Mixed messages and Pedofiles

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In the university where I work there’s some discontent over promotions and how staff are rated. The uni has been putting much greater emphasis on research, in particular research that con contribute to the REF and revenue raising by bringing in money via grants. Its a trend that is all too familiar across UK universities these days.

Now if your working in a Russell group, research led university, then okay, this is kind of the primary role of such institutions and they are heavily dependant on research funding (hence why they are so worried about this EU referendum, given how much funding comes from the EU). But the vast majority of the UK’s universities don’t fall into this category. Their primary means of funding (and I mean +90%) is through teaching.

And its worth remembering that good research takes time. Most Russell group uni’s have a significantly higher staffing levels to cope with this, as well as more PhD research students, well equipped labs and of course, the technical support staff to keep everything running smoothly. By contrast a number of universities I’ve taught at have been cutting back on support staff…because as they see it, the best way to encourage research, it would seem, is to make it much harder to do!

While research is an important part of being an academic, life is about priorities, and in the absence of new staff to take over the teaching load, its inevitable that any time spent on research is time not being spend focusing on teaching and looking after students, which undermines one of the key selling points for most of the UK’s universities . You can after all get a free university education in several other countries such as Holland, Ireland (we have “fees”, but a fraction of those in the UK) or Germany.

Anyone watching the university rankings recently will have perhaps noted a trend whereby research led university’s are slipping down the rankings and a number of the ex-polytechnic’s are gradually creeping up. This, I would argue, is because Russell group uni’s are crap at teaching undergrad’s. If I had a kid and he/she wanted to go to uni I would sit them down and ask them, what do you want out of it? If you want to become an academic or a professional researcher, go to a Russell group uni. If you want to get a good degree and then get a job, then stay away from them, go to a well ranked non-research led uni instead.

For the reality is that in most research led uni’s the bulk of the day to day teaching is handled by overworked teaching assistants and PhD students, with the professors too busy jetting off to conferences or chasing research grants to have any time for undergrads. The only way an undergrad gets to see a professor in those places is if they bump into them in the lift. I’ve even heard stories of some Russell group uni’s getting their professors to make a video tape of their lecture’s, which they then play each year….so you’re basically paying 9 grand a year to watch a couple of videos! The university’s minster himself recently bemoaned this drop in teaching standards, although he sidestepped the issue of what’s driving it.

That said, for a research led uni, the primary degree is really just a taster session, the really serious learning starts with the Masters or PhD…..or indeed the post-doc that follows. It should also be remembered that those who follow a more academic, research led career, tend to be good self-learners, a trait that isn’t shared by the bulk of students (that’s the whole point of lectures! Do you think I do them for fun or something?).

But like I said, any uni trying to copy this model without the resources of a research led uni is going to just piss off its students, develop a really bad reputation and see student numbers, and thus overall revenue, plummet. And its worth remembering that to many UK university’s the bulk of what research they do generally comes to them via ex-students and industrial contacts. So long term, such a policy will reduce the levels of research, not aid them.

The Pedofiles
Given these facts you may question why so many university managers are pursuing such a crazy policy. Well some form of an answer become apparent when you learn that they have also begun to place particular emphasis on research into Pedagogy (the theory of learning and education). All of us academics are now expected to gain qualifications in Pedagogy as well as undertake research into it. Or put it another way, we’re all expected to maintain a folder somewhere on our PC where we record all our Pedagogy…..or a Pedofile ;0

If you think about it, this is silly. Humans have been teaching each other since the first cave man showed someone how to light a fire. By contrast technologies such as Graphene, computers or electronics have only been around for a few years or decades. Unless you are working in a particular discipline such as IT (where computers have brought about changes to teaching methods) or psychology, Pedagogy is a dead research area. You’re wasting your time conducting research that is of very little value to anyone.

And of course, such emphasis on “Pedofiles” directly contradicts the pressure on us academics to produce “REF worthy” research (which has to be of a certain standard to count), as very little if anything in this field is going to count as high impact. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that for many of the senior staff in many UK uni’s the only original research they’ve done recently is in Pedagogy. Hence they are emphasising its importance purely to justify their own position and bloated salary.

And of course the emphasis on REF related research is driven by the fact that setting and meeting research “targets” is a good way for these mangers to justify a future salary increase or bonus. The fact that they are setting in place policies that are likely to infuriate both staff and students, lower academic standards and probably in the long term undermine research, does not matter, as they’ll have changed jobs by then.

In short, UK universities are becoming a perfect proof of the so-called “Dilbert Principlewhereby those who are the least technically competent in any organisation are swiftly moved into the position where they can do the least damage and be kept out of the way of the competent staff – management. Unfortunately, like many privatised public services, we have the problem that while the private sector has various means to “cull” the numbers of management goons from time to time (via the occasional merger, restructuring or proxy blood bath), university’s, and other ex-public sector bodies, don’t.

So if Osborne is keen to save the Treasury some cash, here’s a piece of advice. Sack every member of staff in every UK uni above the grade of head of department (along with all their minions, PA’s and other hanger’s on). You’ll eliminate the main obstacle to progress and the efficient running of universities, while saving a lot of money in the process.

 

UK universities face foreign competition?

I’ve long worried that the UK's decision to put up tuition fees would ultimately discourage students from going to UK universities. Either choosing to go to universities in other EU countries (such as Holland) or not going to uni at all. This risks making a university education the preserve of the middle and upper classes. Also by making university's more commercially orientated, with a greater emphasis on revenue raising and less on tuition. Indeed I cannot help but notice a trend between universities (such as for example Strathclyde) being praised for their “entrepreneurial spirit” and then sliding down the university rankings, presumably because the staff are too busy chasing grants to look after students properly.

Well the BBC have a brief piece out about US students going to study in Germany, which has recently abolished fees for university students, even those from outside the EU. This goes to show that you can get just as good an education in Germany for a lower price. While living costs in Germany are quite high, this elimination of tuition fees, plus the less commercially oriented outlook of German institutions makes for good value for money. Language? Many European institutions now do courses in English, notably engineering and technical courses.

