Wasting time?

It’s no surprise to learn that, according to research from the Office for National Statistics, many graduates do not have jobs that make full use of their degrees. What might that mean for the debate around expanding student numbers? David Kernohan from Wonkhe tries to unpick the issues.

Are graduates overeducated and underpaid?
Twenty-nine point two percent of graduates are over-educated for their job role five years or more after graduation. Though we can assign some of these to personal choice – either a focus on non-work goals (for example starting a family), or a commitment to low-paid employment (for example for artists and nurses), – we have to contend with the fact that a sizeable proportion of graduates are not in graduate employment more than five years on, however loosely defined that is.

Graduates in non-graduate roles do enjoy a slight premium over their non-graduate colleagues, and are likely to see speedier progression as they remain in their roles. But this is far from the “graduate premium” so often used as a policy justification for student borrowing.

There will be some who, on reading this report, will leap to blaming the graduates themselves, or the institutions that taught them. A purely instrumentalist view of higher education would suggest that they should never have attended university in the first place. But it is equally valid to argue that our employment market is not adequately rewarding people for the skills they bring to the jobs they do – and that the notion of a “graduate job” does not cover the jobs that we all benefit from having graduates do.

This press release from DfE paints a more positive picture, as you’d expect, but this too isn’t without its concerns.

Graduates continue to benefit with higher earnings
The figures show that a degree continues to be a worthwhile investment, however it also revealed that gaps in earnings still exist between different groups of the working age population – with male graduates earning £9,500 more than female graduates, and white graduates also earning £9,500 more than black graduates.

Use IT, don’t abuse IT

Two extremes of the use (no use, misuse) of technology in education.

Virtual computing
Ghanaian teacher Richard Appiah Akoto faced a difficult problem: He needed to prepare his students for a national exam that includes questions on information technology, but his school hadn’t had a computer since 2011.

So he drew computer screens and devices on his blackboard using multicolored chalk.

‘I teach computing with no computers’ – BBC News

The article continues:

After Akoto’s story went viral last March, Microsoft flew him to Singapore for an educators’ exchange and pledged to send him a device from a business partner. He’s also received desktops and books from a computer training school in Accra and a laptop from a doctoral student at the University of Leeds.

Meanwhile…

Government pledge to ‘beat the cheats’ at university
In the first of a series of interventions across the higher education sector, Damian Hinds has challenged PayPal to stop processing payments for ‘essay mills’ as part of an accelerated drive to preserve and champion the quality of the UK’s world-leading higher education system.

Hinds calls on students to report peers who use essay-writing services
The true scale of cheating is unknown, but new technology has made an old problem considerably easier. In 2016, the higher education standards body, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) found about 17,000 instances of cheating per year in the UK, but the number of students using essay-writing services is thought to be higher as customised essays are hard to detect. A study by Swansea University found one in seven students internationally have paid for someone to write their assignments.

The return of political science – and snooker

Even in these Brexit endtimes, I still don’t think we appreciate how relatively straightforward things are for us here.

Knowledge is power: Uzbekistan lifts ban on political science
Uzbekistan will resume teaching political science this year, according to a presidential decree signaling the return of a subject said to have been decried as pseudoscience by the previous leadership.

Though limited to only one state-run university, the move announced on Thursday highlights the Central Asian nation’s modernization drive after decades of isolation under late president Islam Karimov.

[…]

Karimov’s successor, former prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has launched a broad reform program and moved to abolish some of his predecessor’s most restrictive and bizarre policies, such as bans on buying foreign currency, painting faces at soccer games and playing billiards and snooker.

Grade inflation to stop, but how?

The inquiry into university grade inflation that the Guardian told us about earlier has published its report, and it’s quite damning.

Universities watchdog threatens fines over grade inflation
Nicola Dandridge, the OfS chief executive, said: “This report shows starkly that there has been significant and unexplained grade inflation since 2010-11. This spiralling grade inflation risks undermining public confidence in our higher education system.”

