Freshers’ week: just a drunken scam?

An interesting view on freshers’ week

Libby Purves, writing in The Times, argues that freshers’ week is not quite what it seems and has to stop. The new fees regime, she suggests, may put an end to this “ghastly scam”.

These festivals are now in progress or revving up at most British universities; a weird, patronising blend of nannying and temptation, peer pressure and naked marketing. In the past 20 years they have grown into a mini industry aimed with increasing skill and cynicism at teenagers far from home, often for the first time, with unaccustomed money in their pockets.

Of course a “soft” launch to university has its uses. There have always been a few days when new students could find their way around, meet tutors and get passes and information. Without the academic pressure of full term it was a gently social time too. You would probably go to a ramshackle “freshers fair” where clubs and societies set out their stalls; with luck you’d have teamed up over Nescafé with someone from your corridor and giggled together about the hard-sell of stall holders pushing karate, Communism or the Christian Union (I joined the Anarchists’ Society, but gave up because they couldn’t organise meetings. Two quid down the drain).

Pretty much routine observations from someone recalling their own experience but then there are some really interesting comments on attempts to rein in some of the wilder excesses, to respond to the OTT bravado and tackle the “faint bullying tone” from older students. Recognition too that not everyone is the same:

Thus, a good proportion of ambitious, earnest, financially anxious 18-year-olds dislike it, but are made to feel inadequate and boring for doing so. They’d prefer something simpler; quiet, unpressured sociability and useful information. They have worked out that university is not a holiday camp. Foreign students are baffled: most European universities don’t have any such Saturnalia at the start of term. Perceptive spirits may also notice that the expansion of freshers week is fuelled not only by the enthusiasm of existing students, but by hard-nosed commercial exploitation.

A similar line was taken last year in a Guardian article by Patrick Collinson:

But freshers’ fairs have come a long way from the commercial innocence of earlier years. They offer Britain’s businesses “the perfect opportunity for you to enlighten students to your products and services”, according to BAM Student Marketing. “Get face to face with your potential customers … student spending habits have not been developed at this stage, which is why the freshers’ fairs provide excellent potential for forming new customer relationships,” it adds. BAM even provides the websites for scores of student unions (from Aston to York St John) through which it aims to offer “high traffic … to our clients”. Typical clients include insurance, ticketing and travel companies.


It is very difficult to argue for a more sober, academically focused transition to university life without looking like a dull, out of touch killjoy. But it’s not entirely fair to suggest it is the fault of “timid” universities for failing to tackle this. There is a real need to address the freshers’ week excess and to ensure a stronger academic and pastoral focus to this induction period. There are a lot of different interests at play here though, not just the external nightclubs and travel companies. Persuading the students’ union, student societies and academic staff that timetabled classes (if not teaching proper) should start as soon as new students arrive is a tall order. But something does need to happen, for all of the reasons Ms Purves suggests and then some. Training students to get used to the feeling of studying with a hangover and to being the target of those looking to form new customer relationships is hardly the ideal induction into university life.

A “hyperwired” freshers’ week?

Freshers! Come and try a new kind of learning laboratory

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a fascinating freshers’ week piece on a very different kind of learning lab, within the setting of a student dorm:

Students moving into a newly renovated dormitory at the University of Kentucky signed up for a hyperwired college experience: Each one was given an iPad and required to take a series of tech-themed courses. The unusual program is called A&S Wired Residential College and is housed in a dorm of 177 freshmen, who plan to major in a variety of fields.

Among the $1-million in renovations are 20 wireless access points in the basement and first floor—enough to serve 75 high-bandwidth users at the same time—11 large-screen televisions, which can be connected with multiple iPads simultaneously; and two 82-inch “interactive whiteboards.” The whiteboards will be in the dorm’s two smart classrooms, which both also have 55-inch televisions. The classrooms can do international videoconferencing, too; one class in the spring will feature interaction with a class in South Africa, says Mark Kornbluh, dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“We see this as sort of a laboratory of different teaching technologies,” he says. The students in the dorm are meant to be a microcosm of the university, and the related courses are in subjects including “Social Connections: The Sweet and the Bitter of Relationships,” “The Vietnam War,” and “The African-American Experience in Kentucky.”

