More on Beyoncé and Ghostbusting courses

The Telegraph seems to have a bit of a thing about courses featuring popular music and musicians. Especialy Beyoncé.

Recently they published this story about Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus studies being offered at US colleges:

It will focus on the growth of the star’s media empire, with an emphasis on her roles as a “black icon” and sex symbol while managing a successful marriage, to rapper Jay-Z, and motherhood.As part of the programme, students will tackle literature by black, feminist writers such as bell hooks and the abolitionist Sojourner Truth.Also this week, Skidmore College, a liberal arts institution in Saratoga Springs, upstate New York, will offer a course on “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus,” focusing on the former child star turned pop temptress.

I posted here about this at the beginning of 2012 and made reference to a number of other seemingly bonkers courses too:

A post last year summarised the latest position in the provision of bonkers degrees and earlier items covered similar ground including a zombie course at the University of Baltimore and a course covering Lady Gaga. Also we previously looked here at the launch of an MA in Beatles Studies and the offer of a degree in Northern Studies as well as offering a podcast on “bonkers or niche” degrees. Most recently there was, shockingly, an MA in horror and transgression at Derby.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph has another piece on Beyoncé studies etc (described as ‘nonsense’ courses) which also includes this one featuring the paranormal:

Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters_logoCoventry University apparently. Psychology lecturer Tony Lawrence set up a Psychology of Exceptional Human Experiences course to teach students how to chase poltergeists, talk to the dead and understand telepathy.

All useful skills indeed, and students have the added bonus of being able to re-watch Ghostbusters films as part of their curriculum.

And, to prove that none of this is actually nonsense, the Telegraph also refers to a Robin Hood themed offering at the University of Nottingham.

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.


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

University top targets for graduate employers

Flying high.

The Telegraph reports on the results of the latest High Fliers survey of employers which shows the universities targeted by the largest number of top employers in 2012-13. The top 20 is as follows:

1. Warwick

2. Nottingham

3. Manchester


4. Cambridge

5. Bristol

6. Durham

7. Oxford

8. Birmingham

9. Bath

10. Leeds

11. Sheffield

12. Imperial College London

13. Loughborough

14. Edinburgh

15. London School of Economics

16. University College London

17. Southampton

18. Newcastle

19. Strathclyde

20. Exeter

Some interesting results there and good news in particular for Warwick and University of Nottingham graduates.

The High Fliers press release has a few other points of note too including the following:

• The outlook for the current recruitment season has improved and employers are expecting to increase their graduate recruitment by 2.7% in 2013.
• Almost half of employers expect to recruit additional graduates in 2013 and a further third plan to maintain their intake at 2012 levels – employers in eleven out of thirteen key industries and employment areas are expecting to take on more new graduates than in 2012.
• Whilst the total number of graduate vacancies is set to increase in 2013, recruiters expect that more than a third of this year’s entry-level positions will be filled by graduates who have already worked for their organisations – either through internships, industrial placements or vacation work – and therefore are not open to other students from the ‘Class of 2013’.

So perhaps there are grounds for optimism in the graduate employment market.

Beyond the Brian Cox effect

Extravagant claims about one person’s influence on Physics recruitment.

The Telegraph comments on the ‘Brian Cox effect’ and suggests that it has resulted in a surge in demand for physics:

A typical Physics academic

A typical Physics academic

Manchester has always been a popular choice for physics but the university admitted that a recent rise in applications had been partially driven by the attraction of Prof Cox, one of the department’s academics and presenter of television series such as Stargazing Live and Wonders of the Universe.

He currently teaches quantum mechanics and relativity to first year students.

It also reflects the increasing popularity of the subject nationally on the back of publicity surrounding the Large Hadron Collider at Cern.

Across Britain, the number of students taking degrees in physics has soared by 50 per cent in just eight years to reach more than 40,000 in 2011.

Of course such an impact does take time – it starts with the GCSE and then A level choices made at school before we even get to the university application stage. So whilst the latest surge in applications to Manchester and for Physics more broadly may well be attributable at least in part to Professor Cox, it is not the whole picture.

Here at the University of Nottingham we have witnessed a similar phenomenon.

