Sunday Times 2013 University League Table Top 20

Sunday Times League Table 2013

This is just the Top 20 rather than the full table (which is now available (paid access) on the Sunday Times website). There are some big changes with Heriot Watt and Birmingham Universities both enjoying big leaps.

(Note that this is the table published in 2012. The 2014 table, published in 2013, can be found here.)

The top 20 is below:

(last year’s position in brackets)

1 (1) University of Cambridge
2 (2) University of Oxford
3 (5) University of Bath
4 (3) Durham University
5 (6) University of St Andrews
6 (4) LSE
7 (9) University of Exeter
8 (14) Imperial
9 (31) Heriot Watt
10 (8) Warwick
11 (10) Bristol
12 (11) Loughborough
13= (7) UCL
13= (25) Birmingham
15 (15=) University of York
16 (18) Lancaster
17 (12) Newcastle
18 (13) Sheffield
19= (26) Cardiff
19=(20) University of Glasgow

(University of Nottingham slips down from 15= to 22nd place)
It’s not entirely clear why there are such dramatic leaps in and out of the Top 20 but it does raise some questions about the methodology here. The impact of one year changes to National Student Survey scores and employment rates, both of which can be exaggerated by the scaling used here, would seem to be at the heart of this.

On the plus side you can plat with the tables to create your own until you get the outcome you wish.

Exeter is the ‘University of the Year’.

Unistats and KIS – just too much information?

Unistats – now with added KIS – has launched

The all new Unistats site has launched:

Unistats is the official site that allows you to search for and compare data and information on university and college courses from across the UK. The site draws together comparable information on those areas that students have identified as important in making decisions about what and where to study. The items that students thought were most useful have been included in a Key Information Set (KIS), which can be found on the Overview tab for each course.

The site draws on the following official data on higher education courses:

  • Student satisfaction from the National Student Survey
  • Student destinations on finishing their course from the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey
  • How the course is taught and study patterns
  • How the course is assessed
  • Course accreditation
  • Course costs (such as tuition fees and accommodation)

There is a mass of information here and, as this screenshot shows, data is presented in a handy tabular form:

However, we do have a problem. As previous posts have noted there really is just too much data here and across the various university, HE sector information and league table websites. The launch recently of the new Which? University site (about which I posted here recently) added to the mess and the Unistats upgrade just serves to make the picture even more complicated for applicants.

There is no information deficit in HE. We do not need more and better course comparison websites. What we do need is fewer new websites and more and better guidance for prospective students.

The Imperfect University: Graduation – a bit London 2012?

Graduations: A bit like the Olympics but then some

Graduation is one of the most significant events in the university calendar. It is a slightly bizarre and rather ritualistic event. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) dresses up, in gowns and/or posh frocks or newly acquired suits.

I have attended two of my own and over 150 others at different institutions. Whilst I was a bit grumpy about attending the one for my undergraduate degree (I decided I was doing it just for my parents), pretty chipper about the second (after nearly 10 years’ hard graft on my PhD I genuinely felt I’d earned it) and having skipped the one for the Diploma in Management Studies in between I do really rather like them now.

A US commencement

Whilst there is something to be said for the total experience of the US style commencement, I do think the UK model is hard to beat in its mixture of pomp, flummery and joy. And it is quite a bizarre event when you think about it, with few parallels in public life; whilst weddings, funerals, christenings and knightings come close they all involve smaller numbers of people whereas in graduations hundreds of people are the centre of attention, albeit only for a few moments each. Graduation days are just about the only days in the university calendar when everybody is happy or at least the smallest number of people are gloomy.

The closest parallel I think is with the atmosphere around the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics where the experience in all of the venues and on Olympic Park was one of uniform near rapture from volunteers, staff, participants (most of them) and audience alike. OK the various garish sportswear combinations aren’t quite as formal as gowns, hoods and mortar boards but the analogy broadly holds good I think.

London 2012 crowd

Organising graduation ceremonies is one of most thankless tasks in the administrator’s panoply of duties. I’ve often thought it is a bit of a short straw in that many aspects of your work are extremely visible (and permanently on record, available on DVD for a very reasonable price), you are dependent on lots of other people doing what you expect of them and there are just dozens of things which can go wrong and over which you have little or no influence. Senior staff, whatever their role in the event, will always delight in passing on some helpful bits of advice about where things went wrong or could have been improved.