However the is also the US aspect of this. For many years foreign students, in particular non-EU students have been a key part of any UK university's finance. And the US students are generally seen as the cream of the crop. Not least because they ain't shy about spending money. However US students are also caught up in the pointless Daily Mail-esque antics the Tories have dumped on all non-EU students. Being required for example to prove they are still in the UK every 30 days, or having to prove they have good English language skills (okay Americans can get something's wrong, like metre or calling a toilet a restroom, but I think they've good enough English to cope with an engineering degree!).

So its just a matter of time before the penny drops for many US students. Why pay tens of thousands a year to go to a UK university and be treated like a terrorist, when you can pay about 150 euro's a year and go to a German uni, which is just as good….oh and they throw in free public transport too! In essence the UK might be killing its golden goose. Its not just about a few uni's loosing out on a bit of tuition money. Its about the fact that these students going somewhere else and thus taking their ideas and the skills they've just accumulated with them. No more US entrepreneur's setting up a internet start-up in London, when they got their degree in Munich. And where the Americans go, the Chinese students will surely follow.

In essence I wonder if the UK HEI sector has been “found out”.

The EU and trade

As I’ve mentioned before, the UK’s EU membership and open borders policy is crucial to trade. Restricting this, as UKIP and increasingly the Tories suggest, would have a disastrous impact on the UK economy.

This was hammered home to me last week when I was at a trade show in the NEC. As I walked around the stands, where much high tech stuff was on display, composites manufacturers, 3D printing of metal parts, Graphene, driverless vehicles, I couldn’t help but notice how much of this is dependent on three things – foreign labour (often the boffins behind such ideas aren’t British), foreign investment (ditto the cash paying for it all, you’d be surprised to learn how many firms in the UK these days are owned by foreign investors) and trade with the EU (about 75% of the cars made in Britain are built LHD for export, often using parts brought in from the EU, with many EU cars built with British made parts or designed by brits!).

Consequently if I was foolish enough to bring up the issue of the UK leaving the EU, the response would usually be either denial (:no: oh that would never happen, we’d be broke if it did) or a tirade. And not the usual tirade you’d get from Daily Mail readers of the “u see, the EU costs us 1 trillion pounds a day and wants to let 25 million Romanians claim benefits…”. No more along the lines of “are you mad or what? Do have any idea how many of our staff our European? How many of our customers are Europeans? Or our investors?” So think it was good Farage didn’t show up, unless he fancies being beaten to death by a load of angry engineer’s wielding British made 3-d printed composite crowbars. :))

Take for example an excellent presentation for Manchester University, at the conference on the topic of Graphene and its future applications. Well the lady giving the talk was French (possibly French Algerian or Moroccan I’d guess from her name). The two leading scientists from Manchester, who won the Nobel prize in 2010, neither of them are British. MU have just finished building a £60 million Graphene research centre, and have funding to the tune of a further £60 million. While some of this money is coming from the UK government, this is being matched with funds directly provided by the EU.

I didn’t torment the MU team about Brexit, but that was largely because, as a lecturer, I understand that I’d have been as well off asking them how they thought MU would continue functioning after nuclear war. A vast amount of the research funding that universities in the UK receive comes from the EU. Either directly (often to fund “blue sky” research) or indirectly through various schemes aimed at promoting business development via research. And a lot of our student finance is provided by foreign students (only 11% of students but about 30% of finance for teaching), either from the EU or beyond, which effectively helps subsidise the costs for UK students.

For example, a number of the research projects I’ve worked on have been funded under FP7. This grants money for collaborative research projects across the EU involving universities and businesses. Another research fund I’ve supported, provides direct research support to SME’s. Essentially the EU provides seed money which is matched by businesses and we lecturers provide our time to do the heavy lifting as far as lab work or research activities. It’s sort of a win, win for everybody.

And we are not talking small change here. The succession fund to FP7 for example, Horizon 2020 will dole out some 80 billion euro’s, mostly to academic institutions between now and 2020. Noting that UK universities have been one of the largest net receivers of FP7 cash.

Therefore, if the UK left the EU we would literally be going downstairs to the labs, locking the doors to many of them, and sacking most of our research staff and lab technicians. And keep in mind the universities that would take the biggest hit would be the elite research led universities, notably those in the Russell Group. While I suspect many would survive (most have a substantial endowment fund to rely on), some probably would be forced into radical reorganisation. Inevitably there will be mergers and even closures, with a knock on effect on the local area.

This of course would mean less university places and at higher rates of student fees. Already there is muttering (as a result of recent Tory antics against migrants, which has reduced foreign student numbers) that student fees will have to go up again. In short, the clock will go back 40 years and university education, crucial to getting a well-paid job in the UK, will once again become the preserve of the well off, educated in private schools.

And it won’t just be tens of thousands of unemployed researchers but this would have a knock on effect on the private sector too. As this conference I mentioned shows, the UK, like many EU states has been very successful in “reshoring” of high tech manufacturing technology over recent years. Indeed there seems to be a singularity forming between new manufacturing technologies (such as 3D printing) and topology optimisation with computer simulations, offering the possibility to design lightweight less resource intensive components.

However a lot of these companies are only here because they can access a well-educated labour market and to take advantage of research opportunities with the UK’s universities. Pull the EU rug from out underneath these companies and you’ll be burning an entire generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and engineers, who will avoid the UK like the plague from then on.

Indeed, there is history here. In my field of renewables you will often come across engineers from German or Chinese renewable companies, with North American accents. A little digging reveals they started out their career in the US or Canada, often on federally funded projects, only for the Bush and Harper administrations to pull the rug out from underneath them (for ideological rather than financial reasons). They subsequently left, got hired by a Chinese or German firm who are not profiting from these ideas, as the renewables business is now booming in many countries, even in the UK. So these German and Chinese profits are at the expense of research essentially paid for by the American and Canadian taxpayers!

This is why when the LSE suggests a 2.5 – 9.5% drop in UK GDP as the price paid for leaving the EU, I tend to believe the higher figure. The knock on effects, not all of which the LSE is probably capturing, will be significant. There will also be the fact that it’s sending out a message that the UK is not open for business. Can you see an Indian investor putting money into the UK if he gets the impression that the British are now so bigoted and xenophobic that they can’t get along with people twenty miles across the channel?

