‘Engineering Engineering: A Provocation’ Webcast Summary

(Please note – A full summary of the ‘Engineering Engineering: A Provocation’ webcast will be available soon.)

Prof Kel Fidler CEng HonFIET FREng, former Vice Chancellor of Northumbria University and former Chair of the Engineering Council, has published a new paper which seeks to challenge assumptions and practice around Engineering higher education and the talent pipeline. The EPC is grateful to him for inviting us to share his paper with our members.

The paper itself, titled Engineering Engineering: A Provocation, offers Kel’s personal perspective and it does not represent the views of the EPC. Some of our members may agree with it wholeheartedly. Others may want to take issue with his findings and recommendations – but no one can reasonably deny that these are discussions worth having.

As his polemical paper report makes clear, all is not roses in the garden of Engineering. We have the interlinked challenges of too little diversity among engineers and too few engineers to meet the social, environmental and economic needs of the future.

Some of our best efforts to resolve these challenges have not yet created the change we want to see, and so it is right to reflect on what more – or what else – we might do.

As anyone who knows him would expect, Kel has not held back in this ‘provocation’. Some people may disagree with his diagnosis of the problems and many will no doubt disagree with some of his proposed solutions, but that, surely, is the point of a provocation?

As the voice of Engineering academics, the EPC shall hold its peace for the time being, but we welcome a no-holds-barred debate about what we can do better and, as consensus emerges, we will do our best to support and disseminate positive change. Kel’s contribution is intended to get the stone rolling down the mountain and, for that, we are grateful to him and we are delighted to encourage the ongoing discussion.

During the ‘Engineering Engineering: A Provocation‘ webcast, each topic was addressed by leading experts on the issue, chaired by outgoing EPC President Prof Colin Turner. These included:

• Elizabeth Donnelly, Chief Executive, Women’s Engineering Society

• Hilary Leevers, Chief Executive, Engineering UK

• Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Manager, The Science Media Centre

• Prof Mike Sutcliffe, Deputy Dean, TEDI-London, and EPC President-Elect.

In particular, the event aimed to examine four themes: the role of outreach in promoting engineering, how we might attract more women into engineering, the public perception of engineering and the distinction between design engineering and engineering science.


Please stay tuned for the full summary of the ‘Engineering Engineering: A Provocation’ webcast.

Prof Helen Atkinson, former EPC President, awarded a Damehood

Dame Professor Helen Atkinson CBE FREng, PVC of Cranfield University and President of the EPC 2011-2013

We are delighted and proud that Professor Helen Atkinson CBE, FREng, President of the Engineering Professors’ Council 2011-13, has been made a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2021.

Cranfield University’s Professor Helen Atkinson CBE, FREng has been made a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2021 for services to engineering and education.

The full citation issued by Buckingham Palace states:

“Helen Atkinson is one of the UK’s foremost engineering leaders. She was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Cranfield University in 2017, with responsibility for the School of Aerospace, Transport and Manufacturing. She has made a tremendous impact in this role, cultivating key strategic partnerships with major industrial companies.

“She has been a committed Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering since 2007, serving variously as Vice President, Trustee and Chair of its Education and Skills Committee between 2012 and 2017. Most recently, she has made a vital impact through chairing the oversight group for the Academy’s ‘This is Engineering’ campaign to encourage more young people into engineering.

“She has had roles with government Foresight Panels, HEFCE, EPSRC, IET, National Council for Universities and Business, and the Strategic Facilities Advisory Board of the Royce Institute. She is a leading role model and advocate for women in STEM. She was the first woman President of the UK Engineering Professors’ Council in its 50-year history.”

Helen says: “I was utterly surprised and delighted when I received the news. This is a huge honour. For someone from my background, with both parents leaving school at 16 and as the first in my family to go to university, this is a most amazing thing. 

I really want to acknowledge the huge role the Engineering Professors’ Council has played in my career. I started out as an academic at Sheffield City Polytechnic as then was (now Sheffield Hallam) and then at Sheffield University. One of the professors there accidentally left a piece of paper by the photocopier about the Engineering Professors’ Council and I remember thinking ‘That looks interesting’.

I got involved in the Committee [now called the Board] when I was a Professor in the Engineering Department at Leicester University. I was really struck by the fact that even though the Department had strong demand for its undergraduate places, the Head of Department said ‘There is no money to buy the equipment for teaching’. I took a proposal to the EPC Committee to set up a piece of work to investigate, dispassionately and objectively, the real cost of teaching engineering students and teaching them well. This is, of course, a complex question. We drew together a working group and commissioned some consultants to help us to understand the way university finance models were operating. The Engineering Technology Board (as then was) helped with the costs. A number of universities agreed to be case studies for the investigation, across a range of types of institution. I chaired the working group and am immensely grateful for the wonderful and wise support I had from EPC colleagues.

In terms of my own development, this was the first time I had really had an opportunity to get my head round the way university finances worked and the different models universities used to flow through funds received from HEFCE to departments. Although the way university finance works has moved on, this experience has stood me in incredibly good stead now I am a Pro-Vice Chancellor.

We produced a careful and balanced report which I know was drawn on by HEFCE to support its consideration around the funds for Engineering teaching during that period. As Chair of the Working Group I was very determined we should take a national view representing all types if institution. The thinking I developed then flowed into my Presidency of the EPC a few years later.

I was very surprised to be encouraged to stand for election as President of the EPC. I was even more surprised when Fiona Martland [the EPC Executive Director at the time] stood up to say at the AGM that I was the first woman President in the 50-year history of the EPC and its forerunner bodies.

What I knew was that the EPC was such a good body to be part of – it draws together academics right across the sector – all of whom have a passion for encouraging the next generation of engineers.  

During my period as president we worked in conjunction with other groups to ensure the impact of UK Border Agency changes on engineering in HE was fully highlighted – engineering departments were second only to business and administration in their recruitment of overseas students, particularly for MSc courses, bringing around £750 million a year at that time into the economy. In addition, we ensured that the voice of HE engineering was heard in the school curriculum reforms led by the DfE (e.g. with Maths A-levels).

A key theme of my presidency was directing attention to the needs of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales at a time of considerable turbulence for funding in England and with the Scottish independence debate. In addition, the EPC was cited 11 times in a House of Lords Enquiry Report into STEM in HE. Many of these citations were associated with a national project on the employment of engineering graduates which I instigated and led in collaboration with four other universities. This work originated because I wanted to understand why, when the nation was saying there was a shortage, some engineering graduates were unemployed six months after graduation. My involvement in that work really helped me to put myself in the shoes of students applying for engineering jobs and the whole careers landscape.

The experience I gained through my involvement with the EPC provided a strong foundation for my chairing of the Royal Academy of Engineering Standing Committee on Education and Training for five years and now in chairing the multi-million pound Royal Academy of Engineering ‘This is Engineering’ social media campaign to encourage more young people to consider engineering as a career.

We have now had over fifty million views of the videos (see the ‘This is Engineering’ YouTube Channel) and with more or less equal numbers of girls and boys. I know a number of university engineering departments are contributing to the costs of that campaign. I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep appreciation. It is in all our interests to ensure engineering is seen as a vibrant, exciting career and one where you really can change the world.” 

