Britain’s lowest price degree course?

Asda is launching an undergraduate degree – will it be Asda price?

Some time ago I posted on a story about Asda’s parent company Wal-Mart and its partnership with a for-profit online education provider in the US. More recently we learned that Morrisons was to offer a degree course to some of its staff. Now Asda in the UK is joining in according to this story in the Independent:


30 employees at the supermarket chain, which currently has over 500 stores across the UK, will be able to take a degree in distribution or retail operations at Middlesex University. The employees will keep their jobs at the store, and study alongside work.

The scheme is being formally launched today, after a successful pilot programme last year. It will be open to all employees who have worked for Asda for at least six months.

Asda’s Executive People Director Hayley Tatum said: “The current economic climate – coupled with the spiralling costs of higher education – means that many of our colleagues have missed out on university degrees.”

The degrees will be entirely funded by Asda, who are hoping to create a pool of ‘home grown talent’ as future leaders of Asda. Employees will take 12 days of classroom workshops, online study, peer networking and work-based assessment.

It’s a modest development but an interesting one nevertheless and, as we have seen, other supermarkets (and Harrods) have already gone down this route. So soon we will have every major retailer offering degrees to their staff. That’s Asda price!

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.


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, 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?

Serious or Celeb? More Honorary Degrees

More Honorary Degree diversions

Detailed investigation of Honorary Degrees down the years has led me to a simple conclusion – almost all recipients fall clearly into one of two categories: they are either serious or celeb. Needless to say, the former don’t get much press coverage so you could be forgiven for thinking that the 90% of recipients who are huge achievers in their field, who may be Nobel prize winners or tremendously distinguished artists or scientists, simply don’t exist because they aren’t, well, just celebrities. Indeed this is what the papers now seem to suggest as they really just don’t get it.

The Independent recently carried a piece in which seemed to misunderstand the honorary element of honorary degrees. This echoes a piece several years ago in the Daily Mail which, without a trace of irony, bemoaned the debasing of the educational currency of honorary degrees as evidenced by the increase in the involvement of celebrities.

So, although there are a few borderlines, by and large I think you can divide the worthy holders of honoraries into serious or celeb. And, having criticised the media for focusing exclusively on the latter, I am going to do exactly the same, because it’s more fun.

A previous 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 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).

Anyway, the cream of this year’s crop is as follows. You have to say that most of them you would regard as celebrity awards rather than serious. But I am open to challenge on that:

Fabrice Muamba – University of Bolton

Susan Boyle – Queen Margaret University

Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom in Harry Potter films) – Leeds Met

June Spencer (Peggy Archer) – here at University of Nottingham

Jools Holland – University of Kent

Walter Smith (former Rangers manager) – Glasgow Caledonian University

 Hilary Devey (Dragons’ Den star) – University Bolton

Michael Eavis – University of Creative Arts (presumably not just for services to the dairy industry)

Ann Widdicome waltzed along to the University of Birmingham

Barbara Dickson – Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Steve Heighway (former Liverpool footballer) – Warwick

Johnny Marr – Salford (actually debatable – definitely celeb but also musical genius)

So, serious or celeb? You decide.

One of the best awards this year though must be to Elbow singer Guy Garvey who was made an honorary Doctor of Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University:

The Bury-born singer was made an honorary Doctor of Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University at a graduation ceremony for the Faculty of Art and Design.

He told the audience that the award means a lot to him and dedicated it to his bandmates, his family and girlfriend, novelist Emma Unsworth.

Guy said: “Because of the band, none of us went to University – well, Pete did a term at Salford until we spent his grant – so this means a lot to me.”

And to finish off, my favourite piece in which Stella McCartney and Lulu Guinness get great coverage here of their recent awards from the University of the Arts London. Lulu Guinness said. “I did not have a formal training in handbag design, so this makes this extra special.”

Roll on next year.

Fashion victims?

Another exciting new higher education development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swings and roundabouts?

UK students rush to Maastricht. European students run to the UK

So what is the story here? Is UK (or English) higher education in the post-Browne era so terrible that a mass exodus to the Netherlands is underway? The Independent reports that a Dutch university has seen a ‘tenfold’ rise in applicants:

The number of British teenagers applying to one of Europe’s leading universities has risen dramatically this year. Maastricht University in the Netherlands has seen a tenfold increase with more than 400 applications from UK students compared with just 35 at the same time last year.

A key factor in the rise is the cost of studying at Maastricht: only £1,526 a year, compared with £3,240 at present at English universities.