And of course the message from the Tories to many professionals (engineers, scientists, etc.) from the EU and beyond, will be that despite many years paying taxes in the UK, they will now not be entitled to benefits, or the NHS and will have to apply for a work permit to stay here. While some lazy BNP voting Chav, whose never worked a day in his life, will be entitled to such benefits? That is about as far removed from a traditional right wing ideology (or indeed any ideology that rewards hard work!) as you can possibly get.

About the only positive for the Tories is that many in the HEI and manufacturing sectors seem to be in denial. They cannot bring themselves to believe the Tories would be dumb enough to risk Brexit. But sooner or later the penny will drop, and the result is likely that many of the very people who traditionally vote Tory will realise that they cannot vote for them now.

Tory promises on tax cuts ain’t going to matter squat if you’re business folds as you won’t be earning anything to pay taxes with anyway! One can only hope the truth dawns on them before the next general election.

Beware of low flying parents

I’ve not been blogging the last few weeks as much as usual due to being busy dealing with Freshers. One of the problems is that some students these days don’t seem to have a lot of common sense. As I discussed in a previous post, we seem to be getting one to many more mummy’s boy’s, whose helicopter parents have gone around sweeping any obstacles out of their kids way, hence he/she has very little common sense.

The situation can be particularly acute with some foreign students in the UK, as some come from very privileged backgrounds and are used to having drivers and servants to call on. Hence it can be a bit of a shock to find themselves in a situation where people don’t run around wiping their ass on command. Where they have to wait in line with everyone else.

Let me give you example. I was on the train the other day and there was this young Asian fellow with bags (obviously a fresher on his way to uni). The announcer comes on and say’s we’re approaching his stop. Of course the train stops short of the station (as they often do on congested UK routes). He asks people on the train how to I get to the station. We tell him wait till we pull in, then push the button by the door. He immediately goes to the doors and pushes all the buttons, even the emergency one :no: (pissing off the driver though fortunately not to the stage where he decides to make a federal case out of it!).

Of course this sort of attitude means that we lecturers face all sorts of problems. For example getting students to pick up their various book and equipment packages (we give the stuff away for free to compensate for fees…and to avoid us having arguments with them over why they’ve not read such and such a book or brought along safety equipment to a lab). Some of the students still haven’t collected it, even thought they’ve had a good month to do so. Some seem to think we should bring it to them on a sliver tray!

Or getting students to showing up on time to class. If I say class starts at 9am. I do mean 9am, not 9:05 and certainly not 10! I might allow a few minutes grace for students to come in late, as some will take time to login or get their notebooks out (and again, I’m assuming they’ll have the good sense to bring notebooks, one student recently asked me if he could take home my notes to photocopy them!). If I’ve scheduled a lecture to take one hour, that’s hwo long it’s going to take, I can wait and I don’t want to be rushed into going faster (else they won’t be able to follow everything).

Similarly getting them to submit coursework on time can be a problem, as some don’t seem to understand that a deadline is a deadline. And some students these days seem unable to accept the possibility of failure. I’ll be marking the first few lab reports soon and I know from experience that they probably won’t be that good (inevitable, nobody gets it right the first time!) but I’ll be facing students used to getting +80% who are then told no, this is at best 50% because of XY and Z. Naturally the result is usually howls of protest. And that’s the ones who submit on time. The others who miss the deadline (and get zero!) are needless to say even less happy. I mean they had a busy weekend partying and playing X-box, why am I insisting that they hand in stuff at the agreed deadline! ;D

This, along with tuition fees, is all part of a trend that we seem to have imported from America. In America, parents can actually login to a website and check up on their kids progress in school (i.e. what assignments they’ve due, attendance record, marks, feedback, etc.) and often now in university. Here some parents have actually transcended “Helicopter parenting” and reached what’s now referred to as “snowplough” parenting, whereby parents seem to think it’s their job to push all obstacles out of their (now adult) offspring’s way.

I’ve heard horror stories about parents ringing up the President of an American university to complain about noisy/messy roommates in halls :crazy:. I’ve heard of more than a few cases of parents contacting senior staff members in the university to complain about marks and try to have pressure applied to lecturers to change them. Or even hiring lawyers to challenge marks. This of course reflects a lack of understanding of how marks are calculated, i.e. a marking criteria rather than opinion and multiple layers of mark moderation by other peers, including usually an external examiner.

Even here in the UK we’ve seen similar things happen. For example we catch a student committing plagiarism, only for the parents to show up at the resulting academic conduct hearing…and it very quickly becomes apparent that the cheating might well have been the parents idea to begin with.

Of course we have to blame fees and the defacto privatisation of universities in part for this. Many parents and students now seem to think that they are essentially buying a degree. Unfortunately, that doesn’t negate the need to work hard and study to achieve it, just because you’re paying fees.

This can be made worse in courses such as engineering or medicine, as you will occasionally get some students who’ve been pressured into taking up such courses by pushy parents who reckon it will be a good career move. Failing to understand that if the student simply isn’t capable or motivated to complete the course he/she isn’t going to do very well (or indeed drop out and fail) and would be far better off studying something they’re interested in, and likely to do better at.

But certainly this problem of over-parenting is another issue. What parents don’t seem to realise is that by constantly sweeping obstacles out of your child’s way all you’re doing is destroying their capacity to problem solve and function independently – all crucial skills in both university and the real world of work. Hence why some of the students I teach, despite being very bright, seem to have little capacity for independent thought or creativity. Shielding them from failure or hard work, means that when they have a reduced capacity to cope with such things in real life (wait till they start applying for jobs and get dozens of PFO’s in response!). Ironically this in of itself can lead to more stress and undue pressure on the student to perform. And of course students who feel themselves to be under pressure are more likely to try and take the short cut of plagiarism.

And students are also more likely to do what we usually associate with Fresher’s week, getting more drunk than an Irish saint on an all expenses paid pilgrimage to Munich in October :oops:. Inevitably students under pressure feel the need to let off a bit of steam. And free from the yoke of their parents, unfamiliar with how much is too much or used to dad’s taxi to bring them home, its no surprise some get themselves into trouble.

