Daft University Traditions

Some students (and universities) do the silliest things…

Lots of universities have bizarre traditions which their students sustain year after year or in some cases disappear into oblivion. My eye was recently caught by a collection of “Princetonia” including this rather odd event called Poler’s Recess:

One of the more peculiar Princeton traditions was an exam-time ritual known as the Poler’s Recess, which began around 1900 and continued for several decades. A “poler” was a Princeton epithet for someone who was thought to study too diligently, perhaps in reference to the laborious poling of a boat.

Every night during the final examination period, as the 9 p.m. bell began to ring, all dormitory windows on campus were thrown open for a riotous, 10-minute cacophony. Students blew horns, beat drums and tin pans and set off firecrackers — producing a din loud enough to disrupt the studies of even the most zealous poler. An undergraduate writer observed in 1918 that it was “probably the most juvenile of all campus customs, but it brought a welcome break for everyone in a long night’s hard work.”

Firecracker exploding

The 1949 Poler’s Recess was a rousing success, but by the following year, opinion was split as to the benefits of the event and the necessity of yet another study break, and a well-enforced ban on firecrackers further dampened enthusiasm. After a few sporadic attempts to resurrect the tradition, it faded from student memory within a few years.

Closer to home we have the strange tradition of the Raisin Weekend celebrations at St Andrews University:

Historically, first year students would thank their academic parents for their guidance with a pound of raisins, although sinec the 19th century, the giving of raisins was substituted for a derivative – usually alcohol, setting the benchmark for the tradition today.

Usually held annually during the last week in November (or earlier, dependent on academic calendar), first years – known as Bejants and Bejantines – are entertained by their academic parents, starting with a tea-party hosted by the academic mother and a pub crawl or house party led by the academic father. Due to the lack of stringent rules on the number of academic parents a first year may have, it is not unusual for Bejants and Bejantines to attend more than one party or pub crawl, with many families joining together towards the end of the weekend.

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Traditionally, the parents give their children a ‘Raisin receipt’ in return for the pound of raisins/alcohol. Throughout the years, the receipts have become more and more ludicrous, with livestock receipts banned in the 1960s after a particularly unsavoury moment involving a donkey and laxatives.

There’s more too. The Telegraph has a selection of rather odd university traditions of which this one is perhaps one of the strangest:

…the Time Ceremony undertaken by Merton College students who in the early hours of the last Sunday in October walk backwards around the Fellows’ Quad drinking port. The purpose is to maintain the space-time continuum during the change from British Summer Time to Greenwich Meantime.

Sounds pretty much like an excuse to drink more port.

Does your institution have any similar daft traditions?

Firecracker picture by ABF (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

St Andrews quad picture via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:St_Andrews_Quad.jpg#file

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Falling short: careers guidance in schools

A new Ofsted report on the parlous state of careers guidance

Ofsted has recently published a report entitled Going in the right direction? Careers guidance in schools from September 2012.

The report covers a sample of 60 schools to assess how they were addressing their legal responsibility, in place since September 2012, for securing access to independent and impartial careers guidance for all their students in Years 9 to 11  in order to enable them to make informed decisions about their future.. It doesn’t look pretty.
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The overall conclusion is that careers guidance in schools really isn’t working and three quarters of schools are not meeting their statutory duty. The survey also finds that guidance for schools on careers advice is not explicit, the National Careers Service is not promoted well enough and there is a lack of employer engagement in schools.

The report recommends:

  • The Government provide more explicit guidance to schools on careers advice.
  • The Government monitor students’ progress and achievement when they leave school through accurate collection of ‘destination data’ to give a better understanding of a young person’s journey to employment.
  • The National Careers Service markets its services more effectively to all young people aged 13-18 and does more to disseminate information on national skills shortages so that young people gain a greater understanding of where there are likely to be greater employment opportunities.
  • Ofsted also recommends that its own inspectors take greater account of careers guidance and students’ destinations when conducting future school inspections.

