Friday, 30 March 2007

NUS Annual Conference 2007

This was the first NUS Annual Conference that I'd been to and it's also my last. It was a unique experience filled with controversy, bureaucracy, power struggles between factions, humour and the occasional person talking sense.

This is what one delegate had to say about the event in their blog:

"The OIs and the NOLSies claimed that demonstrations don't work with Wes Streeting proposing we fight neo-liberalisation by writing letters, dressing up and being more 'creative!' Well I'm not sure if was street theatre or messages written on f*****g origami that won black people or women the right to vote. Of course we need to be creative as a means of getting people involved. But only national direct action involving tens of thousands of students with the support of British workers (which we have) can win on fees."

For those who don't speak fluent NUS, OI is 'Organised Independent' and NOLS is 'National Organisation of Labour Students'. OIs tend to be Labour supporters, but they don't actually say that. Any true independent is organised if they are running a campaign for election at a massive conference - so why do you need to attach the word 'organised' to the term?

NUS has repeatedly claimed that demonstrations are a last resort. They may be a way of showing the strength of feeling on a particular issue, but if you have too many of them they will lose their effectiveness. Continually having them will make people wonder whether the message will ever get through. You need to have a variety of ways of getting a message across to improve your chances of getting the result you want. I think the delegate's interpretation of the term 'creative' is wrong. It doesn't necessarily mean "theatre or messages written on f*****g origami". It means to think up fresh ideas. These new ideas then need to be thought through properly, instead of being totally reactionary. If you are reactionary then you risk failure.

The same delegate also had this to say:

"NUS refused to fight for a free and fully funded education system and instead voted to hit minority students hard by maintaining its policy of supporting ineffective and humiliating means tested grants."

Similar opinions were expressed in this delgate's blog. Everybody has a right to their own opinion, but I have to disagree on both points. Firstly, a free education system won't work. It might have in the past, but more people attend university now, facilities have increased and research is even more diverse. If you want to maintain a high standard of education the funding has to be there, so money has to be paid. However, I think we should still campaign using the 'Keep the Cap slogan'. Lifting it would mean more money going to universities, but they would become much less accessible to many people. The ideas of 'free education' and 'Keep the Cap' seem to have been merged at some point, which causes confusion. This needs to be cleared up and thankfully, after talking to Wes Streeting (NUS's VP Education) about it, he says this is going to be one of things he will do. I hope he does actually do that, or I will be both disappointed and angry. Yes, politicians can lie - but not getting a clearer definition will mean serious problems with the campaign.

Secondly, the idea of universal grants will not work - I must have said this a million times. Yes, students who need money will get it, but it also means that the richer students who don't need the money will get it aswell. That money could be redistributed to more worthwhile areas, but in that situation it would be wasted. Means testing means that only the people who need the money will get it. All that is needed is reform of the means testing system to make it better for students, not a complete change.

Other education issues that were discussed were plagiarism, degree classifications and the admissions system. On the subject of the Post-Qualification Applications system, Wes Streeting said this:

"Naturally these areas are vital to students. Post qualification assessment determines a less hectic and arbitrary entry process, while reform of degree classification has the power to influence future graduates’ job prospects."

I agree with him - PQA will work. It will be a more accurate representation of a student's abilities. The current system of using predicted grades is totally inaccurate as all it takes for a grade to change is a poor performance in an exam.

This issue of degree classifications was interesting. The motion that debated stated that the current setup doesn't help employees. It also stated that the pass/fail model wouldn't help either, but it didn't actually state a solution to the problem. I don't think there is a problem with the current degree classifications though. It separates students and if any further separation to determine quality is needed, you have things called job interviews, CVs and application forms. What's wrong with that?