While I would encourage parents to be involved in supporting their siblings university education, but only up to a point. The stabilisers have to come off the bike and he/she must fight their own battles and learn to be independent. This is after all part of the whole point of going to college. By preventing this, a parent is destroying the whole college experience, not to mention jeopardising the very education they are paying for.

Cooking the books in UK colleges

We’re forever cracking down on students for “bad academic practice” aka plagiarism. However it would seem some of the UK’s HEI’s need to practice what they preach. I discussed last week recent revelations of systematic cheating of UK language exams within a number of UK colleges.

Now there’s a claim that Branfield college may have wrongly claimed £1m in funding. This is yet another example of the after effects of the defacto privatisation of UK universities. This meant many UK HEI’s have become increasingly cash hungry and mercenary. Hence these sort of issues can only be expected to increase, particularly within the UK’s college’s who are being squeezed by a reduction in funding from government and also drops in student numbers as increasingly many choose a university degree instead.

The Head Hunters of academia

This is a reposting of something on my Education blog.

We had a number of e-mails doing the rounds at work indicating that a number of senior staff in the university were leaving (I was tempted to e-mail the whole faculty back to enquire if anyone wanted to go out for drinks to celebrate 😀 but decided they mightn’t see the funny side!).

Always worrying when many senior management leave at once (the rats abandoning the sinking ship? :-/) but my attention was drawn to another wee statement in both e-mails. That being the manner of the recruitment of said senior staff’s (Dean level and up) replacement.

Apparently the university was hiring a group of head hunters to try and find replacements. One has to ask the question, what the hell for? We’ve plenty of others in the university in senior posts who, while not exactly my favourite people, are more than suitably qualified to take over these roles. They also have the advantage of knowing the university, have been here for decades and thus are clearly committed to the place. They also know (as it were) where the bodies are buried and thus won’t have to take and BS from the more whiny members of staff.

However instead it seems we’ll have some Jonty De Wolfeesqueseagull manager” parachuted in on us. Who, much like the last guy, will fly in, make a lot of noise, crap on everything before flying back out to sea and be forgotten.

Indeed it is also strange that somewhere else in the university several lackies of the Dean were promoted sometime ago. The funny thing is that if junior members of staff like me want a promotion (e.g. from lecturer to senior lecturer) we have to wait for a staff opening to appear and apply for that job, do an interview, etc. But it would seem in the lofty air of the upper floor such mere mortal concerns do not apply. You can simply be prompted salary doubled (a salary the taxpayer pays for I would note, lecturing staff salaries are usually met via student fees these days) with not so much as an ounce of due process.

More corporate that the corporations themselves

Of course this is all too reminiscent of the increasingly corporate style approach of UK universities. They seem to assume that as they are running universities like companies that they should behave more like a corporation, notably paying people like senior VP’s an expensive pay packet and increasingly using head hunters to recruit senior staff. Of course in truth they are behaving more like a cartoon version of how corporations generally behave.

While it is true corporations will head hunt a new senior manager and parachute him in on an unsuspecting division of the firm (in lieu of simply promoting someone else to the job), often companies will do this for very specific reasons. e.g. That unit is under performing (our department is on the up and up, students satisfaction is rising, academic standards are up, etc.) or head office wants to make some major changes such as starting a new product line and have brought someone in who is an expert at that (my impression, students haven’t changed much since I was the other side of the room).

In all other situations, a company will obey the normal rules of promoting the most senior staff member available and triggering a wave of promotions across the division which serves to remind staff of the benefits of remaining loyal to the firm. And again, often companies are more likely to show restrain as regards promoting people to senior positions without some justification, as they know that while shareholders will rarely object to the hiring of a couple of dozen engineers, they will ask questions as to why we suddenly need more senior VP’s to manage a company that’s in the process of downsizing? (surely they’ll ask we should be sacking a few managers?).

However of course, there-in lies the problem for UK universities. A company doesn’t have the department of education paying the salaries of senior staff, it doesn’t have the safety net of the public purse. Instead it has a lot of angry shareholders who’ll kick up a right old stink if they see such carry on.

In short there is a reason why universities are supposed to be in the public sector and a way the public sector bodies are supposed to behave. Not least because a lot of what corporations do tends to be financially risky (and sometimes unethical) and we don’t want universities risking bankruptcy.

The Tory Squeeze on Education

One of the insidious features of the Tory spending cuts is how they try and get others to do the dirty work of cutting public services for them. I’ve previously described how cuts by the Tories are forcing councils across the country to make very tough choices, kicking pensioners out of nursing homes or shutting down museums sort of stuff.

Another tactic is to “privatise” public services. But because a private company needs to turn a profit (from providing a service that is obviously unprofitable, I mean if the state is struggling to run it at a loss how is a private company supposed to achieve that and earn an extra 20% to keep shareholders happy?), hence they immediately have to start laying off staff and cutting services, just to stay in business. The UK train and bus companies are an excellent example of this practice and its failings.

The NHS is probably next on the list for creeping privatisation and its budget is being cut in real terms (once you account for an ageing and growing population plus inflation) forcing newly independent management into the difficult position of deciding which services to cut back on.

The student loan hole
My own sector, higher education, is starting to see something similar. We’re doing rather well in my department. Our ratings are going up, we’re attracting more and more students. Indeed this year we expect not to need to take any students through clearing as our expectation is that we’ll fill 1st year just through first preferences, overseas, deferred and the rest made up of second preferences.

However, we’re still overall expecting a drop in first year student numbers, and a further drop in years to come, as are many other universities across the UK, indeed they will be down by around 30,000 students across the country.

You may inquire if we’ve got the resources to support more students, why don’t we take them? Well because the UK department for Paranoia (aka the UKBA) has scared away many of the Tier 4 overseas students with their Daily Mail antics. Normally, we’d compensate by recruiting more UK or EU students. However, in order to come to our university the students have to be able to afford the fees. Those from wealthier background can rely on the Bank of Mum & Dad, but the majority have to get finance from the Student Loan Company.