It’s an interesting experiment. And it does look like the students knew what they were signing up to (and not just free iPads). Although it does seem that the innovation is driven by the technology rather than by educational aims.  The piece doesn’t say what the gender balance is.

The reinvention of the campus novel?

A new direction for the campus novel?

The Chronicle Reviewc has an excellent article on a new campus novel from Jeffrey Eugenides about leaving campus behind. A five year old post on my other blog includes reference to a couple of articles, including one by David Lodge, on the ‘end of the campus novel’. The core of the argument here was that campuses really just aren’t funny places any more. However, things seem to have moved on and this piece reviews the terrain nicely:

Philip Roth, that swallow who likes to alight on familiar territory, can be credited with at least two recent efforts—The Human Stain (2000) and Indignation (2008). Richard Russo, amid his working-class classics, gave us Straight Man (1997). Tom Wolfe, whose Ph.D. in American studies long ago slipped from sight as he became the champion of hard-nosed showy journalism and the “reported” novel, turned his kids into stringers to help him produce I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004). David Lodge offered a rollicking trilogy, from Changing Places (1975) to Small World (1984) to Nice Work (1988). J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), one of his most powerful books, showed that a campus novel won’t cost you the Nobel. Younger novelists, from Jane Smiley with Moo (1995) to Zadie Smith with On Beauty (2005), show no sign of letting the form recede.

And looks at what makes a ‘campus novel’:

Yet the more you think about the “campus novel,” the more you realize how it has outgrown its neighborhood, and is more complicated than it seems. Is it any novel that begins on a campus, or must matters peculiar to campus life—the life of the scholar, the privileged atmosphere of the ivory tower, the excessive focus of its older denizens on tenured security, the hierarchically rigid interaction of lifers and young people—form the heart of the story? If a story just “happens” to take place on campus, is that enough? Do novels about scholars, and novels about students, belong in the same category?


The new Eugenides book, “The Marriage Plot” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October), is described here as:

the most entertaining campus novel since Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. Entertaining, for sure, but also poignant, insightful, wise, and elegiac.

Sounds great (but still think “I am Charlotte Simmons” is a rather weak effort from the normally brilliant Wolfe) as this quite nicely demonstrates:

“Some people majored in English to prepare for law school. Others became journalists. The smartest guy in the honors program, Adam Vogel, a child of academics, was planning on getting a Ph.D. and becoming an academic himself. That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical—because they weren’t musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.”

Thanks for that Jeffrey. I won’t take it personally. The new novel does sound very good indeed and I certainly do hope that it does serve to breathe new life into the genre. We need it.

African adventure for Buckingham

More international adventures

An interesting piece in Times Higher Education about what many might see as a surprising international venture for the University of Buckingham:

Buckingham already has similar arrangements with institutions in Singapore and Sarajevo, while other UK universities have foreign campuses in places ranging from Dubai to China, but East Africa represents new ground.

Martin O’Hara, vice-chancellor of Victoria and former vice-rector of the National University of Rwanda, told Times Higher Education that the new private institution would “provide what is needed in the public sector”, namely “high quality at a good price”.


Victoria is expecting to enrol 200-300 students on undergraduate courses in the coming academic year.

Buckingham will offer BScs in business and management, business and management with information systems, accounting and financial management, and computing, while Victoria is accrediting bachelor’s degrees in nursing and in science in public health.

The Buckingham degrees will normally be priced at US$7,000 (£4,423) a year, although for those enrolling in the first year, Victoria is offering a 50 per cent discount.

Five years from now, Victoria aims to have 4,000 students on its books, Professor O’Hara said, adding that the institution has long-term plans to expand this figure to between 12,000 and 15,000, with additional courses potentially including medicine.

