True Crime on Campus

True Crime on Campus

The following reports were taken from campus police logs as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    OLD DOMINION U.

    May 21

    Intimidation. ODU Student reported unknown persons left a note on the windshield of her vehicle, accusing her of sleeping with someone’s boyfriend and threatening to make her life hell, while parked in the 1200 block W. 45th Street. She reports not having a boyfriend and feels it was left by mistake.

    U. OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN

    5:29 p.m., June 7

    Theft. Upon arrival, I met with a UT student who stated her Louis Vuitton wallet with about $8 in it was stolen from a third-floor locker in the University Teaching Center.

    U. OF NEVADA AT LAS VEGAS

    12:30 p.m., June 9

    Inner campus sidewalks. An employee struck a student with a golf cart on the sidewalk between Carlson Education and Ham Fine Arts after the employee became distracted. The student was transported to the hospital.

    PLYMOUTH STATE U.

    12:42 a.m., June 22

    Motorist assist. S6 advised they have received multiple calls regarding a squirrel trapped inside a silver 1998 Honda Civic parked on campus. S6 advised a message was left with the owner advising them and will assist if needed.

    9:42 p.m., July 8

    Off-campus assist. P3 requested PSU 4 assist to locate a male subject that is reported to be walking on Route 3 carrying a full sheet of plywood.

I rather like these. Mainly because they complement my own collection of incidents from several universities over the years. A few of my favourites, from the UK:

    0615 Security were requested to Lincoln Hall as a Conference Delegate asked for a plaster as her shoes were rubbing. Security attended and a plaster was provided.

    1900 Report of a Bouncy Castle being used in the Portland Building Security attended. The Egyptian Society had put the Castle up and a large number of children were using it without supervision. The organisers where asked to take it down.

    1230 Report that a Student had fallen down the steps at the front of the George Green Library. Security attended and gave First Aid and a Security vehicle took the Student to the QMC. The cause of the accident was that the Student was texting and not looking where they were going.

    0210 Report of a Tarantula Spider in a room in Southwell Hall. Security attended and were told the Spider had gone under the bed. After a careful search by Security Officers, a small house spider was captured and removed from Campus. The occupant of the room confirmed that the spider was the one they had seen.

    1630 Report of Sheep loose on Melton Lane. Security contacted Staff to round them up.

Shocking stuff, I’m sure you’d agree.

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Some problems with academic standards and comparability

Some problems with academic standards and comparability

HEPI has recently published an interesting brief report by Professor Roger Brown on the comparability of academic standards in higher education. Whilst there is a periodic and reasonably predictable media interest in university standards, similar to the annual panic over the alleged decline in A level standards every August, academic standards remain one of the most misunderstood concepts in higher education. This absence of clarity of definition means that debates about standards are characterised by misconceptions and muddled thinking.

The HEPI report represents an attempt to address this problem. It is also a response to the 2009 IUSS Select Committee report which offered some staggeringly unhelpful and misinformed observations on universities but was also memorable for the challenge to the Vice–Chancellors of Oxford and Oxford Brookes Universities to compare the standards of degrees at their institutions.

When we took oral evidence, we asked the Vice- Chancellors of Oxford Brookes University and the University of Oxford whether upper seconds in history from their respective universities were equivalent. Professor Beer, Vice- Chancellor of Oxford Brookes, replied:

It depends what you mean by equivalent. I am sorry to quibble around the word but is it worth the same is a question that is weighted with too many social complexities. In terms of the way in which quality and standards are managed in the university I have every confidence that a 2:1 in history from Oxford Brookes is of a nationally recognised standard.