The EPC is immensely proud of Helen and we congratulate her wholeheartedly.


We would also like to publicly congratulate another esteemed EPC member, Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, Director at the Centre for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Girton College, who has received an OBE for services to the COVID-19 Response.

Dr Fitzgerald was called upon in Spring 2020 to help with the SAGE Environmental Modelling Group. He co-authored the CIBSE Emerging from Lockdown guidance, which included advice on ventilation in buildings.

He is also serving on a range of other government bodies as part of the response to COVID-19, such as the DCMS Venues Steering Group, the Science Board to the Events Research Programme (which included the 2021 events at the Circus Nightclub in Liverpool and FA Cup Final), and the Aerosol Generating Procedures panel.

Engineering Engineering: a provocation

Prof Kel Fidler CEng HonFIET FREng, former Vice Chancellor of Northumbria University and former Chair of the Engineering Council, has published a new paper which seeks to challenge assumptions and practice around Engineering higher education and the talent pipeline.

The EPC is grateful to him for inviting us to share his paper with our members in advance of the webinar we will be hosting on Tuesday 6th July 2021 which will follow up on some of the issues he raises with Prof Fidler himself and a panel of experts. (Click to attend.)

The paper itself, titled Engineering Engineering: a provocation, offers Kel’s personal perspective and it does not represent the views of the EPC. Some of our members may agree with it wholeheartedly. Others may want to take issue with his findings and recommendations – but no one can reasonably deny that these are discussions worth having.

Few can boast so rare a pedigree of accomplishments in Engineering higher education in the UK as Prof Fidler. And, having scaled the heights, there are few people better placed to take an overview of whether we’re doing well enough at what really matters.

As his polemical paper report makes clear, all is not roses in the garden of Engineering. We have the interlinked challenges of too little diversity among engineers and too few engineers to meet the social, environmental and economic needs of the future.

Some of our best efforts to resolve these challenges have not yet created the change we want to see, and so it is right to reflect on what more – or what else – we might do.

As anyone who knows him would expect, Kel has not held back in this ‘provocation’. Some people may disagree with his diagnosis of the problems and many will no doubt disagree with some of his proposed solutions, but that, surely, is the point of a provocation?

As the voice of Engineering academics, the EPC shall hold its peace for the time being, but we welcome a no-holds-barred debate about what we can do better and, as consensus emerges, we will do our best to support and disseminate positive change. Kel’s contribution is intended to get the stone rolling down the mountain and, for that, we are grateful to him and we are delighted to encourage the ongoing discussion.


Please feel free to comment below or in the Engineering Academics Network LinkedIn group.

Funding research for a better world

The EPC was honoured to welcome former Universities Minister the Rt Hon Chris Skidmore to delivered a speech as part of our 2021/22 Annual Congress on the theme of ‘A Better World’. This is the text of his speech.

Thank you for the invitation to speak today.

I feel honoured, yet at the same time daunted, that as a historian, you have given me this platform of addressing this annual congress of Engineering Professors.

I must confess it is that same mixed feeling of guilt and shame, call it imposter syndrome if you like, that one feels as a Minister, speaking to any assembled gathering of experts in their field, who know far more than I could ever hope to know about both your respective discipline and its research, than I could even possibly conceive.

Yet while I may call from the arts and humanities side of the tracks, I have a long-held admiration for engineering, having broken an equally long-standing family tradition of becoming an engineer. My grandfather began his career at an early age at Rolls Royce in Filton, while my father followed him into British Aerospace, working on Concorde, before branching out into medical physics and obtaining his Physics doctorate in doppler ultrasound, establishing his own medical technology company and winning the Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal back in 2000. 

As a result, I’ve witnessed first-hand the trials, frustrations, wrong turnings of a family small business working in R&D over the past four decades. I’ve seen and recognised the barriers that prevent research projects from ever getting off the ground. 

Above all, I grew up recognising that engineering at its essence, was about problem solving— not merely the theoretical or the practical, but also the day to day reality of making things— whether a product or business— work. 

Today, you have set me an enigma of a problem to solve. How can we ‘research for a better world’?

A better world is one which we all of course always strive for, indeed it has always been the goal of governments and societies past, but perhaps in my lifetime, the need for a better world brings with it more meaning and urgency than I can remember. 

It is the nature of the human condition to seek hope in despair, to look forwards and not backwards, and to find meaning out of times that can seem incomprehensible. 

So we find ourselves, as previous generations have done, seeking to ‘rebuild’, or in that phrase du jour, ‘build back better’. 

In the wake of the pandemic, post-Covid recovery the almost the sole focus of governments, a mission that one could have scarcely understood 18 months ago when I was still Research Minister. 

The importance of research has been proven in spades by the pandemic. It has been our guiding light out of the tunnel.

Of course, the world still turns, hospitals and schools need to function, welfare needs to be provided, but while the pandemic continues to rage across the globe, we have yet to experience the aftershocks that it has caused, from economic recession and a GDP fall that has not been matched for centuries, a fall in educational achievement to a falling birth rate and its impact upon future society. These are problems that not just current politicians will have to grapple with, but I suspect future generations also, not least when we also will have to address the historic levels of debt and the yawning deficit that once again will hang around our economies, hindering their effectiveness to deliver economic growth and future prosperity. 

In this new age, we need to recognise that priorities will change, as competing demands are made on more limited resources. Already we are witnessing calls for increased spending, at a time when a pathway to fiscal constraint will also need to be set. And with any competing demand, choices will need to be made. How those choices are chosen will be determined by the value, both in terms of economically but also to society, placed upon them by policy makers and governments.

The importance of research to our economy and society should have been proven in spades by the pandemic. It has been research that has proved to be our guiding light out of the tunnel. Vaccination programmes, antivirals and medication to tackle COVID has demonstrated how research not only transforms lives, it saves lives too. If there is one positive to be drawn from this dark past year, it has been the improved recognition that R&D matters.

Yet equally, scepticism to scientific advice, combined with anxieties over lockdown, has highlighted that the research community must always work to demonstrate impact, to take wider society and the general public with them. Narratives matter. How they are woven, out of the threads of people’s hopes and fears, facts and figures, stories and examples, determines how successful campaigns can be. And the need for more research will always be one long campaign that never ends. 

Even before the pandemic broke, the government allied its own narrative of a post-Brexit Britain to the future facing, change making potential that R&D investment can bring, with its call to fashion the UK as a ‘global science superpower’. The commitment to spend 2.4% GDP by 2027 on R&D was of course made in the Industrial Strategy White Paper back in 2017, but the recent government commitment to double public R&D spending to £22billion by 2024/25 has certainly given the commitment a boost. I have spend considerable time already analysing how we might achieve the ‘Road to 2.4%’ in a 30,000 word lecture series I gave in 2019, and do not wish to repeat myself, though for me perhaps the most pressing fact I can relate today is that on 13 July, 2027 is just 2,000 days away. 

This year’s Innovation strategy and the investment made in the Spending Review in R&D will be a critical indicator of whether we will reach the 2.4% target. Four years have so far past, with R&D activity having only risen around 0.2% of GDP in this period. With five and a half years to go, we cannot afford to continue on the same trajectory. 