Many of those who applied are fearful of their chances of getting a UK place this September as the number of applications has soared as people attempt to beat the rise in tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year next September.


So, shocking news there. But, wait a minute. It seems that there is another flow of traffic here. The Daily Express reports that more students from other EU states want to come to the UK to benefit from our generously subsidised higher education system and low cost loans:

Applications by students from member states in mainland Europe rose by a record 5.8 per cent at the end of May, with almost 46,000 applying in total.

UK candidates increased by 0.8 per cent, meaning they may face even more competition in the race for degree courses this summer, as applicants clamour for places before a rise in tuition fees next year.

Students from across the European Union are subsidised by the taxpayer and are eligible for low-interest Government loans. They also count towards the strict cap on university places, putting them in direct competition with UK applicants.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) revealed that 45,727 EU students applied by last month, up 2,515 on the same time last year.

In 2010, the number of Lithuanians who won places at UK universities increased by 71 per cent. The number of Latvians was up 61 per cent and Romanians 57 per cent.

Shocking stuff. It’s lucky we can have it both ways on this issue.

A particular problem for Italian universities

Family fiefdoms blamed for tainting Italian universities

According to a recent piece in the Independent, nepotism is a major problem in Italian higher education:

The decline of Italy’s universities, none of which currently appear in the world’s top 200, is a constant source of lament among the country’s chattering classes. But the reason for this sorry state is laid bare by new research that shows the extent of nepotism in higher education. The grip of family fiefdoms is being blamed for a nationwide brain drain.

The investigative magazine L’Espresso and the newspaper La Repubblica have revealed the astonishing degree to which lecturing jobs are kept in the family in Italy’s sclerotic higher education system. In Rome’s La Sapienza University, for example, a third of the teaching staff have close family members as fellow lecturers. Overall, the country’s higher institutions are 10 times more likely than other places of work to employ two or more members of the same family.

Whilst there are undoubtedly examples of family members working in the same institution in the UK, it is rarely suggested that appointments are based on anything other than merit. Once you have one in three academics working with family members though it is difficult to imagine normal business operating.

Ben Wildavsky follows up this theme in the Chronicle and there are a number of interesting comments in response to his take on this issue.

Zombie class begins at University of Baltimore

Yet more zombie nonsense

Entertainment news courtesy of LA Times – zombie class begins at the University of Baltimore:

Zombies are everywhere these days. Last year they hit the best-seller list in a bizarre mash-up with Jane Austen called “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” They have inspired math professors to devise statistical models for surviving a “zombie apocalypse.” This fall, they’ll star in the AMC TV series “The Walking Dead.”

And now, they’re the subject of a new course, otherwise known as English 333, at the University of Baltimore.

“Zombies are one of the most potent, direct reflections of what we’re thinking moment to moment in our culture,” Blumberg tells the class in explaining why they’re all here.

Students will watch 16 classic zombie films (including “Zombi 2,” in which a zombie fights a shark), read zombie comics and, as an alternative to a final research paper, have the chance to write scripts or draw storyboards for their ideal zombie flicks.

Jonathan Shorr, chair of the university’s school of communications design, wanted a rotation of “interesting, off-the-wall” courses for a new minor in pop culture. But when Blumberg pitched him a course about the walking dead, he says, “I hit the side of my monitor a couple times thinking, ‘Do I have this right? Did he say zombies?’ ”

The more he thought about it, however, the more intrigued Shorr became. Zombies have shown great resilience as a storytelling device and in this era of gloom and dread, their popularity is cresting. Maybe they would be a perfect hook to get students talking about sociology, literature and a bevy of other disciplines that can sound stuffy.

Yep, you’ve got to make these subjects accessible and relevant or no-one will want to study them.

Further previous discussion of what some, but certainly not me, have described as ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses can be found here.

The Independent also highlights 10 strange courses, including a Harry Potter course on offer at Durham University, and this, perhaps the best of the lot:

Trekkies everywhere will be beaming at the news that Georgetown University offers a course in ‘Philosophy and Star Trek’. Students can attempt to get their most pressing questions answered such as ‘Is time travel possible?’ and ‘Could we go back and kill our grandmothers?’.

Top drawer.

NSS: can things get any worse in universities?

Press stories on latest NSS results seem to be largely of the glass one fifth empty variety

Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking the sector was already in meltdown if you read the Independent which says “one-third of university students unhappy with lecturers’ performance”:

Thousands of university students still find their lecturers too remote despite pledges that standards of service would improve with the introduction of top-up fees of up to £3,225 a year. A national survey by the Higher Education Funding Council for England showing the level of student satisfaction with their courses reveals there has been no improvement in three years. Overall, 82 per cent are satisfied with their course – but the figure dips to 67 per cent when it comes to assessment of their work and the feedback they get from lecturers.

