Lords say STEM standards slip below auditor's radar

QAA not set up to ensure universities are raising quality, analysis claims. Paul Jump reports

July 26, 2012



Credit: Alamy
A soupçon more, please: employers complain that STEM graduates lack expertise in 'hard sciences'


The Quality Assurance Agency is not "fit for purpose" to guarantee standards in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and should interact more closely with employers to ensure that graduates in these subjects meet their requirements.

These are among the recommendations of a report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee into the provision of STEM in higher education.

The report, published earlier this week, identifies widespread concern among employers about STEM graduates' lack of expertise in "hard sciences" - particularly maths. One reason is that the bulk of the recent rise in the number of such graduates is accounted for by non-traditional "soft" science subjects, such as sports science, which are less valued by employers.

But another major contributor, the report says, is the QAA's failure to drive up standards. The agency's modus operandi - which involves ensuring that universities have adequate internal quality control processes - "is not enough to drive up quality when the standards and benchmarks are based on attaining a threshold level and allow no assessment of quality provision above the threshold".

The findings echo the conclusions of a House of Commons committee in 2009, chaired by Phil Willis, at that time Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, which criticised the system for assuring the standard of degrees.

Lord Willis of Knaresborough, now a member of the Lords committee, said: "It is not the fault of the QAA: it is the way [it is] set up. It inspects a system rather than going below the radar. But that is not good enough. You can put a tick box against the system working effectively without it ensuring [the academy is] deliberately trying to raise quality."

The report says the QAA also needs to incorporate "substantial input" from employers on setting standards and encourages professional bodies to take more of a role in accrediting courses.

The QAA's threshold approach to assessing teaching quality also limits its ability to drive up standards, the report adds.

It says the agency should be charged with making sure that universities have "appropriate systems" to assess teaching quality, including anonymised student assessments that should be included in the Key Information Sets that universities must produce for prospective students from this autumn.

Figures on the proportion of lecturers to have received teacher training should also be included, the report says. And it urges universities to offer accredited teaching courses that all academics must complete.

The report also recommends the establishment of an "expert group" to assess the impact of sector reforms on postgraduate education and says student loans should be extended to taught master's students.

"We can't simply ignore the fact there is no money in the system for taught master's," Lord Willis said.

The report meanwhile says a single body (although not necessarily a new one) should be charged with quickly analysing data to identify shortages of STEM graduates.

It also reiterates calls made elsewhere for overseas students to be exempted from net migration figures, and in another recommendation says that all students should be required to study an element of maths beyond the age of 16.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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