Tag Archives: universities

‘Student’ protests and political process in the UK

Being at the rally in Trafalgar Square today, supposedly against the proposed cuts in higher education, made me reflect on several aspects of the contemporary political process in the UK:

  • First, it is great to see so many UK students for once standing up for something that they see as being a cause worth fighting.  For far too long, many students here, unlike some of their peers elsewhere, seem to have been apathetic and lazy, unwilling to engage in any form of radical political protest, with the majority preferring instead to enjoy the good life associated with undertaking a minimal amount of academic work and a maximum amount of partying.  There is an irony here, though, as a young person on the train sitting next to me on the way home said “They are only looking after their own interests, in’t they. They can afford to!”
  • To gain groundswell political support, it is essential to have a simple message that people can sign up to – even if their own various interpretations of that message are different.  It is easy to unite people around a simple theme of complaining against ‘cuts’ that will affect them, but this hides the complexities surrounding the restructuring of UK universities and higher education.
  • At the heart of today’s protests were people intent on challenging the police – seeking to provoke them into violent retaliation.  At least whilst I was there, it was remarkable how calm the police remained against what many of them must have seen as being unprovoked and unfair abuse.  What struck me most about this was that many of those hurling the abuse chose to hide their identities through masks and hooded clothing, whilst individual police officers were fully identifiable by their ‘numbers’.  I do not want to be seen as an apologist for the police, and of course there have been cases where individual police officers have over-stepped the mark, but there is a real irony here in that protestors in the UK are indeed able to protest – peacefully – because, in general, the police have tried to be even handed in maintaining order and permitting people of all political persuasions to express an opinion.
  • I was amazed at how little anyone in the crowd seemed really to care about what, to me, matters most, the destruction of university based research excellence in the UK!  I have written at length elsewhere about this, but the protests convinced me even more of the importance of differentiating between ‘universities’ and higher education.  We need fundamentally to restructure UK higher education, and this should involve a very dramatic reduction in the number of students going to ‘universities’.  Instead, we should provide high quality and appropriate training and ‘education’, to fit all young people for the sorts of employment that they will subsequently enter.  Let’s create outstanding opportunities for young people to gain the skills and education that they need – but let’s not pretend that the institutions in which this takes place are universities.
  • And yes, of course, universities should be free for those able to benefit from the research-led opportunities that they provide, and for students who are committed to exploring the boundaries of knowledge diligently, rigorously and with enthusiasm!
  • Finally, I find it amazing that according to the Guardian, Vince Cable, “the cabinet minister in charge of tuition fees, said today he was prepared to abstain in a key vote on the government’s policy if that was what fellow Liberal Democrat MPs decided to do as a group. The business secretary said he was prepared to take the unprecedented step of not backing his own proposals for the sake of party unity”. How can the Secretary of State responsible for the introduction of increased tuition fees not vote in favour of them?  He should surely resign forthwith if that really is his view.

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University students cheating – who is to blame?

Some weeks ago, soon after exams were over, a friend brought me a couple of pairs of expensive sports shoes that she had found in a skip on campus, and asked what I thought about them.  As these picture show, written all across them were formulae that had clearly been put there to ‘assist’ their owner, or to put it more simply to help them cheat.

I have seen numerous forms of cheating before, but this was a first for me – and I would have thought that it was highly risky for the perpetrator!  Invigilation in exams has become ever more rigorous, and we are regularly sent lists of things to watch out for.  I recall on one occasion even being told  as an invigilator to be aware in case students wearing short skirts had written answers to questions on their thighs.  How we were meant to investigate this, I was never told.

Why, then, is cheating so rife?  I guess, in large part it is because of the increasing credentialism and pressure that is put on students to learn and regurgitate, rather than actually thinking for themselves.  If questions in exams were primarily designed to explore how students thought, rather than on what they could remember (although the two are obviously closely related), then there would be much less benefit in trying to cheat.  I am also sure that cheating in part derives from the fact that many students have to spend much of their time earning an income to cover the costs of fees, accommodation and maintenance, and therefore are unable to acquire the level of knowledge that we expect from them when it comes to exams.  Some might even be lazy, and simply cheat because they prefer to do that, with all the associated excitement of being caught, than actually doing the exciting intellectual work required in the first place.

