Charting the HE

August 17, 2017 Leave a comment

A good article appeared a little while ago online. It set out the rise in fees in relation to the expansion of HE in the UK. In my humble opinion it is worth a look, just so you can see some of the figures around HE today.

It is not perfect, for instance it show how UK fees are the second highest around the world, but does not then continue that with country comparisons throughout. So while we are second highest, is that due to the numbers of young people attending an HE institution or for some other sort of reason?

An interesting graphic shows the number of young people applying for place. Here it highlights that the numbers are still rising, despite fees now being nearly 20 years old.

It is hard to generalize from these graphics, but they do provide food for thought at this time or exam results.

Categories: education, jobs, life, students, work

Sign on the Dotted Line

July 26, 2017 1 comment

Something I mentioned when fees were muted last century is about to come to pass.

Universities Minister Jo Johnson has announced that students are to get ‘value-for-money contracts with universities’. With this the consumerization of HE has reached a zenith. Students will be allowed to challenge universities over too few teaching hours or inadequate facilities.

This may sound like a righteous solution to students having to pay fees. After all, if you are paying for something, you need a ‘right of refund’ in the event of the goods not being of acceptable standard.

The one fly in the ointment here is that how do students know what is an ‘acceptable standard’? Of course you say, they will use the university ranking guides published in newspapers. However, these are often very sketchy on the fine details of particular courses, which naturally vary according to the type of degree being undertaken.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the coming year. My university has re-jigged classes to give them extra hours, which of course requires that they are rewritten to allow for that. However, this has not been supported with joined up thinking for two reasons.

1) Students are not aware that this will mean they have less time to undertake paid work to pay for their fees/living expenses. Increased hours will inevitably spill over into days when they previously expected not to have classes and were available for work.

2) Classes have not had the extra hours spread about the timetable to prevent boredom in class. Instead they have just been given an increased solid block of time. This means instead of two hours straight teaching time, they now have three or more! Previous problems with non-attendance will pale into insignificance in future as the amount of class-time missed increases significantly.

This will of course be realised too late to deal with the problem for the coming academic year and we will have to muddle through.

At the end of the day, value-for-money can only exist if staff are also part of the equation. Things like having your workload split evenly between teaching and non-teaching might help. I for one am tasked with spending most of my time on things other than teaching. I sometimes feel it is a travesty to call myself a lecturer when I am a glorified administrator for most of week. You would think that with the increased contact hours for what teaching I have, this would even things out. However, you would be wrong.

Other benefits would be to have an office, this fad of ‘hot-desking’ or shared offices might be on trend, but it does not suit the need to spend time on teaching matters.

Time will tell if students become litigious, but it will also prove the point.

Top of the Class

Some universities are apparently giving more and more firsts to their students “with some universities giving first-class degrees to more than a third of their students.

This of course assumes that students are worthy of a first.

In my experience there has not been a sudden upward trend in the abilities of students. In fact I believe it plateaued a few years back and has since gone down.

Of course, I can only speak for my own department/discipline. However, we all have to spread ourselves about as external examiners these days. So, I have been able to view the board outcomes for a wide variety of universities. In general it is the Russell Group that seems keen to promote students to a first class degree when there is little evidence of first class work to support or warrant it.

In my area, students are not becoming more intelligent, quite the opposite. Over the years students have become resistant to learning, expecting the rote learning from school to spill over into their university careers. The amount of students who come to me asking to be able to resit a lower mark than they wanted has trebled.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, there is no mechanism to allow these students, who have not attended, nor done the reading, to ‘have another go’. In our increasingly commercialized HE sector, students are seeing a degree the same way they see their shop purchases. If they do not like what they have ‘bought’ they expect to be able to return it for a ‘replacement’.

You cannot blame them for this; it is we after all, who have encouraged them to think of a degree as a ‘purchase’.

Should there be comprehensive universities?

An article caught my attention around the comprehensivisation of universities.

Are universities perpetuating social class? In the UK there are distinct groups of universities, with Oxbridge at the top, the Russell Group next and the Post-1992 group.

In a lot of ways, these are representative of classes in the main. The best schools have their pupils go to Oxbridge, the middle classes go to the Russell Group and the rest hit the old polytechnic sector.

What the author of the article does not seem to do is give clarity on how that system could be turned into a comprehensive one. Yes, it would be good if students all received the same experience at university, but that would assume that all universities are created equal, with equal resources and equally good staff. It also depends on class sizes, ability of students, etc.

Would it be possible to balance out these aspects across such a vast sector of 450,000 plus students?

The problem with this way of thinking is that you are suggesting a national curriculum for universities. That would essentially turn, what is a difficult balance of research, knowledge and delivery skill into a rote process anyone could do.

A less generous person might suggest that this is what they may be after – reducing the skill means reducing what you need to pay staff.

