Quality of Swedish universities ‘too low’

Sweden’s Education Minister has some harsh words for the country’s universities

Echoing the views of the Ugandan President on his country’s higher education system, Sweden’s Education Minister, Jan Björklund, has been speaking out:

“The quality of the knowledge that Swedish students have when they leave university is not enough to prepare them for adult life,” Björklund told Sverige Radio (SR), adding that too often, the quality of Swedish universities is often “too low”.

“We need a much tougher and more stringent government inspection of Sweden’s higher education.”

The piece in The Local goes on to suggest that the government intends to restructure the regulatory machinery in Sweden “to get rid of all courses that are not up to scratch”

Are Sweden's universities flagging?

The plan involves merging three agencies into two:

The three current authorities are the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (Högskoleverket), the Swedish Agency for Higher Education Services (Verket för högskoleservice – VHS) and the International Programme Office for Education and Training (Internationella programkontoret för utbildningsområdet – IPK). Following the reshuffle, the responsibilities of the three will be divided over two agencies, with the one being the only agency responsible for quality control of the higher education system.

The Minister’s view is that the current Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, is “plagued by being required to both give development advice and review courses at the same time.” There is an argument for separating inspection from improvement in quality assurance but I’m not sure it will really make the kind of difference hoped for here. The benefit of development advice is unlikely to be greatly enhanced or make a real impact because of these changes. And it could be argued that Sweden already has some rather good universities with at least two universities normally in the QS Top 100; what might help is perhaps reducing the government interference in their academic activities.

Finding the good stuff

Social media can be overwhelming…

And this can make finding the really good stuff really rather difficult. The Schumpeter column in The Economist has an interesting take on this.

Most commentary on social media ignores an obvious truth—that the value of things is largely determined by their rarity. The more people tweet, the less attention people will pay to any individual tweet. The more people “friend” even passing acquaintances, the less meaning such connections have. As communication grows ever easier, the important thing is detecting whispers of useful information in a howling hurricane of noise. For speakers, the new world will be expensive. Companies will have to invest in ever more channels to capture the same number of ears. For listeners, it will be baffling. Everyone will need better filters—editors, analysts, middle managers and so on—to help them extract meaning from the blizzard of buzz.

It’s not a wholly original point but it is well made. It’s a challenge for individuals as well as for universities and other organisations. The problem is, I think, the more you fret about it, the worse it seems. Moreover, by the time you have analysed the position, the entire world has moved on. So, don’t worry, just go with it is my lightweight solution to this particular challenge. Hey, it’s Friday.

Student regulations. In Oxford and Uzbekistan

Guess which is from the 16th Century

Students have always behaved badly. Not all of them and not all of the time but universities have often felt the need to seek to constrain the worst excesses. In 1584 at Oxford University, statutes were approved to prevent disorder among the student body. These regulations also contain references to specific degree requirements including attendance at lectures on Aristotle and an instruction not to play football. (Sylvester, D (1970), Educational Documents, 800-1816, London: Methuen pp151-153.)

These days universities around the world tend to have more comprehensive requirements (but perhaps more supportive of sporting activity). A rather striking devlopment of this has been reported by the Chronicle which notes that Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Higher and Secondary Education has issued a rather thorough ‘code of conduct’ for students, covering such matters as how they should shake hands with professors and the proper time to visit the toilet during classes.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (quoted by the Chronicle) described the code, “Ethical Rules for Higher Education Institutions,” as an attempt by an authoritarian government to keep its youth population in line:

The ministry is requiring that its pedantic “Ethical Rules for Higher Education Institutions” be signed by every university student and professor in the country.

Any idea what kind of book this might be?

“These rules are being introduced to form and retain, as well as defend, the ethical integrity of members of higher educational institutions,” the document says. It promises to “prevent the decay of students…and defend them from alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as the threats of religious extremism and mass culture.”

(It’s good to see that someone is still fighting that last battle, particularly after Rutgers University paid Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” $32,000 to lecture its students in March 2011. Snooki got $2,000 more than Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning author who for $30,000 delivered the keynote address at Rutgers’ commencement ceremony in May 2011.)