This strikes me as insufficient. It is all very well to place these responsibilities on schools and asking them to do more but more marketing of the National Careers Service really is not enough to deliver the quality and quantity of careers advice and guidance required. Schools do need to look to make better provision but they do need the resources to enable them to do so.

This is the challenge which Inspiring Futures (declaration of interest – I am a member of the board of trustees) and others are working hard to address. This report confirms the scale of the effort required.

Unbelievable excitement as website updated

Big announcements about Unistats.

As previously noted there is no shortage of information available to prospective university students. Unistats was intended to enable better decision-making by students but, whilst it is not without merit, it is no substitute for effective advice and guidance. Unfortunately this shiny website seems to be pretty much all that’s on offer. Still, the good news is it has been updated to help students make even better choices:

The updated and improved Unistats web-site includes even more course information than ever before, and will make it easier for users to search and compare courses by location, as well as on the go via a new mobile phone version.

Unistats is one of the most widely used higher education course comparison web-sites in the UK for prospective students, their parents and advisers. Over the past year, it has attracted more than 250,000 unique visitors and over 5.2 million page views, helping to match students to universities and colleges.

unistats latin

It really is this exciting

Anyway, the Universities Minister David Willetts is a big fan and credits Unistats with students getting into their first choice universities (and I thought it depended on their A level grades):

‘We are empowering people by publishing unprecedented levels of information on their options.

‘It is making a real difference and more students than ever before are now getting their first choice university place.

‘The next stage is to let people access Unistats on their mobiles, at a time and place of their choosing.’

Times Higher Education, reporting on the launch, include a quote from Rachel Wenstone, Vice-President at the National Union of Students who seems really keen on all this:

“Deciding what to study and where to go to university is a big decision and it is crucial that prospective applicants have relevant, impartial information in an easily accessible format,” she said.

“I’m really pleased that the improvements to the site have been made with students, parents and carers in mind and I hope it will contribute to helping even more students make the right application choices,” she added.

(Indeed, NUS seems surprisingly enthusiastic about many government initiatives these days.)

Anyway, it’s all very exciting news. Even if it does make it all sound a bit like a dating site…

True Crime on Campus §31: no dead ducks

It’s all new and all real: more true crime on campus

There can be some strange and often challenging incidents on campus sometimes. However, our outstanding Security staff are ready for anything and always there to deal with the problem- no matter how odd:

20:50 Security provided access for a student who was locked in the Hallward Library as the Library staff had gone home.

23:00 Security were called to a possible intruder into Flat at Sutton Bonington Campus. No damaged caused although TV was found in the oven and a sofa has been put on its side with various cleaning products scattered across the floor. All doors locked but a window was found propped open with a TV remote control.

18:50 Security attended a report of three youths throwing water balloons on the lakeside of the Trent Building who had ran off in the direction of Florence Boot Hall. On arrival there were no youths found.

cut finger1625 Report of a Student with a cut finger in the Opal Office Sutton Bonington Campus. Security attended – the Student was advised to attend the local NHS walk in centre.

2155 Report of Students being too loud while watching a Rugby Match in Hall. Security attended and asked the Students to keep the noise down.

0830 Report of the theft of a Motor Cycle from the EMCC car park. Security attended Police informed. Patrol Security Officers located the cycle hidden in bushes adjacent to Lenton and Wortley Hall. The Owner and Police have been informed.

1911 Request for Security to attend the Swimming Pool due to a possible dispute between a Swimming Coach and a parent. Security attended – no issues were reported.

1629 Report of two males with Dogs attempting to get the animal to fight each other at the rear of the Sir Colin Campbell Building. Security attended but on arrival the males had left the area.

1520 Report of a male attempting to steal seats from Pedal Cycles on Jubilee Campus. Security attended – the male had left the area. Security Officers are to follow up.

