International News

International News

Letter from London

Localised expansion option

Recently there has been a
rash of reports in the media highlighting novel ways in which universities are ramping up student enrollments and advertising their study courses. Several newspapers played up a British universities scholarship scheme for Indian students under which thousands of Indian students are expected to compete for five scholarships in a television reality show. The five winners will be admitted into the universities of Leeds, Sheffield, Warwick, Cardiff or Middlesex, with each institution waiving its fees and residential accommodation charges.

It sounds like a great prize and by all accounts the universities involved are delighted with the arrangement. Comments Prof. Matthew Holley head of biomedical sciences at Sheffield University: "The scholarship programme will provide a very exciting opportunity for our faculty to build stronger collaborative links with India which should bring substantial mutual benefits in both teaching and research." As universities compete desperately to attract foreign students, develop collaborative projects and increase their research output, this innovative idea seems to tick all the boxes.

Nearer home Anglia Ruskin University, which has its headquarters in Chelmsford, Essex, has been shopping abroad for new advertising models to increase student intake numbers and disseminate information about study programmes. It has focused on Penn State, one of America’s most successful publicly funded state universities. Learning at Penn means "widening participation, distance learning, online learning and spin-out companies" — areas into which Mike Thorne, vice-chancellor of Anglia Ruskin, would like to expand.

Although it’s not well known, Anglia Ruskin has an aggregate 28,000 students, many of whom are adults who have to fit their studies around family and work. Penn State found that the best way to ensure a steady stream of students is to develop a network of local campuses, where students can conveniently complete a full degree programme in a local centre, without incurring expensive accommodation costs, child care or extended travelling time. In eastern England this model could prove a way forward for Anglia Ruskin, whose catchment area is broad and widely scattered.

This example of expansion at local levels may be ideal for institutions looking to increase annual intake. Accommodating large numbers of students away from home causes housing and other problems Now that sophisticated distance learning technologies have evolved, studying in local centres may be a more practical way to study nearer home, although having said that, almost all institutions seem anxious to recruit more international students. How these two objectives can be reconciled will become clearer in due course.

(Jacqueline Thomas is a London-based academic)


Tokyo University looks outwards

Tokyo University is on a mission to strengthen its international profile and "establish itself as a hub for sustainability science", says Hiroshi Komiyama, its president. "Tokyo University is arguably the best in Japan but is not known outside," adds Prof. Komiyama.

Three years ago, the university became an ‘independent’ entity — free from state control — giving it greater financial flexibility to build new facilities and forge strategic ties with institutions around the world. With two years left to run in his presidency, Komiyama says he hopes to use that flexibility to make Tokyo a world force.

Already, the university has established links with Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Berkeley and Beijing universities and five other leading institutions to form the International Alliance of Research Universities. In collaboration with these universities, and others if necessary, Komiyama plans to harness the broad range of disciplines his university covers to conduct research on health, the environment, energy and other problems confronting the world. "It would be difficult for us to do this on our own. That’s why international networking is important," he says.

Currently, Tokyo’s international profile is limited. Some 1.6 percent of undergraduates, 11.7 percent of postgraduates and 1.4 percent of researchers were foreign nationals in 2005. This led to the decision to create new housing to attract overseas researchers. There is also a plan to fund scholarships for overseas students.

In contrast with other universities in Japan, denationalisation has put Tokyo U in a stronger financial position despite the government’s cuts. It opened up avenues for new sources of finance, including endowments, and its domestically unrivalled prestige has clearly worked to its advantage

The Y95 billion the university receives in government subsidies, less than half its annual expenditure of about Y193 billion (Rs.6,755 crore), will continue to be reduced by 1 percent for two more years. However, Komiyama is confident that he will be able to raise between Y50 billion (Rs.1,750 crore) and Y100 billion in the next two years. This would give his office Y4 billion a year to spend on strategic measures such as internationalisation, he says.


Growing pressure to increase education outlay

China’s political advisory body has criticised the government’s failure to reach education spending targets. "The growth of education spending should at least keep pace with growth in state revenue and military spending," said Bou Shorgan, a delegate of the education group of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and president of Inner Mongolia University.

Despite a rapid expansion in student numbers since the 1990s, China’s education spending has remained low, at about 3 percent of gross domestic product. Meanwhile China’s economy expanded by 10.7 percent last year, and state revenue rose by 24.3 percent. Moreover the government has set a 17.9 percent growth target for military spending this year. "It is unacceptable that our country’s education spending is even less that that of India’s and the developing world’s average," says Dong Zixio, another education group delegate.