I have come to doubt whether 2.4% will be sufficient for the scale of change that is coming.

Now is the time to double down, especially when we recognise where the rest of the world is heading. Even I have come to doubt whether 2.4%, the OECD average at the present time, will be sufficient for the scale of change that is coming in the 2020s and into the 2030s. Innovation rich countries are pulling ahead even further. The US and China are heading towards 3% GDP, Japan spends 3.2%, Germany is planning to reach 4%, South Korea is already at 4.5% and Israel higher still at 4.9%. Even the OECD average that was the benchmark for the 2.4% strategy has risen to probably over 2.6%. 

The pandemic and other nations response to how to build economic recovery will only lead to a widening gap in R&D performance if we do not step up. “In order to win the 21st century economy” President Biden has stated, “America must get back to investing in the researchers, laboratories, and universities across our nation”. He is calling on Congress to make an $180 billion investment that will both advance U.S. leadership in critical technologies and upgrade America’s research infrastructure” and “establish the United States as a leader in climate science, innovation, and R&D”. Similar commitments marrying increased investment in innovation and technology with clean growth and combatting climate change are being made across Germany, South Korea, China and Singapore.  

Nine years ago, I wrote a chapter in a book making the case that innovation should be placed at the centre of ‘Britannia Unchained’. The success of ‘Global Britain’ now depends on matching countries that have transformed their economies towards innovation and research. I would now go further— and suggest for the Innovation Strategy that a definite timetable is set for 3%, and beyond to 3.5%. To fail to achieve this over the next two decades will be setting ourselves up to fail. 

Yet with any strategy, risk of simply being left behind as the world transitions its economies towards more modern, technological approaches in which R&D lies the centre, is not the only narrative that must be woven. At every stage, the threat of inaction or slow progress needs to be balanced with the positive, transformational, human message of why investment in R&D is so important, if the taxpayer and general public are to understand the importance of research. Important not only for companies who wish to remain agile and market dominant, important not only for new job creation, but why R&D is important to someone living in Hartlepool or Doncaster. It’s a question that I have continued to grapple with outside of government having agreed to co-chair the Higher Education Commission’s inquiry into levelling up research funding. For myself, I have long believed that investment in translational research conducted in places such as our catapult networks such as the Advanced Manufacturing Catapult is where change could be delivered: with a budget of under £250million a year, this is less than a tenth of what Germany spends on its Fraunhofer institutes. By combining additional investment with a commitment to work lower down the supply chain, and to ally skills programmes with new catapult centres, the impact that research can have creating new jobs at every skill level could be felt. 

People are, quite obviously, the life blood of R&D. It doesn’t matter how much money you invest, unless you have the capacity and capability to perform research, and to adapt and translate its potential.

Low level productivity and a skills deficit remain one of the greatest barriers to ‘levelling up’ across the country, which cannot be achieved by investment in capital alone. People are, quite obviously, the life blood of R&D. It doesn’t matter how much money you invest, unless you have the capacity and capability to perform research, and to adapt and translate its potential. And I’m not just talking about the 200,000 new jobs that will need to be created through the expansion of R&D activity, but the wider ecosystem and supply chain of jobs that are created through the application of new technologies or new materials.  

We cannot divorce the activities of researchers from the wider skills pipeline that needs to be created if we are to meet 2.4%: skills training offers the best possible means to increase productivity, yet our SMEs and companies have some of the lowest in work training rates in the OECD. Those that fail to invest in skills are the same who fail to invest in R&D, for they rely on short-term gains and not realising long-term opportunity. Allied to investing in research— and with it our high skill level researchers— is the imperative that we invest in skills across the supply chain if diffusion, adaption and development is to succeed. It’s why I have decided to establish the Lifelong Education Commission with Res Publica, to highlight how training and lifelong skills investment is just as essential for economic transformation as R&D, indeed one cannot happen effectively without the other. 

If we are to research for the better, ‘global science superpower’ narrative must be aligned with the ‘levelling up’ agenda if both are to truly succeed: the challenge for us all is joining both together in a way that demonstrates real change to the lives of people or SMEs who do not view R&D as something that either affects them, or they need to do. 

Engineering has a rich heritage of translating complex and unfathomable ideas into reality. From the railways to the car, the history of flight, engineers have managed to transform individual lives by demonstrating how technological change can make people’s lives easier.

Of course, this is where engineering has a rich heritage of translating complex and unfathomable ideas into reality. From the railways to the car, the history of flight, engineers have managed to transform individual lives by demonstrating how technological change can make people’s lives easier. The historian in me still believes we have much to learn from the role of engineering in the history of innovation, and what lessons we can still learn for today on how to achieve large scale systems changes needed for society. 

The challenge we face, however, is how we make change just as convenient and comfortable as possible, when in areas such as climate change and the emissions reductions needed to achieve net zero, require transformations away from current technologies and behaviours that seem daunting.

But it can be done. Indeed it must be done. R&D into new, yet to exist technologies will have a critical role to play in achieving net zero, a target which I signed into law back in 2019. Yet equally if not more important is the impact that research into how we can better use existing technologies to achieve net zero. If 2021 will be dominated by any agreement reached at COP26 in Glasgow in November, it will have to be research that steps up to deliver on the greener future that will be required. 

The issue for the UK’s R&D strategy comes when we move away from the clearly defined narratives of levelling up, building back better, or a green recovery. Mission orientated approaches towards specific goals and outcomes are helpful in supporting these narratives, shaping them and the financial investment needed to deliver upon them. But UK research has also led and shaped a better future by its discovery led nature, based on excellence. This cannot be left aside in the desire to create more challenge-based funding schemes. The creation of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency is a welcome one, but again this should not be viewed as an alternative to properly funding laboratory focused research across departments in our universities and research institutes, which will still be conducting perhaps 90% of existing R&D research. 

I make this point, for if we are to research for a better future, it is worth reminding that this does not always necessarily mean we need to resort to novelty. Existing funding mechanisms such as QR are perhaps the best means by which to get R&D investment flowing so that it has maximum impact. I’ve seen first-hand also how QR can be used as the mortar to bind various funding streams together, so that organically, research projects can then flourish and attract further private R&D in turn. Equally, funding opportunities such as the Research Partnership Investment Fund or the Higher Education Innovation Fund are working, though I believe with the publication of the Knowledge Exchange Framework, they can be now harnessed to better qualitative data. 

We need not reinvent the wheel to move faster towards 2.4% or 3% … we just need to change the tyre.

One of the reasons I campaigned strongly also for association to Horizon Europe was along these same conservative principles, that we should seek to preserve and protect long cherished research partnerships that have been forged over many years. It is a philosophy perhaps best espoused by Michael Oakshott—  ‘to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible’. We need not reinvent the wheel to move faster towards 2.4% or 3% as I would suggest, we just need to change the tyre.

That said, I do believe that there is a case for fashioning a new compact for R&D between government, universities and our research institutes, one based not solely on increased investment, but on how that money is apportioned and how better research can be realised by engendering a better sense of trust within the system. 