Notwithstanding the lofty language of the prologue, many of the new guidelines read like a rather poor joke, the work of ministry officials with an acutely sardonic sense of humor. Article 3.8 stipulates that “members of a higher education institution, when moving, should take the right side. It is recommended to greet each other in the following way: students first greet professors; men first greet women; younger students first greet older students. Shaking hands is excluded from this rule, since elders should reach out to shake first.”

And there’s more:

“It is prohibited to post on the Internet materials that are not in line with national values or related to the internal problems of higher educational institutions,” the rules say, before going on to note that they “categorically ban publishing, saving, or distribution via computers of different materials not related to a higher education institution.”

And just when you thought things could not get any worse: “Don’t walk around a university campus with no reason,” the rulebook advises.

Rather harsh and somewhat backward looking (if indeed true – I haven’t been able to locate the original code which is quoted). And suspect it won’t help their international student recruitment either.

The Imperfect University

Because universities are difficult, but worth it

I’ve been doing this Registrarism blog for well over four years now and have become increasingly concerned that any vaguely original content tends to be somewhat crowded out by brief commentary on topical (or, more likely, slightly dated) higher education matters. I feel therefore that I need to offer up a bit more of the former. This is also the advice from from my bespoke focus group (Top Management Programme 17 fellow travellers) that I should use the blog for something useful and not just trivia (where ‘True Crime on Campus’ is my own little lolcats). So here we go.

It seems to be the nature of the registrarial business that you become accustomed to writing briefer pieces rather than more substantive work. I have for some time toyed with an idea for a book on university management (“all you never needed to know about HE management” – Times Higher Education, “a bit dull” – The Guardian) but now fear that it really is just too much of a long haul. So I am going for the episodic. I could claim that am going to use the inherent virtues of the blog format in order to deliver something special and different and uniquely attuned to the contemporary university environment but the truth is I have neither the time nor the inclination to do a proper book. Also this ensures that matters will be thrillingly topical at all times too. Or perhaps not.

So, building on the foundations of those who’ve been there before I suspect at some point we will have a look at Newman (not Paul) and Barnett on the conception of the university. And, from a different angle, Shattock on how it all works – what university management is really all about. But perhaps more than any other the biggest influence here is likely to be Cornford whose Microcosmographica Academia really is the benchmark on this topic and the yardstick against which everything else must be judged. And I already know I will fall short – not so much standing on the shoulders of giants as biting, annoyingly, at their ankles (I bet that’s been said before but I can’t remember where).

So, to summarise the case: universities are difficult places to work in, hard to get into, to study in, to navigate through (physically and virtually) strange, perverse, slow moving sometimes but incredibly dynamic at times too. But although difficult and challenging in all sorts of ways, they are also extraordinary in what they do. For example in developing graduates, producing outstanding research, generating new knowledge and capital, providing resources to communities, being a source of societal critique. What I want to do in this series is highlight the difficulties and the good stuff but also all the ways in which we can, those of us who work in or take an interest in higher education, make our way in this extraordinary environment. Some of these pieces will inevitably involve reworking some previous posts but this will hopefully be in an interesting and different way.

Universities aren’t perfect and working in one can be extremely challenging and frustrating but also hugely exciting and stimulating. I’ve only ever worked in higher education, in four quite different institutions but all special and marvellous in their own way. Part of the wonder of it is being surrounded by colleagues and students, many if not most of whom are smarter than you, who are always challenging and questioning everything you do and the way you do it.

So, I want this series to be something of a primer on the imperfections of university life. Perhaps this is overly ambitious and maybe it will never really get that far but I do want to offer some observations about what I think works and what doesn’t and what some of the important issues are in universities today. Universities are full of imperfections and university management doesn’t need to be perfect to help sustain the conditions for success. Part of the answer is to tackle the most important things rather than being distracted by the trivia, to seek improvement where possible but acknowledge you can’t do everything. One of the really hard bits though is working out which are the most important things to do now which will make a difference tomorrow.

Universities are, arguably, among the most forward looking institutions in society, and more concerned with the long term than any other (secular) bodies. They should be prized, revered and lauded and, despite the fact that much of what appears and will follow here may seem to focus on the challenges, difficulties and imperfections, the underlying sentiment of this series will be one of extraordinary high regard for higher education, everyone who works in universities and all of their achievements. But complacency kills. Not necessarily immediately, but eventually. And so the Imperfect University series, the episodic antidote to complacency, starts here.