When asked the same question Dr Hood, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, responded:

We teach in very different ways between the two institutions and I think our curricula are different between the two institutions, so the question really is are we applying a consistent standard in assessing our students as to firsts, 2:1s, 2:2s et cetera? What I want to say in that respect is simply this, that we use external examiners to moderate our examination processes in all of our disciplinary areas at Oxford, and we take that external examination assessment very, very seriously. The external examiners’ reports after each round are submitted through our faculty boards, they are assessed and considered by the faculty boards, they are then assessed at the divisional board level and by the educational committee of the university. This is a process that goes on round the clock annually, so we would be comfortable that our degree classifications are satisfying an expectation of national norms.(1)

This attempt to sustain the really rather extraordinary proposition that all degrees represent the same standard of achievement by students regardless of the context or inputs did higher education no favours. The Vice-Chancellors and Roger Brown argue that the issue is not about comparability and, despite the contortions at the Committee, it is difficult not to agree with that proposition.

But where do we go from there? Is it simply a free for all? Do we just let market forces rule (if they don’t already – it is an employer’s market)? Brown suggests a number of steps intended to ensure a minimum level of achievement of all graduates. These graduate threshold standards would be intended to offer reassurance to all stakeholders that anyone with a degree had achieved to at least a minimum level. Whilst performance above the minimum would vary among students and across institutions this would be fine because at least minimum standards were assured. This approach is very reminiscent of the recommendations made in the 1990s by the Higher Education Quality Council’s Graduate Standards Programme (GSP)(2). The GSP sought to establish just such a set of minimum threshold standards and to codify a set of attributes which would encapsulate ‘graduateness’. Interesting, thorough and academic, the GSP proposals didn’t take off.

Perhaps they are back on the agenda though. As part of its approach Brown proposes a number of steps:

• Publish learning outcomes
• Refine benchmark standards
• Establish external examiner networks
• Improve assessment practice
• Replace honours degree classification
• Clarify definitional problems, eg with ‘comparability’

It is difficult not to feel a certain amount of sympathy for this approach which rightly recognises the fundamental futility of seeking to establish comparability of academic standards. Sustaining what has been described as the ‘polite myth’ of standards comparability, ie that a 2.1 in English from Cambridge is of the same standard as 2.1 in the same subject from a newly constituted institution, given the differences in every input measure is simply not credible. Yet this is what the sector traditionally argues and it is rightly criticised both in Brown’s report and, despite all of its other errors, the IUSS Select Committee.

Many of the problems in dealing with standards arise from difficulties with definition and Brown rightly identifies the need to address this. However, at the heart of the current QAA quality architecture is the notion that greater explicitness is required about standards in order to give all stakeholders confidence in the security of standards. Brown seems to accept this in arguing the need for learning outcomes and benchmark statements. But there is really no alternative to accepting the need to trust the judgement of professionals and the range of proxies devised over many years to assure the legitimacy of their collective decisions. National Vocational Qualifications (or NVQs, of which Alison Wolf has acerbically commented that they are ‘a great idea for other people’s children’(3)) and the extreme developments of the US learning by objectives movement sought to impose maximum explicitness and thereby to minimise the need for judgement. But attempts such as these to provide comprehensive explanations to students in advance both mislead and misrepresent reality and may, ultimately, endanger the standards they purport to uphold – the nature of learning is just not amenable to such detailed pre-specification. Moreover, explicitness about standards, cannot, in itself, convince that those standards are being achieved. There is no necessary correlation between description and understanding; this is simply a variant of a naming fallacy. Standards are not, and cannot be conceived of in an academic context as pure, absolute, Platonic forms but are relative, context-dependent and contingent.

Martin Wolf, although referring to the challenges of HE expansion, highlights a related problem about comparability:

‘if 50 per cent of the generation are to go to university and degree standards are to be the same everywhere, either everybody at Oxford or Cambridge gets a first or vast numbers of students must fail to get a degree altogether’. (4)

Whilst Brown suggests we should seek to sustain the notion of comparability of standards, at least at the threshold level, it is not clear that there is value in this, even if it is feasible. So, where do we go from here? There is huge difficulty in comparing standards, over time, between subjects, between institutions. They are different. There is no point in pretending otherwise. Establishing a threshold is not impossible and may well be helpful but it is questionable whether it is worth it in a system where over 60% of students receive first class or upper second class degrees.

