken account of AS levels and certainly of the new AS/A2 system and have set their entry requirements-not requiring the student to take just three specific A levels. They can collect the points that they need without studying just three subjects between 16 and 19.

  381. This is not the message that I get from college principals.
  (Professor Haines) I think you need to speak to a broader range of college principals.


  382. So what are the requirements then? In your Medical School at Nottingham what do you require for Honours medics?
  (Dr Brown) We would ask for an A level in chemistry and biology now. We do not stipulate what the third A level is. Our interview scheme is so complex that we would also want evidence of extra curricular activity.

  383. And that is pretty general across the university system, is it not?
  (Dr Brown) Yes.
  (Professor Ruxton) For engineering UCAS have just brought in a new admissions system which is a points system which is much broader for vocational qualifications and does take into account AS levels, A levels, GNVQs. This is now formalised. Before it was informal. What you tended to have was traditional universities insisting on three A levels with specific grades and new universities being more flexible with their entrance requirements. As far as engineering is concerned, we have had a major problem. A lot of it has been in the supply chain. It is related to the number of physics A levels. We have double science and have about 500,000 young people taking double science but only about 26,000 taking A level physics. If you count up the number of university places between medicine, science and engineering you will find it is a lot more than 26,000. It is the same for chemistry. In engineering we also have design and technology A levels. We are quite keen to expand and integrate science, design and technology and maths. The new 14-19 curriculum will probably give us the opportunity to do that. It will be much more flexible and look to the future, we hope. What we will be able to do then is to look at the supply chain, which is the national curriculum which is very flexible and diverse, and look at the demand chain, which is about wealth creation and improving quality of life, and then we can design our engineering technology courses in university to satisfy this supply and demand.

Mr Dhanda

  384. Following on from that particular focus, the 14-19 Greek paper is looking at alternative routes into university, a more vocational route into university. We have been talking about A levels and AS and how rigid that is or how rigid that is not, and also the knowledge base. How far have you gone in terms of being set up for a new system which includes a vocational route rather than the traditional ones on points scored from A levels?
  (Professor Ruxton) I can speak for engineering. We have three different grades of engineer. We have chartered engineer, incorporated engineer and engineering technician. If we are looking for a 50 per cent participation rate in higher education that would demand in the future that engineering technicians and incorporated engineers have degree qualifications, but it will not be the same degree qualification as before. The chartered engineers will have more depth. The incorporated engineer and the engineering technician will have more breadth and it will be a different balance of understanding, knowledge and skills. You could actually see that a chartered engineer would need a depth of science at A level—physics, chemistry, maths. An incorporated engineer or an engineering technician would have a broader base which would include NVQs, GNVQs and other vocational qualifications.

  385. Are you talking in terms of assessing these pupils going into degree courses as an alternative to assessing them at university or is it too early for you to have made those kinds of assessments at all, in medicine, for example?
  (Dr Brown) We do not assess before they come. We do not have any special entrance examination of any sort but we would look at anyone who has a non-traditional application, if you like, on an individual basis.

  386. A bit worrying actually.
  (Professor Haines) Could I just make the point that although I cannot speak for all universities, for entry to science courses a very significant number of them have got alternative entry requirements worked out on the basis of GNVQs to the normal A level entry route.

  387. That goes to the next area we are talking about, which is maths. Something that has come through in some of the inquiries that we have done is a criticism of the level of teaching maths. Here you are going to have more than one structure in terms of teaching. Let us say somebody goes through the new vocational 15-19 route, somebody goes through AS level and A level maths. What level are we at at the moment in terms of your requirements for maths and how well does that match up in terms of what you actually need, and is this going to make it more difficult?
  (Dr Brown) We need the mathematic ability that students probably learn when their ages are 14 and 15. The trouble is that it is not reinforced sufficiently so that when they get to university they say they have either not heard of it or they have forgotten. We do not need A level maths as such but we do need students to be able to use arithmetic, to be numerate, to do some algebra. Someone quipped about students putting numbers in an equation in the first session. Some of our students would not be able to do that, I do not think. They do seem to find simple proportion difficult. I blame calculators myself. We find that some students will put a sum down and put the equals sign and put "no calculator", and it may be times five or times ten. The advanced content in maths is not what we would worry about. It is more the reinforcement of basics. I have done a lot of A level and O level coaching in the past myself and what I find the big difference is that ten or 15 years ago students would do 20 examples of how you do a quadratic equation. Now they are lucky if they do two and then they move on to something else. My feeling is that they need reinforcement of basic procedures, not the high-falluting specification. We want them to come and to be numerate.
  (Professor Haines) I think we can all complain about, and suggest that there has been a reduction in, the standards of mathematics in students coming to us. I do not expect perfection of schools and school teachers. I do not expect perfection in terms of A levels but what you can judge as a student's ability at grade B at A level or in a GNVQ. What I would like us to get is more consistency. I am glad you are talking a little bit about GNVQs because I think this is an important issue in terms of widening participation in any case, but I do have a personal concern that GNVQs are not as consistently assessed as they could be and I have a real problem as to whether one can compare students with a particular grade in GNVQ across the country or even, for example, across London. I think the standards are really much more variable than I would like to see. I would like to see something that is coming through where we can at least say we understand what that grade means. We, in the universities, have been used to bridging the gap, if there is a gap, between that and what we really need.