The BBC has a similar line:

UK students’ satisfaction with their undergraduate courses has stalled, the National Student Survey has found. Overall, 82% of finalists at UK universities in 2010 were satisfied with the quality of their course, the same percentage as last year. Universities warn satisfaction ratings could deteriorate as funding cuts bite. The NSS, in which 252,000 students took part, is published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) to help maintain standards.

But really. OK, there remains plenty of scope for improvement, particularly in the area of feedback to students on their work but to deliver an overall satisfaction rating of more than 80% over such a large number of students is surely hugely positive? So why are universities getting a kicking for this? Presumably even an average satisfaction rating of 90% plus would be inadequate.

‘Wal-Mart U’ v ‘Harrods U’

Two new entrants into HE

From the Chronicle of Higher Education an interesting story explaining that there might have been a Wal-Mart University:

As the world’s largest retailer weighed its options for making a big splash in education, executives told one potential academic partner that Wal-Mart Stores was considering buying a university or starting its own. “Wal-Mart U.” never happened. Instead, the retailer chose a third option: a landmark alliance that will make a little-known for-profit institution, American Public University, the favored online-education provider to Wal-Mart’s 1.4 million workers in the United States.

A closer look at the deal announced this month shows how American Public slashed its prices and adapted its curriculum to snare a corporate client that could transform its business. It also raises one basic question: Is this a good bargain for students?

It may or may not be a good deal for students. Of perhaps greater interest from a UK perspective is whether this opens the door to the American Public University to offer online programmes to 150,000 Asda staff. If so, they will be competing against a different kind of store which is entering the higher education arena, Harrods. Harrods is following a path set out by Lord Mandelson earlier this year when he encouraged the take up of two year degrees:

The theme of cut-price degrees has been continued by the present Government’s Universities Secretary, David Willetts. Earlier this month he called for students to be able to study online or through their local further education college, while still being enrolled on degree courses run by the country’s most successful universities.

The Harrods students, while studying at the store, will be members of Anglia Ruskin University. They will complete what would normally be a three-year BA (Hons) degree in two years, by studying through the summer holidays as well as university term-time. On the agenda will be theoretical modules in human behaviour, psychology and business enterprise, devised to deepen the students’ sales skills and effectiveness.

It’s tough competition (via The Independent).

2010 Independent League Table

Latest Independent league table

First of the new season’s UK tables has just been published by the Independent.

Full details of the institutional and subject rankings are provided by the Complete University Guide which can be found here. There isn’t much change at the top but the most striking thing is the inclusion for the first time in a UK league table (I think) of the University of Buckingham, the UK’s first private university.

Rankings (2009 rank in brackets)

    1 (1) Oxford
    2 (2) Cambridge
    3 (3) Imperial College London
    4 (5) Durham
    5 (4) London School of Economics>
    6 (7) St Andrews
    7 (6) Warwick
    8 (12) Lancaster
    9 (8) University College London
    10 (10) York
    11 (11) Edinburgh
    12 (9) Bath
    13 (17) King’s College London
    14 (13) Southampton
    15 (15) SOAS
    16 (16) Bristol
    17 (14) Aston
    18 (19) Nottingham
    19 (25) Sussex
    20 (–) Buckingham

Also, the Complete University Guide people let you play with the weightings for each of the criteria, so it is possible to bump Oxbridge from the top slots if you really try.

Creating a private university in Winchester?

Auriol Stevens: ‘We should think about creating a private university in Winchester’

In a recent article in the Independent Auriol Stevens offered a novel proposal for the establishment of a different kind of university:

Should top independent schools set up a new private university on the lines of American liberal arts colleges, providing high-quality teaching, a broad curriculum and charging full fees? The proposal, floated by Terence Kealey, Vice-Chancellor of the private University of Buckingham, may delight a possible incoming Tory government. It may attract parents who are used to paying high school fees as well as those who are afraid that their offspring are being squeezed out of university by poorer applicants.

These are of course the same parents and students who benefit disproportionately from the current student finance set up. And I think we are still rather a long way from the level of social equity which would disadvantage this group. However, Stevens’ suggestion is not about creating a new bastion of privilege:

So, let’s suppose two or three of the most famous fee-charging schools – perhaps those with the biggest endowments and the highest prestige – became universities. They could do so by merging with existing universities to provide new opportunities not for the rich but for poorer students. Take Winchester. The university in Winchester is pioneering a broader undergraduate curriculum. Winchester College is an ancient and distinguished school. Its beautiful buildings would make a fine university campus. The school has a high academic reputation and expertise in post-16 teaching.