1640 Report of a couple having sex on Nightingale Field. Security attended, the area was checked but no one was found.

19:00 Security were made aware of smoke coming from behind Melton Hall, Jubilee Campus. On arrival it appeared to be coming from a garden – residents were burning their things in their garden. Police attended and stopped the residents.

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1235 Report of a person trapped in the lift in Tower Building. Security attended. The person trapped was the lift engineer who had attended to repair the lift. A second engineer was able to rectify the fault.

1340 Report of a male strangling Ducks at the Jubilee Campus. Officers attended and spoke to the male who denied it. There was no evidence to confirm the report. The male was told to leave Campus.

1415 Report of a male urinating onto the rear of DHL Building. Security attended and spoke to the male. He stated that he needed he needed to urinate and the toilets in DHL were too dirty to use. The male was given advice and told not to do it again.

Lift symbol: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3b/Lift_symbool_%28NS%29.jpg

Times and Sunday Times 2014 University League Table Top 20 Placings

The Times and Sunday Times League Table 2014

A quick look at the top 20 in the all new combined Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide ranking for 2014. Full details can be found on the Sunday Times website (£).

1 Cambridge
2 Oxford
3 LSE
4 St Andrews
5 Imperial
6 Durhamrankings
7 Bath
8 Exeter
9 UCL
10 Warwick
11 York
12= Lancaster
12= Surrey
14 Leicester
15 Bristol
16 Birmingham
17 UEA
18= Newcastle
18= Sheffield
20 Southampton

(University of Nottingham appears just outside the top 20 in 23rd place)
Birmingham is the ‘University of the Year’.

Full details of the table were published on 22 September. The methodology for the new combined table is summarised as follows:

The information regarding research quality was sourced from the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, a peer review exercise to evaluate the quality of research in UK higher education institutions undertaken by the UK higher education funding bodies.
Entry standards, student-staff ratios, services and facilities spend, completion rates, Firsts and 2:1s and graduate prospects data were supplied by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) which provides a system of data collection, analysis, and dissemination in relation to higher education in the whole of the United Kingdom. The original sources of data for these measures are data returns made by the universities themselves to Hesa.
The provision of the data by the above sources does not necessarily imply agreement with the data transformation and construction of the table. Universities were provided with sets of their own Hesa data, which form the basis of the table, in advance of publication and were offered the opportunity to check the information. Some universities supplied replacement corrected data.
In building the table, scores for student satisfaction and research quality were weighted by 1.5; all other indicators were weighted by 1. The indicators were combined using a z-score transformation and the totals were transformed to a scale with 1000 for the top score. For entry standards, student-staff ratios, First and 2:1s and graduate prospects the score was adjusted for subject mix.
So, looks a bit more like the Times than the old Sunday Times methodology.

Oprah in the classroom

I’m a Celebrity – get me in there

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a diverting article on the appointment of celebrities as visiting academics at US universities. Celebrity adjunct culture as it is described brings many challenges, not least of which is the resentment of existing staff at the pay and perks afforded the star academic. But it can be positive too:

Celebrity hires can work out well, says Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, but institutions must be more open about their motives. “Universities have tried to find pedagogical cover for their publicity ventures,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to attain publicity for your school, but there needs to be more truth in advertising what these positions are all about.”

Celebrity professors, says Stephen M. Walt, a Harvard professor of international affairs, can be particularly helpful for lower-profile institutions that want to improve their name recognition. When the University of North Florida hired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African social-rights activist, as a visiting scholar in 2003, for example, the institution was not shy to publicize its professorial catch.

As the article notes, there were positives and negatives with a number of celebrity hires, including:Oprah Winfrey

David Petraeus

Eliot Spitzer

Michael Dukakis

Arnold Schwarzenegger

and, most strikingly

Oprah!