(1) Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Students and Universities, Eleventh Report of Session 2008–09, Volume I, HC 170-I, 2009
(2) Higher Education Quality Council (1997), Graduate Standards Programme Final Report, London: HEQC
(3) Wolf, A (2002), Does Education Matter?, London: Penguin.
(4) Wolf, M (September 26 2002), ‘How to save the British Universities’, Singer and Friedlander Lecture, delivered at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Pakistan’s politicians in fake university degree scandal

Fake university degree suggestions in Pakistan

The Daily Telegraph has reported that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has asked the Elections Commission to examine the degree certificates of almost all the country’s 1,100 elected officials:

The investigation has also reopened a question about whether President Asif Ali Zardari ever graduated, as he claims, from a London business school. Local journalists have pored over reams of documents and dedicated thousands of column inches to the issue, much to the anger of politicians.

Former military ruler Pervez Musharraf introduced the law in 2002, requiring all candidates to hold a bachelor’s degree. He claimed it would raise the calibre of politicians but critics said it was undemocratic in a country where 50 per cent of the population is illiterate. They suggested the real motive was to sideline opponents. The law has since been struck down but that has not stopped the Supreme Court last week asking for a review of parliamentarians elected when it was still in force. A spokesman for the Higher Education Commission said officials had already identified 35 members of parliament who had not filed their university degrees along with their nomination papers, while the diplomas of 138 members were illegible. At least one sent a friend to sit his exams.

The law is questionable but the consequences are clearly rather significant. Perhaps the most striking comment was this:

“A degree is a degree,” said Nawab Aslam Raisani, the chief minister of Balochistan when asked about the issue by reporters. “Whether fake or genuine, it’s a degree. It makes no difference.”

Indeed. Wonder what the Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee would have made of that line when they discussed comparability of degree standards in 2009.

Admission Officials’ Tweets – Students Not Interested

Another social media disconnect?

According to a report in The Chronicle, Admission Officials’ Tweets are not being noticed by prospective students:

Colleges are ramping up efforts to connect with prospective students through Twitter—but students aren’t interested, a new study says. Evidence has shown that teenagers rely on college visits and Web sites to learn about colleges, rather than social-media outlets. When it comes to Twitter, students are barely on the site at all, let alone for college research purposes.

Abe Gruber, director of marketing at Bloomfield College, found in a recent study that while 40 percent of college admissions offices are active on Twitter, only 15 percent of prospective students expressed interest using in Twitter to learn about colleges. Mr. Gruber surveyed 200 prospective freshmen and 70 admissions offices in his study, which is not available online. He presented his findings at the Hobsons Connect U conference this week in Minneapolis. “Twitter scores high for the admissions officers, but not for students,” said Mr. Gruber.

Interesting this although it is not clear what the reasons are for the reluctance on the part of applicants. Some of the commentators on the piece suggest, reasonably, that it might be down to the purposes to which Twitter is being put by the Admissions staff: if it’s just used as another marketing device rather than as a communications tool to connect with applicants then it is perhaps unsurprising students are not excited.

How Much Do Branch Campuses Really Matter?

So, do branch campuses really matter?

The Chronicle of Higher Education carries an interesting piece on branch campuses by Ben Wildavsky:

What should we make of the news this week that Michigan State is closing its Dubai campus? In my view, not too much. If one satellite campus’s demise meant that others were bound to fail, MSU would never have ventured into the United Arab Emirates in the first place. It is no secret that foreign branches don’t always work out. The boom in U.S. branch campuses in Japan in the 1980s ended in a whimper, with only Temple University’s outpost left standing. In the late 2000s, a branch of Australia’s University of New South Wales didn’t last past its first year in Singapore when enrollment projections didn’t pan out. Early last year, George Mason also abandoned its small campus in the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah over disputes with its partner, the for-profit firm Edrak, over how soon the institution might reasonably be expected to turn a profit. And some branch campuses are stillborn; in 2005, the year before Nigel [Thrift] became vice chancellor, the University of Warwick abandoned its ambitious plans to create a satellite campus in Singapore amid faculty concerns over academic freedom and financial viability.