  388. Let me be controversial for a moment. Let us say that teachers have got it right and they are teaching maths at an acceptable level for people to go to university and people, like myself, who went to Nottingham University and studied electronic engineering, were being asked to do too much maths, second order differential equations, and it was forcing people like myself into political careers instead of engineering and things like that. Is it a case of yourselves being too hung up on maths and old-fashioned structures, Laplace Transforms and all the rest of it, when you need to move into a more modern technological world?
  (Professor Ruxton) Can I answer that? The problem is if we look into the past you were being educated to be a chartered engineer and you were looking at being employed in research, development, high powered design, which required a depth of mathematics. What we have in engineering now is about 250,000 registered engineers, 200,000 are chartered engineers, 50,000 are incorporated engineers and about 15,000 engineering technicians. This pyramid is the wrong way round. What we need is more hands-on people in engineering and technology and they do not need the depth of maths, so they do not need Laplace Transforms, they do not need Fast Fourier Transforms, etc., but what they do need is more of the application of maths. It is all right talking about differential equations but actually differential equations are there as a mathematical model for some physical or conceptual model. Some of the young people that we have in engineering cannot actually produce the physical model on which the mathematical model is based, so they do not even know why they are using the differential equations. Why should you use tenth order differential equations when second order differential equations would do? As a direct answer to your question, and I will speak specifically for engineering. We could debate the level of maths for chartered engineers, which is probably maybe about right, but when we are talking about the level of maths for incorporated engineers and engineering technicians we need more applications of the maths and less depth; they do not need Laplace Transforms, etc.
  (Dr Brown) They do need basic maths. In one of our science courses, and we do nine different science courses as well as medicine, we have had to introduce what we call a data analysis module in which we get students simply to put numbers into formulae, things that you would do in a laboratory every day if you want to make up a solution: how much do you weigh out, what concentration will it be, how do you dilute it? It is this sort of thing that we find they cannot do because they claim it has either not been done for years or it has never been reinforced sufficiently.

  Chairman: We have four more questions and we are half way through our session, so can we have sharp questions and answers, please.

Dr Turner

  389. How happy are you with the level of practical skills in laboratory work that students have when they come to you? Do you think this needs improving? Do you think there are any problems in the school curriculum in this area?
  (Professor Haines) I think we are really very unhappy. There is a suggestion that schools do not do practical work because of health and safety issues that concern them. My understanding is that there is nothing much really in the health and safety rules that prevent this from happening. I really do believe that somebody, maybe the Department for Education and Skills, needs to look at this in great detail and get to understand exactly what it is that is going on. There are two other issues, of course. Practical work requires good laboratory facilities both in universities and in schools and there is a serious need for a lot of expenditure on school laboratories, and practical work costs money, you need to buy chemicals, and that is an issue for schools as well.

  390. That is fine, unless you want to add anything?
  (Professor Ruxton) I would say more project, more multi-disciplinary work, creativity, and innovation. A lot of young people find laboratories very boring. Move to studios, bring in what is actually done in the arts, the creativity side of things. Bridge the gap between what is happening between science, arts and the humanities.

Geraldine Smith

  391. Do you think a focus on scientific literacy at schools would help better prepare students for university? Would it be better if they had that understanding and scientific literacy?
  (Professor Ruxton) I think one of the weaknesses of engineering students is their literacy skills, and their communication skills. Indeed, we see that on television when we have engineering problems. You have only got to look at the number of MPs in the House of Commons who are engineers, there are only about four or five. In answer, Geraldine, definitely we need better literacy skills.
  (Dr Brown) That is right. I would agree. We get our students to write essays and sometimes they will look at you and say "I have never written an essay at school".
  (Professor Haines) Are you talking about scientific literacy?