Jin Renqing, the finance minister, says that spending on education is likely to exceed 3 percent of GDP this year. However, this still falls short of a target set by China in 1993, when the government pledged to raise spending to 4 percent of GDP by 2000.

The government renewed this pledge last year, saying it hoped to reach 4 percent by 2010. "The government should do whatever it can to reach this target," says Dong, "no matter what difficulties they come across."

United States

Re-politicisation of campus America

US university students are starting to move to the Left after years of conservative drift, polarising American campuses. An annual study found that first-year students were discussing politics more than they had in 40 years and the proportion who called themselves liberal was at its highest point since 1975.

But national divisions are also reflected on campus, since a record number of university students also consider themselves conservative. It is better than apathy, says Sylvia Hurtado, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, which conducted the survey.

"This bodes well for fostering democratic citizenship. Colleges are responsible for educating the next generation of leaders, and it’s exciting that students are entering with greater political and civic awareness. This often means students will seek more information, ask questions and interact more around issues that affect American society," says Hurtado.

More than 28 percent of students described themselves as liberal, while about 24 percent said they were conservative. Comments John Pryor, who directed the survey: "Where issues divide the student body, as with gay rights and abortion, we will likely see more controversy in those discussions."

Most students who describe themselves as liberals are in favour of both gay marriage and abortion rights, while two thirds of conservatives are not. More liberal students than conservatives want an end to the death penalty and the legalisation of marijuana.

Equal numbers in both groups — about half of conservative students and almost half of liberals — agree that there should be an end to racial preference in university admissions. Two thirds of all students are anxious about the high cost of university tuition fees.


Global fake varsities explosion

Unesco researchers are warning of a growing tide of fraud and corruption in higher education. One of the most common examples is institutional fraud says Muriel Poisson, programme specialist and Jacques Hallak, former director of Unesco’s International Institute for Educational Planning, speaking at a recent international conference on accreditation in Barcelona.

Foreign students have become big business over the past 20 years. Higher education is Australia’s second largest export while for the US it is its fifth largest service export. While most operations are legitimate, the number of fake universities has shot up from about 200 worldwide in 2000 to more than 800 in 2005, according to Sweden’s National Agency for Higher Education. There has also been a rise in the number of reputable universities offering substandard programmes abroad, usually in developing countries.

Placid Njoku, director of quality assurance at Nigeria’s National Universities Commission, sees an invasion of foreign recruiting agencies every summer. "The curriculum they deliver is uncertified and often unstructured. Programmes that are supposed to take four years are given in less than a year," he says.

The Israeli government gives its employees a 10-20 percent bonus when they obtain an advanced degree. In 2001, several top Israeli officials, including a police chief and the head of the teachers’ union were found to have gained fake degrees from Latvia University in Riga.

Dr. Poisson and Dr. Hallak say that over reliance on degrees as the sole unit of currency for getting jobs is making matters worse. "When you have no way of verifying whether a degree is genuine or not, the whole system of qualifications becomes questionable," says Poisson.

The researchers say tighter regulation and more transparent criteria for quality assurance are needed, pointing to initiatives such as Unesco’s quality assurance and recognition project. There is also a need to provide students with as much information as possible to stop them falling prey to unscrupulous operators. The US state of Michigan lists unaccredited institutions, including the tellingly named College of Nonsense in Nebraska, and unauthorised accrediting bodies.


Study on cheating raises legal issues

If universities allow large numbers of students to cheat in order to pass their courses and graduate, can employers unhappy with the quality of the "human product" later sue them?

This is one of the questions provoked by a large-scale Canadian study of cheating in universities. Some 53 percent of undergraduates admitted to seriously cheating in their written work, according to research by Julia Christensen Hughes of Guelph University and Donald McCabe of Rutgers University.

Jack Mintz, professor of business at the University of Toronto raised the question in response to the findings. "The argument might be that if someone leaves a university with a degree, it is a bona fide statement that they have ability. If a person is totally incompetent and cheated, and the university passed her, I guess it raises the legal question: does the employer have the right to go after a university, asking ‘how did you ever give a degree to this person?’" he queries.

The study, published in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education, reports the responses of 14,913 undergraduates, 1,318 postgraduates, 683 teaching assistants and 1,902 faculty at 11 Canadian institutions. It reveals almost universal disdain for certain proscribed activities.

Some 80 percent of undergraduates, 73 percent of graduates and 61 percent of teaching assistants report sharing an assignment with other students, to have an example to work with. Similarly, 79 percent of undergrads, 63 percent of graduates and 49 percent of teaching assistants report working on assignments with others even when a professor explicitly asked for individual work.