Far too often, too many researchers in both university and industry and chasing too many pots of grant funding, the total amount of which will last but a year if lucky before another funding cycle needs to be initiated. An hour wasted on form-filling, on meetings to agree who will conduct the assessment, to meet the demands and conditions of the grant, is potentially an hour of research wasted. The government has rightly instigated a Bureaucracy Review into existing processes, but I wonder if everyone would not be better served by moving towards a model of research funding like Horizon Europe, that has a multi-financial framework, a fixed seven year research programme. 

For the government, such a single research fund might help to rationalise investments from discovery led research and ARIA at the apex, towards more translational and applied research at the base, with missions acting as funding streams. Setting a multi-annual budget would also allow for UKR&D activity to be more agile, to seize potential collaborative R&D activities with international partners, and to break free from the annual cycle of the R&D budget. And at the same time, a single research budget could be clearly communicable to the public and taxpayer, in the same way Horizon has been across Europe. 

Perhaps you may view this as just too ambitious, though we should recognise that, as the pandemic has demonstrated and Net Zero will need to demonstrate in spades if it is to succeed, the horizontal structures of government and society need to be as strong as the vertical,  to which a single budget commissioning research might be the answer. 

Stability

Underlying the purpose of a single budget, and a multi-annual framework aligned to an agreed settlement, is perhaps the most important principle we need for research: stability. You all know the value that stability brings, and the threat to research that instability endangers. Grants are paused, revenue streams dry up, collaborations once possible move elsewhere. More than money can ever buy, stability lies at the heart of a successful R&D ecosystem. That is why it is so important that when considering any policy decision, and its potential to disrupt or delay, analysis is given to how this might impact upon research capacity. 

To this I would like to add two further priorities for delivering better research: security and sustainability. 

Security

Security of course has more than one connotation, both facing inwards and outwards. For the research community, research cannot be conducted effectively without the frameworks and agreements that underpin collaboration. The importance of intellectual property rights and other intangible assets is only growing, and if the UK is to maintain its leadership in these fields, we will need to seek out new means of securing new rights across digital domains and AI. Post-Brexit, we seriously need to address issues around UK IP rights and our relationship with the European Patent Office, but this should also point to a wider review of how the UK can lead on the debates around the future of copyright, trademarks and patents working with the World Intellectual Property Organisation. 

The security of research that has the potential to fall into the hands of hostile agents needs to be guarded against too, which is why the creation of a new unit in BEIS to monitor threats to universities and research institutes is a welcome one. We should continue to seek collaborations across the globe, for research knows no boundaries, but this cannot come at the cost of compromising the value of research that has been funded by the taxpayer. Then there is the question of sovereignty when it comes to critical national infrastructure and assets. Debates around a UK GNSS system in space and UK independence will likely translate across to other new technologies in due course. Post-Brexit, there is a powerful narrative to be explored about how the UK, while working to strengthen its international collaboration in research, can at the same time increase and improve its independent manufacturing capacity in new technologies. 

But security in research, for any researcher, is also about their job. Putting food on the table, looking after their family, scientists and researchers are human after all, even if it seems at times that they perform superhuman tasks. Academic precarity for early career researchers was an area of policy I sought to focus on when a Minister, highlighting the consequences of fixed term contracts and non disclosure agreements that undermined staff and their welfare. Never mind the so-called ‘brain drain’ across the Atlantic, we continue to lose too many excellent researchers from our universities, some who never return to work in R&D again. This is an unacceptable loss of talent, and an unacceptable loss of taxpayer investment in human capital that has been wasted due to lack of foresight. It’s why one of the last announcements I made was that the government should construct a People Strategy for research, to plan effectively how to retain researchers and not lose them through a lack of secure job opportunities.  

Sustainability

To stability and security, I would also add sustainability. By that I don’t mean measuring sustainability by SDGs or in financial terms, though that is clearly important, but in sustaining the institutions through which R&D flows. 

To return to that same Oakshottean principle, we should seek to conserve that which has worked, to recognise and respect the value that our existing universities and research institutes bring to Britain globally. This includes taking care not to threaten university R&D activity inadvertently. Ultimately, this would not happen if research costs were funded at full economic cost. To place research activity at the mercy of international student flows or any other cross-subsidisation seems a dangerous place, and perhaps ultimately unsustainable place, to be. 

Universities and their research have been so outstanding at delivering on international sustainable development goals, turning their focus on how to improve societies across the globe, that sometimes they seem to have neglected their own sustainability. By this I don’t mean their financial sustainability, but the sustainability of their public image. I have campaigned for universities to recognise their value as civic institutions, to become anchor institutions in the towns and cities from which they take their name, if they are to retain wider public support. 

There is so much untapped potential here, for universities to not only highlight their existing importance to their local and regional economies, but to consciously adopt new strategies of setting up walk in centres on local high streets, engaging seriously with future modular and course based provision, to demonstrate why they can be change makers locally as well as globally. Of course there is a wider role here for how all this is measured if it is to be managed, but the intent should come before the process. In an age of competing priorities, the more universities can do to expand their mission, the more likely they are to secure their future. As I have said previously, Red Wall universities can spearhead an educational and civic mission as impressive as the Red Brick universities had, if they are willing to look at how to do things differently, diversify and adapt. Sustainability can and should be local as much as global. 

Call it the Plan Triple S, if you like, but these three words: stability, security and sustainability should underpin any research strategy for a better future. Between them they blend, I believe, the vital importance of retaining and conserving what the UK already does so well, with the potential to achieve even more, building on our successes. 

For ultimately, if we want to research for a better world, we need better research. 

Thank you. 

Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP 

Engineering opportunity: letting down the drawbridge

This week, the EPC published its report on the contribution to social mobility made by studying Engineering. Chief Executive Johnny Rich and Research Assistant Vicky Howell sum up the key findings.

The starting point for the EPC’s new report Engineering Opportunity: Maximising the opportunities for social mobility from studying Engineering is that, on average, Engineering graduates go on to earn more than most other graduates. That fact won’t surprise anyone, but the report explores the story behind it and has wide implications for higher education policy and supporting social mobility.

Compared to other subject areas, Engineering graduates do rather well financially. Starting salaries are already an average of £6,200 higher when compared to the median for all graduates and, by ten years after graduation, that’s risen to £11,700. 

However, we also found evidence that engineering is not a sector in which these salary rewards are restricted to those who already had everything going for them. Even when you take account of characteristics such as prior attainment and socio-economic disadvantage, the salary premium persists. 

In fact, when you look at students who entered Engineering with BTECs – a group which includes many disadvantaged students – their earnings boost is even greater than it is for the high-attaining A level students. Similarly, the data on getting a job and remaining in secure employment is also favourable.

In other words, studying Engineering boosts earnings significantly, regardless of background, and so supports social mobility.

So far, so self-congratulatory. However, our report goes on to acknowledge that Engineering may be a great social leveller, but as a discipline, we are not doing enough to make its advantages more accessible to the students from the very backgrounds who would benefit most.

Just one in eight students in higher education comes from the fifth of areas with the lowest participation rates (Quintile 1 in POLAR4), but in Engineering the proportion is lower still at less than one in ten. 

