Archive for August 2012

How to destroy Britain’s international reputation for higher education

August 31, 2012

The issue of immigration, with which so many people in Britain are unhealthily obsessed, is right now threatening to inflict significant damage on the country’s higher education system. Under rules adopted over recent years, universities (and other institutions) can recruit and teach international – i.e. non-EU – students if they secure ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor’ status awarded by the UK Border Agency (UKBA). This requires institutions to meet a number of conditions relating to how students are recruited and how they perform, and what measures are taken to monitor them. The bureaucratic complexity of the system can be gleaned here.

It is worth stating in passing that the system is hugely labour-intensive and also places the university in a rather different relationship with its overseas students: not just teaching them, but controlling them and observing (one might say snooping on) their lives. From student feedback, particularly feedback they deliver in their home countries, the UKBA régime is being interpreted as showing hostility by Britain to international students. Even without the events described below, this has visibly damaged efforts to recruit such students, and this in turn has had a direct financial, and of course educational, impact. It is, to be frank, complete lunacy; though of course all universities have no option but to follow the rules.

And now, the UKBA has stripped London Metropolitan University (a very large institution) of its ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor’ status, as it was not satisfied with the performance and abilities of some of its overseas students. This has not only resulted in the university being prevented from admitting any new overseas students, but has also placed existing overseas students at risk of deportation unless another, UKBA approved, university can be found for them at very short notice. This is not likely to happen. In the meantime the university has rejected the alleged findings of the UKBA.

The result of this is a major disaster for Britain’s reputation as a destination for international students, and it will affect pretty much all other universities. Moreover it is the kind of disaster from which there can only be a very slow recovery, if that. It is almost impossible to understand how any government body could consider this a good idea. The impact on the UK’s higher education system could well be catastrophic. It is time for the UK government to address this, and to take steps to avoid this calamity.

Pitfalls for the middle-aged academic

August 27, 2012

A few months ago I witnessed a scene in which a senior academic (not in my current or recent university) was having a conversation with four students. He was offering them some advice, and in doing so made a reference to someone called ‘Robin Day’. Now the academic concerned, and possibly you and I, know who Robin Day was (TV political commentator, the first host of the BBC programme Question Time). The students frankly had no idea and just looked blankly at him. He didn’t help himself by adding another reference to the singer Cliff Richard, whom the students did know all right, but who for them was about as modern as Monteverdi and a lot less cool.

So, if you are some 35 years older than your students but want to impress them with your knowledge of their world of ideas and celebrities, there’s a useful resource for you compiled by Beloit College in the United States called the ‘Mindset List‘, which points out how different your students’ experience of the world is from yours. You might want to have a look. And then remember that even the very hippest people of your youth are now as old as you are, or older, and no longer hip. Don’t mention your Jethro Tull albums, or that you could sing along to the Tremeloes. Unless, that is, you want to be seen as a kindly old duffer, like the professor you remember from your college days who kept talking about Glenn Miller or Matt Monro.

Garden city blues

August 23, 2012

This post comes to you from Ireland, but over the past 24 hours I have been rather focusing on the news from Aberdeen, where I now live and work. For those not familiar with current issues in the Granite City, a major controversy has been raging there over the future of the city centre’s Union Terrace Gardens. This is actually a small sunken park, just off the main thoroughfare, Union Street. For the past while proposals have been debated for a major regeneration plan for the park and its surrounding area, known as the City Garden Project. The intention has been to create a new urban park with leisure and performing arts elements. Major local businessman Sir Ian Wood pledged a substantial sum of money that would cover a significant proportion of the costs. A public process selected a particular design, and this was then put to the citizens of Aberdeen in a referendum earlier this year; the proposal was adopted.