The problem is that the SLC is essentially bankrupt. Nobody knows exactly how much they are on the hook for (they’re something of a Whitehall black box, some statistics on them here if you want a thrall), but with an expectation that 85% of all students will eventually have their debts fully or partially written off, its likely they represent a significant liability. If they were a private company they would be in the category of shoot-this-guy-&-burn-his-credit-cards-if-he-asks-for-credit sort of credit ratings ;D.

Consequently, rapidly depleting whatever cash they get from the government, they’ve made it harder for students to get loans. This in turn means we’ve had to start rationing the number of SLC financed students we allow into each department’s first year. And if we recruited more we’d be over that quota and thus unless they have alternative means of funding, we can’t take them, even if they’ve got the grades and even if we’ve got room on the course.

Inevitably a cut in students will mean a cut in staff. We’re being told that in our department there are no plans for layoffs, other “avenues” for finance are being pursued. Possibly by supporting more Tier 4 students overseas remotely, or doing more private sector teaching and research. But a pay freeze and a stop to any hiring (even of staff retiring or otherwise moving on) seems likely and I’d probably get a frosty reception if I asked for a couple of grand for some new lab kit |-|.

And we’re probably one of the better placed departments (like I said, we’ve been doing pretty well the last few years). But as I’ve highlighted before some universities have vastly overstretched their finances. This artificial squeeze in student numbers the government is implementing will almost certainly lead to some departments closing. Indeed I still reckon it’s just a matter of time before an entire UK university just goes bankrupt. And that doesn’t mean just a load of academics out of work, it would have a further knock on effect across the economy, a drop in tax revenue, drop off in local trade, collapse of house prices and the rental market near to the university, etc.

UKBA tactics backfire
Oddly enough its been hinted to me by conservatives that partially what’s been driving the crack down on Tier 4 students has been because they feel uni’s are recruiting too many at the expense of UK students. Now while I would agree (up to a point), but recruiting students from around the world has always been part of the university experience (right back to the days of Erasmus). And also, if the Tory’s want us to take on more UK students, then there’s the small matter of them paying for that, which they clearly don’t want to do. Universities have been leaning ever more heavily on the Tier 4 crutch to compensate for cuts in their funding (in real terms) by successive UK governments under Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron.

And the irony is, if this is the motivation for the government’s crack down on Tier 4 students its likely to have the opposite effect, as universities simply start recruiting students overseas (quite a number of UK universities have additional campuses overseas already) or maybe even move entire courses overseas, something which will essentially have the opposite effect the government intends! Indeed I happened to glance at a universities job advert website the other day and I noted several jobs being advertised which would appear to involve hiring staff to do this very thing!

Tory Elitism
And of course perhaps more insidiously it means that university education in the UK is increasingly becoming the domain of the wealthy in the UK. They can afford to pay fees and maintenance for their siblings and I’m guessing they’ll soon be uni’s somewhere sufficiently desperate to take any fool regardless of grades who can pay those fees (indeed without naming names, there’s already a couple of them!).

This to me highlights the reality of the Tory cuts. Public services that those on middle or lower income depend on get cut. Not because of “the deficit (actually thanks to the cuts the UK government’s debt levels have actually been increasing!) but for purely ideological reasons. Meanwhile UK society becomes ever more elitist as those who can afford it will still get good health care, university education, a pension and be looked after in old age, as for the rest of us….you fill in the blanks. Is this the sort of society we’re striving for?

University challenged, Part VI – Why students shouldn’t commit plagiarism

I mentioned in a previous posts on my University blog that the UK’s Universities are in the grip of a Plagiarism Epidemic). Statistics suggest nearly 17,000 attempts to cheat have been recorded by UK universities in a single year. Most worrying is the emergence of so called Essay Mills (online stores that sell generic courseworks) as well as so called “contract Cheating” (tailor written essay’s and courseworks that should in theory be very hard to spot).

However, I’m now going to explain to any student reading this (I know Google will spider the phrase “download thesis” or “buy essays” and some will end up here) why they are fooling themselves if they think using these services solves they’re problems.

(1) You’ll get caught eventually! – As I pointed out in my previous post, lecturers are getting quite coy at spotting plagiarism. We’re using increasingly sophisticated methods to detect it (notably “similarity Detection” software shared via a database with other universities worldwide) and while you might get away with it once or twice, sooner or later you’ll get tripped up.

Often thought, I find the easiest way of detecting plagiarism is to have some idea of student ability and writing style. Sometimes students must think were thick as a plank with the stuff they’ll submit (I remember one case where two students copied off someone, but the guy they’d chosen hadn’t a clue, I wrote in the margins a note suggesting that next time they were planning on cheating, find someone smarter to copy off! In another he submitted a word file which had a watermark with the ID of another student on it!).

If a student who was barely able to draw a straight line suddenly turns around and submits a piece of engineering drawing that would baffle Dyson, we’ll obviously that’s going to set off alarm bells and I’m going to dig a little further. Equally if I’m reading a text and the student’s dictation is terrible, only for him then to leap into perfect Oxford English, again, that’s suspicious.

While neither proves plagiarism, as a cop will tell you, figuring out who-dunnit is the hard part of detective work, finding the evidence to prove the case, is the easy part. If you downloaded something off the internet, a few google searches means, chances are, I can too. All sorts of online tools are also now available to help lecturers.

Furthermore we lecturers have a fool proof method of proving plagiarism – a Viva. This means we call you in, give you a pencil and paper and ask you to reproduce the work, or demonstrate that you know how to do it. Obviously if you can’t do it, we’ve got you bang to rights. Currently university rules restrict when and where we can implement a Viva but some lecturers are arguing we should slip a clause into every coursework giving us the right to Viva all coursework, even first year stuff.

Sooner or later I suspect this will become the norm and if you’ve gotten used to just downloading you’re courseworks you’ll either get caught or find yourself out of your depth with the sudden acceleration in work load.

And on the point of getting caught, there’s the snitch factor. This isn’t kindergarden and thus the rules of the playground no longer apply. Its quite probable that another student will rat you out, as after all its hardly fair on them to put in all the work and let someone else get by without doing any work. Some universities are promoting an honour system among students as an affront against plagiarism (which means students who engage in it had best keep that too themselves).