Meanwhile, back in North Florida:

Earle Traynham, the university’s interim provost, says he recalls university officials asking Archbishop Tutu to participate in a handful of fund-raising events while he was on campus. During his single semester at North Florida, Mr. Tutu led several noncredit mini-courses, as well as one semester-long course titled “Truth and Reconciliation,” focusing on his time heading South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a post-apartheid restorative justice body.

It is not uncommon, some administrators say, for institutions to pay more than they would ideally like to hire a high-profile adjunct professor if they perceive a potential payoff. That payoff, says Richard K. Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, may come through things like positive publicity or fund-raising opportunities.

So, pluses and minuses. But you are unlikely to get much in the way of a REF return out of them.

International agents: regulation required?

Do we need to regulate universities use of international recruitment agents?

A new publication from the Leadership Foundation, called Using International Recruitment Agents: Risks and Regulation? argues that we do need more regulation in this area. It’s an interesting report on an important area of activity:

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The expansion of the international student market has coincided with a ‘dramatic proliferation’ of universities using agents to recruit international students. This practice is controversial due to the apparent conflict of interest between prospecting for students for a particular university, and advising students on that university’s suitability. Our paper analyses the challenges that arise from using agents. We find that there are examples of unethical practice, such as misselling and financial fraud. Yet we also explore the services that agents provide to students and universities, and find that they cannot easily be replicated by organisations that do not face the same inherent conflict of interest. The paper goes on to discuss the current picture in terms of regulation, both in the UK and further afield, and a range of other regulatory options. We conclude by recommending that the UK moves towards a sector-wide system of self-regulation to improve the quality of advice to potential students and reduce the risk of unethical practice.

This proposal though is to set up an organisation to regulate universities use of agents, linked to Highly Trusted Status (required for international student recruitment), and drawing on the sector’s experience of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (the OIA, the independent ombudsman which deals with unresolved complaints from students about their universities).

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According to the paper this new organisation would establish “ethical principles which institutions would have to comply with in order to recruit international students”, would licence agents and would also adjudicate on complaints made by students.

Universities need to and should behave ethically in recruiting international students. As the paper notes there aren’t any better alternatives to using agents and simply arguing for discontinuing use of them is not going to work. Institutions though should be transparent about agent arrangements and the fees they are paid (as the University of Nottingham has done) and respond properly to complaints.

However, we really do not need a new regulatory body to do this. At a time of ever more regulation plus the impositons of the UKBA and the challenging and costly bureaucracy around international student visas, the last thing universities need is self-imposed costly and restrictive regulation.

So, interesting report but no thanks.

Top new university ranking: 50 under 50 degrees north

An exciting new league table!

Both QS and THE have, rather unimaginatively, produced rankings of universities under 50 years old. More exciting alternative rankings here have offered the highly creative 20 over 500 and 30 under six but this new not at all arbitrary league table draws not on age but on the inescapable facts of geography to sort the best from the rest. It’s 50 under 50 degrees north!

The new latitude-led league table has been slammed as outrageous by northern Europeans in particular and described by UK universities as a stitch up by the US and central and southern Europeans. Those south of the equator have been similarly appalled.

“We’re all used to US dominance but this is ridiculous” said an Australian Vice-Chancellor who, remarkably, did not wish to be named.

There are some extraordinary results and ETH is the only non North American university in Top 20. There is also a reasonable showing from Eastern institutions which are not too far north. In a desperate attempt to appear in the table several UK universities claimed to have campuses on Jersey but these turned out on investigation by our researchers to be the offices of tax advisors.