In all instances, though, this is such a waste!  Students should surely go to universities because they want to learn, to think for themselves, and to develop understandings that will help them influence the future for the better.  No amount of cheating, regurgitating accepted truths will ever help achieve this.

The scale of cheating across universities is immense: in 2006, the Daily Mail reported that 90% of students cheat when writing essays; in 2008, the Guardian reported some 9000 cases of plagiarism across 100 universities in the UK under the heading ‘cheating rife among university students’; and the Canadian publication Macleans recently commented that ‘With more than 50 per cent of students cheating, university degrees are losing their value’.

Plagiarism software has gone some way to prevent plagiarism in the writing of course assessed essays, but this does not avoid cases where a student pays someone else to create an entirely new essay for them – which happens far more frequently than one might expect! There are also numerous websites which claim to provide a service that will not be picked up by the most sophisticated plagiarism checking software.  It is ironic that one of the most important reasons why course-assessed work was introduced was that it was thought to be less stressful for students, and that they would therefore do better in it than in unseen terminal exams.  Perhaps, because of so many abuses, it would be fairer to all if we just went back to such unseen tests – although I guess this would put many companies producing the plagiarism checking software out of business!

This is all just so sad, and reflects once again the commodification of knowledge that I have railed about so much in the past.  Students should want to go to university to learn to think for themselves, and not just to repeat what they are expected to remember.  Cheating is a sign both that we have accepted the wrong people into university, but also that we have failed to inspire them to think afresh.  But then again, if universities have become just higher education institutions, teaching people to learn and regurgitate accepted facts, and if that is what society wants, then I suppose we just have to accept cheating as being central to modern life.

Just think, we could do some DNA testing on the shoes, sample all graduates, and identify who used them.  I wonder what degree they actually finished up with?

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The brave new world of a free market university system in the UK

The Browne review places the final nail in the coffin for the belief that universities are about anything other than economic interest.  From henceforth, university education in the UK has become a commodity to be bought and sold in a free market for individual benefit. Overthrown are beliefs that university education is about intellectual curiosity, about moral judgement, and about communal interest.

The short-sighted stupidity and naïvety of the recommendation that universities should be able to charge market prices for their offerings must, be challenged.  Even for those who see the world purely through an economic lens, the arguments against Browne’s recommendations should be convincing. Imagine a world where:

  • British students increasingly live at home and turn to high quality distance-based courses provided more cheaply by excellent universities, often in other countries;
  • Many students go overseas to study in countries where education is free, thus making a huge cost-saving in gaining a degree and contributing to the local economies of the countries where they study (rather than the UK);
  • Many UK universities shut down, because students realise that the courses they offer are a complete waste of time and do not give them any additional lifetime earning expectations; and
  • Employers, realising even more than they do at present that UK universities do not provide the skills for which they are looking, increasingly employ people without degrees, and give them tailored training courses (often collaboratively with other employers) to ensure that they have the expertise required.

These are just some of the likely economic impacts of the recommendations that are now before government.  The net outcome will be a dramatic reduction in the UK higher education sector, a shift overseas in the amount spent on fees and maintenance by UK born students, an increase in unemployment of former university staff who are unable to gain any other form of employment, and a decline in the wider contribution of the higher education sector to the UK economy.

Even on economic grounds, a decision to let universities charge whatever fees they think the market will stand is fundamentally flawed.  So, even for those who do not care about the social divisiveness, the intellectual sterility, and the communally destructive effects of such policies, these arguments should at least carry some weight!

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The Browne Review of Higher Education

Can anyone tell me why Lord Mandelson (the former Business Secretary) chose John Browne (Baron Browne of Madingley) to chair the review of higher education in the UK that is due to report on 12th October?  Given his background, and the wider political agenda of which the review is a part, the report’s conclusions can never really have been in question:

  • Browne spent almost his entire career at BP, beginning as an apprentice in 1966 and rising to Group Chief Executive of the combined BP Amoco group in 2007
  • He was one of the most highly paid executives in the UK, with a reported £5.7 million salary in 2004
  • According to some, he was the person most responsible for cost cutting at BP that many attribute to having led to the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 and most recently the Deepwater Horizon Explosion in 2010.