Yet other satellite campuses seem to be doing very well, thank you, from the University of Nottingham’s branch in Ningbo, China, to the assorted U.S. boutique elites, including Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, congregated on the edge of Doha in Qatar’s Education City….The bottom line: Branch campuses are at heart entrepreneurial ventures. Some will succeed, some will fail, and it will take time for universities to figure out which models, if any, are best replicated in which locations.

Many of these branch campuses are located in ‘education hubs’ (see previous post on this point), and enjoy substantial subsidies from ambitious governments. However, some campuses are different and, of course, I would argue that the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, rightly identified as successful above, and the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus represent something significantly different from the standard branch campus described here: they are integral elements of the University. So, in Nottingham’s case, even if not for others, these campuses really do matter.

Three quarters of employers ‘require 2:1 degree’

BBC News reports on new gloom for graduate job seekers:

Intense competition for graduate jobs means that more than three quarters of employers require at least a 2:1 degree grade, a survey suggests. The Association of Graduate Recruiters says there are more graduates chasing fewer jobs – with vacancies down by 7%. Applications have soared, with an average of 69 people chasing each graduate job.

AGR commented:

Recruiters are under intense pressure this year dealing with a huge number of applications from graduates for a diminishing pool of jobs. Those of our members who took part in the survey reported a total of 686,660 applications since the beginning of the 2010 recruitment campaign. It is hardly surprising then that the number of employers asking for a 2.1 degree has shot up by 11 percentage points. However, while this approach does aid the sifting process it can rule out promising candidates with the right work skills unnecessarily. We are encouraging our members to look beyond the degree classification when narrowing down the field of candidates to manageable proportions.

Perhaps most concerning here is this figure of 78% of employers filtering out applicants who have not achieved a 2:1 degree. However, as AGR observe, it is a pragmatic response to dealing with large numbers of well-qualified applicants.

What is an education hub?

And can anyone join in?

According to a brief report in the Chronicle of Higher Education there are lots of them about:

Two hundred and fifty locations in the world talk about being “education hubs,” said Peter Upton, country director for the British Council in Hong Kong. Eight of those locales regard themselves as “world class” education hubs. Mr. Upton predicted that by 2015, China will be a net importer of students, instead of an exporter as it is now. Hong Kong is one location that is enormously popular with students from mainland China. The University of Hong Kong, for example, had 8,000 applicants from the mainland in 2009 for 273 available places.

The global higher education market is undoubtedly changing. But surely there really isn’t enough room for 250 education hubs?

Detecting Plagiarism in Admissions Essays

Tackling plagiarism in admissions

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education some colleges in the US are stepping up their efforts to detect plagiarism among applicants:

About 25 universities and 20 application services are testing a plagiarism-detection service offered by iParadigms, the same company that provides Turnitin.com, a popular tool for catching plagiarism in academic writing, said Jeff Lorton, business manager at Turnitin for Admissions.

Turnitin for Admissions runs essays through a database of Internet content, journals, books, and previously submitted papers. It then provides a report detailing the number and nature of matches to see if any admissions essays appear to be copied from others.


You wouldn’t think this would be a huge problem but it seems that when Turnitin for Admissions conducted a study in which it analyzed about 450,000 personal statements it found that “36 percent contained a “significant” amount of matching text (more than 10 percent).” That seems pretty high.

It certainly seems high compared to the 1 in 20 quoted in a UK study by UCAS as noted in an earlier post. The real question remains though, what do you do when you find a bit of plagiarism in a personal statement? It could perhaps be seen as one way to deal with excess student demand over number of available places.