(2) the penalties are getting severe! – And the penalties for getting caught are getting quite harsh. Generally you’re at the very least going to fail one or more modules. Academic suspension is another punishment and having to repeat an entire year yet another. Serious or repeated acts of plagiarism will get you thrown out altogether. Obviously if that happens all the time you’ve invested in university will be for nothing. And getting accepted by another institution will be difficult.

(3) You won’t learn anything – The point of us issuing courseworks isn’t just to assess students but to promote the whole learning experience. Courseworks are also often tailored around the sort of projects you’ll get in the real world of work. Obviously if you cheat, then you’ll learn nothing, will struggle in the final exam (most likely fail it) and if you manage to get a job, you’ll be unable to do it as you’ve not got the experience.

(4) You’re marks will suffer – Even if you get away with plagiarism chances are you’ll be getting average marks or a scrappy pass. This applies particularly too these online essay mills. On the website they will have you believe that the individuals writing for you will be retired professors and other experts. However, in reality, 9 times out of 10 its another overworked poor student (possibly a world away in China or India) doing a few extra course works to pay the bills. Inevitably however he will prioritize his coursework over yours. Indeed in likelihood he’ll slap something together at the last minute. Jonathan Bailey discusses as much in a recent post on his site. Dan Ariely of Duke University reveals a host of howlers that have crossed his desk.

A couple of these “made to order courseworks” which I’ve caught in the last few years stuck out like a sore thumb. They were substandard (at best a narrow pass) and clearly written by someone from a different university (again by trying to fool a lecturer you’re trying to fool someone who knows the topic back to front). As lecturer’s you should remember, that we’ve a pretty good idea of what the end result of courseworks should look like. And the key to getting good grades is that we are looking for is evidence that you’ve attended lectures, read all the texts on you’re reading list and generally learnt something. If I spend an hour talking about Carbon fibre’s in a lecture months before and you submit a coursework which specifies Titanium, assuming I don’t tweak straight away that its plagiarism, I’ll probably award a lower mark, as I’ll see no evidence that you’ve studied the course material.

And of course you won’t have a leg to stand on in terms of challenging this mark. After all, the last thing you want is to give me the excuse for an impromptu viva, as the first question out of my mouth will be “why did you specify Titanium”. If I get lots of “um’s” and “ah’s” then the next question will be “what’s the Young’s modulus of Titanium” (if you’d actually written the coursework that would be on the tip of your tongue). Next I’d start pulling specific passages out of the coursework and saying words of doom “explain to me, in you’re own words, what this means” Pretty soon, I’m reaching for the phone to report another case.

Many of these essay mills will claim “guaranteed B’s or A’s”. I seriously doubt that. Even if you get lucky and we don’t tweak that its plagiarism, you’ll be lucky to scrap a pass and maybe the odd C. Indeed in my experience, on a number of occasions where students have been confronted as to the fact their work was plagiarism, I’ve heard reports of them admitting to have bought it. Largely I suspect because they were so incensed at the fact that they’d paid hundreds of pounds for something that, even if we’d not smelt a rat, would still have failed (nevermind the A they were promised).

I came across a blog a while ago, where a number of students were complaining bitterly about how they had submitted plagiarized work from essay mills, only for it to get bare C’s or D’s or fails. They were talking about asking for a refund….fat chance! That’s equivalent to someone who bought a dodgy knocked off watch from some back alley spiv going back to him for a refund when he realises the stolen Rolex is actually a fake.

(5) You won’t get a reference – I think students forget what the bottom line is. The point of going to university is indeed to earn a degree, but its not a simple case of taking you’re degree into an interview and waving it at the panel and expecting to be immediately given a job. Even to get an interview you’ll need to be short-listed and that will generally require you to have an academic reference (that is one of us the lecturing staff who’ll vouch for you).

As a junior member of staff I don’t get asked for references very often, but when I do I’ll only grant them to people I know (i.e. people who have turned up for class and applied themselves) as otherwise I don’t know you (other than having seen you’re name on a class list with lots of “absent” marks next to it). In essence you’re a stranger to me, and if a random stranger off the street asked me for a reference, I’d say no.

And indeed if you’re the sort of student whose been living fast and loose plagiarising courseworks any reference I would give isn’t the sort you’d be showing to an employer:

“Despite three year’s of being on my technical drawing course I never really knew Joey. However I got to know him well during his appearance at the academic practice committee during that plagiarism case, where I must admit he argued his case quite forcefully and we only failed him in one module as a result”

(6) You won’t get past an interview – It is also worth remembering that employers aren’t stupid. They are well aware of the problem of plagiarism and that some uni’s, even those with good reputations, are now churning out the odd bad apple with questionable skills. Thus they have developed their own techniques for weeding out the strays. Obviously not having an academic reference and low marks will automatically set off alarm bells and the chances of you being short listed for interview are slim.

One method for detecting those who cruised through uni without learning anything, is to give applicants a technical interview before the main interview. This will consist of a panel of experts in a particular field (generally the field you hope to be working in) asking you a long series of quick fire and probing technical questions (think “what is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow” sort of stuff which goes on for 30-45 minutes). I’ve been through one of these myself and as I was caught unawares by it (long train journey and a headache to boot). I don’t think I did very well, and I never committed plagiarism in uni.

Obviously if I can screw up any student whose plagiarised his way to a degree hasn’t got a chance. In all probability they’ll flunk it, the panel will mumble some excuses about being in touch (they won’t!), escort you out of the room and start howling with laughter as soon as you’re down the hall.

A degree not worth the paper its printed on

So even if a student by some miracle skips through university by plagiarism, chances are he’ll find that the degree he’s essentially got to the trouble of buying at great expense, won’t be worth the paper its printed on. His grades will be poor, he’ll have no academic reference, won’t be able to get an interview let alone a job. And would find that job too difficult to hold down if he gets one (again one of the point of courseworks is to get used to the pressure of work on assignments and multi-tasking with project deadlines before you hit the real world of work).