The reasons for this ‘drawbridge effect’ – where there’s a feast to be had, but only if you can get across the moat – are varied. 

  • Engineering is a demanding subject and so its entry requirements are often demanding too. High tariffs can not only exclude capable students with lower prior attainment, but can discourage them from even applying.
  • Because Engineering is not taught in schools, most people are as likely to think of ‘an engineer’ as someone who fixes a washing machine as someone who designs smart materials, builds spacecraft, or solves climate change challenges. This means Engineering tends to attract those who actually know an engineer in their family. In other words, it replicates its historical social profile.
  • Both outside the discipline and sometimes even within, Engineering is seen as sciency (whereas, in reality, it is often as creative and practical as it is technical and theoretical) and therefore Maths and Physics are often regarded as the appropriate qualifications. In an education system where stretched schools and colleges struggle to offer A levels in these courses and have neither the resources nor the teachers to offer every pupil the chance to do triple science (ie. Chemistry, Physics and Biology) at GCSE, then it’s no surprise this becomes a filter that favours the privileged.

For these reasons and many others, the Engineering drawbridge is in stubborn need of greasing. Interestingly, however, Engineering could be seen to have the potential to be more flexible than most subjects in its entry requirements, not less. The absence of Engineering from the school curriculum means that whatever prior attainment a student might have, it will only ever be a rough proxy for their capacity to succeed as an engineer. 

This has implications for the minimum entry requirements the government is considering for access to English higher education funding. Any arbitrary cut-off tariff would have to relate to the students’ attainment in subjects other than the one they want to study. Not only would this limit social mobility, it would also undermine Engineering’s ability to recruit students to a subject area that is strategically critical in rebuilding the economy.

Skills shortages in engineering are such that school-leavers alone cannot plug the gap. We need what Paul Jackson has described as ‘intersectoral mobility’ – people with experience in the workforce retraining in engineering roles. The drawbridge must be lowered for them too.

The EPC report makes a range of recommendations, many of which would support social mobility both in and outside engineering. 

Among these is a reminder that fair access is worth examining at the discipline level and that well-intentioned system-wide incentives and metric approaches may have unintended consequences at course level where the actual admissions take place. The recruitment challenges of access in Engineering, for example, may encourage institutions to dodge the difficulties by expanding courses with a better record of attracting POLAR Q1 students, even though they may ultimately have less good social mobility outcomes.

Perhaps the most timely recommendation for the government to note relates to foundation years. These are the entry pathway for 12% of engineering graduates, including many of those BTEC-entrants and returners who not only gain most value themselves, but also repay most of their loans and are most important to attract for the sake of the economy. 

The report states, “Foundation courses, ideally with minimal procedural transition into degree study, are more effective than other access courses [AHEDs] because the continuity of study in the same institution supports progression.” 

By way of analogy, it compares the progression of students who start and complete an MEng with the smaller numbers who embark on a BEng and then decide to progress to Masters level. If you set the sights high for student with potential, they will achieve more than they thought possible to start with.

The Augar Review set its gunsights on foundation years as being no more than a more costly alternative to HE Access diplomas. Whatever one thinks of the recommendations of Augar, most of them had their reasoning clearly demonstrated. The proposal on foundation years, however, seemed conspicuous by its lack of any evidential basis. 

When the government responds fully to the Review later in the year, the EPC report (like the Policy Perspectives Nework) suggests that the best service to disadvantaged students, to Engineering and to the nation’s economic imperatives would be to expand foundation years rather than to axe them.

Foundation years – and the opportunity they offer to transition into higher education in general, or Engineering in particular – are critical to lowering the drawbridge for entry and inviting disadvantaged students to the feast beyond. 


For the most part, the data findings of the Engineering opportunity report relate to England only and not to the devolved nations. It is important to make it clear that this was a consequence of the availability of comparable data. We hope to undertake further research in other nations of the UK in future.

MEDIA RELEASE: Studying Engineering gives ‘turbo boost’ to social mobility, reveals new EPC research


Studying Engineering gives ‘turbo boost’ to social mobility, reveals new EPC research

Report: Engineering Opportunity: Maximising the opportunities for social mobility from studying engineering

A new study, published today by the Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC), reveals that studying an Engineering degree gives a greater boost to social mobility when compared to other subjects. 

The EPC, which represents engineering academics across UK universities, found that data relating to graduates’ earnings, backgrounds and entry qualifications suggests that the gap between the incomes of Engineering graduates from different socio-economic backgrounds was significantly smaller than for other graduates. 

The Engineering Opportunity report reveals that, ten years after qualifying, the average salary of Engineering graduates is £42,700 – which is £11,700 more than the average of other graduates. While some of this was down to pre-existing characteristics associated with higher earnings (such as higher entry grades, gender, region and social status), these factors could not account for the whole gap and the higher earnings were relatively evenly spread across the country.

The study concludes: “Choosing to study Engineering in higher education really does increase labour market success, one of the drivers of social mobility.”

The earnings premium was greatest for engineers with BTEC qualifications, a group which tends to have much larger numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They earned an average of £8,100 more than the average wage of other graduates with BTECs five years after graduating.

The findings suggest that foundation years (in-university access courses) in Engineering may be a particularly effective way of delivering social mobility to students without traditional entry qualifications, but these opportunities were limited, especially in the most selective universities. 

Today’s publication provides timely evidence for the English Government’s plans for higher education. The Department for Education is expected to respond later in the year to the Augar Review of post-16 education, which recommended that the funding of foundation years should be axed. The DfE is also considering dropping BTECs as a qualification and making changes to admissions that the EPC believes would narrow opportunities.

The DfE also intends to consult on changes to fees to bolster STEM subjects and the report supports the argument that Engineering at least delivers an excellent return on investment in terms of earnings. However, the report also identifies key areas of concern and makes various recommendations to boost social mobility through Engineering and all areas of higher education. 

For example, the report showed that, despite offering a clear career benefit to all students, Engineering disproportionately attracts those from higher socio-economic groups. It was also clear that the lack of science and maths teaching in secondary education – particularly in schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students – is a major barrier to accessing the benefits of Engineering higher education. 

The study also demonstrated that, although the vast majority of students with lower qualifications benefitted when given an opportunity to study an Engineering degree, some struggled and were more prone to dropping out.

Drawing on the findings, the EPC report includes seven policy recommendations to further enhance the social mobility gains achieved through higher education, and Engineering in particular. These include: wider access to ‘triple science’ at GCSE; more radical and widespread consideration of students’ backgrounds in university admissions; entry grades automatically adjusted to account for background; expansion of foundation years; conversion courses to support students academically; use of metrics that focus on the value added to each student rather than unfair comparisons; and regulation of university access at the level of subject areas as well as whole institutions.

The EPC’s Chief Executive, Johnny Rich, commented:

“Our findings demonstrate that not only is Engineering higher education critical to the future of our economy, our regions and our environment, it is also a great social leveller, providing a more equal chance to succeed for all students regardless of their background.

“Aspiration among young people is not lacking, but opportunity is. We need to build a system – through education and into employment – that engineers opportunities for all who want to realise their potential.”