It’s not entirely clear from the piece what the nature of the relationship is. Is it validation, franchise or joint venture? And what is the role of Edulink, the partner organisation which seems to have put up the capital?

Perhaps the most surprising factor here is the Buckingham strategy. Whilst it might be imagined that, with a White paper creating arguably much more favourable environment in England for institutions such as Buckingham, they would be focusing on new domestic opportunities rather than looking for international developments. But, as the piece notes, Buckingham already has other international partnerships in Singapore and Sarajevo so perhaps it isn’t such a novelty.


It does seem that the proposition does have Ministerial support too (picture is from a signing ceremony in March 2011 involving Buckingham and Edulink).

Will it succeed? Will Buckingham’s reputation be enhanced by the arrangement? We’ll have to wait and see.

Students as consumers? Or not?

University isn’t just a business – and the student isn’t always right

In his review of higher education funding, Lord Browne made the student as consumer the centrepiece of his rationale for change. The Government’s White Paper last June also claimed it was putting students “at the heart of the system”. The Guardian Higher Education Network is running a live Q&A on students as consumers today:

Driven by the government’s HE reforms, the words ‘consumer’ and market’ are an increasingly central part of the British academic lexicon. Speaking at the HEFCE annual conference in April – ahead of the publication of the HE white paper – Vince Cable, the secretary of state said: “Making the higher education system more responsive to students, your consumers…is one of the central purposes of our reforms.” He later added: “The biggest mistake a university could make is to underestimate its consumers.”

And, as a helpful primer, they have reminded people of a piece I wrote for them on this topic some months ago:

Unfortunately things aren’t quite as straightforward as they first appear. Higher education is not just like any other business and there are real issues with the information available to assist prospective students. However, student behaviour is changing and there is some evidence that they are becoming rather more demanding.

We are all consumers. We are all customers. In every aspect of our lives we are treated more than ever before like this. In choosing schools for our children, in hospital selection and which bus company to use we are expected to behave as consumers. And these are public services. Not to mention the bewildering choice we face when making a more straightforward product choice, for example for a vacuum cleaner or a tin of beans.

However, higher education is a slightly unusual kind of business and differs from other businesses in a number of ways.

Obviously that’s not all of it, just the opening. The full piece is available via the Guardian Higher Education Network.

So, students as consumers? Or not?

Fashion victims?

Another exciting new higher education development

The Evening Standard, along with much of the fashion press (I believe), carries this story about a new fashion and design college:

MOVE over AC Grayling, there’s a new college in town. Magazine publisher Condé Nast is launching a private college for fashion and design next year, which will be a potent rival to the London College of Fashion, Central St Martins and Chelsea, all part of the University of the Arts London.

The Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design will offer its students a year-long “Vogue” fashion foundation course, and “House & Garden” interior design and decoration, with further Masters courses to follow.

The college, which opens in September 2012, will also provide tuition on journalism, luxury brands and business skills, and will be headed by Susie Forbes, editor of Easy Living.

When AC Grayling opened the New College of the Humanities, he came under fire for commercialising education. So how will Condé Nast fare with its branded courses?

In the Independent, there are a few more details including the suggestion that the college will take 300 students a year. And all sources carry this marvellous quote:

“Condé Nast is perfectly placed to enter the world of education,” says Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Condé Nast. “The reputation and authority of our brands puts us in a strong position to teach and inspire the fashion and decorating talent of the future.”

It’s interesting that this venture really hasn’t generated anything like as much hostility as the New College of the Humanities, despite the potential for significant competition with existing long established providers in London. Perhaps it’s because the proposal isn’t really being taken seriously because no academics seem to be involved. But there is a lot of money behind this (and the former editor of “Easy Living”) and isn’t this exactly what the White Paper was envisaging in opening up higher education to entrants?

Carnegie Mellon U. to Open “Campus” in Rwanda

A new venture in Africa for Carnegie Mellon – an unequivocal good?