(The first piece in the series, on leadership, will appear next week.)

Searching for another dumb ranking

A rather self-referential ranking this time – a league table of searches

Please do excuse the self-indulgence. Top 20 searches on Registrarism over the past 12 months. Am slightly disturbed that birds, spiders and bagpipes figure quite so prominently. Probably the most pointless ranking around. Or maybe not.

Search Views
latin america 3,432
university league tables 3,251
plagiarism 2,797
magnifying glass 2,736
sunday times university guide 2012 2,411
university league tables 2011 1,776
university league tables 2012 1,675
pigeon 1,346
tarantula 1,274
america 821
tarantula spider 756
sunday times university league tables 2012 712
bagpipes 674
high impact universities 660
registrarism 630
globe 555
times university ranking 2012 537
the sunday times university guide 2012 507
times league table 2011 495
university of surrey 487

Apologies again for the froth. It is Friday. The good news is that a new, rather more serious, thread starts next week. More to follow.

A slow down in branch campus developments?

Perhaps, but there’s still a lot going on

The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, OBHE, has published its fourth report on international branch campuses. The OBHE definition of a branch campus, which has broadened since the previous report, is this:

a higher education institution that is located in another country from the institution which either originated it or operates it, with some physical presence in the host country, and which awards at least one degree in the host country that is accredited in the country of the originating institution.

The report highlights some interesting developments in branch campus activities across the globe. The New York Times offers a helpful summary of some of the key findings and suggests that the latest data indicates something of a slowdown:

Of the 200 operating branches, 78 are connected to American universities, as are a third of the 37 being planned.

Among the planned programs in China are New York University’s liberal arts campus, the University of California, Berkeley’s engineering center, and programs by Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, Kean University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech are planning programs in India; George Mason and Stony Brook are opening in South Korea; the Berklee College of Music in Spain; and Carnegie Mellon in Rwanda.

The report also found that universities in developing countries are now opening branch campuses in their regions. India, for example, has four campuses in Mauritius.

While the United Arab Emirates still has the most branches (37), the greatest growth has come in China, which has 17 branches now, up from 10 in 2009; and Singapore, which has 18, up from 12.

Over the last decade, as globalization and international rankings have become increasingly important, many American universities have seen branch campuses as a way to bolster their prestige.

And although many university officials like to speak of their international efforts as altruistic contributions to world development, the vast majority are in the Emirates, China, Singapore and South Korea, which pay large sums to attract big-name institutions, and few are in poorer nations in Africa or Latin America.

This is a really telling point, particularly in relation to US insitutions’ international activities. However, what is also fascinating in the report is the number of countries which are hosting a branch campus for the first time:


Interestingly, half of these developments are south-south, ie where both provider and host are from the southern hemisphere.

Plenty more in the report too.

Firsts and fees, plagiarism and pay hikes (and the rest)

No dumbing down here – is this the most comprehensive HE piece ever?

Daily Mail online has a terrific piece which manages to conflate a host of different higher education issues within a single kick ass column. On the back of recent HESA data which shows an increase in the number of students achieving first and upper second class degrees the article moves on to plagiarism, league table corruption, commercialisation (not clear if good or bad), the optionality of HEAR (bad?), an ‘expert’ view of classifications, coercion of external examiners, VC pay increases and fee rises in the context of declining HE funding. Unbelievable? Perhaps it would be fairer to let the piece speak for itself:

The number of students awarded first-class degrees has more than doubled over the last decade.

A record one in six graduates obtained the top qualification last year, prompting fresh concerns about grade inflation and the value of degrees.

One expert says that degree classifications are now ‘almost meaningless’.

The trend has fuelled demands for a major overhaul of the system, with the introduction of a ‘starred first’ degree for the brightest graduates.

According to figures released yesterday by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 53,215 graduates gained firsts in 2010/11 compared with 23,700 in 2000/01.

A decade ago, nine per cent of graduates gained the top classification. By 2010/11 the proportion getting firsts had risen to 15.5 per cent.

HESA also provided detailed data covering the period between 2006/7 and 2010/11, when there was a 45 per cent increase in the number of students gaining firsts.

A feast of higher education comments

Sixty-six per cent of degrees obtained by women were firsts or 2.1s in 2010/11 compared with 61 per cent of those achieved  by males.