This would, undoubtedly, be a new kind of institution. And it’s an interesting proposition. But would it really work? And is any university, in Winchester or elsewhere, going to be willing to make the kind of changes required to deliver such an outcome?

Table of table of tables

Table of tables

A composite university league table derived from the four domestic league tables has been prepared by THE.

It is presented as a real labour-saving device:

With so many national newspaper league tables, it can be difficult to keep track of the results.

Certainly can, but luckily

a source has amalgamated the available data for Times Higher Education to produce the definitive table of tables. It combines rankings produced by The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and The Sunday Times.

The results are…

1 Oxford
2 Cambridge
3 Imperial
4 StAndrews
5 Warwick
7 LSEmast_blank
8 Durham
9 York
10 Bath
11 Edinburgh
12= Exeter
12= Loughborough
14 Southampton
15 Bristol
16 King’s College
17= Lancaster
17= Leicester
19 Nottingham
20 Glasgow

So, no huge surprises there. Wisely though, THE “acknowledges the methodological limitations”. Bit of an understatement that.

New 2010 Independent University League Table

New Independent League Table just published for 2010

First of the season is out (Guardian and Times to follow in May) and not a huge amount to write home about. Bath, Edinburgh, Aston and Southampton all have reasons for contentment with good rises. Others will be less content about slippage.

1 Oxford (1)
2 Cambridge(2)
3 Imperial College (3)
4 London School of Economics (3)
5 Durham (6)
6 Warwick (5)
7 St Andrews (7)
8 University College London (8)
9 Bath (14)
10 York (11)
11 Edinburgh (21)
12 Lancaster (10)
13 Southampton (20)
13 Aston (23)
15 SOAS (9)
16 Bristol (16)
17 King’s College London (15)
18 Loughborough (13)
19 Nottingham (16)
20 Leicester (12)

Who wants to be a millionaire? Or is a university degree worth the effort?

Clearly not worth bothering according to the Independent

Are degrees worth the paper they’re printed on? Once, a university education was a passport to a brighter future, a better-paid career, a life of privilege. But after a decade and a half of massive expansion in our higher education system, the ‘gold standard’ qualification is losing its lustre. Is it time for a rethink?

But what exactly is the rethink/alternative proposed here? What we have is a set of observations about the fact that studying at university is not free, that not all graduates enjoy above average earnings within a year of graduating, that parents feel they should support their offspring, that many students work for extra money during their courses and that there is a general view that the degree classification system is not terribly helpful for differentiating performance. And that’s not all:

High-street banks have stopped offering students juicy incentives to sign up for new accounts; last year, banks were offering iPods to new customers, but now offers are more modest, such as free travel insurance or a national railcard.

But iPods are already ubiquitous. A railcard is likely to be worth more to many students than a second iPod. This is hardly revolutionary stuff. But hang on. The big question here is who needs a degree anyway? When we look at the list of successful people named here – Philip Green, Richard Branson, Katie Price, Barclay brothers, Ann Gloag – all of whom are fabulously wealthy – it seems there is a clear message from the Indy: don’t waste your time studying for a degree and you are just certain to be a billionaire. Easy.

New Indy University League Table

New league table from the Independent

(It appears that the authors of the Good University Guide (previously with the Times) have found a new home.)

Some quite large movers in (and out) of the top 20:

Significant risers include SOAS, up 15 places to 9th this year; Lancaster, up 9 places to 10th; Glasgow up 14 places to joint 16th; Leicester, up 8 places to 12th. Bristol drops 9 places to joint 16th; Aston drops 11 places to 23rd; Royal Holloway drops 9 places to 22nd.

Full top 20 (with last year’s rank in brackets) as follows:
1 (2) – Oxford
2 (1) – Cambridge
3= (4) – LSE
3= (3) – Imperial
5 (8th) – Warwick
6 (10) – Durham
7 (5) – St Andrews
8 (6) – UCL
9 (24) – SOAS
10 (19) – Lancaster
11 (14)- York
12 (20) – Leicester
13 (11) – Loughborough
14 (9) – Bath
15 (17) – King’s College London
16= (14) – Nottingham
16= (7) – Bristol
16= (30) – Glasgow
19 (17) – Exeter
20 (20) – Southampton

(with acknowledgments to Tim Utton, Communications, for doing the sums)