I was interested to read this aspect of the research’s findings.

Increases in first-class degrees among students entering university with lower A-level results are particularly striking. Graduates who achieved the equivalent of two Cs and a D were almost three times more likely to graduate with first-class honours in 2016/7 compared with six years earlier.

There is no parallel increase in degree attainment among graduates with top A-level results, and in the main it is the institutions with lower entry tariffs where the highest unexplained increases have been found.

Ouch. I wonder if the threat of fines will make a difference, though. I can’t see lecturers changing how they mark assessed work because of this. Universities will either have to amend their programmes of study to increase challenge, or adjust their regulations to lower the proportions of firsts and two-ones they award.

I hope they follow up this research with more next year. Will this increase continue?

grade-inflation

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 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)

In HE, everyone’s at it *

* Being deceitful, that is. Or maybe just willfully ambiguous?

Let’s start with Alex Hayman from Which? University

Students need clarity when choosing a university
It has been almost a year since the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a number of complaints about misleading information in HE. Despite the clear warnings, we’ve investigated and found at least six universities included examples of unsubstantiated or unverifiable claims about their standing on their websites, in likely breach of advertising standards. This just isn’t good enough.

Various examples are listed. This is an interesting line from the Guardian.

UK universities ‘still inflate their statuses despite crackdown’
The continued use of assertions about high international status is evidence of the strain universities are under to increase their domestic and international student recruitment, as well as the effects of global rankings.

Hmm. But, of course, it’s not just the universities that are happy to stretch the truth.

Essay mills: ‘One in seven’ paying for university essays
More students than ever are paying someone else to write assignments for them via “essay mills”, a Swansea University study has revealed. The survey of more than 50,000 students, found 15.7% admitted to cheating since 2014 – up from an average of 3.5% over the last 40 years.

[…]

It showed the amount of students admitting to contract cheating, when students pass off a custom-made essay as their own, has increased over time. But Prof Newton, director of learning and teaching at Swansea Medical School, suggested the number could be much higher, as students who have paid for essays to be written are far less likely to volunteer to take part in surveys on cheating.

Indeed. But what if you want to exaggerate how much work you’ve done, but are a little short on funds? Free fonts!

Times Newer Roman
Introducing Times Newer Roman, a font that kinda looks like Times New Roman, except each character is 5-10% wider. Fulfill lengthy page requirements with hacked margins, adjusted punctuation sizing, and now, Times Newer Roman!

in-he-everyones-at-it-2

Times Newer Roman is a sneaky font designed to make your essays look longer
According to Times Newer Roman’s website, a 15-page, single-spaced document in 12 point type only requires 5,833 words, compared to 6,680 for the standard Times New Roman. (That’s 847 words you don’t need to write, which is more than twice the length of this post!)

[…]

Of course, it’s the digital age, so there are some downsides: Times Newer Roman will only work for assignments you have to submit by hand or in a PDF. If you’re sending in a Word document using a custom font that professors almost certainly don’t have installed won’t help. Similarly, Times Newer Roman is only useful for hitting larger page counts; if you have a strict word count limit, you’re out of luck.

University data breach

With GDPR still getting attention, here’s news that the Information Commissioner has fined the University of Greenwich over a significant data breach that happened in 2016.

Greenwich University fined £120,000 for data breach
The fine was for a security breach in which the personal data of 19,500 students was placed online. The data included names, addresses, dates of birth, phone numbers, signatures and – in some cases – physical and mental health problems. It was uploaded onto a microsite for a training conference in 2004, which was then not secured or closed down.

The Information Commissioner said Greenwich was the first university to receive a fine under the Data Protection Act of 1998 and described the breach as “serious”.

[…]

In a statement, the university said it would not appeal against the decision.

It said it had carried out “an unprecedented overhaul” of its data protection and security systems since the discovery of the breach in 2016, and it had invested in both technology and staff.