Professor Martyn Poliakoff is a leading figure in the Periodic videos project and has arguably had a similar impact on Chemistry. See this recent video, which has been viewed over 2m times, for example:


So it’s not just about the Brian Cox effect. It’s also the Martyn Poliakoff phenomenon.

More bonkers degrees?

Are they bonkers? Or just very well targeted?

With apologies for repetition. But it is August. And in the context of A-level results day, we all need to reflect on the real value of some of the finest HE provision around. Previous posts have covered similar ground including a zombie course at the University of Baltimore and a course covering Lady Gaga. Also previously looked here at the launch of an MA in Beatles Studies and the offer of a degree in Northern Studies as well as offering a podcast on “bonkers or niche” degrees. Most recently there was, shockingly, an MA in horror and transgression at Derby.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has new update on some of these:

Pop quiz: What is the difference between a tangerine and a clementine? If you’re stumped, then you probably did not get a degree from Florida Southern College in citrus studies, an interdisciplinary major that introduces students to the ins and outs of producing and marketing—you guessed it—citrus fruits. Courses include CIT 3301: “Introduction to Citrus” and a for-credit internship in Florida’s citrus industry. If that experience doesn’t result in a full-time job, at least graduates know they’ll have a leg up in the produce aisle on all those chumps who majored in history.

It also highlights a number of other exciting degrees:

Carnegie Mellon U.

Major: Bagpipes – Notable courses: One-on-one bagpipe studio courses with Andrew Carlisle, a master piper

Bowdoin College

Major: Arctic studies – Notable courses: “Arctic Peoples,” “Arctic Explorations,” “Arctic Politics”

Harrisburg Area Community College

Major: Auctioneering – Notable courses: The program requires two semesters of “Procurement and Appraisal of Merchandise” as well as a semester of AUCT 106: “The Auction.”

Kansas State U.

Major: Bakery science – Notable courses: “Cereal Science,” “Fundamentals of Food Processing,” “Principles of Milling”

There are more…

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the Telegraph has published a list of “unusual university courses”. A remarkable list on two counts. First, few of the courses listed are that unusual (Aerospace Engineering is pretty big in quite a few universities) and secondly (as @TriBen pointed out to me, for which many thanks), it fails to cite Surf Science at Plymouth, which is usually a banker for such lists (there is a picture of a surfer though). The horse pic below relates to Equine Studies, of course.

It is August. And there is a need to fill some space before all those pictures of happy students on A level results day can be published.

British students flocking to the US Ivy League. Or not?

An untrained brain drain?

In a recent post I commented on the press reports on the modest flow of English students to universities in continental Europe and the reverse flow of other EU students to the UK. The media seems extremely keen to report any international movement by students from the UK as evidence of a flight from the 2012 fee regime (at least for students from England). So, the Telegraph has a feature on British students turning to US Ivy League universities:

According to figures, Harvard had around 500 British applications to start courses this autumn, up from around 370 for last year – a 35 per cent increase.

Yale enrolled 36 British students onto undergraduate courses last year, up from 25 in 2009 – a 44 per cent rise. Five years ago, in 2006, just 15 students enrolled.

Some 197 students from England and Wales alone have applied to start courses at Cornell this autumn, up from 176 last year.

Information from Columbia University shows that 178 British students enrolled in 2009, up from 164 in 2008 and 151 in 2003.

Berkeley University, which is not an Ivy League college, has had 166 British applications for this autumn, compared with 130 last year.

To put this into perspective, there were over 630,000 applications through UCAS for 2011 entry to UK universities. And there were over 14,300 US students studying in the UK in 2008/09. This is, therefore, a drop in the ocean.

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).

University “cheating league table”

A rather dubious league table

The Telegraph has a story based on reported incidences of plagiarism which it describes as an:

investigation into cheating at universities, with thousands of students caught plagiarising, trying to bribe lecturers and buying essays from the internet.

As noted in a previous post this issue is really about improved detection rather than a greater prevalence of cheats.

