Archive for the ‘students’ category

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.

What should universities do with ‘contact hours’?

July 30, 2012

For the past few years a big search has been on to find the most useful key performance indicators with which to judge the performance of universities. So the view has been expressed by politicians and in the media that there must be some metrics which most accurately reveal the productivity of the academy. One that is getting much more attention is the concept of ‘contact hours’. This is an indicator that discloses the number of hours per week during which students experience formal teaching or tutorial support.

This is not an entirely pointless exercise. When I was President of Dublin City University we were able to establish a pretty unambiguous link between student attendance at classes and examination performance. But attendance at what, exactly? There are growing doubts in some circles about the usefulness of large lectures, in part because as a medium for transmitting knowledge it has been overtaken by the internet and other freely available sources, and in part because lectures are seen as too passive a learning method. On the other hand, small group tutorials and seminars are seen as being much more effective tools, not least because they are more participative and allow greater monitoring of individual student performance.

But then again, as higher education funding dips, large group classes are much more economical and may allow the idea to be sustained that students are enjoying a sufficient number of ‘contact hours’, even if the pedagogical value of the exercise may be more debatable.

All this is part of the growing uncertainty as to what universities should actually be doing to allow students to have the best possible educational experience. As all the accumulated assumptions and traditions of higher education crumble, and as the academy faces serious scepticism from its stakeholders, it has become more and more difficult to develop a confident and well judged pedagogical framework. Demands for, or expectations about, contact hours could more usefully be put aside for now until we have established much greater clarity as to what works and what doesn’t. Otherwise, to quote the truly awful bureaucratic cliché, it’s just a box-ticking exercise.

The decline of globalisation in higher education?

March 20, 2012

The most recent statistics released by Ireland’s Higher Education Authority (Higher Education: Key Facts and Figures 2010-11) contain some interesting information. One of the things we learn is that international student recruitment by Irish universities and colleges has stalled and may be in decline.  During the past academic year the numbers went down for all the key countries and regions, with the sole exception of recruitment from other EU countries. In so far as international student recruitment supports the finances of the sector, recruitment from EU countries does not make a contribution as the students do not pay tuition fees.

Overall, international students account for a mere 7 per cent of the Irish student body. This compares with 17 per cent in the United Kingdom, though some evidence suggests that new visa rules in the UK may also be about to have a negative effect on numbers there. In the UK this may to some extent be compensated for by a continuing strong rise in students studying for a British degree in their own countries.

But what of Ireland? The  percentage of international students is already too low. It is not just that international students bring money, they also create a more cosmopolitan and diverse student body and enhance the experience for home students. It would be wholly negative if the trend towards a more international kind of higher education were to be reversed. There is work to be done.

How exactly should universities view their students?

March 6, 2012

Next to the main reception desk of a university I visited a year or two ago is a large painting of a classical scene, in which a white robed teacher is addressing a group of young men. The teacher is standing, then young men are sitting around in a semi-circle. The teacher is talking and gesticulating, while the students sit quietly. A few of them are looking at the teacher with close attention, but at least one is distracted and looking somewhere else, while one is visibly asleep. But overall the image is one of teacher and disciples, of wisdom reaching out to young minds anxious to learn. There is something patriarchal about the teacher and his relationship with his students.

How would we present this picture today? What do we think is the relationship between our academics and our students? What does ‘learning’ mean in this current world, and what does it mean to be a ‘teacher’? Indeed, are lecturers and professors ‘teachers’ at all in the sense suggested by that classical scene? What concept of the relationship do we have in today’s world of ‘learning outcomes’?

The problem is that we probably don’t have a clear concept at all. The good things in today’s academic world include the much greater emancipation of students and the acceptance of participation in the learner journey. But alongside this there is the much greater intrusion of bureaucracy, and uncertainty as to how the students’ participation should be managed and directed.

One way of looking at it would be to say that the student’s relationship with her or his university is a contractual one, as some universities now do. In this relationship students accept a balance of rights and responsibilities in a legally defined relationship. Another would be to say that traditional models of managing higher education should give way to one in which students share, at least to some extent, the process of setting the institutional strategic direction and its implementation.

The legal conceptualisation of higher education is becoming more visible in the rising number of complaints in some countries, either to independent adjudicators or in the courts.

It seems to me that we have spent too much time on funding and organisation development, and not enough on clarifying the nature of the learner journey through the higher education system, and the relationship between students and their teachers. We have been driven to prioritising structure over pedagogy. It’s time to redress the balance.

The age of innocence?