Details of the scoring methodology are restricted to prevent manipulation so there are no grounds to complain of unfairness:

1 Harvard University
2 California Institute of Technology
3 Stanford University
4 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
5 Princeton University
6 Yale University
7 University of California, Berkeley
8 University of Chicago
9 ETH Zürich
10 Columbia University
11 University of Pennsylvania
12 University of California, Los Angeles
13 Johns Hopkins University
14 Cornell University
15 University of Michigan
16 Northwestern University
17 University of Toronto
18 Carnegie Mellon University
19 Duke University
20 Georgia Institute of Technology

Robinson_projection_SW
21 University of Tokyo
22 University of Washington
23 University of British Columbia
24 University of Wisconsin-Madison
25 University of Texas at Austin
26 University of Hong Kong
27 National University of Singapore
28 University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
29 McGill University
30 University of California, Santa Barbara
31 University of Minnesota
32 École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
33 University of California, San Diego
34 New York University
35 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
36 University of California, Davis
37 Peking University
38 Washington University in St Louis
39 Tsinghua University
40 Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
41 Brown University
42 Ohio State University
43 Kyoto University
44 Boston University
45 Seoul National University
46 École Normale Supérieure
47 Pennsylvania State University
48 École Polytechnique
49 Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
50 University of Geneva

All pretty clear then.

[picture: Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Robinson_projection_SW.jpg#file ]

Higher Ed data – way too much information

Tackling the surfeit of data

I’ve written before here about Higher Education regulation (see for example this general commentary and this post on information provision) and the excess of information provision available to prospective students.

It’s pleasing therefore to see that HEFCE is undertaking a review of providing information about higher education. The aims of the review are set out as follows:

The review will aim to ensure that:

  • wherever possible, the different elements of the provision of information fall within a coherent framework, across UK institutions
  • we gather sound evidence to help us form the future information
  • the outcomes of different mechanisms suit the issues they are designed to address
  • information is usable and accessible, and that we are able to make the best use of technology to facilitate this in the future.

The review will reflect on how much this area of our work costs the public purse. It will also consider the role of a range of organisations in providing independent, contextualised, robust, comparable and usable information.

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There’s plenty more where this came from

The review will look at the purpose and use of NSS results, at the Unistats site and the Key Information Set data as well as the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (Delhe) survey. It is also going to examine how this data is used by prospective students. If all goes well this should be an extremely valuable piece of work and will, it is to be hoped, result in a significant reduction in the quantity of data collected and published (and the bureaucratic burden on universities) in favour of an improvement in the quality of information available to applicants.

A long way to go but let’s hope that the group overseeing the work, the Higher Education Public Information Steering Group (HEPISG, from which acronym I’m afraid I still derive puerile amusement) will do its job well and we will see some real change in this area.

New 2013/14 QS World University Rankings

Latest QS world league table is out

Full details of the rankings can be found at the QS website. A summary of the world top 10 follows where we find MIT retaining the top spot for a second year and four UK universities remain in the top 10:

Global top ten

2013

2012

Institution Country

  1

  1

MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY (MIT)  USA

  2

  3

HARVARD UNIVERSITY  USA

  3

  2

UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE  UK

  4

  4

UCL (UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON)  UK

  5

  6

IMPERIAL COLLEGE LONDON  UK

  6

  5

UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD  UK

  7

  15

STANFORD UNIVERSITY  USA

  8

  7

YALE UNIVERSITY  USA

  9

  8

UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO  USA

  10=

  10

CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY (CALTECH)  USA

  10=

  9

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY  USA

 

The UK also has 18 universities in the top 100:

Top UK universities

2 University of Cambridge GB
4 UCL (University College London) GB
6 Imperial College London GB
5 University of Oxford GB
17=  21 University of Edinburgh GB
19=  26 King’s College London (KCL) GB
30  28 University of Bristol GB
33  32 The University of Manchester GB
51  54 University of Glasgow GB
62  77 University of Birmingham GB
64  58 The University of Warwick GB
68  69 London School of Economics and Political Science GB
71=  66 The University of Sheffield GB
75=  72 The University of Nottingham GB
83 93 University of St Andrews GB
86=  73 University of Southampton GB
90  92 Durham University GB
97=   94 University of Leeds GB

So no huge movements here but some slight upward shifts for a few UK universities within the top 100.