EPC President, Professor Colin Turner, added:

“We must build on our success in creating chances for students by maximising their potential. We must level the playing field of educational opportunities in schools. We must support those with BTECs or from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain access to Engineering degrees and foundation years. We must support them to succeed by addressing their academic needs. And we must help them to progress into the workplace where they can build opportunities for generations to come.”

Ends. 

Date: 21st May 2021
EMBARGO:                   00:01 Tuesday 25th May 2021
For more information:   Johnny Rich, 078 1111 4292, j.rich@epc.ac.uk

Notes:

  • The Engineering Professors’ Council is the voice of engineering academics in UK universities, representing over 8,000 individuals across 85 different universities. 
  • Engineering Opportunity: Maximising the opportunities for social mobility from studying engineering is available on the EPC website at bit.ly/EPCEngOpp
  • The report will be launched at an online event from 9.15 to 10.15 am. Key findings will be presented as well as a panel of individuals who are able to share their personal perspectives on social mobility. Register to attend at bit.ly/EPCSocialMobility
  • Johnny Rich, EPC Chief Executive, is available for interview.

Wanted: Members for the EPC RIKT Committee

Vacancies on Research, Innovation and Knowledge Transfer (RIKT) Committee: Committee Members

The Engineering Professors’ Council is the representative body for engineering in UK higher education. We aim to influence the policy landscape on education and research, and to support our members in their work. We work closely with government, professional bodies, funders, industry and other interest groups.

The RIKT Committee has a focus on engineering research, enterprise, innovation and knowledge transfer activities at a national and international level. At our core we wish to achieve impact from the engineering research in the UK and raise opportunities for collaboration between industry and academia.

We are looking to expand the committee by welcoming new members in some or all of the following areas:

  1. Industry-facing academics or academics active in research, innovation and knowledge transfer 
  2. Industry members to offer their insights and assist us in ensuring engineering research maximises innovation and knowledge transfer and impact
  3. Industry-based visiting professors (current and previous)

Commitment required

  • 2-4 meetings per year, approximately two hours per meeting (currently on Zoom)
  • A keen interest in collaborating with the EPC with the aim of maximising opportunities for and the value from UK engineering research 
  • Some reading time external to the committee (usually approximately an hour per committee meeting, but sometime more)

Are the OfS proposals on quality and standards good for the sector?

In this blog, Chief Executive Johnny Rich provides a critical commentary on the Office for Students (OfS) proposals on quality and standards – potentially one of the most important changes to its practice since its inception. 


These are his personal opinions to help stimulate the community into synthesising for themselves the possible implications and they do not necessarily reflect the views of the EPC nor its members.


We’ve posted a summary of the OfS consultation paper here and the OfS’s own documents can be found here. 

We are conducting a survey, so that the EPC can give a representative response. Please contribute your thoughts.

(Rhys A. via Flickr, CC-BY-2.0)

The Department for Education has got a hold of the idea that ‘low quality’ courses are rife in UK higher education. It is determined that they must rooted out. It’s hard to argue with a policy of tackling shortcomings – that makes it good politics, without necessarily being good policy. 

The problem is that there’s not actually sound evidence to support this idea of low quality. What do we even mean by it? 

Until recently the terminology was ‘low value’, but a pandemic-related newfound appreciation for low-paid nurses made it seem too reductive to focus too much on graduate salaries and that highlighted how problematic it is to define value. So the DfE now prefers to talk about ‘quality’ but the definition is no clearer. 

Never mind, that’s not the Government’s problem. The English regulator can worry about that. That’s why we now have a potentially far-reaching consultation from the Office for Students (OfS) on quality and standards and what, in future, the OfS proposes to do to hunt down low quality and quash it with “tough new measures”. 

As the consultation was launched, Universities UK boldly stepped up to defend the honour of courses everywhere by announcing a new charter on quality. Well, not actually a new charter, but a working group to consider one. I fear, however, that the possibility of a charter is like trying to slay this dragon with a plastic butter knife.

“This is full-on chemotherapy to treat a few bunions.”

So what’s so bad about the proposals? Surely, if there is any low quality, we should all want to cut it out? And if there’s not, there’s nothing to fear? Sadly, the cure is not harmless. This is full-on chemotherapy to treat a few bunions. 

It would be complacent to imagine there are not many courses and whole institutions that can be improved and there are many in HE who say we won’t win friends by being close-minded to criticism. I agree. Indeed, the EPC regularly engages in activities to support enhancement of teaching, learning and student experience. 

But we don’t do anyone any favours by not being rigorous about critics’ motives and the evidential basis for change. Every international comparison suggests we have one of the best HE systems in the world and calling for “tougher measures” as if there’s a regulation deficit is more to do with doing something than doing something necessary or even justified. 

This isn’t about fixing an actual problem. It’s about pandering to backward-looking diehards that see unis as too open, full of ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses with too many students. 

No one could call engineering a Mickey Mouse course, though, so perhaps we needn’t worry? Well, even if we didn’t care about colleagues and students in other disciplines, rather than improve HE, the proposals are likely to narrow fair access, stunt social mobility and protect elitism while cementing the goal of high education as basically a job conveyor belt. That’s not good for anyone.

Let’s just start by mentioning the timing. As EPC members know all too well, in recent months it’s been really tough to deliver high-quality courses and so choosing this moment to launch a major consultation on delivering high-quality courses, is, to say the least, insensitive. In all likelihood, it may distract from the very delivery that they want to improve and any current data that may be used to inform the consultation is going to be from the most outlying wildernesses of every bell curve. 

OfS proposes gifting itself greater powers to assess Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) more closely, including at subject level, and to apply sanctions for performance metrics (on continuation, completion and progression) that it deems unsatisfactory. These sanctions could include fines and even deregistration. A full summary of the OfS proposals is here.

“There are no reliable metrics of success, only proxy measures – and when you let proxies do your decision-making, you get people gaming the data and you get unintended consequences.”

There are many obvious concerns about this. For a start, metrics are a very blunt instrument. There are no reliable metrics of success, only proxy measures – and when you let proxies do your decision-making, you get people gaming the data and you get unintended consequences. (Ironically, this is exactly the argument that the Government has recently been deploying about the National Student Survey, which it has suddenly decided is the cause of supposed dumbing down. Again, there’s no actual evidence of this. Nevertheless, the OfS is currently reviewing that too.)

OfS wants to take a more metric-based approach in order to reduce bureaucratic load, which is fair enough, but if you want data to tell you anything useful, you really need to understand the context. No two HEIs are alike and the same numbers can tell very different stories. 

The consultation does explicitly acknowledge that the context needs to be considered, but the context will explicitly exclude anything to do with the socioeconomic disadvantage or other protected characteristics of the students (disability, ethnicity, etc). OfS intends to impose non-negotiable “numerical baselines” – ie. cut-offs for universities with outlying data – whatever the reason.

Some unis and courses will end up being ‘low quality’ for a host of reasons to do with their intake rather than anything that they might actually be doing wrong. Quite the opposite, trying too hard to do the right thing will open them up to sanctions. 