However, all of this was also the subject of major battles between various interest groups: between the Scottish National Party (and Conservatives and some Liberal Democrats) on the one hand, who supported the proposal; and Labour (and independents and other Lib Dems), who opposed it. Amongst the wider population there were groups campaigning for the regeneration project, and others strongly opposing it and calling for the present park to be maintained. There were businesspeople supporting the plans, and some community groups opposing it. There were media campaigns, public meetings, arguments, insults. In fact, I have never seen a local initiative that has caused so much (to my mind) needless and silly hostility and aggression.

So, cards on the table. I was and am a strong supporter of the redevelopment plans. They make sense to me, they enjoy funding support, they meet the urgent need for an iconic project that will stop the decay of Aberdeen’s city centre, and they were supported by the people in a referendum. But then, I meet some people who believe this plan will rip out the traditional heart of the city, and create a major financial problem for future generations. And I know that, whatever was to be decided, we would all need to live and work together for the future of Aberdeen.

Well, it has now been decided, in the sense that Aberdeen City Council – having previously adopted the proposals under an SNP-led administration before the local elections – has now under a Labour-led administration abandoned the plan by a vote of councillors taken yesterday. So, it seems the project is now dead. I genuinely regret that, but more importantly I fear the decision will be interpreted outside Aberdeen as indicating a lack of local ambition and drive. I accept that we must all now work together to make the best of this situation, and I would hope that the more aggressive or hostile statements (on whatever side) will stop. And I strongly hope that the Council, having taken its decision, will quickly present an ambitious and realistic alternative plan for the large-scale regeneration of Aberdeen city centre. I shall certainly seek to ensure that my university plays an active role in this.

Indeed, RGU will shortly present its own outlook on the future of the city centre. Watch this space.

Getting to the points

August 21, 2012

This post is coming to you from Ireland, where I am currently on a short break. As Irish readers of this blog will know, one of the hottest news stories here right now is the impact on university admissions of the recent decision by Irish universities to award bonus points to secondary students taking and passing higher mathematics in the final school examination, the Leaving Certificate. The movement towards this position was described some time ago in this blog, including this post written almost exactly two years ago.

The background to this whole issue was growing trend for students not to do higher level mathematics at all, thereby making the pool of those eligible to take various science and engineering courses very small; while at the same time the demand for people with these skills was rising significantly. Ireland was thought to be at risk economically if this trend were not corrected.

Well, bonus points were introduced, and the trend was most definitely corrected. As information has become available about the recent Leaving Certificate results, record numbers are now succeeding in mathematics, and demand for science, computing and engineering courses is up very significantly. So is everyone happy? Not a bit. Concerns are now being expressed that the whole points system has been distorted, and that those with no interest in science and engineering are getting mathematics-based bonus points for their applications to do, say, classics or English literature. And so there are called for the whole thing to be reversed again, or at any rate adjusted to award bonus points only to those wanting to do relevant subjects. Even the Irish Times has weighed in with an editorial, and in the meantime the whole issue is also likely to be included in more general proposals made by the universities to reform the points system.

This last point is important. When still President of DCU I strongly backed the proposal to award bonus points for mathematics, for the reasons set out above; but I never thought this was the complete answer. The reality is that this and other issues can only be resolved if the entire Irish points system is overhauled and, preferably in my view, abandoned. It has seriously damaged Irish secondary and higher education. It is time for it to go. But while we are waiting for that, people should not worry so much about the precise impact of bonus points: they are doing what was wanted of them. Most particularly, they have brought students back into the sciences, which was vital for Ireland. Now is not to the time to get ambivalent about that.

My own wheels

August 14, 2012

Forty years ago this week, I got my first car. At the time I was a trainee with Dresdner Bank in Germany, and in order to be able to commute between my home (or rather, my parents’ home) and the office I acquired a car. The car in question was the Fiat 500; the exact model and colour that I got can be seen here.