A number of previous posts here have touched on differing approaches to internationalisation and branch campuses. The Chronicle carries this story about what looks, at first sight, like a terrific development:

Carnegie Mellon University plans to open a branch campus in Rwanda next year, making it one of the few American colleges offering degrees in Africa.

While a number of American universities work on the continent, often establishing partnerships with local institutions on research, faculty-training programs, and other educational ventures, Carnegie Mellon’s appears to be the largest commitment to date.

The Pittsburgh-based institution will be the first American university to operate a full-fledged campus in Africa, said Kevin Kinser, co-director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York at Albany, which tracks branch campuses worldwide.

“Africa is clearly an underserved region for international-branch campuses,” said Mr. Kinser, who is an associate professor in the university’s department of educational administration and policy studies. The continent’s educational needs are great, but the financing of large African programs is a challenge, he added.

So far so good. It is great that an excellent university like Carnegie Mellon is looking to develop such provision in Africa and in a country which really should benefit from this kind of development. But if the further details in the story are accurate, this is perhaps not quite all it seems:

For its part, Carnegie Mellon is receiving $95-million over 10 years from the Rwandan government to operate the program, which will start next year and initially offer master’s degrees in information technology and in electrical and computer engineering. The university expects to enroll 40 students at first, eventually expanding to 150 by 2017. It will seek to attract students from East Africa, with a preference given to Rwandans. The Rwandan government will offer scholarships for its citizens to pay for the program’s tuition and other costs.

$95 million is quite a lot of money to give to a university. In an African context it sounds like an enormous amount. And 150 Master’s students a year doesn’t really sound like a fully fledged branch campus. To be fair to Carnegie Mellon though, the story on its website does not describe the development as a branch campus, rather it suggests it will be a partnership with the Rwandan government to establish a ‘centre of excellence’.

It will be fascinating to see how this works out and whether other US or European universities follow this lead.

UK: Swedish Registrars Seminar 2011

2011 UK: Swedish Registrars Seminar

This event, held in September at the University of Cardiff, was the latest in long series of biennial seminars, alternating venues between the UK and Sweden and I was privileged to be invited to attend as one of the dozen or so UK delegates. The seminars started, I think, about 30 years ago at the instigation of the Swedish government (which also provided some funding) with the aim of enabling Swedish Registrars to learn about developments in the UK from their counterparts here. Whilst the origins imply one way traffic in terms of learning and advancement, it is very much a mutually beneficial dialogue these days and hugely beneficial as a consequence.

It was a hugely enjoyable and deeply fascinating event and it was great to meet colleagues from Sweden in this kind of format which enabled extensive discussion to take place, and some socialising too. Super organisation from Louise and Lucy at Cardiff.

Our Swedish counterparts seem look at our systems (plural given the different UK nations present) with real interest and not a little nervousness. And who can blame them. The changes taking place in Swedish HE, whilst not as dramatic as those in the UK, are interesting nevertheless. The most significant reforms, following their last change in government, include:

  • Greater freedom for universities and significant deregulation
  • Huge investment in research, with the  allocation of resource based on performance
  • A new quality assurance regime
  • Major changes to teacher education
  • The introduction of higher fees for non-EU students

Bizarrely (it seemed to us) the universities rejected the independence on offer to them, preferring to stay under the government’s wing. However, given the financial benefits which have clearly accrued, particularly in relation to research support, and the fact that there is a lot of new regulation being imposed anyway, this is perhaps not such a strange decision.

International student recruitment in Sweden has dropped dramatically (by over 85% it was suggested) but given the current level of funding and the very small contribution offered by international fees, the universities are quite relaxed about this and expect things to improve in future.

One extraordinary, to us, fact about Swedish HE was the position in relation to capital funding. Essentially, for most institutions, there isn’t any. They don’t own buildings but lease them from an agency which largely builds to the requirements of the university.

An awful lot emerged that we had in common, from HR issues to Centre v School tensions and resource allocation to student recruitment. Many other points of contrast too – most notable for me was that the Swedes had lived happily with freedom of information legislation for as long as they could remember and really didn’t understand our concerns.The other perhaps suprising conclusion from the British delegation was that the systems in the different nations of the UK are diverging more than we may have thought.