September 26, 2011

As students arrive in their various universities and prepare for a new academic year, spare a thought for freshers some of whom, apparently, hardly know how to get out of bed unaided. According to a survey carried out by supermarket group Sainsburys, some students don’t know how to boil an egg, have no idea how to clean a bath, have never operated a dishwasher themselves, are completely innocent of any knowledge of finance or banking, and cannot get a fix on how to pay a bill. In short, they lack pretty much any of the life skills needed in order to walk out of the front door without holding someone’s hand.

In my experience most students are rather more savvy than that, and are considerably less innocent of knowledge of everyday life. However, it is wise to remember that many students will find their first days at university to be a daunting experience, with less of the support and guidance at every step that they are used to. It is therefore important to tell them and then remind them that they need never be alone, and that in universities there is always someone to turn to for help. For some the transition to higher education can be lonely, and so an appropriately friendly word or gesture can make a difference. Most students will flourish in their new environment very quickly, but they may benefit from a little help at first. Be patient with them, and never treat a question as stupid.

The problem of student debt

August 4, 2011

As longer term readers of this blog will know, it is (and remains) my view that students who can afford to make a contribution to the cost of their university education should do so, in large part because this will allow the use of public money specifically to support those who need financial help in order to access higher education. I am therefore a supporter of tuition fees for those who can afford them – though I also accept that in Scotland there will be no fees for the foreseeable future (in Ireland the position is now less clear).

However, while I doubt whether public funding should be spent to cover the entire university education of wealthier students, I have significant reservations about the use of student loans to fund degree programmes. While it is true that a university degree  has the effect of increasing the anticipated lifetime salaries of graduates, there is also now growing evidence that the size of average student (or graduate) debts in a number of developed countries is now such that many will struggle to meet repayments, and indeed many may conclude that the financial burdens they are carrying exceed their expectations of higher pay.

Graduate debt statistics bear out this problem. In addition however there are now increasingly bizarre developments that highlight the issue. So for example the recent suggestion by Sue Rabbitt Roff, a senior research fellow at the University of Dundee, that it should be permissible for people to sell a kidney for transplant purposes was justified, inter alia, with the suggestion that this might be a useful way of paying off university loans. Equally alarming is the sudden rise of websites that offer ‘sugar babies’ to ‘sugar daddies’ – i.e. the offer by female students of ‘companionship’ or sex to older men in return for financial support while at university. While the websites in question are American, one of them claims to have over 200 Irish female students registered for these purposes.

As the trend continues to have high tuition fees for students funded by loans, the consequences of this need to be considered carefully. It is not that loans are never appropriate, but rather that there needs to be a much more sophisticated assessment of when a loan is a viable funding method, or when the resulting debts will simply be unmanageable. This also means that access programmes need to be more than token in terms of students numbers. It is time to take the financial circumstances of students much more seriously.

Laptop exams

May 23, 2011

About a year ago I asked a group of students what they most disliked about their studies. One gripe they all had in common was examinations – but not that they were obliged to sit these, but rather that the answers had to be written out by hand. One of them told me that exams were the only thing for which he now used handwriting. Everything else, even lecture notes, he now did on a laptop or smartphone (or maybe now a tablet computer). He no longer possessed even one notebook; he could not see why he would ever need one. He did possess a ballpoint pen, but he illustrated its usefulness to him by telling me that, since he had been given it three years previously, he had never needed to buy a new refill. So why, he asked, should he be forced to use it for exams? If we were going to be that retro-minded, why not go the whole hog and insist on students using quill pens with ink?

Well, if he were a student at Edinburgh University he might be about to get some relief. According to a report in the newspaper Scotland on Sunday, the university is considering allowing students to use laptops in exams, though with software installed that would prevent them from going online or using other programs during the exam. According to the report, ‘senior officials at Edinburgh University believe it is unfair to expect undergraduates to resort to pens and paper during critical assessments when most of their coursework is done using a keyboard.’ Not only is the physical process of writing by hand now stressful for them, but they are also used to planning their work and executing it on a computer, so that doing it by hand unsettles them. In fact, Edinburgh are not altogether pioneers – secondary school students in Norway have been using laptops in examinations since 2009, as have students in some American universities.

It is probably true to say that we have barely scratched the surface in considering what modern technology may do to change teaching and pedagogy, and how it is affecting the students’ perceptions of study methods and assessment. Right now it looks as if universities will, without any particular coordination, slip into new ways of doing things, though quite probably not consistently. It is time to pay a little more attention to these matters.