In short, he is a businessman, who was paid a salary that most people can only dream of, and built his ‘success’ on cuts.  Although he is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and a Fellow of the Institute of Physics (amongst others), he has shown that he has little real understanding of the purpose of universities, the issues and challenges facing academic and students, and the crucial role that high quality research and teaching must play in Britain’s future.

Surely even he is intelligent enough to understand that increasing fees twofold or threefold will mean that many students will no longer be able to afford to go to university, or will choose instead to go to universities elsewhere in countries  that still believe in the provision of free, high quality university education. A free market in higher education cannot serve the interests of students, of the country, or of university excellence.

Just because Browne was able to earn such a large salary having gained a Physics degree from Cambridge and a Business Master’s degree from Stanford, does not mean that every graduate will be able to do likewise.  Only a few are able to earn the grossly inflated salaries that now seem to be so prevalent amongst senior executives in major corporations and the bankers who brought our financial systems to the point of crisis that has been so damaging to our economy.

A more intelligent and sympathetic Chair might just have led to a more creative and viable future for our once great universities.

Links to my reflections on:

Together, we might just be able to salvage a small number of high quality universities from the impending bonfire of the vanities.


Filed under Higher Education, UK

Jobs or degrees for young people in the UK

It’s that time of year again: school exam results, and pictures of happy young people getting the results for which they hoped, alongside grim stories of those who have failed to make the grade! “Desperate for a degree?” in the Metro on 28th August, ‘”Carnage’ as pupils scramble for university places“, or “Universities swamped in mad dash for places” in the Times

Much of this reporting is highly misleading, especially concerning the difficult decisions young people are facing when they do not get the results that they had wanted. The Metro, for example, comments that “”Up to 200,000 youngsters were expected to miss out on higher education places despite record A-level results”.  Not a bit of it.  Why should anyone think they are missing out?

To be sure, it is very unfortunate when school leavers do much less well at their A levels than expected.  However, they should always have kept one of their university options as a safety net, in case of this eventuality.  There is absolutely no point in keeping  an offer of AAA and another of AAB, when realistically there is a possibility that you might get BBB.  Moreover, there is a fundamentally misplaced assumption that anyone who gets A levels – even low grades – should automatically be able to go to a university!  Why?  University entry is not an automatic right. It should be reserved for those who can benefit most from it, and can best use the opportunity to enhance their knowledge and understanding.

Although youth (18-24 year olds) unemployment in the UK fell by 16,000 over the last month, it is still 324,000 according to the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion.  Many young people are therefore choosing to try to go to poor quality universities, rather than entering the ranks of the unemployed.  Even with average student debt around £25,000 after three years, this is seen as being desirable primarily as a lifestyle choice.  The expectation is that graduate salaries will more than enable this debt to be paid off.  Anyway, at this age, who really cares?

There is little point, though, in many young people with poor A levels scrabbling to go to a university.  Many degrees offer few skills that will ever be of relevance in the job market. Indeed, employers regularly complain about the low skill levels of graduates in the UK! These people would be far better off starting on apprenticeships or entering the work environment immediately. They would not saddle themselves with debt, and in many instances their career prospects are just as good as those of graduates.  Moreover, by the time they are 21 they will have three years of income over and above their peers who waste three years simply ‘having a good time’ at university.  Graduate employment is tough – it is currently estimated that there are now some 70 people searching for every graduate job!  So, instead of going to university, those young people who are not really interested in academic studies should turn to the job market (see report in the Sunday Times on the university of life!).

This is really where we are failing young people.  Youth unemployment is far too high.  We need to encourage more apprenticeship schemes, and create opportunities for more young people to be gainfully employed.  It is far better for them to be working productively rather than costing tax payers money simply to enable them to gain increasingly worthless degrees at low quality universities.  Better still, we should close down half of these so-called universities, and instead create training institutes that would enable young people to gain the skills needed  to compete successfully in the global employment market!

So let’s stop fooling ourselves. Very few young people are actually missing out on university places!

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Illiterate UK graduates find it hard to get a job!