But such a huge benefit in sharing experiences in this way in such a congenial atmosphere. And again I was extremely grateful to have been invited.

The four UK University League Tables of 2011

UK University League Tables 2011/12

Given the huge amount of traffic (OK, huge for me) to the site over the past week or so on UK league tables, I thought a summary might come in useful. Four league tables have been published during the current year for those considering 2012 entry and all have previously been summarised (top 20s at least) here. As a handy reference guide, here they all are:

Sunday Times 2012 League Table

The Times 2012 League Table

The Guardian 2012 League Table

The Complete University Guide 2012 League Table

All your league table needs in one handy location. Do handle with care though.

Sunday Times 2012 University League Table

Sunday Times League Table 2012

The full table has now been published and is available (paid access) on the Sunday Times website. Some interesting changes inside the top 20, largely I suspect down to changes in the way NSS data has been used. Birmingham, Southampton and Edinburgh drop out of top 20.

(last year’s position in brackets)

1 (2) University of Cambridge
2 (1) University of Oxford
3 (6) Durham University
4 (5) LSE
5 (9) University of Bath
6 (7) University of St Andrews
7 (4) University College London
8 (8) University of Warwick
9 (17) University of Exeter
10 (11) University of Bristol
11 (16) Loughborough University
12 (20) Newcastle University
13 (15) University of Sheffield
14 (3) Imperial College London
15= (12) University of Nottingham
15= (13) University of York
17 (10) King’s College London
18 (21=) Lancaster
19 (21=) Sussex
20 (26=) University of Glasgow

Bath is University of the Year.

The criteria used are broadly similar to previous years although the selective approach to use of NSS data seems a bit odd:

Student satisfaction
The academics’ verdicts
Research quality
Ucas tariff points
Graduate-level jobs
Graduate unemployment
Firsts/2:1s awarded
Student/staff ratio
Dropout rate

The effect of these NSS changes has been rather severe on some institutions – Imperial has dropped from 3rd to 14th, Edinburgh from 14th to 27th and Manchester from 25th to 37th.

There is lots of interesting stuff on the website, including interactive subject tables and separate rankings by indicator.

More student visa problems

A foreign university closes its UK campus

The New York Times reports that as a result of the new restrictions on student visas, at least one institution has been forced to close a UK campus.

Schiller International University, which is based in Florida and has four other international campuses, is closing its London campus and will not start its autumn semester, which was to begin on Tuesday, officials said last week.

The university would not provide enrollment figures but said 80 to 85 percent of its students were from non-European Union countries, which means that they required visas to study in Britain. A person who answered the main office phone at Schiller’s London campus said about 35 students enrolled there last year.

“The decision to close our London campus was directly related to the new U.K. immigration rules,” William Moore, executive vice president of the university, said in an e-mail.

There doesn’t seem to be any more information on the institution’s website about this but the Education Investor site carries a similar piece to the NYT one. Although the numbers here are small it is nevertheless significant that at the same time as some for-profits are looking to enter the UK market (see previous post), others are pulling out. And it’s another indictment of the government’s quite misguided student visa policy.

“For-Profits Eye the British Market”

New opportunities for private providers

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a good piece on the interest for-profit providers are taking in the UK market. Robert Lytle of the Parthenon Group, management consultants with an interest in education, seems a bit sceptical:

“It’s a very expensive market to operate in, and the profitability is not there,” says Mr. Lytle, noting that, along with the rest of Europe, Britain is “relatively stagnant” and “just not as attractive” as countries like Malaysia and Singapore, which are experiencing rapid growth. Britain and continental Europe also lag in the development of an online higher-education market, which has been a major growth area for American for-profit companies.

I don’t think this was quite the response the authors of the White Paper were expecting to the bold reforms proposed. Stagnant? Us?