Rituals are interesting. Shaking of hands and bowing in different combinations are pretty much commonplace. My recollection of graduating at Edinburgh was that you leaned forward and were hit on head by a large piece of velvet claimed to be a piece of John Knox’s breeches:

According to University legend, the graduation cap (the Geneva Bonnet) was made using material from the breeches of John Knox.

I’m sure it was orange when I graduated but it looks a bit different in the photo. It also now strikes me as rather unlikely that the said item would have lasted for 400 years of head bashing (and it would be generally rather unhygienic too). It also seems a distinctly odd thing to decide would be a good way to signify graduation.

Things are even odder at Cambridge where, naturally, things are also all done in Latin:

The Praelector presenting the graduand holds the candidate by his or her right hand and says:
“Dignissima domina, Domina Procancellaria et tota Academia praesento vobis hunc virum (hanc mulierem) quem (quam) scio tam moribus quam doctrina esse idoneum (idoneam) ad gradum assequendum (name of degree); idque tibi fide mea praesto totique Academiae.”
“Most worthy Vice-Chancellor and the whole University, I present to you this man (this woman) whom I know to be suitable as much by character as by learning to proceed to the degree of (name of degree); for which I pledge my faith to you and to the whole University.”
The graduand’s name is called and they step forward and kneel. Clasping the graduand’s hands, the Vice-Chancellor says:
“Auctoritate mihi commissa admitto te ad gradum (name of degree), in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.”
“By the authority committed to me, I admit you to the degree of (name of degree) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Similarly at Oxford:

If you are attending a degree ceremony to confer your MA (or DD, DCL, DM or MCh), you will be required to kneel in front of the VC, who touches each person on the head with a Testament, admitting them ‘In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’.

It’s slightly less elaborate at Nottingham although there is lots of bowing. Indeed students, regardless of instruction, never seem to know whether they are bowing to the Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor, the crest behind the stage, the platform party or the mace. They will bow to just about anyone.

As with most universities we do have a heavy and finely crafted mace. One day someone might explain why. We also have Marshals of various kinds and levels of seniority and an Esquire Bedell (who looks after the mace). All of these people, despite their strange titles, are key to making the event happen and to ensure that students actually make it to the front, across the stage and back to their seats without mishap.

Gowns can be pretty hot and some of more ceremonial officers’ robes even more so: Nottingham’s chancellor has a train and plenty of very heavy gold trim. The best gown ever saw was I think from a Spanish university. Bright orange with a very chic pillbox hat it looked as if it had been unchanged for 500 years. The 60s were a boom time for gown designers with the new universities at that time looking for a contemporary take on the traditional style (I am told); UEA gowns were designed by Cecil Beaton who clearly had fun with the hoods. There was another spate of gown design excitement in 1992 when all the new universities launched and then began adopting their own appropriately differentiated livery. Gown companies, of which there are only a handful in the UK, have really got this market literally and metaphorically sewn up.

Beyond the gowns there can be some interesting dress issues for graduands and, despite the very sound advice issued to all about the inadvisability of trying out stilettoes for the first time many people do. Despite lots of inappropriate footwear – from flip flops to biker boots – people rarely fall over or off the stage. I do know I’m getting old though because of my irritation at the number of graduands who think casual wear is appropriate for such a ceremony. Attempts to legislate have so far failed.

On graduands
It’s pretty easy to have all your lazy prejudices confirmed about the kind of students following different kinds of courses. For example, you can be pretty sure that at least several archaeology graduands will have long hair and beards. It is inevitable that many art history and psychology students are tall and blonde. Physiotherapy students have the firmest handshakes. Names, particularly but not always of international students, are quite tricky and sexing the graduand can also occasionally be problematic and embarrassing for the Dean if called incorrectly. On the plus side, British graduands often have amusing middle names which no-one has ever heard attributed to them before.