  392. Yes, I was speaking specifically about their understanding of science as opposed to the factual knowledge.
  (Professor Haines) I think that will make a big difference. It will make a big difference in terms of motivation of all students but it will make a difference to the motivation of those students, even those who are most positive about studying science. I believe it to be very important indeed.


  393. Why do the science departments at universities not send them to literacy classes and creative writing departments that are around? Why do you resist them going to do courses in other faculties? Do not tell me that you do not because I know that you do.
  (Dr Brown) We do, we encourage our students. In fact, we were told we had to teach them how to write an essay before we could ask them an essay in an exam which I found very odd, I thought that was the job of the school. Scientific literacy is certainly something that we would value as well.

Geraldine Smith

  394. Would it matter to you if students came to universities with less factual knowledge of science but a better understanding of how science actually works, or do you need both?
  (Dr Brown) I think you need both. We have to assume some core knowledge.
  (Professor Haines) But if we define a sensible core and we can guarantee it from all A level boards and from GNVQs then we would solve part of that issue anyway.
  (Professor Ruxton) I think it is probably very important that the young people come with the ability to learn how to learn. It is actually being able to learn and it is about processing content. I think one of the weaknesses, and I will speak for engineering, is there is too much factual knowledge and not enough actual process. It is the actual engineering literacy that is very important. Anybody should be able to explain how something works without mathematics because in nature you do not have mathematics so you should be able to explain how something works without mathematics but many engineering students cannot do that.

Dr Iddon

  395. If you had to put a priority on either scientific literacy or knowledge, where would your priority lie?
  (Dr Brown) One thing I would say is our priority is that students do not feel that they learn things in small packets, that is one thing we are finding. I worry that at school they learn a small module, if you want to call it that, and then they get an exam on it and then they learn something else and they do not see the whole picture, they are not able to synthesise information into a picture. I was pleased to see the A2 level is supposed to be introducing some of that back into the syllabus where they are given an overall test. Knowledge in small packets I do not think is any use to them, if they cannot use that information to tackle a larger problem requiring input from different areas.
  (Professor Haines) I am going to try to give you a political answer because I do not want to say either of those two. I actually think, and the discussion that was taking place before we came to the table was suggesting to me, scientific literacy needs to be built on scientific knowledge and facts so if they come to us with the kind of scientific literacy that I would like them to have they will also have some knowledge and facts.
  (Professor Ruxton) I would just be blunt and say understanding knowledge and skills. A lot of it is the understanding to be able to explain principles, and the knowledge is the know-how and know what. I think they are both important.


  396. Given that they are coming in with these defects in their training, as it were, from your point of view, what do you do to help them get over that gap? I know you have remedial courses in physics and maths and all that stuff because they are not up to standard but what do you do about the literacy element?
  (Dr Brown) We have modules now on scientific literacy where we give them papers to criticise, papers to write based on information we give them, so we teach them that ourselves but obviously it would help if they had got some prior experience.

Mr McWalter

  397. But they are not the core of your system, are they? If they are lousy at that but they are really good at second order differential equations you will shunt them through into chartered engineer status anyway on the basis that they have got the required depth. Those courses are usually pretty peripheral. In the end is not everything you are saying going to make it more difficult for people to do science subjects rather than less difficult because you are piling extra things in and not wanting to give much up and you are going to end up in a situation where the vanishingly small number of people doing physics is going to go down even further. You want them to write essays as well as solve equations.
  (Professor Haines) The interesting point, of course, is that in order to raise them to the standard of the really professional scientist or engineer there has been a move to four year courses, there is the M.Eng, the M.Chem, the M.Phys, there is even the M.Math.

Dr Murrison

  398. Dr Brown, you are dealing particularly with entrance into medical school and one of the things that does concern me is that by establishing science in schools in the way that we have, we might be creating a gateway which will restrict the base from which you are able to take and also the type of person who might ultimately end up as a doctor. Would you agree with that or not? Are you concerned about the kind of applicant that you ultimately will be getting because of the sort of people passing through to do science subjects at school?
  (Dr Brown) Until we introduced this need for A level biology, all we asked for was A level chemistry plus anything else.

  399. Inevitably people who are thinking about doing medicine, for example, will be drawn towards physics, I suspect, chemistry and maths, or biology.
  (Dr Brown) I see what you mean.


previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 22 May 2002