The survey also shows widespread incidences of flagrant cheating. Some 38 percent of undergraduates admit getting questions and answers from those who have taken the test: 35 percent confess to copying text from the web and 25 percent say they have fabricated or falsified lab data.

On a positive note, the higher students are in education, the less they cheat. While 58 percent report serious cheating in tests in high school, in university the figure is 18 percent and in graduate school 9 percent.

Three quarters of faculty and 80 percent of teaching assistants report having suspected students of cheating in the past year. Says Dr. Christensen Hughes, director of Guelph’s Teaching Support Services: "I think it’s important that universities do everything they can to create cultures of integrity. It is essential that the degrees we confer are based on the highest ethical standards."

But claims that the study is an indication of poor student ethics is disputed. William Watson, a professor of economics at McGill University, points out in a newspaper column that the study admits to several severe methodological limitations. Reponse rates were between 5 percent and 25 percent at the institutions surveyed, and there was an overrepresentation of women — 66 percent compared to 34 percent of men, among undergraduates

But Prof. Mintz is convinced that universities are likely to face lawsuits from employers in the future. "I can see someone legally making that kind of challenge," he says.


National la hora exacta drive

Students at a university in the south american nation of Peru (pop.28 million) have inspired an entire nation into making a solemn commitment to being punctual. Last December students marched through the streets of Lima chanting the benefits of punctuality. With help from the local fire department, they sounded bells and sirens to announce new Peruvian time.

It seems that many were listening. In March, the government of Peru launched a national campaign in which government officials, from the president to every public administrator, publicly committed to being on time. "Peruvian time," read a slogan, will be "la hora exacta," the precise time. To the surprise of many Peruvians, who are accustomed to waiting forever for the president to arrive, the public ceremony began on time.

In the wake of the student action, a website has been launched to combat society’s chronic tardiness by denouncing official meetings that begin late. The idea began as an assignment in industrial engineering given by Fernan Munoz during a course on industrial sales at the University of Ricardo Palma in Lima. Students were asked to promote a product most needed by Peru’s industrial sector to improve productivity. The choice was unanimous: punctuality.

Prof. Munoz impressed upon the students that without punctuality Peru would be "out of the race". President Alan Garcia echoed that statement by announcing that in one year Peru’s national productivity could increase by one index point if Peruvians were punctual. Garcia promised to dispel that image of tardiness that has plagued the presidency, and stated: "Ending tardiness also means bringing greatness to the nation."

The parade that followed the public ceremony to launch the campaign included a coffin that symbolised the death of the "Peruvian hour". At the stroke of 12, president Garcia instructed every citizen of Peru to adjust timepieces to the official hour in accordance with the presidential decree.


Earning while learning initiatives

From strapping a whiteboard on the back of a camel to teaching children how to sell waste materials, a stream of innovative methods are being introduced to coach the world’s poorest in how to read and write.

Delegates at the Unesco literacy conference in Qatar in mid-March were told of the need to reach the 100 million out-of-school children and 71 million illiterate adults still denied access to basics such as books and writing paper. Laura Bush, the US first lady, inaugurated the international summit. "Education improves opportunities, strengthens communities, and helps parents to protect their children’s health," she said.

While funding has improved since Unesco, the UN’s education wing launched its literacy decade in 2003, persuading children to give up profitable daylight hours to memorise the alphabet and master their signatures has proved difficult. Drop-out rates for literacy schemes are up to 60 percent in some areas. Comments Dr. Abdelwahid Yousif, a Sudanese academic and adviser to the Qatar government: "They are voting with their feet. They are saying that what is being offered is not worth their while."

But a smattering of highly localised initiatives seem to have succeeded where others failed. "The trick is to get them to learn by accident," says Dr. Laila Iskander of Egypt, "you need to be teaching them something useful first."

Dr. Iskander works with the dump-dwellers of urban Cairo, thousands of families who live and work on the city’s mountainous tips, cleaning, recycling and selling trash in order to feed their families and livestock. Iskander’s project has expanded to cover more than 600 children. It coaches them to run rag and bottle recycling shops, where literacy is taught alongside the more immediately useful art of how to make money. While collecting rags to weave profitable rugs in return for wages, girls are instructed in how to compose spreadsheets, write price lists and sign their names.

The Qatar Foundation, a charity set up by the Emir of Qatar, has also developed a novel project for teaching literacy to nomadic Bedouin tribes, who move with the seasons making traditional schooling impracticable. "We have devised a new white-board that you can strap on to a camel, meaning the school can follow the children," says a foundation spokeswoman. There are plans to expand the project to Sudan and Mali.

(Compiled from Times Educational Supplement and Times Higher Education Supplement)