In many ways the 500 was just a biscuit tin on wheels. It had absolutely nothing that we would now regard as standard in a normal spec. It had no radio, back wiper, heated windows, head rests; it didn’t even have seat belts. Its non-synchromesh gearbox required the driver to conduct intricate exercises for every gear change (press clutch, disengage gear, let go clutch, press accelerator, press clutch, engage new gear, let go clutch – every time!). The only instrumentation told you the speed and the car’s mileage, there wasn’t even an indicator for fuel. The fuel tank itself was in the boot in the front (leaving very little room for any bags or the like), and the noisy, air-cooled engine was in the back. But it did have a fold-back sun roof, and a kind of cruise control (you could engage a lever which would hold the accelerator at its current location and you could remove your foot). And it was mustard yellow. And it was mine.

So here I am, 40 years on and with a new car on order. Inside it will feel more like my living room, as these days even basic cars have amazing sound and entertainment systems. It will have the ability, which I promise never to test, to drive at more than twice the speed of which my old Fiat was capable. But I don’t think I’ll ever love it as much as that first mustard yellow car.

Understanding ‘merit’ in university admissions

August 6, 2012

During my ten years as President of Dublin City University, one of the myths with a particular grip on Irish public discourse that I tried to demolish was the idea that universities had always admitted students to their courses purely on ‘merit’. In Ireland, then as now, students succeed in getting their preferred degree programme on the basis of their final school examinations (the Leaving Certificate), or rather on the basis of the points score they achieve through their exam results. The points needed to get on to your course is determined by supply and demand: the most popular programmes require the highest points. I have explained previously that this often results in academically easier subjects requiring higher points (i.e. better results), which has resulted in a system so amazingly stupid as to be almost unbelievable.

And yet, it is regularly defended, most frequently by those who argue that it is ‘objective’, that it is not open to influence or corruption, and that it recognises only merit. I was unable, I think, to change many people’s minds on this despite my best efforts. However, in one setting we did break the rigour of the points system, and that was in our access programme: students from disadvantaged backgrounds who were admitted under the university’s access scheme could get in on lower points than those demanded of students recruited through normal channels. This practice has more generally become known as ‘contextual admissions’, in which the context of the student applicant’s situation is taken into account when assessing their performance.

Contextual admissions, which have become more common also in UK universities (see this example), have recently been heavily criticised by the Sunday Telegraph newspaper. In an editorial comment under the heading ‘Universities must select on merit’, the newspaper argues:

‘This practice is unfair, and must be ended. Students should be admitted on the basis of their qualifications. A systematic policy of preferring less well-qualified students harms universities, just as it harms candidates who are rejected because their background is deemed “wrong”. The deficiencies of many state secondary schools are certainly a serious problem, but penalising pupils who have been lucky enough to receive a good education in the private sector does nothing to address them. In fact, the policy only conceals and entrenches the failures of the state school system.’

Fair comment? The Telegraph, both in its editorial and in an article elsewhere in the paper, makes the assumption that qualification based on exam results is an objective assessment of ability, and therefore that a willingness to take other factors into account corrupts the system and introduces a new discrimination based on background (the article suggests there is discrimination against ‘middle class children’). Leaving aside entirely whether you can really ignore unequal outputs from schools differentiated by very unequal levels of resourcing, one needs to overcome the false assumption that different entry requirements for university courses reflect their intellectual demands. They don’t. They reflect supply and demand, which is often the product of parental social ambitions. As a result, universities generally have been dominated by the wealthier sections of society, but more particularly certain degree programmes leading to qualification for elite professions such as law and medicine have been close to no-go areas for the disadvantaged.

There is, as most (including the Telegraph) recognise, clearly a problem with the school system and its less than perfect ability to provide equal opportunities for young people from all backgrounds. While this needs to be resolved in its own right, the effect it is having in the meantime on opportunities for some of the population cannot just be ignored. I would not support admitting students to courses in which they would be likely to fail. But I think we need to look again at how we assess both the demands of degree programmes and the ability of students to succeed. Ultimately this is in everyone’s interest.


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