High scores: More students are graduating and with better grades than in the past, despite accusations of commercialism and anti-intellectualism

Demands for reform of degree classification have increased over recent years amid claims that some lecturers turn a blind eye to plagiarism to help their institutions climb official league tables.

University whistle-blowers have also alleged that external examiners have been ‘leaned on’ to boost grades.

Universities have been asked to adopt a new graduate ‘report card’, providing a detailed breakdown of students’ academic achievements plus information about extra-curricular activities. However, they cannot be forced to.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, said: ‘The inflation in degree classes is rendering them almost meaningless.

‘Employers have to look at A-level results and the university at which the degree is being obtained.’

The heads of elite universities are raking in average pay packages of almost £318,000 ahead of the tripling of tuition fees.

Many vice chancellors are enjoying salary rises when higher education has seen its funding slashed and students are being forced to pay up to £9,000 a year in fees.

A veritable smorgasbord of entertaining higher education observations. All in one short piece. Truly the Mail is spoiling us. We may never see the like again.

Online Badges v Degrees

Is the gig up for universities? You decide

The Chronicle carries some entertaining hokum about degrees being overtaken by online badges:

Employers might prefer a world of badges to the current system. After all, traditional college diplomas look elegant when hung on the wall, but they contain very little detail about what the recipient learned. Students using Mozilla’s proposed badge system might display dozens or even hundreds of merit badges on their online résumés detailing what they studied. And students could start showing off the badges as they earn them, rather than waiting four years to earn a diploma.

“We have to question the tyranny of the degree,” says David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. Mr. Wiley is an outspoken advocate of so-called open education, and he imagines a future where screenfuls of badges from free or low-cost institutions, perhaps mixed with a course or two from a traditional college, replace the need for setting foot on a campus. “As soon as big employers everywhere start accepting these new credentials, either singly or in bundles, the gig is up completely.”


Death of the university etc etc, we’ve been here before but the phrase “tyranny of the degree” is what got to me in this report. What this really means is that someone genuinely believes that a bit of online twiddling is in some way to be regarded as intellectually comparable to a three year intensive, rigorous, properly assessed undergraduate degree. Cobblers. Whilst not everyone who achieves a medical degree can be a top surgeon, who would you trust to operate on you? A qualified doctor or some teen who did his bypass badge online? And will the world’s most successful companies suddenly start choosing staff by the duration of their online experience or their Klout score rather than their real qualifications? I wonder.

Whilst we must never be complacent about competition I think the gig is very far from up.

Not one of the most cited league tables

But a diverting ranking nevertheless…

I first picked up on this one over four years ago in a rather dismissive post. It’s an exciting league table which aims to reflect the contributions of universities to educating the world’s top chief executives. Produced by the Ecole des Mines de Paris, or MINES ParisTech as they seem to prefer these days, it sets out to be an “INTERNATIONAL PROFESSIONAL RANKING OF HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS”.

The latest edition of the MINES ParisTech league table is based on the achievement of graduates in the highest roles in the top companies and the methodology is pretty straightforward:

The academic career for qualification in higher education of “top executives” (subsequently referred to as CEOs) has been redefined and, for each person in question, a point has been awarded to each of the various institutions which contributed to their higher education.

(Note that where the individual studied at more than one institution, the point has been divided up amongst the contributors.)

The points awarded to each institution for all of the 500 CEOs are then added up, so as to classify the range of institutions having contributed to the graduate training of one or several CEOs of the 500 companies listed by Fortune Global 500. In 2010, the 500 companies of Fortune Global 500 were run by 508 people (eight companies had two leaders). We were able to obtain information on the higher education career of 487 of the 508 CEOs. For the other 21 (i.e. 4.1% of the total number), it was not possible to reconstitute any aspect of their academic career. For five CEOs, the assessment was only partial. Lastly, 13 CEOs had not pursued any higher education studies.

All clear and uncontroversial I would have thought

Sadly, MINES ParisTech itself falls just outside the top 20.