If anything, perhaps we should be revising all universities upwards to meet the highest standards. However, that would mean more resources, smaller classes and better initial schooling. All of which would cost vast sums to achieve.


Categories: education, jobs, students, work

Vice-Chancellors Pay

It came to my notice today that someone else has become interested in VC pay.

Universities Minister Jo Johnson has suggested that pay for the person at the top is a little on the high side.

Now that fees are increasing once more, it seems a little disingenuous that VC’s are happy to give themselves a generous slap on the back by giving themselves pay packages and rise well above inflation.

Many VC’s earn over £300,000 plus pension plus grace and favour perks. The latter is worth a considerable amount. If I were unable to return home overnight for whatever (official) reason, I would have to check in to a local hotel and pay for it myself. My VC however, has the use of a grace and favour flat.

Alright you might think, they are negotiating big deals, either financially or pedagogically and so need their rest. How does that differ from needing to be fresh to face a hundred bored, rude and in some cases, disaffected, students?

Jo Johnson is suggesting that they should not really be earning more than the prime minister. That argument holds better water when you consider that the prime minister has a budget of over £700bn to deal with, whereas VC’s have considerably less.

What the article did not mention was that when it comes to pay rounds, VC’s get 4-6% while the rest of us have to suffer 1%. Are they not public sector too? Should they not share the pain of the long suffering staff or are they above that?

Unions and staff have tried for years to bring pay rises into line, but the real power lies now with students who could vocally complain that they do not want their fees going to line the pocket of someone whom they never meet and see no value in. Of course, there is value provided by a VC, but is it worth ‘more’ than that of the staff that manage their experiences on a daily basis?

Categories: colleagues, education, jobs, work

Expect The Worst/Best/Whatever.

An interesting article today on university expectations for first-timers.

It is quite correct to say that new students believe they will be getting more teaching hours than at school. I cannot count the number of times I have been told – by students – that they do not get enough hours in class. Every time I have to explain that at university students are expected to take charge of their learning as part of of, um, the learning process.

This suggestion usually causes consternation to appear on their faces as they try to reconcile the fact they are paying for having just a few hours of contact time. Usually the complete the interaction cycle by saying, ‘well, we need more hours’.

Well, this coming year they will be getting more hours, at least at my university. The powers that be have wanted to head off complaints, possibly so they can increase fees later in the year. It will be interesting to come back to this topic this time next year to see if indeed expectations have improved.

Nevertheless, more contact hours for students will have an impact, and not in the way they envisaged. As students will be gaining extra hours on their timetables, they will need to be accommodated for longer on campus. Given that most students now have jobs with long hours, they will have to give up some of those paying hours to be sat in a classroom. This will cause problems, particularly for those with children as the teaching day stretches out to 6pm.

There will also be problems in terms of keeping them in a subject group for longer. You might think that a two hour session now stretched to three hours would occur at different times. Not so; it will be a block of time. That means being faced by one person for three hours, even if there is now time to have say, two lectures split by a practical session. The average attention span of a student is 15 minutes these days, so that is going to be a problem for all concerned.

Another issue is commensurate with the paid work of students. If we are to allow them to still take up gainful employment, we will need to timetable their ‘longer’ classes for a few days to allow them to do full days work – the preference for our students. This naturally means that the days they are in campus they will be sat in classrooms for most of the day.

I for one have one day where I get a single hour free during a 9am to 5pm period. That means any comfort breaks must be taken on the run. You might consider that I will at least be able to eat lunch. However, you need to remember that students who have to spend all day on campus are also those who need tutorial help while they are no campus.

And so, I do not envisage being able to eat lunch that often. It is another action I shall have to carry out on the run; perhaps eating and toileting together in order to save time? As long as I remember which hand I am using, I should be OK.

Someone/institution with foresight would have made school visits in order to explain how university works; but who am I to suggest this? All I do is stand in front of classes for seven or eight hours a day.

Boys at Exeter academy wear skirts in uniform protest

I noticed the article in the title today. It made me think of all those who have to wear long trousers, shirt and tie to the classroom.

It cannot be ‘fun’ to stand there in full regalia in 35 degree heat without the benefit of air conditioning.

Of course, some colleagues have to teach around the world in higher temperatures. This is also problematic, but has been a trend for many years.

Some might say that here in the UK we only have such temperatures for a few days and so should just put up with it as they wont last.

However, it is easy to say this if you are used to such temperatures. I saw colleagues melting in the heat this week. Putting up with it stoically they let their sweat drip off their faces, only occasionally wiping it away when it became a nuisance.  Why did they perspire so much? Because they they were wearing dress code attire and there was no movement of air in the university buildings. staff had to bring in their own fans or beg and borrow them from the university.

It was notable that in my building their air temperature was 40c, but no one was told to relax their dress. It is ironic that in winter we are told to wear sensible shoes and wrap up warm if there is ice or snow, but in summer, it is everyone for themselves.

Ah, the  British.

Categories: colleagues, work
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