But, anyway, given that they’ve gone to all this effort, you might like to know that the top 10 looks like this:

2005/06 2009/10
Greenwich 540 838
Sheffield Hallam 117 801
Kingston n/a 799
Westminster 840 749
East London n/a 733
Central Lancashire n/a 642
Leeds Metropolitan 157 532
Wolverhampton 360 498
Coventry 74 428
Middlesex 289 425

Bottom of the table

2005/06 2009/10
Dundee 0 0
Cambridge n/a 1
Bristol 3 2
Abertay Dundee 19 5
Durham 2 5
City 4 7
Leicester 0 8
Oxford 11 12
Essex n/a 18
Birmingham 15 20
Sheffield n/a 20

Which, of course, proves absolutely nothing other than that different institutions have different ways of recording, reporting and dealing with plagiarism.

Are private universities ‘a huge threat to academic standards’?

Problems with privates

According to a piece in the Telegraph private universities represent ‘a huge threat to academic standards’. This follows the award of the University College title to BPP College and the line comes from UCU:

More than nine in ten professors believe encouraging more private companies to become universities would be a mistake, the University and College Union (UCU) said. In a survey of 504 professors, the union found that 96.2 per cent opposed plans to make it easier for private companies to become universities. A call by David Willetts, the Universities Minister, to increase the role of the private sector in higher education represents “a huge threat to academic freedom and standards,” it said.

The UCU expressed concerns that private companies are not subjected to the same scrutiny as universities, and have no “tradition of academic freedom.”

An entirely contrary view is offered by via Geoffrey Alderman in the Guardian. Alderman argues that private universities are no threat to academic standards:

All of us who want the maintenance of appropriate academic standards and a robust student learning experience in British higher education must welcome the news that the BPP College of Professional Studies has been designated as a “university college” – the first wholly privately funded university institution to be established in the UK since the establishment of Buckingham University College – now the University of Buckingham – in 1976.

Given that Alderman is employed by the University of Buckingham his views are perhaps unsurprising. But what is the issue here? Are private universities really a threat to academic standards? The question is, of course, a ludicrous one. The arrival of new privately funded institutions will not, in itself, have any bearing on the academic standards set at existing institutions. Nor will standards set by such private universities necessarily be lower than those of other universities, just different. What will be interesting to see though is the broader impact private providers will have on publicly funded universities. The government clearly believes that the introduction of this kind of competition for students into the HE marketplace will force everyone to raise their game and lead to better quality of provision at lower cost. This is theoretically possible but what about reality?

Buckingham and BPP do seem able successfully to recruit students (although given the huge demand for limited university places this is not a surprise) and the former has enjoyed some success in national league tables but the standing of their graduates in the jobs market will be a key determinant of their success in the longer term. So, private universities may not have a direct impact on academic standards but if they succeed in recruiting good staff, well-qualified students and produce highly employable graduates then they will begin to offer real competition for publicly funded institutions. Will everyone else then begin to copy the private providers? We’ll see.

Pakistan’s politicians in fake university degree scandal

Fake university degree suggestions in Pakistan

The Daily Telegraph has reported that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has asked the Elections Commission to examine the degree certificates of almost all the country’s 1,100 elected officials:

The investigation has also reopened a question about whether President Asif Ali Zardari ever graduated, as he claims, from a London business school. Local journalists have pored over reams of documents and dedicated thousands of column inches to the issue, much to the anger of politicians.

Former military ruler Pervez Musharraf introduced the law in 2002, requiring all candidates to hold a bachelor’s degree. He claimed it would raise the calibre of politicians but critics said it was undemocratic in a country where 50 per cent of the population is illiterate. They suggested the real motive was to sideline opponents. The law has since been struck down but that has not stopped the Supreme Court last week asking for a review of parliamentarians elected when it was still in force. A spokesman for the Higher Education Commission said officials had already identified 35 members of parliament who had not filed their university degrees along with their nomination papers, while the diplomas of 138 members were illegible. At least one sent a friend to sit his exams.

The law is questionable but the consequences are clearly rather significant. Perhaps the most striking comment was this:

“A degree is a degree,” said Nawab Aslam Raisani, the chief minister of Balochistan when asked about the issue by reporters. “Whether fake or genuine, it’s a degree. It makes no difference.”

Indeed. Wonder what the Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee would have made of that line when they discussed comparability of degree standards in 2009.