1 Harvard University

2 Tokyo University

3 Keio University

4 HEC (France)

5 Kyoto University

5 University of Oxford

7 Ecole Polytechnique

8 Waseda University

9 ENA (France)

10 Seoul National University

11 University of Pennsylvania

12 Columbia University

13 Stanford University

13 Tohoku University

13 University of Nottingham

16 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

17 Institute for Study of Politics – Paris

18 University St Gallen

19 University Sao Paulo

19 Northwestern University

The other UK showings are Cambridge at 30 and Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow at 38. Over 100 universities are tied in 92nd place with 1 point each which does kind of undermine the lower end of the table somewhat. Good showing for Japanese universities though with four places in the top 10

Too much data?

Will more data help prospective students?

Richard Partington, writing in THE, expresses concern about the ‘data overload’ which the Key Information Set (KIS) will deliver. He notes that the provision of information to applicants via the KIS is intended to work in a similar way to price comparison websites such as those offering car insurance. And that this, despite what Ministers might think, is not necessarily a good thing:

But what really worries me, is how the data will be “innovatively presented” by the third-party providers whom the government envisages will advise applicants. Comparing universities and courses is already really difficult. Unless students are lucky enough to be supported by excellent careers advisers, they struggle to make sense of substantially incomparable information regarding course content, teaching, learning, costs and support. The problem has arguably been exacerbated by newspaper league tables that seek to distinguish themselves by weighting data differently, or including additional delineators – sometimes of comical spuriousness. The impossibility of comparing like with like will only get worse under the new arrangements. Try, for example, comparing the fee-waiver, bursary and scholarship packages of Oxford and Cambridge. Both are, I believe, strong and broadly similar. But they look very different.

An earlier post noted similar issues around the provision of advice to students in the new system. It seems to me to be quite likely therefore that the excessive provision of detailed but not necessarily meaningfully comparable data will, as Partington suggests, baffle rather than enlighten students.

A currently pretty much empty site shows an example of what the KIS data will look like and it’s easy to see how seductive this might be for those looking for a cheap solution to the provision of advice to prospective students

Enlightening or baffling? We’ll have to wait and see.

A rather narrow view of higher education?

Uganda’s President Criticizes ‘Non-Marketable’ Courses

Inside Higher Ed has a story on the Ugandan president’s view of higher education

Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president, has been giving speeches around his country calling for students to stop taking courses in “non-marketable” subjects such as literature and conflict resolution, Voice of America reported.

In one recent talk, he said: “The problem is not jobs, the jobs are there. What is crucial are the skills. There has been a course at Makarere [University] called Conflict Resolution. OK, but what will you do when the conflicts are finished? This unemployment you are talking about. Is it unemployment or is it employability? Is it that you are unemployed, or is it that you are not employable because you have got skills which are not needed on the market?” Faculty members and students are split on the president’s campaign, with some praising it and others questioning whether he is defining the purpose of higher education in too narrow a way.

Given that Makarere University defines its mission as being “To provide innovative teaching, learning, research and services responsive to National and Global needs” it rather looks like they are delivering on this. After all, we really aren’t going to get to a position in the very near future where all conflicts have been resolved (as this list of likely international flash points identified by the BBC’s Frank Gardner demonstrates). These graduates should therefore be pretty employable.

ICO: private email accounts are subject to FOI

New regulatory joy from the Information Commissioner’s Office

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has published some exciting new guidance making it clear that information held in private email accounts is subject to the Freedom of Information Act:

Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham said:

“It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to official business. This has always been the case – the Act covers all recorded information in any form.

“It came to light in September that this is a somewhat misunderstood aspect of the law and that further clarification was needed. That’s why we’ve issued new guidance today with two key aims – first, to give public authorities an authoritative steer on the factors that should be considered before deciding whether a search of private email accounts is necessary when responding to a request under the Act. Second, to set out the procedures that should generally be in place to respond to requests. Clearly, the need to search private email accounts should be a rare occurrence; therefore, we do not expect this advice to increase the burden on public authorities.”

Key points set out in the guidance include:

Where a public authority has decided that a relevant individual’s email account may include official information which falls within the scope of the request and is not held elsewhere, it will need to ask that individual to search their account.

Where people are asked to check private email accounts, there should be a record of the action taken. The public authority needs to be able to demonstrate, if required, that appropriate searches have taken place.

It is accepted that, in certain circumstances, it may be necessary to use private email for public authority business. There should be a policy which clearly states that in these cases an authority email address should be copied in to ensure the completeness of the authority’s records.

I hope that’s clear for everyone. Happy new year!