So the personal data was added to a website in 2004 and left there for 12 years until the breach was discovered?

The University of Greenwich fined £120,000 by Information Commissioner for “serious” security breach
The investigation centred on a microsite developed by an academic and a student in the then devolved University’s Computing and Mathematics School, to facilitate a training conference in 2004.

After the event, the site was not subsequently closed down or secured and was compromised in 2013. In 2016 multiple attackers exploited the vulnerability of the site allowing them to access other areas of the web server.

A timely warning for others, I guess. Under GDPR, these fines could be significantly higher.

Degree level parking skills

A slightly tongue-in-cheek look at university parking facilities from Paul Greatrix at WonkHE.

Between the lines: the first UK HE car parking ranking
There is much to get excited about in here, not just about which university has the most spaces and which is best able to meet the needs of staff and students (for car parking, not the other things Clark Kerr suggested) and how early do staff at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Guildhall School of Music and Drama have to get up to secure one of their two (2!) car parking spaces. There is much, much more to chew on.

I’m continually surprised how different HE institutions are across the land. The University of Manchester is not that much larger than the University of Leeds, yet has nearly twice as many car park spaces. Oxford has half as many as Cambridge, but a lower demand means it’s a lot easier to find a space. And I liked this comment from Mike Ratcliffe:

Of those who have both car and bike spaces, special mention needs to go to Guildhall who might only have 2 car parking spaces, but as they have 147 bike spaces their 1:73 ratio is the clear sector winner. Sadly, Bolton get to be last with 1:0.4 (526 car parking spaces, 24 bike spaces)

A university union rep unhappy with their university’s spending?

I think it’s traditional to mock corporate rebrands and be appalled at the sums of money involved swapping one little logo for another little logo, but the timing of this one could have been better.

University of Portsmouth under fire over £800,000 rebrand costs as departments face cuts
Dr James Hicks, city university branch secretary of the University and College union, said: ‘I don’t understand why they would spend so much money on a logo and shortly after that say we’re having difficulties and might need to make savings. ‘You would assume they would have thought this through and it would be a little more joined up.’

I wouldn’t like to comment on the levels of marketing and recruitment expertise the UCU rep has – obviously it’s not £800,000 on just a logo – but after yesterday’s post about strike action, and the attention currently on VC pay, this could have been managed better.

Times Higher Education v-c pay survey 2018
Times Higher Education’s survey of vice-chancellors’ pay in the most recently reported financial year, 2016-17, reveals that Snowden’s total remuneration rose to £433,000 in 2016-17, while that of Breakwell – who announced last November that she would retire at the end of the current academic year – reached £471,000, a rise of 4.4 per cent. But even that salary looked paltry compared with the headline-grabbing £808,000 earned by Christina Slade of neighbouring Bath Spa University, a figure that – as THE revealed in December – included a £429,000 pay-off for “loss of office”.

Bath University vice-chancellor quits after outcry over £468k pay
“Professor Breakwell will receive more than £600,000 from the university, an enormous reward for failure, and will continue to exercise the authority which has generated the ‘climate of fear’ now openly talked-of on campus,” a joint statement from the campus unions UCU, Unite and Unison, said.

[…]

Ana Dinerstein, a member of the senate who last week voted no-confidence in Breakwell, said: “This is great opportunity for change that will start at Bath University and can spread throughout the sector. It can be a turning point.”

Or not.

Tougher talk this time

I was about to comment along the lines of ‘haven’t we been here before’, but it does seem a little different this time.

Tensions mount on campus as USS pensions strike looms
In a sign of the growing tensions, management at the University of Leeds were accused of “bullying” after they wrote to academics warning them that, as well as withholding pay for each day of strike action, the institution would deduct a quarter of their daily salary if they refused to reschedule lectures or cover for absent colleagues.

Nobody to blame but himself

Here’s the conclusion of a story I spotted some time ago.