Platform party
These things I have learned:

  • Some members of the platform party seem to find it challenging to stay awake for an hour on a stage. Even when you are clapping a lot (or pretending to clap because you have sore hands from excessive clapping in the previous ceremony).
  • Drinking at lunchtime is generally not conducive to effective working, including at graduation. Just because you only have to walk and clap doesn’t mean you can drink with impunity.
  • Sleeping on stage is still frowned upon.
  • You have to behave. Furtive blackberry use is going to be noticed. Even so, lots of parents and friends of graduands will have lots of pictures of people in funny dress doing odd things on stage.
  • Every university has some really oddly titled courses and we all appear, judging by the small number of graduands on some programmes, to have many more uneconomic courses than we thought. These are not things to raise with members of faculty during the procession.

Honorary graduates
I’ve written before about these and a previous post noted the two broad categories for the recipients of honorary degrees. Although there are a few borderlines, by and large I think it’s still the case that you can divide the worthy holders of honoraries into serious or celebrities. Another post on last year’s round of awards noted the wide range of celebrities who have collected honoraries, from Donald Sinden to Pam St Clement. An even earlier piece noted the success of some individuals in accumulating large numbers of honorary awards (although Kermit has still only got the one degree as far as I can tell). It’s all good fun although can get messy if you decide, as Edinburgh did in the case of Robert Mugabe, that the recipient is not perhaps as worthy as he once was and ask for your degree back.

Recipients of honorary degrees, or in the US where famous individuals are invited there just for this purpose, normally deliver an address to inspire and uplift the new graduates. There are thousands of US commencement speeches on you tube and many lists of the best including this rather good one.

One recent and very good one from the University of Nottingham is an address by author Jon McGregor who advises graduates to “get lost”:

Forward not back

Graduation is still a major rite of passage. It remains one of the most wonderful events in the university calendar and, for all concerned it is generally a positive and forward looking event. Everyone is thinking about future work or study or other plans but also with fond reflection of their time at university. There is an over-riding sense of optimism even in the most difficult economic circumstances. It’s a bit like having the Olympics in your patch every year.

Shall we dance? Collaborations, Alliances, Mergers

Or Snog, marry, avoid? More universities are working more closely together

In one of its latest circulars (2012-21) HEFCE has published some new guidance on collaborations, alliances and mergers. It’s interesting stuff and timely given the context:

The pace of change in the HE sector is probably accelerating in many countries due to a number of complex and interacting factors, such as globalisation, internationalisation, the growing role of the private sector, increasing use of international rankings of institutions, and changing student needs and expectations. In England the new approach to the funding of teaching, and changes taking place to other major sources of funding, will also have a big impact on institutional behaviour, as will the renewed emphasis on placing students at the centre of the system. In various European countries and in Wales there have been major CAM developments, often actively promoted by governments to strengthen institutions and improve performance.

A clear, if rather simplistic, spectrum shows a range of possible partnerships from soft through to harder collaborations although there is plenty of scope for overlap here:

Continuing the rationale for this kind of activity, the paper also notes:

Institutions are being challenged as never before to reconsider their fundamental role, market position, structures, relationships, partnerships, policies and processes. They will need to continue questioning how they operate internally, engage externally with other institutions and organisations, and interact with the wider society. This raises the profile and potential relevance of collaborations, alliances and mergers as part of institutions’ response to the drivers for change. Nonetheless, institutions are autonomous and there is no question of a top-down approach in England.

There are some interesting case studies in here, ranging from the UMIST/Manchester merger, the development of what was Thames Valley University and the establishment of University Campus Suffolk. Although the emphasis is more on mergers than collaborations and alliances it is nevertheless a helpful guide and certainly reflects some dimensions of the Nottingham/Birmingham partnership.

A little more information can be found in this Prezi on the collaboration between the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham as delivered to colleagues at the recent AHUA conference.

Undoubtedly we will be seeing more collaborations, alliances and even mergers in future.

How can we help? Supporting new academic hires

Berkeley offers an extensive service for new academics

Support for newly recruited academic staff tends to be fairly limited in UK universities. And even less is offered to other groups of staff. Although you might get an invitation to some kind of induction event and a half-decent lunch if you are lucky. Inside Higher Edreports on the appointment of a concierge at Berkeley to help new faculty acclimatise to their new environment:

The concierge job is Berkeley’s way of offering a seamless service for new faculty hires, something that was previously taken care of by various departments as they went about recruiting faculty. Bagnatori, who reports to the university’s office of faculty equity and welfare, is now the one-stop shop for new faculty members, and usually their requests have little to do with academic life.