Reducing University Regulation in Australia

“Red tape strangling universities must be cut”

A recently released report in Australia following a review of higher education regulation has found that an “unnecessarily heavy reporting burden” had been imposed on higher education providers by the quality agency and government.

A report in University World News notes the irony in the fact that a paper aimed at reducing red tape is 99 pages long. The piece also observes that the report’s conclusions, that the higher education sector is over-regulated and that reducing the burden on universities is sorely needed, have been widely welcomed:

The report says the quality agency had been established in an “already crowded regulatory environment”, and it proposes a reduction in its functions and the number of its commissioners. It says the minister should issue a direction to the agency’s chief executive regarding allocation of resources so that the agency can accredit courses more quickly.

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The report says there should also be a reduction in duplication across the various acts that govern university regulation and a better way of improving information sharing across agencies, to reduce the need for universities to report the same information multiple times to various bodies.

In addition, the report proposes the establishment of an overarching advisory council to consult with stakeholders and advise the minister, and calls for the speedy implementation of a single national higher education data collection system.

However, it may be some time before there is progress with this agenda. With major political change underway in Australia following the recent election it is possible that reducing higher education regulation may not to top of the new government’s priorities.

The Imperfect University: rational admissions – it’s time for PQA

A brighter future for university admissions?

It will be some time before all of the results are in but it does look at this stage as if this year’s admissions round has been a little less turbulent than last year’s. The mood across many universities seems to be one of some relief after a period of significant uncertainty. More students have been admitted than at this point last year and for most institutions (and those students) this is going to be good news

The 2012 admissions round – which coincided with the move to £9k headline fees for most instutitions – heralded major changes to the system: after years of relative stability and constrained Home/EU undergraduate recruitment targets the cap was removed for students with AAB or better at A level. This caused some significant waves across the sector with everyone seeking to find their way through this uncharted territory.
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Part of the reason for this change was, of course, ideological. The Government’s desire to create a ‘market’ in admissions at the top end of the qualifications ladder with universities competing for the ‘best’ students resulted, perhaps surprisingly, in some significant recruitment shortfalls in a number of Russell Group universities. There were fewer AAB+ students than expected and it seems likely that some universities were taken by surprise by the challenge of operating in the cut and thrust of the market place. This, combined with a dip overall in student numbers, caused problems for many.

Into the Wild West?

In this context I wrote earlier this year of concerns about this year’s admissions and my fear that the response to these challenges would lead to an ‘admissions Wild West’ with a complete free for all in terms of recruitment and an anything goes approach to securing the best qualified students:

Last year was difficult but I’m worried things are going to be a lot worse in 2013. Those universities making lower offers are sending a signal that perhaps A–level results aren’t that important, but ultimately they are at greater risk of undermining their own competitive position by reducing entry standards in what may turn out into a ‘race to the bottom’.

So where do we go from here? In the short term we all have to play by the UCAS rules (which should be made more explicit), restate our commitment to the SPA principles and aim to be fair and transparent to applicants. This is important not just so we do the right things by students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, but also to prevent a fundamental undermining of the UCAS system.

We are keen to ensure that students who want to come to the University of Nottingham and have the grades are able to come here. This is what the UCAS system is all about: students making informed choices and a system supporting the holistic assessment of applicants in a fair and transparent way. The huge risk now is that more shenanigans this year will undermine this system.

The ultimate consequence if everyone decides to ignore the rules and the SPA principles is a return to the admissions Wild West. This would be costly, unhelpful and hugely inefficient as well as being massively unfair to and stressful for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This surely cannot be in the interest of students or universities. Or indeed what Willetts wants. We need a bit more honesty and some genuine transparency in order to ensure fairness for all.

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It looked at first that there were going to be some significant issues what with the University of Birmingham’s decision to make 1,000 unconditional offers to students in some subject areas and much talk in the press of fee waivers, bursaries, subsidised accommodation and free ipads as incentives to potential students. Fortunately though my concerns seem to have been largely unfounded and the number of ABB+ students (the cap having been shifted to exclude a larger cohort) was roughly as expected. However, this has nevertheless been a period of significant uncertainty and anxiety, for both applicants and admissions officers.

