Microcosmographia Academica

A reminder about or introduction to a brief and refreshing piece of summer reading.

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The almost timeless Microcosmographia Academica is of course the essential text for all those with a keen interest in academic politics and university management.

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Latest university league table joy: a summary

Typical. You wait ages for a new set of university rankings and then several show up in just a couple of weeks.

First of the latest batch (as previously reported in an earlier post) appeared in the Telegraph late July. Derived from the Good University Guide which has more detailed information than the paper. University of Nottingham in 15th place.

Bizarrely released on A level results day – which might suggest they are not totally proud of the results – the new Times league table does seem to have been put together in something of a hurry.

U of Ox

The reduced number (and slightly odd mix) of subject tables is disappointing but the rise of Exeter up the table will surprise a few people (except perhaps the compilers who just happen to be a spin off from the University concerned). Oxford wins by the way.

Amusingly, along with some other overall statistics, the Times includes a specific table which simply lists the absolute numbers of male and female students at particular universities. Unsurprisingly, the institutions which have the most students overall feature prominently here.

Then the Shanghai Jiao Tong University World Rankings pop up. Now in its 5th year, the SJTU table has acquired impressive international recognition. Shows University of Nottingham as 9th in the UK and 81st in the world. This year they have added a small number of broad subject field tables too.

Continuing the international theme then, we have the US News and World Report rankings. This is of course a quite different proposition but is particularly interesting in marking out the possible future for other league tables (eg alumni involvement, fundraising, peer review). Note though that they make you pay for the full rankings. Doesn’t seem fair.

So, an interesting set of tables. Sunday Times is due out before too long and then we will have the full set for 2007. Happy days.

IoD on university standards

The Institute of Directors (IoD) has just published its annual Education Briefing Book. Now, there are many interesting pieces of data in this briefing book relating to all sectors of education but the most eye-catching issue is of course what a 500 strong sample of the IoD’s membership has to say on the subject of standards:

First, schools:

• 32 per cent of IoD members thought the quality of education provided by schools had got better, 49 per cent thought it had got worse.

Oh dear. Now FE:

• 32 per cent of members thought the quality of education provided by FE colleges had got better, 38 per cent thought it had got worse.

Getting a sense of the general drift? Finally, universities:

• 29 per cent of members thought the quality of education provided by universities had got better, 41 per cent thought it had got worse.

So, that’s that settled then. Note that it is not clear whether respondents were furnished with all of the data in the Briefing Book before responding or if they drew on some other sources of information before delivering their judgement on the country’s universities.

A level standards up and down

Anticipating the August ritual of handwringing about A level results Peter Wilby provides a well argued antidote in the Guardian. He rightly highlights the problems associated with making meaningful judgements about standards over time and the absurd nature of newspaper reports on the topic. However, whilst it is reasonable to argue that A levels can be viewed as a rationing system for universities I don’t think it really follows therefore that:

A-levels now sort out the top 30% or 40% who should go on to higher education. If we decide that 60% should proceed, the numbers who pass and achieve high grades will rise accordingly.

Downloads: the new student currency?

Follow up to Classic August survey

Leeds University clearly believes this new research has real merit. And that you will be quids in if you choose them over, say, the University of Nottingham:

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During one academic year, going to Leeds could mean the average student is more than £2,238 better off– the equivalent of more than 2,800 single track music downloads

Does this mean that students are now forsaking decimal currency in favour of one which deals in 79p units? I suppose it is at least better than saying five pints a night.

Responding to league table comments

Follow up to Getting cross about league tables.

Bernard Kingston, who compiles the table which appeared recently in the Telegraph and which was criticised by the VC of Anglia Ruskin recently has responded.

Prof Thorne described the table as a “dreadful piece of work” after Anglia Ruskin University was ranked 104th in the list, published online, while Cambridge University came out on top.

But Dr Kingston said he did not accept Prof Thorne’s claim that 24 universities were excluded, insisting only wholly post-graduate institutions and single-subject institutions had been omitted.

He also defended the ranking of Aston, in 12th position, higher than Nottingham University, in 14th, saying the scores were based on official data and data supplied by the institutions themselves.