Oxford University not at fault for graduate’s 2:1 as he may have ‘simply coasted’, judge rules
The judge added that it was possible that Mr Siddiqui “simply gets over-anxious during the examination process and does not do himself justice on occasions”. He added: “However, anxiety producing a less than otherwise merited result is not an unfamiliar examination scenario generally nor, in his case, is it the fault or responsibility of his teachers.” Mr Siddiqui “has a very significant track record for looking for someone else or some other factor to blame for any failure on his part to achieve what he perceives to have been the right result for him”, he said.

It had been going on since 2016.

Oxford University is sued for £1 million by a former student named Faiz Siddiqui over his unsuccessful career
The university, for its part, wants the lawsuit thrown out—mostly because of the decade and a half that’s passed since Siddiqui graduated. While some students in the US have seen success in suing their schools, those campuses (including Donald Trump’s legally-tangled real estate university) tended to skew toward the non-elite, for-profit field, and were not established institutions like 1,100-year-old Oxford.

I can’t help but think if he had spent as much time and energy on his degree in the first place, as he has on the lawsuit following it, he wouldn’t now be in this position. Who knows how much pursuing that case would have cost him, both in terms of money and reputation.

Counting scapegoats

Two articles from The Guardian caught my eye recently, about immigration.

That working-class lives are more fraught is not down to immigration
Economic, social and political developments have, in recent years, coalesced to make working-class lives far more precarious – the imposition of austerity, the rise of the gig economy, the savaging of public services, at the same time as the growing atomisation of society, the erosion of the power of labour movement organisations and the shift of the Labour party away from its traditional constituencies.

Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes.

2VCs on … what does 2018 look like for universities?
“There can be few if any rational arguments for including international students in the net migration figures,” Humphris says unequivocally. “The evidence is there. They do not overstay. They add hugely to the enrichment of our universities that should be global and outward-looking. They make a massive contribution. The whole debate around immigration and international students creates very unhelpful mood music.”

Some things are easier to quantify than others, but just because something is countable doesn’t mean that that is where we should be focusing attention or laying blame, surely.

Fake degrees still big business

The scale of this still astounds me. All the work that goes into administering and assuring our degrees – let alone the work the students themselves undertake – is put in jeopardy if these fraudulent qualifications are not challenged.

Fake degrees, real news
But as this recent File on Four investigation by the BBC demonstrated, this Diploma Mill business is still booming and, according to the report, over 3,000 fake qualifications have been sold to individuals (and in one case a company) in the UK out of a worldwide total of 215,000 which netted a profit in excess of £37m in 2015. It seems that the investigation in Pakistan has ground to a halt “amid claims of government corruption” and sales are continuing, but now with a new twist: extortion.

Belltown University? Queens Bay University? Just two from a very long list indeed.

TEF teething problems

TEF boycott fears allayed as elite universities opt in
With the deadline for applications to year two of the teaching excellence framework (TEF) closing at noon on 26 January, concerns remained that some of England’s elite institutions would decide to opt out of the policy because vice-chancellors were doubtful that the financial benefits of inflationary fee increases would outweigh the reputational damage caused by not being rated outstanding.

Not involved with HE matters anymore, sadly, but still like to keep an eye on what’s going on. I can only imagine how much of an admin and data burden this new performance measure framework is. Is it just another example of the search for a simplistic, numerical proxy for quality, I wonder?

A link-baity article about universities and drug gangs

A thought-provoking read, in the style of Freakonomics, about pay structures and working conditions within higher education. The similarities to drug gangs catches the eye, of course, but it’s interesting to read how this compares across countries.

How Academia resembles a drug gang
Academic systems rely on the existence of a supply of “outsiders” ready to forgo wages and employment security in exchange for the prospect of uncertain security, prestige, freedom and reasonably high salaries that tenured positions entail. Drawing on data from the US, Germany and the UK, Alexandre Afonso looks at how the academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core of insiders.