This significant turbulence in the past two admissions rounds is of questionable benefit for applicants although the Minister is presumably content that the creation of this market is ultimately in their interest as providers compete to offer better products and better deals to these consumers. I suspect therefore this is not going to go away, at least for the foreseeable future, and universities will be obliged to operate in this exciting market environment.

Fit for purpose

Given this I would argue that now is the time to ensure the core elements of the system are fit for purpose – to make certain that we have a stable admissions model which works in the interest of applicants and institutions whilst acknowledging that ministers will inevitably want to play at the margins. We do though need to limit the scope for unhelpful interference, address the core principles for fair admissions as set out by SPA (Supporting Professionalism in Admissions), ensure universities can’t subvert or game the system, seek to secure proper information advice and guidance for applicants and address widening participation needs. The route to achieving this would mean change for all parties but I would suggest such change will be in the long term interests of everyone.

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Fundamental to this is moving away from admissions based on predicted grades to a system of admission on the basis of grades achieved, ie post-qualification admissions (PQA). This has been proposed previously and historically there have been many objections – especially around exam board marking arrangements and universities’ teaching timetables. Whilst solutions to these have become feasible they have been replaced by new concerns particularly around fairness to applicants, information, advice and guidance provision and ensuring wider participation.

Back in 2011 UCAS undertook a review of admissions processes which recommended a number of modest changes to procedures but backed away from endorsing the most significant change, a move to PQA:

There was a widely held view that, in principle, a post-results system would be desirable. Aspects of the proposal for application post-results were attractive to some, but it is clear there are too many systemic problems with the post-results proposals to support implementation.

Respondents felt that applying with results would not necessarily support applicants aspiring to the most competitive courses and concerns were raised about potential negative impacts on widening participation and less well-supported applicants. Loss of teaching time, the impact on standards of achievement, the potential for a more mechanistic approach to the assessment of applicants and the lack of time and resources to provide IAG at critical points were also major concerns.
In the review many detailed objections were raised to PQA but each of these can be overcome in practice if the will is there.

Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, commented on the latest position in the Times Higher:

…Ms Curnock Cook had a “word of warning” for universities cheered by the better figures.

“This year you’ve managed to get more [students] in at 18,” she said, but added that “you might pay for it” in 2014-15 because there would therefore be fewer 19-year-olds to recruit in that cycle.

Ms Curnock Cook also remarked that the clearing process was no longer used to recruit “the dregs” any more, and speculated that it could even remove the need for an admissions system based on students’ actual, rather than predicted, grades.

“Every year I get asked: isn’t it now time to go for a post-qualifications applications [system]? My answer is that we already have PQA: it’s called clearing,” she said.

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I disagree with this view. If we were designing a system from scratch we really would not start with the idea that students should apply to university with predicted rather than actual grades. The current set up, whilst historically understandable, is logically indefensible. Academic qualifications are the primary indicator of capability to pursue a course of study. It is logical, fair and sensible to put them at the centre of the admissions process and this should be the basis for our national application system, run by UCAS.

Time for change

The time has now come for change. The starting point should be to decide that we are going to introduce PQA from, say, 2019 entry, and the challenge then is to create the conditions within which this will happen.

Whilst I fear it is inevitable that ministers will introduce more changes – if we establish clearly now how admissions will operate in future this will bring lasting benefits and reduced the potential impact of future ministerial tinkering. Stability in the admissions system will be helpful to HEIs but will also work in the interests of applicants, ensure proper attention is paid to widening participation and be fairer.

So, let’s go for post-qualification admissions. Now is the time to decide to make the change to PQA.