Angelica Stacy, associate vice provost for faculty at Berkeley, said the concierge position was created to ensure a good transition for new faculty members. “Our goal was to have a place to talk confidentially, be it a renting situation, elder care or what schools your children should go to,” Stacy said. “We make an investment when we hire new faculty; we want them to stay long-term.”

Stacy added that people tend to remember how they were welcomed and the kind of help they were provided when they began a new job. New hires “will be more successful if everything else is working well,” she said.

It’s a nice idea but is this really the kind of thing universities should be spending money on? After all, if staff are accustomed to the idea their new employer will find them child care or someone to look after their pets, won’t this encourage unrealistic expectations about ongoing support? Won’t this foster prima donna behaviour?

Having said that there is something to be said for this kind of co-ordination of staff support and it is arguably particularly valuable for international staff who do need more help with the practical side of living and working in a new country.

Yet another ranking

This time it’s an alumni ranking

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on this new player in the US college rankings:

If you had it to do all over again, would you choose to attend your alma mater? Do you think the education you received there was a good value? How much money do you make? Oh, and are you happy?

The newest player in the college-rankings game has asked such questions of more than 42,000 college graduates. Called the Alumni Factor, the new venture has released a college guide based largely on the opinions of those who’ve earned bachelor’s degrees from one of 177 institutions.

U.S. News & World Report’s popular rankings tell you a lot about who comes through a college’s gates; the Alumni Factor’s rankings were designed to capture who emerges at the other end of the enrollment cycle. The former relies, in part, on the opinions of outsiders to rate a given college; the latter relies on the opinions of people who, presumably, know the place well.

“We want to pierce the bubble of reputation,” says the introduction to the Alumni Factor’s guide, “to understand how graduates actually perform post-graduation—and hear what they have to say about the job their college did to prepare them.”

Although the nation’s shelves are already full—perhaps too full—of college guides, the Alumni Factor’s timing, at least, seems impeccable. Today’s students and parents are asking more questions about outcomes, about the success and salaries of an institution’s graduates.

According to the blurb the Alumni Factor research “listened to the people who’ve been overlooked in popular college rankings”, ie the Alumni. Looking at the sample reports on colleges on The Alumni Factor website the ratings do look pretty comprehensive, covering actual outcomes–career success, financial success, and graduates’ happiness:


The weaknesses of the project seem to me to be its limited coverage, with only 177 institutions covered, and the fact that it is a monthly subscription service. With so many other guides and rankings it’s not clear why you would pay monthly for access to this data. And, as noted in relation to the UK in the previous post, there really isn’t an information deficit in higher education. Suspect though there will be something like this in the UK before long.


Go compare – Which advice to take?

Which? University adds to the university information mix

Last week saw the launch of the new Which? university comparison website. Trailed in the White Paper n June 2011 it offers yet more information to prospective students in what is already a very crowded landscape.

The Which? University website enables comparisons of courses by students by price, A-level entry requirements and graduate starting salaries. There are also ranking lists, based on a poll of students, which rate universities for creativity, political action, nightlife and sportiness, among other things.




Times Higher Education reported on the launch:

Loughborough University is the top university for sports, while the universities of Northumbria and Newcastle, and the University of Liverpool, are judged to have the best nightlife, according to a poll of almost 10,000 students by market research firm YouthSight.

The School for Oriental and African Studies, University of London, ranks the highest for having the strongest political scene.

Students at the University of Oxford are the most happy, based on scores from the 2011 National Student Survey – though the ancient university was ranked equal in this respect with Neath Port Talbot College and Ruskin College, an adult education college in Oxford.

Graduates from the London School of Economics had the highest average starting salary, beginning on £28,968, the site says.

The site was launched at Westminster College by David Willetts, the universities and science minister and Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students.

“Choosing the right course and the right university is an important, and often daunting, decision,” said Mr Willetts.

“I want prospective students to have all relevant information at their disposal.”

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: “It’s worrying how many people are making one of the biggest decisions of their lives without proper guidance or advice.

“That’s why we’ve launched Which? University so that people have free access to impartial information and can more easily choose the right course and university for them.”



I’d agree with this point – there really isn’t enough proper guidance and advice available for prospective students. There is however more than enough information and data out there. Before Which? University arrived there was already a similar site doing a similar job (although it now seems to have been suspended) and offering similar information. Beyond this we have all of the main UK league tables and universities’ own websites and prospectuses to draw on for comparative information. Not to mention the National Student Survey and the new Key Information Set (KIS).

