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.


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

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.

Nottingham Advantage

Impact Campaign: Nottingham Advantage

Another update on the Impact Campaign which has launched this week at the University of Nottingham.

This theme, Nottingham Advantage, is one which I think is particularly important. On this site you can see a nice video, fronted by Vicky Mann who heads up the Nottingham Advantage Award, all about how the University is helping our graduates who need more than academic knowledge and skills to stand out from the crowd in today’s competitive global job market.

Will you help promote the employability of our graduates?

The issue

Competition in the global employment market is fiercer than ever. Employers expect much more from prospective graduate recruits than a good degree. Taking part in extra-curricular activities encourages students to develop a range of skills, such as leadership, organisation, communication and teamwork – great preparation for the world of work and a way to stand out from the crowd.

Our solution

The Nottingham Advantage Award offers students the chance to develop the competencies, learning and evaluation skills that employers seek in graduates. Launched in 2008, the Award is voluntary and is open to students at our UK, China and Malaysia campuses.

Students choose modules, which focus on developing key attributes, such as oral and written communication, teamwork, self management and learner autonomy, problem solving and critical thinking, commercial awareness, information technology and numeracy, environmental citizenship and employability and a global perspective.

The emphasis upon reflective practice is built into all modules and allows students to develop greater self-awareness and techniques for self-improvement. Over 75% of the modules are delivered in collaboration with employers, helping students to associate academic learning with the professional context of the global employment market.

Our impact

The Nottingham Advantage Award provides formal recognition of the student’s employability skills, promoting them as flexible, adaptable employees of the future to support their transition into the global job market.

What will your Impact be?

Supporting the Nottingham Advantage Award will have a genuine impact on the success of our students in today’s fiercely competitive global job market. Do support the Impact Campaign.

New university ‘to rival Oxbridge’

Exciting news – it’s fantasy uni time

The Telegraph and Sunday Times both carry this most interesting of stories about the establishment of the ‘New College of the Humanities’. The Guardian also has the story but includes reactions from those expressing some consternation at the proposition as well as the key piece of information that the degrees will be awarded by the University of London.

The Telegraph reports that the College will charge £18,000 a year and that for this princely sum students will enjoy a range of benefits:

”Our priorities at the College will be excellent teaching quality, excellent ratios of teachers to students, and a strongly supportive and responsive learning environment.

”Our students will be challenged to develop as skilled, informed and reflective thinkers, and will receive an education to match that aspiration.”

The college claims to offer a ”new model of higher education for the humanities in the UK” and will prepare undergraduates for degrees in Law, Economics and humanities subjects including History, Philosophy and English literature.

Students will also take three ”intellectual skills” modules in science literacy, logic and critical thinking and applied ethics.

Practical professional skills to prepare them for the world of work including financial literacy, teamwork, presentation and strategy will also be taught.

And the staff will largely be star academics (Grayling, Ferguson, Dawkins, Pinker to name just the back four), motivated it seems by the desire to bring more high quality education to the UK HE sector and to improve society.

College chiefs say students will receive a ”best in class education”, with one-to-one tutorials, more than 12 contact hours a week and a 10/1 student to teacher ratio.

Prof Grayling said that budget cuts and dwindling resources are likely to limit both quantity and quality of teaching in the UK, leaving the fabric of society poorer as a result.

But there are a few questions here:

  • Will anyone sign up at these prices?
  • Will students be eligible for any public financial support?
  • Who are the “College chiefs” quoted above?
  • What does the logo look like?
  • Will a ‘BA Hons (London) DNC’ award be embraced by employers?
  • Did they test out the model using Virtual-U (it really does exist) before launching?
  • And, most importantly, who is doing all the administration here? Or are they dividing it up amongst themselves?

Whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly a different approach to the challenges facing UK higher education. And it does create an entirely new game – fantasy uni league – where you too can put together your own team of top academics to deliver an Oxbridge-rivalling student experience (but perhaps best to do the dry run using Virtual-U beforehand).

Ranking in Latin America

New Latin American league tables emerging

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a league table developments in a number of Latin American nations:

The growing influence of university rankings has reached Latin America, with governments, news media, and private researchers drawing up domestic versions that they say are important for the institutions and students alike.

Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru each have at least one national ranking. Some were first published in recent months, and all use different approaches to evaluate their higher-education institutions.

A few, such as in Chile, are produced by news-media companies. Others, as in Colombia, were carried out by independent researchers. And some, like Brazil, are not so much rankings as government-sanctioned ratings.

Whatever their origin, they all serve a purpose that goes beyond boasting or one-upmanship, experts say. The rankings put pressure on lagging universities to up their game, and they give government officials, students, and parents a useful yardstick.

“Global rankings are very important. But there are close to 15,000 higher-education institutions in the world, and the global ranking deals with only 400, 500 of them,” says Kazimierz Bilanow, managing director of the Warsaw-based International Observatory on Academic Rankings and Excellence. “There are millions and millions of students who never think of going to Harvard. But they want to go to university and get an education, so they look at their own country. National rankings give them some guidance.”