With plagiarism, it is definitely important that it's detected to ensure fairness. However, the proposed use of software such as Turnitin won't work. It might mean the detection process is faster but it all depends on the work that is available in the database. If the right work isn't in there when e.g. an essay is checked, then plagiarism goes undetected. You might be able to add more and more work to the database, but there will always be some that doesn't go in there. Also, it doesn't address the issue of making sure every student knows exactly what the definition of plagiarism is. It gets more difficult when there are international students coming from areas where there are different definitions.

There was also a huge debate over anti-semitism/racism, as highlighted in this Guardian Unlimited article. One of the points discussed was whether the NUS should adopt the EUMC's definition of racism, which is:

"Racism shall mean the belief that a ground such as race, colour, language, religion, nationality or national or ethnic origin justifies contempt for a person or a group of persons, or the notion of superiority of a person or a group of persons."

Racism is something which I absolutely detest. It has been responsible for the deaths and torment of many innocent people throughout our history and I welcome the fact that a definition will be adopted because then you have a starting point which helps with creating strategies for campaigns. Sam Lebens, a member of the NEC made an impassioned speech as part of the debate and he explained he would like to see the faces of those with racist views, instead of them hiding behind secret ballots. Some saw that as intimidation. I didn't see it that way though. He was merely angry at people who are cowardly and who don't choose to express and defend their viewpoints.

Apart from the impassioned debates, there were also elections. Gemma Tumelty (President), Stephen Brown (National Secretary) and Wes Streeting (VP Education) all got re-elected with big majorities, meaning that there will be consistency on the exec. There will also be some new faces providing new ideas and viewpoints.

Ama Uzowuru was elected as VP Welfare with a big majority. I was going to vote for Richard Angell. He had a big campaign and some good ideas. However, Ama also had good ideas, the support of many of the NEC which will ensure harmony next year and she also had a far better election speech - the speech being the thing that changed my mind about who to vote for.

Dave Lewis was narrowly elected as the new Treasurer ahead of Sam Rozati. I voted for Sam though because he has three years experience on the Finance Committee whereas Dave only has one year's experience as NUSSL chair. Sam also made more points about finance in his speech, making it more relevant to the role.

Beth Walker was elected as the new VP FE. Beth will take over from Ellie Russell, who has done a fantastic job and is a great NEC member.

There was also the Block of 12 elections. I feel their will be a strong block next year. As well as that, there were the elections for Steering Committee, Finance Committee and Rules Revision Committee. RRC had the funniest election speeches. One speech was a rap, another featured the tearing up of the NUS Constitution and the third was just full of jokes and one-liners.

Finally, a few points about reform. Conference is incredibly bureaucratic with too many rounds of speeches, procedural motions, parts and votes. The training for first time delegates was very poor and needs to include more details about protocol when debating motions and amendments. National Council is a waster of time and money as it costs £50k a year for three meetings. They could use that money to afford a full-time International Officer and Mature Students Officer (two things that were wanted by many, but the relevant motions got pushed off the agenda). Also, the number of delegates is an issue. NUS try to get unions to either affiliate or re-affiliate, but that will eventually mean there is not enough space in the Conference hall! There also needs to be more involvement from the FE sector - I hope that is addressed next year.

So, what do other people think about NUS Conference and my views on it?

Technorati tags: NUS, NUS Annual Conference, Student Politics

Sunday, 18 March 2007

New info for universities

Getting a degree is an challenging academic experience. To make sure that you can meet the standards, you must be able to reach certain academic targets. If you don't meet them, then you don't get into university - it should be as simple as that. Well, that's the theoretical view - problems with money can get in the way, but most cases where students do get are related to previous academic or professional achievement.

However, to get into universities in 2008, there will be an extra hurdle to go over:

"The admissions service, UCAS, also says its form for 2008 entry will ask applicants about their ethnicity and whether they have been in council care."

In the same BBC News article, it mentions that "vice-chancellors and ministers believe it helps widen participation". The president of Universities UK - a group comprising of university vice-chancellors says:

"All Universities UK members place a high priority on widening participation. It is therefore useful for a university to have at its disposal a wide range of information to build up a full and rounded view of an applicant. It allows institutions to understand more about how the applicant got to where they are, and their potential."