There is no information deficit. As noted in a previous post about the KIS there is huge amount of information available for prospective students. The Minister and other partners in the Which? enterprise, including the National Union of Students, demonstrate a touching faith in the power of information and data and popularity polls to help students make the right decisions. But really we don’t need more course comparison sites. We don’t need more information. Students need high quality professional advice and guidance to make sense of this information and to make the right choices for them. That is the real deficit.

Which? University is not the silver bullet.


True Crime on Campus §23: the ultimate discovery

More true crime on campus:

Our Security staff discover the strangest things happening on campus. Fortunately, they are generally unflappable and respond pragmatically to every challenge. Even when presented with the ultimate answer:

16:34 Security received a report from a member of staff that a person unknown was looking at the lead on the roof of the DHL. Security to follow up.

23:35 Security discovered a conference delegate sleeping in his car on Jubilee Campus near the Business School North. Security advised he went to see the porter to get a room but he insisted he stayed in his car.

1645 Report that an unknown male had got himself wedged in the revolving door at the Portland Building. One of the glass panels in the door was over flexed causing it to shatter. Security attended but the male had left the area without waiting to be spoken to. Help Desk informed.

0910 Residents of the BASF House contacted Security as they were concerned about a BEKO Fridge that was in the house given the recent issues with some of these products. Security attended and checked the serial numbers and confirmed that the one in the house was not one that was of concern.

2100 Report of a male in a van looking in skips at the Halls of Residence. Security attended – the male was spoken to and told to leave Campus.

00:45 While on patrol Security noticed two males fishing on the far side of the Djanogly Learning Centre on Jubilee Campus. Security pointed out that there were signs stating ‘No Fishing’. They agreed to leave Campus and stated that did not keep any fish they had caught and put them back.

15:44 Security received a report from a member of the public that they could hear screaming from the new build along Beeston Lane by the Sports Centre. Security attended, checked the area and questioned the builders but nothing was found.

1625 Patrol Security stopped a student riding a motorcycle without a Helmet on Cut Through Lane. The rider was spoken to and told that he would be reported for the offence. The rider stated he forgot to put the helmet on.

0600 Patrol Security discovered two horses from the fields at the rear of the Vet School loose on Lancroft Lane. Security put the horses back into the fields. Security are to speak to the Vet School re this.

2310 Conference Delegates contacted Security from Sherwood Hall to say they were too hot. Delegates were advised to open their windows.

1330 Report of a suspicious package in Lenton and Wortley Hall. Security attended – the package was found to contain herbs to aid sleep.

0755, 1323 A male contacted the Security Control room stating that he had discovered the meaning of life and urgently needed to speak to a Professor in Physics. After discussing the matter at length with Security the person’s details have been passed onto the Police to carry out a welfare check.

2012/13 QS World University Rankings

Latest QS world league table is out

A preview of the 2012/13 QS World University Rankings from John O’Leary, makes clear the impact that the league tables have. Not just on institutions but also on governments:

The rankings, which will be published on September 11, are intended primarily to guide international students, their parents and advisors in their choice of university. This year, there will be 700 institutions to compare on six different measures, with additional faculty-specific rankings to illustrate particular strengths.

But QS rankings are also used by governments from Denmark and Germany to Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Japan to evaluate the standing of their own and other countries’ universities. Positions are used in funding allocations, promotional material and even immigration decisions.

The German and Japanese governments have both used QS ranking positions as one of their performance measures in research budgeting. Thailand is one of a growing number of countries to use the rankings to shortlist the universities chosen for additional funding to help them compete internationally.

In the UK, the Browne Report on student fees used QS rankings to illustrate the high standing of the country’s universities. A Government-funded advertising campaign coinciding with the Olympic Games in London to promote the UK as a tourist or business destination also quoted the rankings.

