Foreign students fuel decade-long growth in numbers

By Kim Heinz

Weekly education round-up

By Kim Heinz

According to the Times, the number of students at universities in the UK has gone up by almost a third in the last 10 years, with those coming from outside the European Union more than doubling.

The Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education study from Universities UK, which looks at changes in key indicators for the sector since 2000-01, shows that there are now around 2.5 million students studying annually.

More than 400,000 now come from outside the UK, with the number from a non-EU country increasing 11.7 per cent in the past year.

China continues to provide the highest numbers of international students taking first degrees, postgraduate research and other undergraduate courses while India is the biggest source for those taking postgraduate taught courses.

Overall, the increase in students taking postgraduate courses full time has been much bigger (73.1 per cent) than the rise in full-time undergraduates (28.5 per cent), thanks in part to the increases in non-UK students, who tend to study at postgraduate level.

Meanwhile, female students continue to remain in the majority, accounting for 56.6 per cent of the total student population in 2009-10. This pattern is repeated across all levels and modes of study other than full-time postgraduate provision.

The report also highlights significant changes in the relative popularity of different subject areas, with large increases in those studying clinical and biological sciences, mathematics, physical sciences, and architecture, building and planning.

In terms of graduate employment, 80 per cent of universities show between 86 per cent and 94 per cent of their students as having a job after six months.

However, the report says that “the impact of the recession is evident”, with small declines in the proportion employed over the last year.

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Patterns and trends in higher education study

Some universities to drop fees to under £7,500

More than one-fifth of universities and colleges in England are considering reducing their tuition fees for next autumn to an average of under £7,500, according to a watchdog.

Hundreds of thousands of students are currently in the process of applying to start university in 2012, and the news means some will be doing so without a clear idea of the fees proposed by their chosen institutions.

Universities have been reconsidering their sums after the government gave them incentives to charge less than £7,500 shortly after the watchdog made its announcement.

In a white paper this summer ministers told universities they could bid for a share of 20,000 full-time undergraduate places next year if they charged less than £7,500. The business secretary, Vince Cable, has said the figure of 20,000 will increase in the future.

The white paper was published after universities decided on their fees for next year.

Now institutions that intend to change their fees must resubmit their plans to the watchdog by 4 November. It has said it will re-approve them by 30 November.

An Office for Fair Access (Offa) spokeswoman said students had already started to apply for university courses for autumn 2012, and admitted applicants applying to universities now could find the access agreements would change later.

Offa said universities and colleges that changed their fees and access plans would have to contact all students who had already applied to let them know of the changes.

They must also give students who have applied for courses such as medicine and dentistry, which have an early deadline, the choice of staying with the financial package that was on offer when they applied or switching to the revised deal.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England, which distributes funds to universities and colleges on behalf of the government, confirmed earlier this week that 20,000 undergraduate places would be removed from universities for next year.

Universities will be able to bid for these places only if they are charging net fees of less than £7,500.

Toni Pearce, the NUS vice-president, said: “Tens of thousands of applicants now face an anxious wait at an already stressful time.

“Students looking to assess and compare what support will be available to them will be facing weeks of uncertainty and many will find that vital bursaries have been replaced with tokenistic fee waivers.”

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Emphasising financial value of degrees ‘threatens arts and humanities’

Cambridge vice-chancellor warns ‘purer disciplines’ may lose out to vocational courses which directly translate into salary benefits, as seen in the Guardian.

The increasing emphasis being placed on the financial value of a degree threatens the future of arts and humanities research, according to the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University.

The “purer disciplines” are in danger of losing out to more vocational courses which directly translate into salary benefits, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz warned.

In an interview with the Guardian, the vice-chancellor said: “I have an anxiety in the longer term for the health of the disciplines. This doesn’t come at undergraduate level, but is what follows on from a postgraduate level. If you monetise the value of a degree, will you undertake an MPhil in medievil French poetry?

“You might undertake a law course which extends [your knowledge of] libel or whatever – because actually there’s direct value in that postgraduate education which will translate into your career.

“But will some of the purer disciplines that do so much to enrich – will they still be as attractive to students?”

Borysiewicz said he was concerned that the country risked losing “a cadre of potential researchers” in the arts.

The vice-chancellor, who is making a speech on the arts at the university’s Festival of Ideas on Thursday, also called for closer collaboration between the arts and sciences.

The vice-chancellor, who studied medicine and is a former head of the Medical Research Council, said that the arts provided a distinctive way of engaging with problems.