For example, dropout rates are higher among students with extra financial or social challenges, and bias in recruitment practice disadvantages certain graduates. So if students are from lower socioeconomic or minority ethnic backgrounds, or they are disabled or they are returners to study, their course might look ‘low quality’ while actually the prospects of those students (compared to not having achieved that degree) have been greatly improved.

BTEC students, for instance, have far higher non-continuation rates on engineering courses than students with A level maths and physics. When they do graduate, they face higher hurdles in gaining employment because they may not have the connections, the extra-curricular brownie points and the right accent. Is it really fair for the OfS to hold an HEI that helps these students establish fulfilling lives to the same standards as a university with nearly half of its intake with straight As from private schools?

HEIs could also be penalised for being based in parts of the country with lower employment rates or for drawing students from the locality who might want to stay in their home region post-graduation. Social mobility should not have to mean geographic mobility. To many students a positive outcome means worthwhile employment in their home region rather than maximising their income by moving away. 

This is not only a fair choice for them to make, it’s a really positive choice for the Government’s goal of levelling up regions by creating high-skilled employment in disadvantaged areas. Penalising universities that support this is counterproductive.  

“Were this year’s graduates ‘low quality’? Or is it just that they graduated into the worst labour market for decades?”

Outcomes data will also be subject to the vagaries of economic circumstances. Were this year’s graduates ‘low quality’? Or is it just that they graduated into the worst labour market for decades? These effects can happen locally too, which means they affect individual universities and subjects. For example, if a big local employer exits a region, there may be a knock-on effect for local courses and graduates.

Employment effects take time to show up in the data – a lag of several years if you want to get a reliable picture. By design, the metrics will identify only those stables where horses have long since bolted. By the time problems show up in the data, the HEI will have known about it for a while and may well have either improved or closed a course if it was genuinely deficient. “Tougher measures” won’t support this in any way, but they might close courses that have turned around.

Positive employment outcomes need to show themselves quickly. HEIs won’t want to encourage enterprising students to start businesses that may take a few years to mature, earn money for their founders and create wider jobs and prosperity. Because that would be ‘low quality’.

And, of course, the focus on continuation and employment penalises any subject that attracts students who are studying for love of learning rather than for the sake of optimising their employment outcomes.

It also penalises those courses that allow students to do anything other than join a course, stay the duration, and graduate. None of the hop-on-hop-off flexibility that the Government has been urging in other policy initiatives and which the evidence says is needed.

By definition, some HEIs and subjects will always be less ‘successful’ than others according to the metrics.”

Worst of all, depending on how the ‘tougher measures’ are applied, it is statistically inevitable that a recklessly wielded axe will cut off healthy branches. By definition, some HEIs and subjects will always be less ‘successful’ than others according to the metrics. 

There will always be a bottom of the pile to be removed. Someone will always need to be penalised to justify the quality assurance process. Being in the relegation zone in the Premier League doesn’t mean yours is a bad team, it simply means a team whose performance has been relatively less good amongst the very best. Sadly, the sanction for HEIs and courses will not be relegation, but elimination.  

If the comparison of what constitutes a ‘low quality’ course is made at a subject level, rather than across all HE courses, then some departments that have good metrics compared to other subjects, will be made to suffer. For example, an engineering course that is ‘low quality’ in comparison to other engineering courses, may be sanctioned. 

However, on the other hand, if the comparison is made at HEI level, then certain subject areas will be the victim because their outcomes do not translate easily into highly paid workplaces. Heads I win, tails you lose. 

Ultimately, this is likely to encourage universities to be risk-averse in their admissions, effectively raising the bar for any students that don’t look like those who have been successful in the past, closing down the opportunities until only those least in need of a break can get a look-in.

Even if all these proposals were a good idea – and you may have gathered I don’t think they are – this level of oversight by the regulator might not even be legal. I am sure the OfS has consulted its lawyers carefully, but it’s hard to square this with what was intended by the Higher Education & Research Act (HERA). 

HERA’s progress through the chamber of Parliament saw more amendments than almost any other bill ever laid before the Lords and, among those that the Government was forced, reluctantly, to accept was the legal protection of the institutional autonomy of universities. The Lords could see that one day the regulator would be asked to overstep the mark and tried to set protections in stone. These proposals would undermine those protections, undermine that autonomy and – ironically – undermine the very standards of high-quality education for all who can benefit from it that they seek to improve.


Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are there other important points to make? How might this affect engineering courses? Please respond to our survey here.

The OfS consultation on quality and standards in a nutshell

The Office for Students has just launched a consultation on one of the most important changes to its practice since its inception. What does it say? We’ve summarised the key takeaways. We have also published a personal perspective on the wisdom of the proposals by the EPC Chief Executive.

In 2017, the Higher Education & Research Act (HERA) dissolved HEFCE, which was a funding body, and replaced it with the OfS which began work the following year as the regulator of higher education in England. In the process it subsumed the remaining activities of HEFCE and OFFA (the Office for Fair Access). 

Since then, some of OfS’s main activities have included establishing a register of approved higher education institutions and signing off on the ‘Access and Participation Plans’ of those institutions that want to be able to claim funding via the Student Loans Company. 

The OfS’s regulation of HE quality and standards has been through signalling and recognisable processes, mostly farmed out under a contract with the QAA. There have been a few interventions from OfS on grade inflation, unconditional offers and TEF, but these haven’t been accompanied by significant new regulatory controls. 

Although OfS does have powers in case of failure (and it has used them by rejecting the registration of a few institutions), its light-touch approach was in keeping with the spirit of HERA, which, during its difficult passage through the Lords was amended to include an explicit commitment to the autonomy of higher education institutions (HEIs) over their admissions and the education they deliver. 

But now the OfS is consulting on a what it calls “tougher minimum standards” with the threat of fines and even deregistration for HEIs that don’t meet them. These powers, it is proposed, will be exercised not merely at an institutional level, but at a subject level too, which, in effect, might allow OfS to exert direct or indirect pressure on an HEI into closing a department whose metrics looked like underperformance. 

The EPC will be responding to this consultation on behalf of members and we’re keen to hear what you think. We will be inviting members views through a survey shortly. (Come back here for the link.) To help you, we’ve provided the following summary of the proposals.

So what are the proposals? There are four areas:

1. “Define ‘quality’ and ‘standards’ more clearly for the purpose of setting the minimum baseline requirements for all providers”

‘Quality’ will be defined in a metric way. This is, it is said, intended to reduce the regulatory burden. The metrics will relate to five areas: access and admissions; course content, structure and delivery; resources and academic support; successful outcomes; secure standards. 

The inclusion of ‘access’ does not mean wider participation targets, but rather admitting students who “have the capability and potential to successfully complete their course”. OfS has been explicit in saying that it “is not acceptable for providers to use the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds they have as an excuse for poor outcomes”. In other words, they are rejecting the idea that non-academic circumstances or lower prior attainment might be mitigating circumstances for lower (according to the metrics) student outcomes. The argument put forward is that using the greater challenges of certain students as an “excuse” would “risk baking disadvantage into the regulatory system”.

The goalposts will be different for new HE institutions, because they can’t be judged on track record.