Full details of the rankings can be found at the QS website. A summary of the world top 10 follows where we find a swap at the top as MIT replaces Cambridge at No 1 and four UK universities remain in the top 10:

Global top ten

2012 2011 Institution
3 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
1 University of Cambridge
2 Harvard University
7 UCL (University College London)
5 University of Oxford
6 Imperial College London
4 Yale University
8 University of Chicago
13 Princeton University
10  12 California Institute of Technology (Caltech)


The UK also has 18 universities in the top 100:

Top UK universities

1 University of Cambridge GB
7 UCL (University College London) GB
5 University of Oxford GB
6 Imperial College London GB
21  20 University of Edinburgh GB
26  27 King’s College London (KCL) GB
28  30 University of Bristol GB
32  29 The University of Manchester GB
54  59 University of Glasgow GB
58  50 The University of Warwick GB
66  72 The University of Sheffield GB
69  64 London School of Economics and Political Science GB
72  74 The University of Nottingham GB
73  75 University of Southampton GB
77  67 University of Birmingham GB
92  95 Durham University GB
93  97 University of St Andrews GB
94   93 University of Leeds GB


Marketing inflation

Increasing marketing spend in universities – real or hype?

Inside Higher Ed features a report on a recent conference on marketing in higher education which featured some bold predictions about the money UK universities will be spending in the brave new market place.

Discussion focused on whether we would see levels of spending of up to 20% of revenue on marketing as has happened in some US universities. The predictions all seemed to suggest that we would see major growth in UK universities’ marketing spend as institutions compete more to attract students.

The article notes what has happened in some US institutions and contains some rather extravagant propositions about what will happen in the UK:

A report released in July by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions chaired by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, found that for-profits in the country spent an average of 22.7 percent of their revenue on marketing and recruitment, 5 percentage points more than their investment in teaching.

Tim McIntyre-Bhatty, deputy vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University, said that UK universities would rapidly move toward an equivalent figure. “The question is how quickly and the answer is 12 months,” he said.

Robb said that tuition fees had escalated and the same thing would happen to marketing budgets. “There’s no doubt that universities will spend more on marketing in the next 5 to 10 years than they have done to date,” he added.

It is reasonable to speculate that universities will spend more on marketing than they have in the past. However, the idea of spending even as much as 4-5% on marketing as one director of marketing quoted in the piece suggests strikes me as hugely excessive. And as for allocating in excess of 20%, this is just absurd. In reality I would guess that the real level of spend will be in the range of 1-2%. So a load of rather excessive hype I think.

New Branch Campuses in China

Some new Branch Campuses on the way

The University of Nottingham admitted its first students in China back in 2004, establishing the first Sino-Foreign University in China and then opening its campus, pictured above, in Ningbo in 2006. There are now over 5,500 students following University of Nottingham degrees at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. Since then others have followed, employing different models at different scales and with various partners.

An earlier blog post covered the general expansion of branch campuses. Now Hanover Research has a piece on prospective branch campuses in China. It reports that the the Observatory of Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) has identified at least seven branch campuses currently being planned for mainland China – accounting for approximately one-fifth of all branch campuses slated to open through to 2014. All are from western universities, with five from the United States and two from the United Kingdom. The article actually lists seven US universities:

  • New York University
  • Duke
  • George Washington U
  • Berkeley
  • Kean (which seems to be the most advanced)
  • Missouri St Louis with Missouri U of Science and Technology

The piece doesn’t name the UK universities but I have a pretty good idea about one of them.

Some more details of the OBHE report can be found in a University World News story on the topic and some surprising information about Chinese university opening a European branch featured in an earlier blog post.

Helicopter parent? There’s an app for that

Helpful support for students or an expensive way to interfere?

Inside Higher Ed reports on a new app which updates parents on their student’s progress. But is it a helpful addition to student support or just a license for interfering parents? It’s not cheap either:

When families sign up for the program and pay the monthly $29.95 subscription fee, the student gets access to a series of Mentoring Interactive Programs, or MIPs, which can be accessed online or from a mobile phone. Each MIP consists of a short video on a topic such as “Coping With Homesickness” or “How to Ask for Help in College.” At the end of each MIP, students are asked a series of multiple-choice questions about their health, social adjustment, academic behavior and academic goals.

After the student completes the week’s 10 multiple-choice questions, the data are analyzed by the csMentor technology and a report is generated for the student and the parents. The report doesn’t list the students’ answers, but instead provides a summary of how the student is doing in the four key areas, each of which is coded green, yellow or red.

