Endpoint: Nick Harris has the last word

The houses of parliament

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Whether you are a chemistry teacher in a school, college or university, or an industrialist, over the past few years you will have been bombarded with many Government 'buzz words' - 'the Leitch/skills agenda' and 'employability'; 'employer engagement' and 'co-funding'; 'mobility' of students and 'transparency' of qualifications; 'Bologna', and 'STEM' subjects. What do they mean for the future study of chemistry?

What's the buzz? 

The Leitch report, published in 2006, raised concerns about current and potential skills shortages in the UK. According to the Government, the demographics suggest that meeting these shortages will require many people in work to 'upskill' to meet 'the needs of a knowledge-based globalised economy fit for the 21st century'. Schools, colleges, universities and industry are expected to play their parts.  

Schools will be involved - through the redesign of curricula and the development of the new science diplomas. Colleges and universities are asked to be more versatile and adaptable in the design and delivery of their courses, and to produce graduates with better 'employability'. Industry is asked to commit more to training more staff and paying more for more training - 'employer engagement' and 'co-funding'. 

To meet these needs, the Government assumes students will shift to studying between colleges and universities (rather than staying in one), and employees will move from job to job, region to region, country to country ('mobility'). To support this efficiently there will need to be a range of 'transparency tools' so that everyone knows what they are getting (into). No longer will individuals be responsible for their own CVs, and hold onto their old GCSE certificates. Later this year, a giant database, the new Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), will replace the National Qualifications Framework. The QCF will contain all vocational and educational units available to study, together with a record of each individual's successes at school, in college, or through vocational education, and training will be linked to a Europass for individual 'citizens' to show to overseas employers. Universities will be expected to provide Diploma Supplements to a standard European template for all their graduates. The QCF will mean all learning will be recognised and 'quantified' by a level (how hard it was - on a scale from one to eight) and volume (how much is identified through a 'credit' value). Appropriate credits will be aggregated into awards, certificates and diplomas. 

For some in UK universities Bologna is still at the 'seem to have heard something about that' stage - maybe it's time to listen a bit harder. Across Europe huge changes in higher education are taking place - courses are being re-designed with many aiming to attract more international students and provide them with an 'international experience' as well as academic rigour. Some reports suggest that European students work more hours - the apparently short academic year is seen by some as a weakness of the UK system and an indicator that UK students may not be as good as their European counterparts with equivalent bachelors or masters degrees. 

Such concerns can be addressed if UK universities provide easily accessible information about just what their students study and achieve. The Eurobachelor label for chemistry is one 'transparency instrument' that they might use to their advantage.  

HE chemistry

Inevitably the market place will decide just how 'valuable' UK students and chemists are, and whether the Government policies to upskill, to enhance employability, to promote mobility etc work.  

UK and European political policies are forcing change but it might be worth pausing for a moment to remember that studying chemistry should be about chemistry and not politics. A report produced by the Council for Industry in Higher Education (CIHE) in response to the Government's latest HE initiatives warns: 'The government must not over-focus on getting universities to enter the workforce development market. universities develop graduates with high-level analytical abilities and a broad range of competencies'.  

UK chemistry has a high international 'brand'. Yes times are changing and chemistry will need to change - but not just for the sake of change. Buzz words today are inevitably replaced by new buzz words tomorrow. Only a few become 'embedded' - the chemistry community needs to identify which it wants or needs to embed and why, the others might be regarded at best as 'interesting'.

Nick Harris is the director for development and enhancement at the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. The views expressed here are his own.