OfS will also set ‘standards’ for higher education – that is any courses beyond A level or equivalent (so that means drawing higher apprenticeships and other programmes into a unified quality framework). These standards will involve “sector-recognised” definitions of achievement – in other words, OfS intends to establish common standards for degree grades.

2. “Set numerical baselines for student outcomes and assess a provider’s absolute performance in relation to these”

OfS would impose “a numerical baseline”: this is intended to be a cliff edge for outcomes metrics, namely continuation to second year, course completion and progression into graduate-level work or further study. (There’s also a reference to employer satisfaction, but as there are no measures for that, it’s only an aside.) If you fall off the cliff, there’s a range of sanctions (see below) including fines or even deregistration of the institution.

What will matter is absolute – not relative – data. There is a reference to considering the context, but this is more to do with what may have changed rather than a profile of the student body. Unequivocally, the consultation paper states, “We would not set lower regulatory requirements for providers that recruit students from underrepresented groups, or with protected characteristics.” The idea is to spell out “more challenging” minimum standards that students can expect. 

Further consultation will be conducted around the exact metrics.

3. “Clarify the indicators and approach used for risk-based monitoring of quality and standards”

As the metric used for the baseline are about things that have happened in the past, the OfS proposes to keep an eye on potential risks in institutions by monitoring other metrics and being clear about which metrics those are. Among those mentioned are admissions data (offers, grades achieved, student demographics), student complaints, National Student Survey results, other regulators’ and PSRBs’ activities, TEF, and the outcomes metrics as above. It should be noted, by the way that NSS is currently under a separate OfS review and we’ve been awaiting the publication of an independent Review of TEF for DfE for nearly two years (which is believed to be critical).

There may be some extra data gathering and reporting for universities, but the intention is to minimise the need for unnecessary interference in the long-run by identifying risks before they become problematic outcomes. 

4. “Clarify our approach to intervention and our approach to gathering further information about concerns about quality and standards”

This proposal sets out what might be called a precautionary approach to intervention. In other words, the OfS makes it clear they would be willing to step in to investigate or gather evidence in the case of a feared risk of an institution failing to meet quality thresholds. 

It also sets out their available “enforcement” actions: impose conditions on an institution in order for it to continue to be registered; issue a fine; suspend some of the privileges of being registered (such as access to student loan funding for fees or OfS public grants); remove an institution’s degree-awarding powers or its right to use ‘University’ in its title; deregistration.

Please note: This precis is intended as guidance only. The aim has been to summarise the proposals objectively while providing some interpretation of their implications. Necessarily this involves some subjective inference and the omission of details. We advise referring to the OfS’s own consultation documents for the full details. Also, if you feel we have interpreted any proposals wrongly, unfairly or left out critical details, please let us now and we can make changes to this summary as needed.

The Great Grading Scandal Engineering Challenge

This guest blog has been kindly provided by Dr Dennis Sherwood of Silver Bullet machine, an intelligent innovation consultancy, who was a speaker at the first of this year’s Recruitment & Admission Forum series of webcasts.


Calling all engineers!

Engineers love solving problems, and are very good at it. So this blog poses a real problem, a problem that has eluded solution for at least a decade, and a problem that does much damage every year. You are invited to think of a solution – or indeed more than one – and either post your thoughts in the comments on this page or in the thread on the Engineering Academics Network page on LinkedIn.

The problem – the Great Grading Scandal

Every year, about 6 million GCSE, AS and A level grades are awarded in England. And every year, about 1.5 million of those grades are wrong – about half too high, half too low. That’s, on average, 1 wrong grade in every 4. In this context, “wrong” means “the originally-awarded grade would be changed if the script were to be re-marked by a senior examiner, whose mark, and hence grade, is deemed by Ofqual, the exam regulator, to be ‘definitive’” – or, in more every-day language, ‘right’. 

But when a student is informed “Physics, Grade B”, the student is more likely to think “Oh dear, I didn’t do as well as I had hoped”, rather than “the system got it wrong – the grade should have been an A”. So there are very few appeals: for example in 2019 in England, there were 343,905 appeals resulting in 69,760 grade changes, when in fact, as I have just mentioned, nearly 1.5 million grades were wrong.  Exam grades are therefore highly unreliable, but very few people know. That’s what I call the “Great Grading Scandal”.

The evidence – Ofqual’s research

Ofqual’s November 2018 report, Marking Consistency Metrics – An update, presents the results of a study in which whole cohorts of GCSE, AS and A level scripts, in each of 14 subjects, were marked twice, once by an ordinary examiner and once by a senior examiner.  For each subject, Ofqual could then determine the percentage of the originally-awarded grades for each subject that were confirmed by a senior examiner, so determining a measure of the reliability of that subject’s grades. Since this research involved whole cohorts, the results are unbiased – unlike studies based on appeals, which tend to be associated with scripts marked just below grade boundaries.

If grades were fully reliable, 100% of the scripts in each subject would have their original grades confirmed. In fact, Ofqual’s results ranged from 96% for Maths to 52% for the combined A level in English Language and Literature. Physics grades are about 88% reliable; Economics, about 74%; Geography, 65%; History, 56%. The statement “1 grade in 4 is wrong” is an average, and masks the variability by subject, and also by mark within subject (in all subjects, any script marked at or very close to a grade boundary has a probability of about 50% of being right – or indeed wrong).

The cause – “fuzzy” marks

Why are there so many erroneous grades? The answer is not because of “sloppy marking”, although that does not help. The answer is attributable to a concept familiar to every engineer reading this: measurement uncertainty. Except for the most narrowly defined questions, one examiner might give a script 64, and another 66. Neither examiner has made any mistakes; both marks are legitimate. We all know that.

In general, a script marked m is a sample from a population in the range m ± f, where f is the measure of the subject’s “fuzziness” – a measure that, unsurprisingly, varies by subject with Maths having a smaller value for , and History a larger value.

Ofqual’s current policies 

This fundamental fact is not recognised by Ofqual. Their policy for determining grades – a policy that is current and has been in place for years – is to map the mark m given to a script by the original examiner onto a pre-determined grade scale. And their policy for appeals is that if a script is re-marked m*, then the originally awarded grade is changed if m* corresponds to a grade different from that determined by the original mark m.

Ofqual policies therefore assume that the originally-given mark m and the re-mark m* are precise measurements. In fact, they are not. That’s the problem.

Your challenge

Your challenge is to identify as many alternatives as you can for one or both of these policies such that your solutions:

  1. recognise that the original mark m is not a precise measurement, but rather of the form m ± f, where the fuzziness f is a constant for each subject (and not dependent, for example, on the mark m, and which, for the purposes of this challenge, is assumed to be known), and
  2. result in assessments, as shown on candidates’ certificates, that have a high probability (approaching 100%) of being confirmed, not changed, as the result of a fair re-mark m*, thereby ensuring that the first-awarded assessment is reliable.

Genuinely, we want to hear your thoughts either in the comments on this page or in the thread on the Engineering Academics Network page on LinkedIn.

Click here for more details about the forthcoming webcasts in the EPC Recruitment and Admissions Forum Series and to book your place.