Why should a potential student's non-academic background have a bearing on admissions though? You shouldn't be given an unfair advantage if you're poorer than someone else - that's a form of discrimination. Jonathan Shepard, of the Independent Schools Council thinks the same way:

"...this information is of no relevance to admissions tutors - who are looking at candidates, not at parents - and should not be disclosed to universities..."

Wes Streeting, the Vice-President (Education) for the National Union of Students believes that it is a "knee-jerk reaction" to call this "social engineering" and "positive discrimination". Mike Baker, education correspondent for BBC News believes that statements made by the media are hyperbole. In this article, he creates a scenario where a student is picked solely because they are an ethnic minority and the parents left education at 16.

The scenario is unrealistic - even I agree with that. However, there is the possibility that there could be two students of equal academic merit and one place remaining on a course. If that were the case, one could get in ahead of another because they have high acadmeic standards and their parents left education at 16. That is more believable and worrying. Is it right that the decision should be made like that? I don't think so.

Trust is an issue here and in most cases, the scenario I illustrated above might not happen. However, if the possibility is there it could happen somewhere.

There are some universities who believe this is a bad thing though. 8 of the 20 Russell Group members questioned or condemned the moves (Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Imperial College London, Nottingham and University College London). In this Daily Telegraph article, the following is mentioned:

"Imperial College, London, said it ran a number of activities to help persuade pupils to go on to study science, technology and medicine.

"However, academic merit must be the main criterion," said a spokesman"

I think it's bad and so do other people, including some heavyweights in the education sector. However, some people thinks it will help the widening participation initiative and the opinions expressed by some sections of the media are hyperbole. What do you think?

Sunday, 11 March 2007

The concept of a 'Catchment Area'

According to Wikipedia, a catchment area is:

"In human geography: a catchment area is the area and population from which a city or individual service attracts visitors or customers. For example, a school catchment area is the geographic area from which students are eligible to attend a local school."

This is something that people have known for several years in Britain. It's a simple form of management. Without it, you risk too many people wanting to go to the same school and there being a strain placed on resources. You also get lack of funding and unemployment in those institutions that are less popular.

If population density changes, all you have to do is change the catchment areas. Then you avoid too many people going to the same place and (like the previous scenario) putting a strain on resources.

Now for the 'new' system - a lottery. The first place to do it is Brighton. According to BBC News:

"The main factor will be postcode-based catchment areas, but where schools are over-subscribed a lottery will be used.

Elsewhere, some individual schools have allocated a number of places this way, acting independently of their councils."

The first part of that will make you think that not much has changed. However, the second part is the most controversial. It could potentially mean that the distance been home and school is several miles. It'll be riskier for some children if they're walking by themselves and if the parents drive their children to school, transportation costs go up and there would be problems if the parents have to go straight to work afterwards.

"But other parents believe the new system will prove fairer and will stop popular schools becoming the preserve of a privileged minority who can afford to buy houses nearby."

This is an interesting point - also from the BBC News article mentioned earlier, mainly because it has some logic despite being wrong. The lottery aspect will make things closer to random, but the postcode part still means the privileged could make their way into certain schools. The under-privileged could then still be forced into going to the schools that are further away.

There is only one good way of stopping all the so-called 'privileged' families going to one school - make all schools the same high standard. The lottery concept would then be pointless and you could use the catchment area system to manage the numbers going to each school.

You should not need to create a shortlist of schools. If investment at this level of education was good enough and appropriately distributed, the local school should be the best one for you.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: School, Catchment Area, Lottery

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Personal Development Planning

PDP is a concept that was development to aid a student's career progression by recording activities and seeing what needs to be improved. Theoretically you'd end up with a progress file that you could show to your potential employers alongside your CV and/or application form to boost your chances of getting a job. The following quote is the definition from the Higher Education Academy's website:

"...a structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development."

