Happy new (academic) year!

Yes, there’s a global pandemic, but that doesn’t stop the university league table business.

Oxford University takes top spot in Guardian’s annual university guideThe Guardian
This year’s Guardian university guide sees Oxford moving up from third to first, while the University of St Andrews stays in second place and Oxford’s ancient rival Cambridge drops to third after occupying the top spot for nine years.

There were a number of significant worries about what the start of this academic year might look like for university recruitment. But perhaps things will be OK.

The results comes as British universities are becoming cautiously optimistic that most have avoided the worst scenarios anticipated following the worldwide coronavirus outbreak and the exam grading turmoil that engulfed UK schools. Several institutions have said that student recruitment has held up across the board, with few domestic students opting to defer their studies, while international students numbers appear not to have fallen as feared.

There’s no shortage of advice out there, for universities …

Higher education: reopening buildings and campusesGOV.UK
This guidance is designed to help HE providers in England to understand how to minimise risk during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and to provide services to students to ensure they can have an enjoyable experience, while staying as safe as possible. We recognise that providers have been working to prepare for safe reopening and this update is designed to support finalisation of these preparations and provide clarity on some issues raised by providers.

… as well as students.

‘Don’t buy grated cheese’: student cooking tips by top chefsThe Guardian
Cooking as a student can be tough because you often have a small kitchen. In our kitchen in student halls there were four burners on the hub. Two didn’t work and the others timed out after an hour for safety. You’re also sharing a fridge. So the key is to start simple.

League table fatigue

Another weekend saw another trip to a university’s Open Day, and another PowerPoint presentation full of league table statistics…

Unknown pleasures: exciting new uni rankings
As this commentary from my colleague Professor Mike Merrifield observes using university league tables is not a great way to choose where to apply for a university place both because of the way they are compiled and their inherent flaws.

But there are plenty of them out of there and they never stop coming. And we are now in peak league table season. So, put your sceptical face on and have a look at a couple of the most recent major offerings.

Meanwhile.

Vast differences exposed in graduate outcomes
New data published today shows the wide variation in graduate outcomes depending course and institution.

Government reveals student loan contribution
Data published today shows forecasts for student numbers, the cost of student loans and loan repayments in England.

The only way is up

Whilst I’ve not worked in the HE sector for about four years now, I still like to keep an eye on what’s going on. And I see the grade inflation debate is continuing.

UK universities to hold inquiry into degree awards policies
The report led by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education concludes that while it is difficult to pinpoint the causes, perceptions of grade inflation could erode the usefulness of honours degree classes and undermine confidence in academic standards.

Perhaps the lecturers and students are just getting cleverer?

The report found that improvements in student performance, better teaching and increased efficiency “only explain a certain proportion of the uplift” in degree classes.

I wonder what could be causing this, then.

Public attitudes, including employers’ perceptions that first and 2:1 degrees are “good” degrees, may also act as incentives. Noting that institutions with a high proportion of upper degrees receive a boost in some league table, the report said: “Where competition to attract students is high, institutions have an incentive to perform well in league tables.”

Ah.

When I was a university Deputy Registrar, I was involved in Professor Bob Burgess’s nationwide HEAR implementation group, established, in part, to tackle this 2:1 issue.

HEAR: Higher Education Achievement Report
The Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) is designed to encourage a more sophisticated approach to recording student achievement, which acknowledges fully the range of opportunities that higher education institutions in the UK offer to their students. The HEAR was launched in 2008 (with 18 institutions) following recommendations that universities needed to be able to provide a more comprehensive record of student achievement.

Is that still a thing? (I note the © notice in their website footer is now three four five years out-of-date.) It’s a shame if it’s fallen away somewhat, as some of us thought it might, as it had some lofty aims. I was always frustrated, though, that it fell short of pushing for a replacement to the classification system that it deemed to be “no longer fit for purpose”.

Beyond the honours degree classification: Burgess Group Final Report October 2007 (pdf)
The diagnosis presented by the Scoping Group was simple – and one with which we swiftly concurred – the UK honours degree is a robust and highly-valued qualification but the honours degree classification system is no longer fit for purpose. It cannot describe, and therefore does not do full justice to, the range of knowledge, skills, experience and attributes of a graduate in the 21st century. Exploring how to reform or replace the classification system has not been easy. We have conducted extensive work to develop a practical set of proposals upon which we are all agreed.

One method I use to try to keep up-to-date with HE politics is to read Wonkhe, a website for “higher education wonks: those who work in and around universities and anyone interested and engaged in higher education policy, people and politics.”

This was their take on the HEAR, from 2007.

Degree classifications: just too good to lose
The report basically accepts that changing the traditional degree classification system is just too darn difficult and that we can only get round it by adding a new and improved transcript (with a new name – HEAR) to provide lots of extra info. […] Not the finest example of progressive thinking from UK universities. What proportion of students have to get a 2:1 before we change the system? Will anyone go it alone?

They have quite a few articles on grade inflation for me to catch up with; this debate has been churned over for a while now.

UK degree algorithms: the nuts and bolts of grade inflation (July 2018)

Signals for some or benefit for all: grade inflation in context (June 2018)

Bang! – grade inflation in TEF3 (June 2018)

Criteria or quotas for success? Grade inflation and the role of norm-referencing (June 2018)

Grade inflation: a clear and present danger (May 2018)

Taking on grade inflation in UK higher education (January 2018)

Are today’s degrees really first class? (January 2018)

Grade inflation could be the next battleground for higher education (January 2018)

‘Too many Firsts’ mean another discussion of GPA (October 2017)

Below standard: grade inflation in TEF (September 2017)

Another false dawn for Grade Point Averages? (June 2016)

REF results marred by fears over grade inflation (December 2014)

Daily Mail calmly assesses the state of higher education for us

Paul Greatrix finds a great piece from the Daily Mail about the current state of higher education.

Firsts and fees, plagiarism and pay hikes (and the rest)
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? … A veritable smorgasbord of entertaining higher education observations. All in one short piece. Truly the Mail is spoiling us.

Read the rest of his post or go to the Daily Mail article itself, ‘Dumbed-down’ degrees: University standards under fire as 50% more students awarded a first.

Viewing the html source for this page reveals its more hysterical, original title, which I prefer I think:

So we’re not dumbing down? Number of students graduating with first class degrees soars by 45% in just FIVE YEARS | Mail Online

OMG!