“We talk about the science method. Actually there’s a method in learning a language which is quite distinctive, and taking that away, that generic skill is huge. The way historians consider evidence, or the balance of evidence, or an archaeologist will consider evidence, is quite distinctive. For the broad-based university we must have all of those areas if we’re going to address some of the global challenges.”

The arts and humanities also enrich people’s lives, he said. “Medical science can make us live to 90. If you haven’t got the arts and humanities what’s the point of living until 90?”

The vice-chancellor said there was no evidence that the arts and humanities would be “disproportionately affected” by the slashing of the direct teaching grant from government.

The coalition’s proposed reforms to higher education will see the teaching grant declining while the proportion of income from tuition fees increases. The surviving teaching grant will be allocated to more expensive subjects such medicine, science and engineering.

He warned of the risk that students at undergraduate level would be deterred from the arts by higher fees: “People start asking what’s the monetary value of a degree in English here? Will a prospective student, particularly from a poorer background, think that the case is strong enough?”

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Students nominate best lecturers

A new scheme offers the antidote to nasty online ratings: a chance for students to praise their lecturers, as seen in the Guardian.

“I wouldn’t say she’s the worst professor I’ve ever had, just not terribly inspiring,” writes one student on RateMyProfessors.com’s UK website. Others describe various individual lecturers as: “patronising and not very bright”, “nice person, but worthless teacher”, “supremely egotistical”, “mad as a box of badgers”, and simply “awful, awful man”.

Never before have students had such opportunities to let off steam when they feel their university teaching has failed to come up to scratch, and never before have lecturers been so publicly at their mercy.

RateMyProfessors, used in the US for the last 12 years, started soliciting comments from UK students five years ago and covers well over 1,000 UK lecturers, rating them for easiness, helpfulness, clarity, interest, and whether or not they are “hot”.

Then there is the National Student Survey, which for the last seven years has asked final-year students to rate qualities such as teaching, feedback and organisation on their course.

This year’s annual report from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, set up in 2004 to handle student complaints, showed that these had risen by a third in the last year, and predicted that they were likely to rise even more sharply following next year’s increase in tuition fees.

The government’s white paper, “Students at the Heart of the System”, also seems to envisage students speaking out if they are unhappy with their learning. In a Guardian online chat last week, the universities minister, David Willetts, urged students to raise concerns about practical aspects such as getting work back and contact time.

He predicted: “Our finance changes will strengthen the student voice on these issues.”

But this Thursday sees the launch of a project that takes a more positive approach to student involvement.

The Student-Led Teaching Awards, organised jointly by the Higher Education Academy and National Union of Students, is an award scheme run entirely by students, based on a Scottish pilot. When the pilot began two years ago, eight institutions were involved. Last year, this had grown to 13, with students making more than 11,000 nominations.

Individual student unions decide on different criteria for assessing their lecturers – from “most organised module” to “best 21st-century teaching”. They then encourage students to nominate teachers, and to explain exactly why they think the teacher they have picked is so good.

A student committee assesses the nominations, noting not only the number an individual lecturer receives, but also their quality, and there is an annual “Oscars” award ceremony.

Elizabeth Bomberg, a senior lecturer in politics, who won Edinburgh University Student Association’s first Overall High Performer Award in 2009, says: “Students like feedback, but so do staff. To receive that constructive feedback – there’s nothing to match that in terms of encouraging good teaching. I was thrilled.”

She says it has made herself and her colleagues more aware of the criteria for which her award was made – enthusiasm, feedback and the ability to prompt questions and critical thinking. “Sometimes in the rush to deliver our teaching and get work done we forget that it’s really about interaction with students,” she says.

The NUS and HEA are offering grants of £1,500 to help up to 20 other student unions in higher and further education colleges across the UK to set up their own schemes, and want to bring together those with existing schemes to share ideas.

They are also publishing a report on what effect the scheme has had on universities. It has made clear that students particularly appreciate good feedback, going the extra mile, and innovative use of technology in their teachers. But the report’s author, Alastair Robertson, says the scheme has also had unexpected benefits, strengthening a sense of community on campus, empowering students and making them reflect on their learning.

Both students and staff insist that it is not a popularity contest and often staff who most challenge their students receive most nominations. And in tough economic times it is a way of giving academics the kind of boost anyone would get from a heartfelt nomination such as this: “Through her genuine care for her students and passion for the subject, she has inspired many … In her classroom we are academics, not students. Her support in identifying the help I need has made the difference between me dropping out and staying on.”
Rate my professor

The student survey

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