There is also an interesting comment on the value or otherwise of degree awarding powers:

Mr. Lytle, of Parthenon, says there are differing views about how important degree-awarding powers will prove to be for companies seeking to expand their presence in Britain. “One school of thought says they are very overvalued,” he says, while others contend that having such autonomy is “terrifically important because it means you can’t be held hostage by the degree-awarding university.”

Ms. Noone, of Kaplan, says that once tuition at public universities is allowed to rise next year to as much as £9,000, or $14,700, from its current cap of about £3,000, pricing pressure from universities may prove to be the greatest barrier to entry into the marketplace for private providers. Most universities “won’t want a partner who is offering the same degree at a lower price,” she says. Now that students at for-profit institutions will have access to government-backed loans, universities will be facing the prospect of direct competition with partners offering the university’s own degrees at potentially significant discounts.

I’m not at all certain that degree awarding powers are over-valued. They are rightly prized and should be extremely difficult to secure. The White Paper is likely to change that though. Unfortunately.

Certainly whether or not American for-profits seek new markets in Britain will be influenced by their struggles at home. The Apollo Group, parent company of the for-profit giant University of Phoenix, saw its U.S. enrollments decline more than 16 percent in the past year, while Kaplan saw U.S. enrollments plummet 30 percent.

Whatever the eventual new contours of the higher-education landscape, opportunities are likely to be created, not just for the for-profit sector but for mainstream American universities seeking new avenues of expansion, says Mr. Lytle. “You could imagine someone like a Johns Hopkins saying, ‘We have a terrific brand of health care, there are lots of smart students in the U.K. Let’s go get them.'”

This final point is a particularly interesting one. The idea of leading US universities setting up in the UK, whilst intriguing, is perhaps though unlikely to take off in a major way given that all of the opportunities are likely to be at the discount end of the market.

QS World University Rankings 2011 – UK Results

QS World University Rankings 2011 – Results for UK universities

The UK presence in the QS top 100 for 2011 is largely unchanged although there is some jockeying for position in the top 10 where Cambridge is ranked first for a second consecutive year ahead of Harvard, MIT and Yale and Oxford moves up to fifth ahead of Imperial, while UCL drops from fourth to seventh. UK institutions do tend to do rather well in this table though, probably because of the significant score derived from a reputational survey (where age counts for a lot). There are 37 UK universities in the top 300, second only to the US. Despite Cambridge’s table-topping performance, US institutions continue to dominate, taking 20 of the top 50 places and accounting for 70 of the top 300.

Six indicators are used in the ranking:
40% Academic reputation from a global survey
10% Employer reputation from a global survey
20% Citations per faculty from SciVerse Scopus
20% Faculty student Ratio
5% Proportion of international students
5% Proportion of international staff

2011 ranking of UK universities (2010 in brackets)

1  (1 )University of Cambridge

5  (6) University of Oxford

6  (7) Imperial College London

7  (4)  UCL

20  (22)  University of Edinburgh

27  (21) King’s College London (KCL)

29  (30) The University of Manchester

30  (27) University of Bristol

50  (53)  The University of Warwick

59 (77)  University of Glasgow

64 (80) LSE

67 (59) University of Birmingham

72 (69) The University of Sheffield

74 (73) The University of Nottingham

75 (81) University of Southampton

93 (85) University of Leeds

95 (92) Durham University

96 (88) University of York

97 (95) University of St Andrews

Full details at QS World University Rankings Results website.

Build and they will come

Or better not to build at all?

The Chronicle has an entertaining piece about an unusual problem faced by Belmont University:

The institution’s board of directors recently approved $48-million for a five-story building with five levels of underground parking. But according to The Tennessean newspaper, “its purpose is a big question mark.” President Bob Fisher is going to leave it to the students and faculty to figure out what to do with it.

This week at his annual welcome convocation, President Fisher invited members of each academic discipline to begin thinking about what they could do in the new facility that they can’t do in their current quarters.

A wonderful proposition. But unlikely to be replicated in the UK anytime soon.