In essence the student who cheats will have wasted several years of his time, a pile of cash and gained very little in the process. As Richard Nordquist points out in his article Three Good Reasons Not to Buy an Online Essay don’t fool yourself. Yes a degree is a lot of hard work, but its all the more satisfying when its over, knowing you’ve earned it. And the point of that hard work is to build up a portfolio of experience that can be used as the foundation of your future career. If a degree was merely some product that you could purchase we’d be selling them in vending machines out front!

London Met University stripped of its license

A bolt from the blue struck today with the UKBA stripping the London Metropolitan University of its license to sponsor the visa’s of non-EU (so called in the trade “tier 4” students). As a consequence 2,700 of the met’s Tier 4 students are not left high and dry, with their visa’s essentially cancelled they have 60 days to find a new university, or risk being deported. There’s a good Q&A about the situation from “The Guardian’s” education website, should you be affected by this.

As I described in a previous post, since the early days of the Tory government the UKBA has adopted a Daily Mail-esque paranoia about “foreigners” (try not to scream at the mention of that word!), including university students.

Universities across the country have been put under huge pressure from the UKBA, who want us to jump through multiple hoops to keep track of overseas students. I’ve had to give up at least half a day a week over the summer (sometimes an entire day) to filling in forms as part of this. And even this schedule is mild compared to what I’m being told we’ll have to adopt next term, in which we’ll have to have face to face contact with every tier 4 student on a daily basis. Now for the undergrads doing classes during term time that’s not a problem, but for the postgrads or outside of normal term time, or on the days when students don’t have classes (some students may have days with no lectures scheduled) or when some get ill (or like so many students decide to bunk off class!) this would place a huge burden on us. Indeed I calculated that assuming a 40 hour week per lecturer, such a programme would require the department to hire 3-5 new members of staff, just to cope with the time taken up by such face to face meetings.

It is therefore with incredulity that I hear the Head of the UKBA trying to encourage students from overseas to come to the UK ….hint, how about you stop treating foreign students like their criminals and ditch the red tape!

Okay, yes we need some checks, some people do sneak into the UK on student visas, and then don’t ultimately study. But they also usually don’t bother to pay tuition fees, nor do they show up when we ask them to come to a meeting (rendering the UKBA’s policies bunk). Also given that the bulk of UK tier 4 students are paying an average of £12,000 a year to be over here (in fees, accommodation and living costs can add up it all up to £25,000 a year) I doubt it works out as cost effective for them to come here just to flip burgers in a Mac Donald’s. Indeed given that the post-grads usually have degrees already, I suspect they could get a much better paid job at home, or indeed apply for a professional job in the UK and get their employer to sponsor their visa.

And while yes it seems the LMU did screw up royal and a some students in the uni were not bonafide students, but what about the majority who were? This counts as a form of “collective punishment” on them all, which cuts right across any notion for fair play and due process, and is often considered as a breach of human rights.

Also it hardly help matters if the Tory’s sack UK border staff and then expect us lecturers to do their dirty work! I suspect its also hardly cost effective to get the likes of me to do a load of form filling when I could be doing something else (lecturing? research? solving climate change? minor things like that!).

Chilling effect

But it is the arbitrary nature of this stripping of a license without warning that I think will do the most damage. Consider that some students who have been here for maybe a year or two are now sixty days away from having too flush tens of thousands of pounds down the toilet. Put yourself in the shoes of a student from India (read the reaction of the Indian media here) or Brazil (read one such students story here) planning to come to he UK to start first year in a few weeks time, would you come here with this threat hanging over you?

Finding a place in another UK course, for these LMU students, won’t be easy. Clearing is winding down and while due the cock up of exams earlier in the year means there will be slots free in a couple of first year courses, there will still be few if any places available in many universities courses. Transferring to years above the freshers year is always problematic as generally we’ve only as much room as students who dropped out (or failed) the previous year, and while the failure/drop out rate for the end of first year is often high (as much as 50% in some courses) it usually much lower for 2nd year and beyond (around 10% for my department, and we usually bank on the assumption of a smaller third year, so that leaves only a handful of potential places).

Even those who are lucky enough to find another UK university (to sponsor their visa) will face another hurdle. There are often subtle differences between the courses in different universities, even if you’re studying an identical course. A number of these London Met students might find that upon moving they have to repeat a year or semester (thus having to pay fees and living expenses for a further year than planned), just to catch up (if the UKBA had made this announcement at the beginning of summer mind, we could have improvised a solution and organised a “crash” catchup course over the summer, but there’s no way that can be organised in the month to the beginning of term).

Inevitably these students will be texting their friends back home warning them against coming to the UK to study. This will have significant impact on the finances of UK universities. While overseas students make up 11% of the UK student population, they represent 32% of the UK’s universities income stream. They bring an estimated £5 billion into the UK each year. Already even before this announcement overseas student numbers were already down (likely as a result of all the hassle we’ve been forced by the UKBA to enforce on students), costing the UK economy an estimated £940 million, so the economic impact of these events and the chilling effect its likely to have on students should not be underestimated.

British uni’s for British students?

Of course some will probably say, good show! We shouldn’t have all these foreigners over here, UK uni’s should be for the benefit of UK students.

While admittedly I, and I suspect many lecturer’s, have never been entirely happy with the volume of tier 4 students being recruited, unfortunately we are all too aware of why universities have been aggressively chasing the overseas student market for the last few decades. And its largely a natural consequences of the policy started under John Major’s Tory’s but continued under Blair and now Cameron of what I can only describe as a defacto privatisation of UK universities.

Under this policy the UK’s universities have been encouraged to become ever more commercially orientated, both in terms of us charging fees, chasing private capital to pay for research and facilities, as well as how we treat students (as customers more than students). Obviously in such a climate, its inevitable that universities will chase the “customer” whom they can get the highest markup (and thus profit) from, that being these overseas students, who now represent a crucial source of revenue. Its why the car industry prioritizes the sale of SUV’s and luxury cars, even at a time of global recession with climate change and peak oil high on the agenda (again like the universities they can make far more money from the sale of these cars that they can by selling lots of cheap fuel efficient vehicles).

And the higher rates of fees now since approved can only feed this business model all the more. So indeed if we do want a system of UK uni’s for UK citizens, then the government needs to be willing to roll back its previous policies and stump up the cash to pay for that and abolish tuition fees.