I was interested to read a report by Jack Grimston in the Sunday Times on 1st August under the headline “Top firms forced to reject ‘barely literate’ graduates”.  What amused me is that anyone should find this surprising!  For years, schools have paid insufficient attention to the teaching of good English, and most university academics simply do not have the time to correct the spelling, punctuation and grammar of essays written by students.

The report commented that:

  • “Waitrose and other blue-chip employers are struggling to fill graduate trainee schemes, despite receiving thousands of applications, because candidates fail to fill in forms properly and sometimes seem barely literate”
  • “Will Corder, UK recruitment adviser at Kimberly-Clark, the manufacturer of brands such as Kleenex and Andrex, said his company had been able to recruit only eight graduate trainees, fewer than in previous years. One candidate, asked how he or she had developed leadership skills, replied: “At church Im [sic] in charge of some organisation.” Corder said: “Surprisingly, it is particularly bad among those doing master’s degrees — bad grammar, bad spelling and they do tend to be very, very verbose and say very little”
  • A shortage of qualified university and school leavers is holding back the economic recovery, according to early findings by the Institute of Directors in a poll of members.“A surprising number have vacancies they are unable to fill,” said Mike Harris, the institute’s head of skills, who will present his findings to Vince Cable’s business department. “They cite lack of skills and bad attitude. They are flagging up clearly that it is a real struggle to find workers and this is holding back recovery.”
  • “Recruiters complain of applicants unable to spell company names, answer simple questions or provide information instead of vacuous buzzwords”

This is a damning indictment of the British higher education system.  Whilst I would be one of the last to say that a university education should purely be about providing skilled employees for top firms, it is critically important that academics listen to what employers say.  The message is clear: universities are turning out graduates who often seem barely literate, and more worryingly still who have a poor attitude to the workplace.  Surprise, surprise!


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Changes to A-levels: improving the quality of learning?

A report in today’s Sunday Times, highlights concerns expressed by the Education Secretary Michael Gove, about the structure of assessment in British secondary education.  As the paper reported, “Michael Gove wants to see A-levels become more academically rigorous and to scrap AS-levels, which are in the first year of the sixth form … He is responding to complaints by universities that the current A-level system, introduced in 2000, fails to prepare pupils for in-depth study”.

As the Sunday Times goes on to observe, Gove “will invite universities to design new A-levels, modelled on the new Cambridge Pre-U qualification, taken by a number of leading state and independent schools in preference to A-levels. Gove said: ‘We will see fewer modules and more exams at the end of two years of sixth form and, as a result, a revival of the art of deep thought'”.

There is absolutely no doubt that in terms of academic rigour most students who are educated in the British education system today lack many of the skills required to undertake a traditional university education successfully.  This is one of the factors underlying the dumbing down of standards in British universities that has occurred over the last decade.  The reform of A-levels may therefore be able to contribute to the training of young people’s minds so that they can better cope with the intellectual rigours required of a high quality university education.

However, this is only part of the story.  Many young people work incredibly hard for their A-levels, and perform outstandingly well at good universities – even under the present system.  Our secondary schools also provides them with a diversity of skills and other experiences that were simply not available a decade ago.  Such skills are important – but do not necessarily fit them for intellectually rigorous university degrees. Let us not decry the huge achievements of our young people who have gained excellent A-level grades over the last decade, and their teachers who have struggled to help them learn whilst also navigating the ever increasing amount of regulation imposed on them.

Yes, universities are indeed about training people’s minds, encouraging them to think beyond the confines of existing knowledges, and developing the incredibly important skill of critical analysis.  But we should not expect 50% of our young people to be interested in doing this, or indeed to be able to do it successfully!  We do need rigorous ways of accessing people’s aptitude to enter a high quality university system, and the present AS and A2 system has undoubtedly failed to do this.  However, so-called university courses that cater for the apparent demand for dumbed down mass higher education system do not need rigorous A-levels as a mechanism for judging the quality of applicants. If you can get into a university today with C, D and E grades under the present A-level system, it seems to be to be very clear that these universities are not actually interested in the skills that new, more rigorous and intellectually challenging A-levels might provide.

We must have an intellectually vibrant and challenging university system in this country.  But until it is accepted that this means we need fewer universities, and that other forms of further education are more appropriate for perhaps a quarter of our young people, tinkering with the examinations that young people  undertake at the end of secondary education will make little difference.

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