You'd think that this is a great idea - and it is. However, while the government said that universities had to do it, they never said how. That's where the problems started. As there was no single implementation, there is pockets of best practice all over the place - but not everywhere. The government's reason for that is that institutions operate in different ways and the same can be said at a departmental level. This means that one implementation might not suit everyone - which is fair enough.

If you compare different institutions instead of different departments, you still see differences. Some have core modules, some have student unions providing documentation, some do very little at all.

There needs to be something done to make PDP work for everyone though. Recently, I submitted a draft of a report to a university committee and it contained three volumes of information (three sets of research done by three different people). It's interesting that all of this came to the same or similar conclusions. Here are some of the points:
  • That a brand identity should be created for PDP across the University, ensuring it is easily recognisable to students.
  • There is a feeling amongst students that it has no relevance to their course.
  • Meetings between staff and students are sporadic and there is uncertainty about it.
  • Some departments see it as an 'entitlement' and not a 'requirement'. Basically this means that some departments feel that they can implement it, but not do anything to make sure a standard is maintained or that it's enforced.
  • Although there are different models to choose from, they are not always suitable for groups such as part-time students, who may have more relevant PDP/CPD schemes with their employers.
  • Some students felt it was a case too much 'institutional target setting'.
  • Some students feel it has been poorly promoted (some don't even know about it).
Let's consider promotion. This is absolutely vital. If done well, people will notice the system, understand how it's done, recognise PDP documents and also have an incentive to do it.

One recommendation in my report included mentioning at the beginning of each year, but not just repeating the same information every time - that would make people less receptive. Each year the delivery has to be tailored to whatever stage the student is at. For instance, this would mean putting more of a focus on employability and it's links to CPD (Continuous Professional Development - an example of it is here) in the student's final year.

Another recommendation was to create an institutional 'branding' for the system. This would mean things like documents being centrally created and while there might be slight differences in each department, the majority of the content would be the same.

If documentation was provided in a single location, then that would also be helpful. In my institution, not every department uses the same Virtual Learning Environment. However, all students have access to a web portal. If relevant documentation was provided there, all students would know where to access PDP documents.

For an example of excellent resources that are centrally located, you should got to the Bournemouth University website. There are explanations and sections of text done in a question and answer style. They also provided a number of downloads.

Another suggestion was to have a review of PDP each year and either include it in a relevant document or have it as a separate report. This would mean that you're able to monitor the system's effectiveness and whether everyone is doing what they should to make sure it works.

One other major point I made was that a good incentive would be to allocate a certain percentage of module credits to PDP activities. If the student didn't do what they should do, then they could seriously affect their degree classification.

I obtained further information after the completion of that report and it confirmed what I already knew - which gave even more weight to my argument. We could go on looking at the existing setup forever and a day, but if nothing is done you're always going to get the same results.

So, what do you think about PDP?

Technorati tags: PDP, Employment, CPD, Education

Friday, 26 January 2007

Honorary Degrees

Something I have been able to do as a sabbatical officer at my student union is go to degree ceremonies. I graduated off the platform at the City Hall in July and attended six others in that week. I attended four more this week. Although work piles up at my office as a result of these, I wouldn't want to miss them. It gives me a chance to see my friends graduate.

One thing that you often see at degree ceremonies is the presentation of honorary degrees. According to Wikipedia, these are defined as:

"An honorary degree is an academic degree awarded to an individual as a decoration, rather than as the result of matriculating and studying for several years. An honorary degree may be conferred by an institution that the recipient never attended. The degree itself may be a bachelor's, master's or doctoral degree — the last being by far the most common. Usually the degree is conferred with great pomp and ceremony as a way of honoring a famous or distinguished visitor's valuable contribution to society. The university derives benefits by association with the person's status and so enhances its networking and publicity."