Revisiting university access

April 20, 2011

Whatever country you are in, and whatever higher education system you are reviewing (unless you’ve found an obscure one I am not familiar with), there are serious issues regarding the extent to which the student body reflects in any real sense the population of the country from which it is drawn. Notwithstanding serious efforts to widen access and remove obstacles, in every system the participation of students from socio-economically disadvantaged groups is not satisfactory. While over the past half century or so middle income groups have gone to universities in much greater numbers, the same is on the whole not true of those from poorer backgrounds. Moreover, this pattern appears to apply regardless of the existence or otherwise of tuition fees. Indeed, it is possible that access for these groups in society has been determined more by the arrangements made by individual universities than by whatever is put in place by the state; though it is probably also true that more targeted financial support for the disadvantaged by the state would have a positive effect.

In this setting, it is interesting to read in the Irish Times that the Provost-elect of Trinity College Dublin plans to look at new ways  to ‘increase admissions of poorer students’. Suggesting that the CAO points system (under which Irish students are admitted to higher education institutions on the basis of a points score determined by the final school examination results) may need to be reviewed, Paddy Prendergast suggests that Ireland might use a scheme pioneered in Texas; applying this to Ireland or TCD, Professor Prendergast wonders whether there should be a rule under which ‘the top 5 per cent in all state schools gained automatic access to the leading university’. In fact, the rule in Texas applies to 10 (not 5) per cent, and we’ll gloss over the comment about a ‘leading university’. But could this idea work?

Probably not, if he is suggesting a specific scheme for Trinity College. I haven’t worked out the statistics, but if the top 5 of every state school were to be given automatic access to TCD, and assuming they all wanted to go, it would more or less remove all discretion from the College as to whom to admit. Furthermore, it would create serious confusion in the rest of the higher education system, and probably a high level of hostility between TCD and the others. But even if he is suggesting a sector-wide rule that doesn’t just apply to TCD, it is not immediately obvious that it would work. How would the allocation of students from these groups be decided as between the 40 or so Irish higher education institutions?

I am all in favour of abandoning the points system which, as I have noted previously, has done more to undermine Irish higher education than almost anything else. I am also strongly of the view that access for the disadvantaged needs to be addressed much more seriously. But the two are not particularly connected. The reason for the unsatisfactory participation rate by poorer students is not a result of university selection practices, but of various social and economic factors, including low expectations, bad advice, inadequate personal and family resources, and so forth. These need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Some of Paddy Prendergast’s other comments are interesting and show a willingness to address problem areas in higher education. It is also good that he understands that the route by which students enter higher education is not satisfactory. But on the specifics of access for the disadvantaged, he may want to reflect a little more on what he has proposed here.

Assessing the student experience

February 18, 2011

Once a year the journal Times Higher Education conducts and then publishes a survey of students in British universities, recording the criteria that students believe are important in assessing  the quality of their experience and the performance of their institution in relation to these. The results are then compiled in the form of a league table, the most recent of which has just been published by the journal.

As with every survey and every league table, it is wise to  enter a health warning or two. There will always be a margin of error, and in the case of each institution only a relatively small sample of the student body is involved. Also, a subjective experience on the part of a student may not necessarily translate into an objective statement of quality or the lack of it. All that having been said, the survey and the results from it can be used to gather some insights.

One interesting observation would have to be that while the results do not absolutely mirror university rankings produced in other league tables, they are not wholly incompatible either. So interestingly, research intensive universities on the whole appear to offer a better student experience than those that focus largely on teaching. Post-1992 universities – with a couple of exceptions, including the one I am about to join, RGU in Aberdeen (one of only two to be in the top 40, at 25) – do not do as well as older ones. Oxford and Cambridge, while showing up in the top 10, are not right at the top (they are at 6 and 4, respectively, out of a total of 113): that distinction goes to Loughborough University, for the second year running. The highest placed Scottish university is the University of Dundee (number 5), the highest placed Welsh institution is Bangor University (number 14), now led by ex Maynooth president John Hughes. Overall, the availability of good facilities, including good sports facilities, makes an impression on students, though ‘good teaching, enthusiastic staff and a well-structured course’ are seen as the most important.

In England surveys such as this may become an important selection tool for student applicants, who may balance the cost of degree programmes in the new tuition fee environment against student satisfaction recorded here. It is in any case right that universities should take seriously the impression they make on their students, and the level of satisfaction that these students feel. It is interesting also that students do not view what they find that differently from how it might be assessed in other processes. And finally, it is fairly clear and probably unsurprising that a well resourced institution will seem more attractive to students, as much as to anyone else.

Is there a national student movement?

November 14, 2010

DCU’s students – or those who voted in a referendum on the issue – have decided not to re-affiliate to the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). The vote was decisive, with around 70 per cent rejecting the proposal.

Back in the 1970s when I was a student in Dublin, all students of all the universities were members of USI. Now, apart from DCU, two other major institutions are not affiliated. What are the implications, particularly as USI tries to construct an anti-fees campaign? Does it speak for the national student body? Is such a a voice needed today, or has the time for such things passed?