Back to the future? Reverting to single-sex accommodation

Is this really the solution?

Fascinating piece on Inside Higher Ed on a reversion to single sex accommodation at Catholic University:

“Life is Co-Ed” has become the unofficial rallying call of the Catholic University students unhappy and unconvinced by their president’s unprecedented decision to revert all dormitories to single-sex living quarters.

John Garvey, president of Catholic, announced in June that the university would be phasing in single-sex residence halls, in an effort to curb binge drinking and casual sex. He said that the change would better align the university with its moral obligations as a Roman Catholic institution.

The decision to eliminate co-ed living to revert to single-sex living, which looks to be the first of its kind, has been the talk of the campus since it was enacted at the beginning of this semester, with opinion split almost 50/50 on the issue, students say. Administrators are phasing in the living policy with this year’s freshman class, with units for older students remaining co-ed. But that doesn’t mean its intended outcomes are coming to fruition. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, some students say.

On the face of it this looks like classic tabloid headline material – “Catholic University bans sex and drinking” – but there are some really significant issues here about the nature of the student experience, how far University regulation of student behaviour should reach and the extent to which there can or should be a religious dimension to regulation (inevitable at Catholic Universities but not fully replicated in church-founded institutions in the UK as far as I am aware).

However, the main issue here is whether such a policy will succeed in its aims of reducing binge drinking and casual sex. It strikes me as unlikely. Students are extremely inventive and resourceful individuals and I would be very surprised if single sex dorms have any impact (although it is not entirely clear how university officers are measuring casual sex rates).


Not such a good example?

“Don’t Look to the Ivy League” is an interesting article in the London Review of Books by Howard Hotson. Essentially, his argument is that a wider reading of the league tables suggest that the UK generally punches above its weight. The USA, despite dominating the very top of the table, lacks strength in depth. In short, he argues that the US model really isn’t that great an example to follow:

The top ten or 20 places typically grab all the attention. What happens when we consider all 200? No summary of the mean rankings of the top 200 universities over the past seven years is available, but we can examine the data in the THE rankings for 2010-11. In the top 50 places, US outnumber UK universities by five to one. In the second tier (places 51-100), American universities begin to lose their edge, and the proportion drops to three to one. In the bottom half of the table (places 101-200), the number of places held by both countries is much reduced, as universities from other countries crowd onto the table, but the significant point is that here the US and UK universities are virtually at level pegging. UK universities are distributed fairly uniformly throughout the table, which suggests that there is a smooth and gradual transition from the top tier of universities to the next level down, and so on. The US university system, by contrast, appears to concentrate a hugely disproportionate share of resources in a small group of very wealthy and exclusive private institutions.

The consequence of this concentration of resources in this exclusive group of elite insitutions is, according to Hotson, an endless escalation of tuition fee levels which further reinforce the position of the elite. Moreover, the increase in tuition fees is partly justified by a need to fuel a student experience arms race:

Jonathan Cole, former provost and dean of faculties at Columbia, wrote in the Huffington Post last year that in addition to fee inflation, a major contributor to the increased cost of higher education in America stems from the

perverse assumption that students are ‘customers’, that the customer is always right, and what he or she demands must be purchased. Money is well-spent on psychological counselling, but the number of offices that focus on student activities, athletics and athletic facilities, summer job placement and outsourced dining services, to say nothing of the dormitory rooms and suites that only the Four Seasons can match, leads to an expansion of administrators and increased cost of administration.

If Cole is correct, then the marketisation of the higher education sector stimulates not one but two separate developments which run directly counter to government expectations. On the one hand, genuine market competition between elite universities drives up average tuition fees across the sector. On the other, the marketing of the ‘student experience’ places an ever increasing portion of university budgets in the hands of student ‘customers’. The first of these mechanisms drives up price, while the second drives down academic value for money, since the inflated fees are squandered on luxuries. To judge from the American experience, comfortable accommodation, a rich programme of social events and state of the art athletic facilities are what most 18-year-olds want when they choose their ‘student experience’; and when student choice becomes the engine for driving up standards, these are the standards that are going to be driven up.

Will it happen here? And what might be the consequences for academic standards?

Taking “enhancing the student experience” too far?

Interesting piece in the Chronicle about the student experience at High Point University (where “every student receives an extraordinary education in a fun environment with caring people”). The features apparently include:



  • valet parking
  • a hot tub in the middle of the campus
  • an ice-cream truck that circles the campus giving out free ice creams etc
  • live music in the cafeteria
  • Snack kiosks around the campus offer free bananas, pretzels, and drinks
  • Gifts are left for students in their halls for when they return from breaks.

Perhaps most scarily:

Birthdays are big events at High Point. Each undergraduate — and there are 2,000 — receives a birthday card from the university, signed by the president, with a Starbucks gift card tucked inside. Plus balloons. What’s more, when birthday boys and girls visit the cafeteria, their ID cards electronically alert the kitchen staff. The staff then fixes a slice of cake, and the featured musicians sing “Happy Birthday.”

All is overseen by “a director of WOW!”. How long before we have one of those at a UK university? And might free ice cream help those NSS scores?