Getting off my bike…

A rather challenging ride for a very good cause

As previously noted here I faced a major cycling challenge on Sunday as part of Life Cycle 3:

During the last two summers a team from the University of Nottingham led by our Vice-Chancellor cycled ridiculously long distances to raise money for good causes. The team did not include me and they have sensibly overlooked me again as they cycle round the capital cities of the British Isles, starting and ending up in Nottingham. However, I am joining them on September 1st for the last leg of the journey, from Nevill Holt in Leicestershire back to the University, a mere 55 miles.

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The Life Cycle 3 website has full details of the latest adventure which this year is raising money for stroke rehabilitation research. Stroke is the commonest cause of death after cancer and heart disease. Around 130,000 people suffer a stroke every year. A third will die; a third will make a full recovery; a third will suffer serious disability. No age group is immune – an average of six children under 16 suffer a stroke each week. Experts from The University of Nottingham are leading the way in stroke rehabilitation research. The work addresses the often neglected needs of stroke survivors following hospital care, and the need for stroke specialist provision of rehabilitation at home.

Anyway, I made it. I think it turned out to be a bit more than 56 miles and the headwind was pretty strong for much of the way. And there were some pretty tough (for me at least) hills.

It was great to join with 150 other leg riders on the route and to offer support to the Life Cycle team led by the Vice-Chancellor. I realise mine was a pretty modest effort but do please consider supporting me and donating via this Just Giving site. My pedalling came to an end for a while at least last weekend but do please join the others who have been kind enough to sponsor me and support this very worthwhile cause.

And for those who are interested here is part of the playlist I enjoyed en route.

With many thanks

Paul

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The Office of Fair Trading targets universities

The OFT is investigating universities’ terms and conditions.

The Office of Fair Trading, apparently at the request of the National Union of Students, has started an investigation into whether some of the sanctions imposed by universities on students, which may prevent them from progressing or graduating if they owe the university money, are unfair in relation to consumer protection legislation:

The OFT has opened an investigation under the Enterprise Act 2002 considering the terms and conditions used by some universities to prevent students from graduating or enrolling onto the next academic year or using university facilities if they owe monies to the university which relate to non-academic debts such as for accommodation or childcare, or if they engage in conduct (unrelated to academic performance) of which the university disapproves. It is considering whether such contract terms and/or practices breach the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and certain other consumer protection legislation.

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As reported in the Independent the NUS is quite keen on this:

The NUS vice president for Welfare Colum McGuire said: “This has been on our radar for a while and we’ve been hoping to get some action taken. We’re really excited for the full investigation.” McQuire continued: “This came to our attention from students and unions across the country.”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It will be particularly important that the OFT gets a clear view on the issue of “non-academic debts” some of which, whilst they may not be explicitly academic in nature, are nevertheless inextricably linked to a student’s whole university experience. The OFT will also want to learn more about the ways in which conduct “unrelated to academic performance” can sometimes have a profound and negative impact on university life and is therefore not merely a matter of disapproval.

Writing in Outlaw.com, Pinsent Masons’ legal blog, Nicola Buchanan is pretty sure that the OFT will find universities’ actions wanting and that we will need to look at alternative approaches:

The OFT will publish initial findings in October and are likely to find the withholding of degrees for non-academic debt unfair. Universities should start planning now, and should take a leaf out of commercial organisations’ books if they are to find new and effective ways to recover non-academic debt.

So we will see where the investigation goes. The cautionary note in all of this though is really “be careful what you wish for” as the alternatives to the current set up may be far less pleasant for all concerned as Gary Attle has observed in Fusion, the Mills and Reeve blog:

We do wonder whether there may be another law at work here, namely the law of unintended consequences. What will be the consequences if universities, as academic communities, are constrained in using self-help measures in appropriate situations to manage their financial responsibilities. Will it be in the interests of students if universities are forced to resort instead to other credit control measures and debt collection procedures like commercial businesses and landlords?

Surely no-one wants to end up here?