Furthermore “academic tourism” has been a part of Universities life since the days of Luther and Erasmus. This is how new ideas travel from institution to institution worldwide. How would the UK react if Indian or American universities (its often forgotten by the Daily mail mob that the second largest source of foreign no-EU students in the UK (after China) is from the US-of-A!) suddenly announced they were forbidding UK students from applying any more? Getting drunk in a uni bar with people from the four corners of the globe is sort of one of the whole reasons behind going to university in the first place!

Bottom feeders

Of course I cannot escape the conclusion that the behaviour of the UKBA is no cock up (not even the Tory’s are this stupid!), but perfectly planned. In much the same way as the UK universities have been going for the “low hanging fruit” of foreign students, the UKBA have been deliberately trying to antagonise both universities and foreign students in the hope of pushing down student numbers, thus pushing down the figure for net inward migration helping them to meet their Daily-Mail inspired “shut-the-border-before-the-evil-dark-skinned-foreigners-eat-our-babies” targets.

Of course it is lost on the UKBA the fact that the vast bulk of these students are perfectly innocent of any charges, nor that the vast majority are only here to study and that they contribute massively to the economy and UK society while doing so (a couple of my students told me they volunteered to help out with the Olympics, hardly sounds like to mm like the sort of people we should be deporting!).

But like so many Tory policies, its another case of SAPS (Save Ass Policy Scheme) that cause enormous damage, just so some pencil pusher can get his numbers to add up….of course, I’m not suggested that they’re aren’t people in the country who shouldn’t be here. But you’d think the first port of call for the UKBA would be to round up a few Yardie gang members or indeed the many gangs who ship immigrants into the country illegally and have them work for below minimum wage as virtual slaves (or saudi business men who help fund Al-Queda), but jasus no! Am I crazy! those guys have gun’s (and good lawyers!) don’t you know, while the students have….textbooks!

What happens when a uni goes bankrupt

And the financial costs of this action are already being counted. Its been estimated that LMU could be looking at having to pay tens of millions in compensation to these overseas students for the cancellation of their course, and I suspect that this is on the low side, as this figure only includes the cost of refunding fees. I would argue that these students are fully entitled to claim reimbursement for the costs of maintenance and other spending while in the UK – which would push this figure up to tens of thousands per student. Its for good reason I’m working on an future article titled “what happens when a uni goes bankrupt” as I suspect that we may have to answer that question sooner rather than later.

These events have all the potential to be the UK Higher Education industry’s “Lehman brothers moment”. As like Lehman brothers, everyone will now be looking as to which university is next, staff will be looking over their shoulder and students from overseas (those few who come) will be very picky about whom they choose to invest their time with and universities that overstretched their finances (by building new facilities on the assumption of rising student numbers and revenues from fees) will suddenly find themselves struggling financially as student numbers (home and overseas) start to fall.

I suspect its going to be a case of “interesting times” this semester.

University Challenged

As you all know the government jacked up tuition fees sometime ago. The upper limit was set at £9,000, but don’t panic they told us, only a few university’s will charge such high rates and then only in a few years time and probably only for things like medicine, etc.

Fast forward to today and it seems numerous universities are planning to start charging the full monty ASAP. And while we had previously been assured that these £9-6,000 scale fees would be confined to a few courses in Russell group uni’s (where most of us mere mortals have little chance of attending as we didn’t go to Eton and Daddy doesn’t play golf with the Dean) now even university’s outside the Russell group are charging 9 grand a pop. You may ask why? and the answer is obvious, so obvious in fact that if you meet any ministers soon I’d recommend you check they’re pulse to make sure they’re not (brain) dead.

It’s about creditability. If Oxford charges £9,000 for engineering, well obviously Cambridge has to do the same, as will Exeter or anyone else who reckons they’re engineering course is as good as Oxford. If, say, Exeter only charges £6,000 for the same course, well everyone will assume that those charging £9,000 must be offering a much better course, consequently Exeter’s student numbers would actually fall in this scenario rather than go up. Market economics doesn’t work in these situations! Give a footballer a choice between a £200,000 car and a $500,000 one (with a wing mirror falling off) and he’ll take the more expensive one, as obviously it must be better. Give me (a climber) a choice between a carabiner costing £23 and one costing £9.99, I’ll probably go for the more expensive one as I don’t want to be contemplating how they made it cheaper while dangling off it over a cliff.

And there’s also a matter of keeping the riff-raff out. Its been point out (see link below) that for example Harvard university could easily afford due to its huge endowment fund, to allow its undergrads to study free of charge – yet instead it charges some of the highest fees in the world for study. Why? Well obviously because we can’t have ordinary folk walking the hallowed halls (then getting those top jobs, I mean good grief a commoner running a major US company, oh! the horror!).
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_university#Endowment
While the UK Russell groups universities aren’t quite so well endowed (Wahoo! :>>), they aren’t far off it and could easily afford to fund themselves with much lower tuition fees, but again we can’t have members of the great unwashed wandering around the Radcliffe.

Then, there’s pure greed to consider. If the universities can charge £9,000 well that’s a lot more lolly to managements pay packets, so of course they’re going to take the money and run. A lot of people seem to think that universities are still run by crusty old, slightly dotty, learned academics types, a sort of modern day Dumbledore – the reality is most uni’s these days have a pretty face as a Dean, some minor celebrity usually, whose sole purpose is to make a nice photo for the Prospectus cover. The day-to-day decisions at universities are now usually taken by some Gordon Gecko style corporate types who are about as committed to education as a office psycho is to veganism. They’re only goal in the job to milk the post for every penny they can, balance the books/make money, increase market share, or make at least make it look that way…course they may well have screwed the uni over to the verge of collapse (as nearly happened with caley a few years ago!). These managers can then justify a ridiculously high salary and an opulent executive compensation package when they move on to they’re next victim…sorry job!

So for the government to have expected the university’s to voluntarily hold back from applying these high fees, after they introduced legislation allowing it, and at a time when they’ve been cutting funding to the universities, it means that they are either A. naive or B. stupid or C. back to they’re old nasty, Tory-selves.