Data, data, everywhere – any of it helping?

Data and education. Educating ourselves with data? On data? Improving education by improving data?

We might have the data, but have we got the answers?
Regarding what he calls ‘technical validity’, are we measuring what we are supposed to be measuring? Then, in what he describes as ‘normative validity’, are we measuring what we value, or are we valuing what we measure? Two important questions for us all to ask about the data that our systems are awash with.

Some great points here, refreshingly honest, about the state of data and information in schools. And here’s a response of sorts, albeit from a higher education perspective:

Taking the data conversation to a new level
The publication of this report is a significant moment in our journey to build a better data infrastructure for UK higher education because it is coming from a very different place. The members of the Higher Education Commission are senior, experienced leaders, strategists and Politicians and previous Commission inquiries have addressed topics like the regulation and the financial sustainability of HE. These are not people whose natural habitat is the world of petabytes, XML and FUNDCOMP; they are perhaps the most un-nerd bunch you could ever assemble. Yet their decision to base this inquiry on data in HE is in itself a recognition of the fundamental transformations that data technology is enabling.

Meanwhile, though:

Students hit by University of Greenwich data breach
Students’ names, addresses, dates of birth, mobile phone numbers and signatures were all uploaded to the university’s website. They were posted alongside minutes from the university’s Faculty Research Degrees Committee, which oversees the registrations and progress of its research students. In some cases, mental health and other medical problems were referenced to explain why students had fallen behind with their work.

EU et UK HE

It’s let’s-have-a-heated-debate time again, this time about whether or not we should stay in the European Union.​​ Here are a few articles on the higher education angle to all this.

Contemplating a Brexit for UK HE
I’ve left the strongest argument that the HE sector can muster till last: the student trade. 6% of all students in UK universities are from elsewhere in the EU. That’s a lot of fee income. And, over the decades after their graduation, it’s a lot of soft power. Of course it’s more than that too. It’s an example of our open society. It changes us to meet, argue, learn from, befriend and fall in love with people from other parts of Europe.

What has the European Union ever done for us?
The EU is both a catalyst and an enabler of collaboration. It breaks down barriers to collaboration and makes working across borders easier by reducing the level of bureaucracy which researchers face when putting together complex multi-national bids.

Both authors think we should stay in the EU and that the UK higher education sector, and society as a whole, benefits from our continued membership, but both seem to worry that their arguments are quite weak and can be easily rebutted.

I can’t imagine for a moment though that many people are giving the academy much thought in this debate. Unfortunately.

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

Taking notes by hand benefits recall, researchers find
The researchers aimed to measure the increased opportunity to ‘mindlessly’ take verbatim notes when using laptops. “Verbatim note-taking, as opposed to more selective strategies, signals less encoding of content,” says the researchers’ report. Although laptop users took almost twice the amount of notes as those writing longhand, they scored significantly lower in the conceptual part of the test. Both groups had similar scores on the factual test.

This article caught my eye for a moment, as it seemed to chime with my own experiences at work, but then I thought hang on, isn’t this obvious? Are they comparing writing with “mindlessly” typing “verbatim” notes?

A self-spamming university?

Google blocks U. of Illinois at Chicago from emailing its own students
The University of Illinois at Chicago recently found itself living a modern nightmare: Google’s automated cybersecurity regime mistook the university as the culprit in a spam attack on the university’s students and began blocking university email accounts from sending messages to Gmail users.

The blocking went on for more than two weeks, and the affected Gmail users included 13,000 of the university’s own students. University officials describe those two weeks as a Kafkaesque state of limbo.

Overseas students are not the problem #2

How to ruin a global brand: Foreign students are going off English universities
In contrast to the visa regime for private schools, which is extremely lax (the Home Office counts private schools as favoured sponsors) student visas have been tightened. Foreign students used to be allowed to work for up to two years after graduating. They now have only four months to find a job paying upwards of £20,600 if they want to stay in Britain.