I strongly disagree with this type of degree for several reasons. A degree is an academic qualification that is awarded after several years of hard study at an academic institution. It shows that an individual has gained the knowledge and skills that should allow them to have a chance of getting a good job.

Honorary degrees are awarded to people who have already had great success and not necessarily as a result of academic achievement. They might not even have studied at the institution previously. The last bit of the above quote annoys me too. They gain publicity from what is often non-academic achievement. They should be gaining publicity from the quality of degree courses, the facilities and student experience and the standard of jobs the students get afterwards - nothing more than that.

Yes, the people that are awarded these 'degrees' have usually made a massive contribution to society, but do they need a degree to recognise that? I don't think so. Why not name an award or building after the person? If that's not possible and there's nothing else of a suitable stature that can be done - then simply do nothing.

According to this page, Nelson Mandela has been awarded 28 honrary degrees/doctorates. That doesn't include all the fellowships he's been awarded too. Kermit the Frog was once awarded an honorary doctorate from Southampton College - part of Long Island University. Ediburgh University even awarded one to Robert Mugabe (although there are plans to strip him of that title). Pierluigi Collina was even awarded one by the University of Hull - he was a football referee, not an academic. All those examples completely devalue something which thousands of students work hard to get every year.

MIT don't award honorary degrees. They are an example of a highly successful and respected institution getting along fine without them. They derive their reputation and publicity from a strong academic record.

Anyway - that's what I think - what do you think?

Technorati tags: Academia, Honrary degrees, Universities, Graduations

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Christian Unions vs. Student Unions

This BBC news article highlights something that has been going on for quite a long time.

"The former Archbishop of Canterbury has given his support to the University of Exeter Christian Union.

The union is seeking a judicial review at the High Court, after it was suspended by the university's students' guild and had a bank account frozen.

The guild took action after students joining the union were required to sign a statement of religious beliefs."

In the mind of the Christian Union, this is seen as a restriction of practice which they feel is illegal under the Human Rights Act.

This UCCF says that all christian unions that it's affiliated with have to sign a doctrinal statement. That might not be a problem for some people as they may believe what is in that document. This is what's in the contents:

  • There is one god in three persons, The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit.
  • God is sovereign in creation, revelation, redemption and final judgement.
  • The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.
  • Since the fall, the whole of humankind is sinful and guilty, so that everyone is subject to God's wrath and condemnation.
  • The Lord Jesus Christ, God's incarnate Son, is fully God; he was born of a virgin; his humanity is real and sinless; he died on the cross, was raised bodily from death and is now reigning over heaven and earth.
  • Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God.
  • Those who believe in Christ are pardoned all their sins and accepted in God's sight only because of the righteousness of Christ credited to them; this justification is God's act of undeserved mercy, received solely by trust in him and not by their own efforts.
  • The Holy Spirit alone makes the work of Christ effective to individual sinners, enabling them to turn to God from their sin and to trust in Jesus Christ.
  • The Holy Spirit lives in all those he has regenerated. He makes them increasingly Christlike in character and behaviour and gives them power for their witness in the world.
  • The one holy universal church is the Body of Christ, to which all true believers belong.
  • The Lord Jesus Christ will return in person, to judge everyone, to execute God's just condemnation on those who have not repented and to receive the redeemed to eternal glory.

However, student unions have equal opportunities policies. That means that any member of the union should be allowed to join any club or society. So, theoretically that could mean a Jewish person would be allowed to be a member of the Christian Union. That situation is highly unlikely though, so there is no need for a doctrinal statement. If you don't do or believe in something - you won't join a society relating to it. I don't watch Neighbours, so why would I waste my money and join the Neighbours Society?

The constitution, bye laws, policies and regulations of students unions are all legally binding, so you would think the action of the student union is perfectly fine - the society contravened something which is legal.

Ekklesia, a think tank, seems to agree with me:

"antagonistic legal action could lead to widening an 'us' and 'them' mentality on campuses". It continued: "This does not help with friendly dialogue between the diverse cultures and views that can be found within the UK's educational institutions."