The Brazil government rankings are intended to result in failing institutions being closed. The Colombian ranking uses a narrow range of indicators focusing on graduate student numbers, journals and recognised research staff numbers. Chile seems to have broader range of published indicators to draw on which are published by government including “courses most likely to lead to jobs, expected salaries on graduation, and space on campus per student”.

Whilst these national rankings seem to be having a local impact in some countries, it does seem that international developments are on the way with QS planning to introduce a new Latin American ranking. In time there will undoubtedly be more Latin American institutions in the global rankings too.

US Universities Producing the Most Interns

Internship League Table

US News and World Report carries a piece on a mildly interesting league table of the US universities which produce the most interns.

The table below highlights the 10 national universities with the highest percentage of 2009 graduates who worked as interns at some point during their studies.

University of Pennsylvania           2,831 graduates, 90% graduating with internship experience

Colorado School of Mines              620 graduates, 84%

American University                        1,384 graduates 81%

Seton Hall University                       1,017 graduates 76%

Duke University                                 1,625 graduates 75%

Fordham University                          1,885 graduates 75%

University of Pittsburgh                   3,856 graduates 72%

George Washington University       2,485 graduates 68%

Johns Hopkins University                1,487 graduates 66%

Florida Institute of Technology       449 graduates 65%

Presumably they can’t all have wealthy parents paying cash for the internships. I’m not sure that similar data exists in the UK but would be interesting to see the results. Suspect even those institutions with the most sandwich and professional courses wouldn’t get to these percentages.

A new ranking for China’s universities

According to a recent report on a ranking by the China University Alumni Association, Shanghai’s universities rank second in the country behind Beijing in educating future billionaires:

The ranking analyzed the educational background of nearly 2,500 of China’s billionaire based on five domestic and overseas rich lists between 1999 and 2010.

“The report aims to encourage college students to set up their own enterprises and provide guidance to them,” said Zhao Deguo, editor in chief of the association’s website.

Peking University, Tsinghua University and Zhejiang University took the top three spots in the ranking with 79, 70 and 66 billionaire alumni respectively.

Shanghai’s Fudan University was in the fourth place with 46 billionaires. Jiao Tong University and East China Normal University made up the Shanghai top three with 25 and nine billionaires respectively.

It’s a little cruder than the UK’s graduate employment survey but does at least take a long term view. Let’s hope that no-one decides it would be good to include this in the new Key Information Set.

A more detailed commentary on the report appears here.


Are Undergraduates Actually Learning Anything?

Are Undergraduates Actually Learning Anything? Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses By Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

The Chronicle carries an extract from what sounds like an extremely interesting new book. The paper reports that, drawing on survey responses, transcript data, and results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (a standardized test taken by students in their first semester and at the end of their second year), the authors concluded that a significant percentage of undergraduates were failing to develop the expected skills and knowledge.

While higher education is expected to accomplish many tasks—and contemporary colleges and universities have indeed contributed to society in ways as diverse as producing pharmaceutical patents as well as prime-time athletic games—existing organizational cultures and practices too often do not put a high priority on undergraduate learning. Faculty and administrators, working to meet multiple and at times competing demands, too rarely focus on either improving instruction or demonstrating gains in student learning.

More troubling still, the limited learning we have observed in terms of the absence of growth in CLA performance is largely consistent with the accounts of many students, who report that they spend increasing numbers of hours on nonacademic activities, including working, rather than on studying. They enroll in courses that do not require substantial reading or writing assignments; they interact with their professors outside of classrooms rarely, if ever; and they define and understand their college experiences as being focused more on social than on academic development.

Might be sensationalist and playing to the tabloid view of university education but, on the face of it, sounds like a serious and interesting study.

Providing information that helps students with HE choices

New consultation on providing information that helps students make the right higher education choices

HEFCE has launched a consultation on information for prospective students:

Schools, colleges, universities, student unions and a wide range of other bodies are being asked to comment on the information that higher education (HE) providers publish to help prospective students choose the course and institution that are best for them.

They are invited to respond to a consultation being conducted by HEFCE, Universities UK and GuildHE. The consultation mainly concerns a proposed Key Information Set (KIS) which all publicly funded HE providers in England and Northern Ireland would be required to publish for each course on their web-sites.

The press release continues:

The consultation is informed by the results of research commissioned by HEFCE, and undertaken by Oakleigh Consulting and Staffordshire University, which identified the information current and prospective students identified as ‘very useful’. This mostly relates to costs, satisfaction and employability. Information about the fees for each course will also be included.

The intention is that information will be presented in a standardised format on each university and college web-site, looking similar for all courses at all institutions, thus making the information potentially more useful, comparable and accessible. Discussions are also taking place about how the information can be linked to the UCAS web-site.

But do prospective students really need more information? And is this kind of standardised set of data really going to help inform decisions. Or will most students turn to other sources such as The Times League Table rather than this sort of information. Guess we’ll find out.

New directions for university careers services?