“We see the service as a way of enhancing communication between parent and students,” said Steve Wattenmaker, CEO of csMentor. “We think it will enrich the conversations. It can go beyond the typical, ‘How’s everything this week?’ ”

Interesting. It seems to entail a much greater degree of involvement than would perhaps normally be the case. Surely this can’t be a good thing?

Wattenmaker and the rest of the csMentor team, which is made up of educational psychologists, counselors and university administrators, hope the program will help students and parents spot potential problems earlier, so they can deal with them before they escalate.

But Marjorie Savage, parent program director at the University of Minnesota and author of the book You’re on Your Own (But I’m Here If You Need Me), wonders if parents should be involved so early in the problem-solving process.

“It feels to me like it’s going further than what a typical college student should need,” Savage said.

I think Savage perhaps understates the point here. It really isn’t good for the student to have parental involvement in this way. Particularly when universities have their own teams of student services professionals whose job is to offer this kind of support. Moreover, most students are adults and independent and should be treated as such. Really this just looks like a very expensive

Not Guilty, Your Honour: students and cheating

Honour codes and cheating

Two fascinating stories recently about students cheating and responses to it. All universities face the issue of how to educate students on the importance of honesty and integrity in academic study and avoiding plagiarism and other forms of cheating. Many US institutions have what is called an Honour Code to which students are expected to adhere and which covers all aspects of their behaviour in academic and non-academic activities. Similar statements can be found in the registration or matriculation agreements signed by students on arrival at UK universities. These also relate to the disciplinary regulations covering academic and other offences which describe the powers the university has (which may range from fines, to mark deductions to expulsion) to respond to behaviour which breaches these agreements.

The first of these pieces, in The Chronicle of Higher Education describes how Coursera, one of the big MMOC providers, has moved to add an “honour code prompt” in response to reports of widespread plagiarism by students following its courses:

Specifically, they must check a box next to this sentence: “In accordance with the Honor Code, I certify that my answers here are my own work, and that I have appropriately acknowledged all external sources (if any) that were used in this work.”

Only a few courses that are now under way include essay assignments, so just three courses are affected (though tens of thousands of students are enrolled in each one). Officials say they may add the honor-code prompt to other types of assignments in the future. Students in all Coursera courses already agree to its honor code when they sign up for classes.

“A large part of the plagiarism arises from lack of understanding of the expected standards of behavior in U.S. academic institutions, especially among students who have not been trained in such institutions,” said Daphne Koller, a co-founder of the company and a Stanford University professor, in an e-mail interview. “We believe that this language will be quite helpful.”

It is interesting that the view here appears to be that this is really an issue about cultural difference and alternative norms about what is and is not acceptable in terms of academic work. This is likely to be a factor when there are so many students, from many different backgrounds and educational traditions, taking a course. It is a challenge faced and addressed in traditional university education too. What is different here though is that the nature and operation of MOOCs means that plagiarism and other forms of cheating is inevitable. With huge numbers of students taking each class and automated or peer marking and no quality assurance then it is simply impossible to be confident about the integrity of the assessment process. Such an invitation to students to sign a pledge looks, at best, a little tokenistic.

Meanwhile, Harvard University, which has never had an honour code, is to consider instituting one as it investigates whether at least 125 undergraduates cheated by working together on a take-home exam according to this piece in The Washington Post:

Officials said they intend to start broad conversations about academic honesty, including why it is vital to intellectual inquiry, in the wake of what is believed to be the largest such episode in recent school history.

Harvard University is investigating whether dozens of undergraduate students cheated on a take-home exam last spring.

“We really think we need to work harder,” said Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education. “We do think it’s an opportunity to really put out before the community how much we value integrity.”

School officials said Thursday they discovered roughly half of the students in a class of at least 250 people may have shared answers or plagiarized on a final. They declined to release the name of the class or the students’ names.

“These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends,” President Drew Faust said.

What is perhaps most surprising about this incident is the scale of it with half of a class of 250 said to be involved. The key difference between this and the Coursera response is that the University detected the possible cheating and is acting on it in order to maintain the standard of its awards. That’s not something we can expect to see from a MOOC provider in the near future (of which Harvard is of course one, albeit indirectly, through its partnership in edX).

The other rather dispiriting conclusion we can draw from all of this is that human nature is such that many people will, if you give them the opportunity, cheat.