NUS simply wants mediation between the two sides of the argument and, like Ekklesia, doesn't believe legal action is the best thing to do.

Do you agree with me, or do you believe the Christian Union at Exeter would have a chance in court?

These are two more articles about the issue:

Christian Union takes legal action over suspension

Christian unions warned against legal action

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Thursday, 4 January 2007

2020 Vision

This 2020 Vision report is quite interesting. It was done by a review group linked to the government and it analyses the current school-level teaching and learning setup and suggests improvements. It's way too long to go through everything in one post, so feel free to download it and look at the entire thing yourself. I'll be going through what I consider to be the most important bits in this blog entry.

The following are five points from part 2 of the report that were suggested to improve assessment:
  1. Engineering effective discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning.
  2. Providing feedback that moves learners forward.
  3. Clarifying and sharing learning intentions and criteria for success.
  4. Activating pupils as the owners of their own learning.
  5. Activating pupils as resources for one another.
Point 1 is expanded by the report suggesting things like pupils having more time to answer a question. How long is 'longer'? That could be interpreted in a number of different ways. If a pupil has more time it doesn't necessarily guarantee that they'll know the answer. There should be more of a focus on content and it's delivery, not timespans for answering questions.

I agree with point 2 - feedback is so crucial, but I think it should be for all tasks and not just a selection. Also, it should be alongside marks - not a replacement for them.

I agree with point 3. The report suggests providing access to mark schemes, which is what universities do already.

Points 4 and 5 are perfect examples of management speak. I agree with point 5 - working with other pupils is good, but point 4 is dubious as it suggests pupils selecting from tasks. This could lead to them only picking the easy ones which won't help at all.

Part 4 of the report focuses on what happens when some pupils fall behind. I'm glad they covered this as it's important to make sure everyone gets to a good standard. However, most of the points in this sectin are fairly generic and/or only mention access to additional support - not what the actual support is. It's not going to be any good if the access is excellent and the support is rubbish. Pupils will then either be left in the same position or worse.

the government should use the opportunity of the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review to introduce a national and school-level aspirational target for there to be no ‘stuck’ pupils. This should provide a focus for increasing the rate of progress between KS1 and KS2 (thereby reducing the number of children leaving primary school with below expected levels of attainment) and between KS2 and KS3.

This is ok, but doesn't suggest options for what the target should be, which doesn't make it too useful. It also points out the obvious - that there should be support for the core subjects of English and Maths from KS1 upwards.

The report also covers learning spaces and Continuous Professional Development (CPD), which is an equivalent of Personal Development Planning (PDP). I'm not surprised by the PDP issue, the government are pushing PDP in universities so it would make sense to implement it in lower levels so it is truly 'continuous'.

The report has a few points about learning spaces:
  1. Be flexible enough to allow for a variety of learning and teaching approaches and greater diversity in the size and age mix of pupil groupings.
  2. Be familiar and welcoming for parents and the wider community, inviting them and encouraging them into school.
  3. Emphasise participation and collaboration, through being open, safe and inviting.
  4. Support interaction, knowledge sharing and learning amongst teachers and support staff.
  5. Use technology - both within and outside classrooms - to enhance learning.
I don't disagree with these points, but they are far too generic. As there is so much room for interpretation, some schools could comply with the five points and still not have good learning spaces. For instance, 'Use technology' could mean either two computers and a printer with a few bits of software, or it could mean loads of networked PCs, with WiFi access, projectors etc. and continually updated programs that are totally relevant to the course.

Catering for different styles is also mentioned. This could be good, but it depends on how it's implemented. It could mean increased paperwork and unnecessary complexity.

To conclude, I would say that the report highlights several points that are worth considering to improve schools, but some parts are far too generic and could mean a 'good standard for all' is unobtainable.

A DfES article about this report can be found here.

What do you think?