Recent report suggests changes to careers offer

A recent report based on work undertaken by Demos and published by Endsleigh, ‘Class of 2010’, calls for “a radical overhaul in the way that university careers services currently function”. The report recommends that careers services are turned into not-for-profit recruitment consultancies for their universities.

Setting this exciting proposition to one side for the moment, there is more interesting data about 2010 graduates in the report:

The research, carried out by leading think tank Demos over the past six months, examined the Class of 2010s’ aspirations and concerns on issues such as university life, the job market, family and community life, politics and the environment. Rising numbers of graduates are prioritizing commitments to care for their children and parents in their old age (a third of male graduates are willing to sacrifice their career in order to care full time for their children). Graduates are prioritizing work/life balance and social relevance of their job over starting salary. 89% of graduates rate climate change as an important global issue and a quarter of graduates would turn down a job offer if the employers environmental credentials weren’t up to scratch.

Certainly a surprise this as it is difficult, at the height of a recession, to imagine graduates turning down jobs on the basis they are concerned about some elements of a company’s environmental policy.

However, the other major point relates to the role of the university careers service and here we have some outstanding suggestions:

One of the key conclusions of the report proposes a role that universities and local businesses might be able to play in assisting graduates find work. The recommended change to the function of the careers service is expected to:

– Reduce the graduate skills gap and graduate unemployment

– Foster a closer relationship between the student and their careers service over the course of their degree

– Assist universities in raising additional funds that would be channeled into education and training activities as well as into small grants to encourage student and graduate enterprise

– Help the government’s localism agenda by encouraging graduates to live and work in a town or city close to their university

This does rather suggest that the authors have had only the most limited exposure to careers services. Indeed, reading the report it seems they have based their recommendations solely on the messages received from a small number of students and their own experiences. They should really have visited the University of Nottingham Centre for Career Development. A good university careers service does all of the things they recommend, investing significant time, effort and resource in order to address all of these points and, yes, they are not-for-profit agencies.

Vocational qualifications: ‘a great idea for other people’s children’

A new review of vocational qualifications

The BBC reports on Education Secretary Michael Gove’s announcement of an independent review of vocational qualifications for students aged 14 to 19 in England.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said the government wanted qualifications in practical subjects to be more “hands on”. The number of vocational qualifications taken has risen fast in recent years.

But critics say schools push weaker pupils to do courses of little benefit to them, to boost league table scores.

Professor Alison Wolf, an expert on education and skills from Kings’ College London, is to head the review. It will look at “ways to improve vocational education’s organisation and responsiveness to a changing labour market, and to ensure vocational education is progressing young people to the next stage,” the Department for Education said.

Professor Wolf is an obvious choice to lead this. In her fascinating 2002 book, Does Education Matter?, she has a lot to say (not much of it positive) about vocational qualifications and NVQs in particular which she observes pointedly are ‘a great idea for other people’s children’. Let’s hope we do better this time.

Consumer crackdown on ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses

“Consumer crackdown on ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses by showing future prospects”

Excited Daily Mail story on ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses:

Degree courses will be rated for teaching quality, salary prospects, tuition time and value for money under plans to unleash ‘consumer power’ on universities.

Poor quality ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses will be exposed on a website – similar to those used to select car insurance or electricity – allowing potential students to compare them.

The 16 statistics students most want to know about courses before making their applications were revealed in a report published yesterday by England’s higher education funding quango.

They include the proportion of graduates employed in professional or managerial jobs, their average salary, the quality of teaching on the course, weekly hours of teaching time and the quality of library and IT facilities.

All measures should be published ‘as a minimum’ for each degree course in the country in a web-based format that will allow comparisons, the report said.

A range of very different courses is helpfully compared:

Presumably the Mail expects that some of these courses would disappear if potential students were aware of this data.

The report in question, Understanding the information needs of users of public information about higher education, a report to HEFCE by Oakleigh Consulting and Staffordshire University, is available from HEFCE and is somewhat more sober than the Mail article would suggest.

It lists the top items of information potential students would wish to know about a university or course:

(The final two not listed above are the ‘Proportions of students at the university satisfied or very satisfied with the IT facilities’ and the ‘Maximum household income for eligibility for a bursary’.)

Essentially, it is argued that this data needs to be published on a consistent basis for every institution and course and this will help inform decision making. But all of the information is available at present, in one way or another, albeit not always in the most accessible form. And it seems, according to the HEFCE report, that prospective students, whilst they would like to have the data, simply aren’t prepared to look for it:

Less than half the sample had tried to look for 11 out of the 16 most highly ranked items. This is partly explained by participants’ estimate of the usefulness of the information. Those who rated the information ‘very useful’ were much more likely to look for it. However, a surprisingly large proportion (between a quarter and a half) of participants who rated items ‘very useful’ reported that they had not tried to find the information. A maximum of two-thirds of these reported that they had tried to look for information on student satisfaction and employability data. One possible explanation is that prospective students were unaware that these data might be accessible.

Another possible explanation is that the demand for information, and the need for a ‘consumer crackdown’ is somewhat overstated.