He added: “The fact is, in the nine measures we used, Aston comes out slightly higher than Nottingham.”

I was on his side right up to that final comment.

See the Cambridge Evening News for the full exciting story.

Another use for Facebook

Another Facebook story, this time from Wales on Sunday.

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There aren’t many more visible places for sharing coursework really:

Cardiff University has reprimanded more than 20 bio-sciences students over comments made on the social networking site Facebook.

The students have been told off after making offensive remarks about [a]…lecturer…and using the site to share information about coursework.

But perhaps this was a genuine attempt to exploit the collaborative learning opportunities offered by such applications?

Classic August survey

This piece in today’s Guardian starts off sensibly enough:

Fewer undergraduates take jobs to help fund their studies

…and shows some reasonably sensible-looking data which suggests that the number of students working in term time has dropped as have the hours worked.

But then they tell you some other numbers:

A survey of 2,700 full-time students at 70 universities across Britain found that the proportion working had fallen for the first time since the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) began compiling its student living index in 2004. The hours worked also fell.

OK, it is actually fewer than 40 students per university we are talking about – fine while we are at the aggregate level I suppose…but hang on:

The bank’s index ranked university towns by calculating average local weekly spending on accommodation and other living expenses, and then dividing it by the average weekly income for working students. Leeds was the most affordable, followed by Brighton, Dundee and London. Nottingham came out worst.

Working students = 41% of 39 students = around 16 students per institution. And on this basis we get a result where Nottingham appears to be the least affordable city for students in the UK. This seems to raise questions about sample size and also about all those other towns and cities where students live which were not covered by the 70 institutions sampled.

OK, it’s August silly season stuff (as another story in the Guardian confirms) but doesn’t mean you can’t get all grumpy about this kind of thing.

International students a good thing: official

News from the Commons education select committee as reported by the BBC:

(a) International students are good news (although think it is a wee bit more than £4m they bring to the UK economy)
(b) We need to work harder, here and internationally, to maintain our position (thanks)
(c) Others should be providing generous scholarships (hard to disagree).

Best thing though is the picture of the Trent Building – yet the University of Nottingham is not referred to in the piece.

Italy stops Honorary Degree awards

Italian HE Minister bans honoraries shock

The Italian HE minister has banned the award of honarary degrees according to the Chronicle, claiming that celebrity recipients bring dishonour.

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Citing the need to protect the “prestige” of Italy’s university system, the country’s higher-education minister, Fabio Mussi, ordered its 66 public universities on Wednesday to stop granting honorary degrees for the rest of the year.

The move followed last week’s controversy over the University of Turin’s decision to award an honorary bachelor’s degree in economics to Jonella Ligresti, 40, who is chairwoman of one of Italy’s largest insurance companies, a family business, but who was previously known as a medal winner in equestrian events. The university acted over the objections of Mr. Mussi, who by law must sign off on all such degrees before they can be granted. In recent years, Italian universities have honored an increasing number of celebrities with debatable academic achievements, including the champion motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi

These two awards sound a little off-beam perhaps but my guess is that similar honours wouldn’t look totally out of place in a UK context provided that there was some connection with the institution. What is very alien though is the notion of the HE Minister over-ruling institutional autonomy in the award of degrees, even honorary ones.

Getting cross about league tables

Nice snippet in the Cambridge Evening News on the latest league table which has just appeared in the Telegraph (note that it appears rather similar in methodology to the table which used to appear in the Times).

The vice chancellor at Anglia Ruskin:

has come out fighting, describing the report as a “dreadful” piece of work totally lacking in credibility.

He said: “This is just about the most appalling piece of work I have ever seen in my 30 years in higher education. For a start there are 24 universities which are not even on the list. Anyone using this table as a guide about where to study is likely to be seriously misled.

“There are reputable league tables out there, but this is a dreadful piece of work. Does anyone really think Aston is better than Nottingham University? It is little more than a random collection of statistics leading to random rankings.

Hard to disagree with this line (especially the penultimate sentence) although if the rankings were genuinely random then it is unlikely that Cambridge and Oxford would always end up first or second on the list.