Monday 8 October 2018


I’ve posted before about a petition to government, askingfor legislation to ban essay mills. The petition is more than half-way towards its first target – enough signatures to require a government response.

Let’s rehearse the issues.

There are organisations – known as essay mills – which for a fee will write an essay or similar piece of work to whatever specification a student asks. Although they market themselves as revision aids, there is no doubt that they are aiming to encourage students to buy an essay which they can submit as part of their university assessment, instead of writing it themselves.

This is a bad thing. The student doesn’t learn, and is cheating. So for those of you keeping count, this is in fact two bad things. And it’s hard to stop.

Half-way there ...
It’s hard to stop because the bought essay may not show up as such in plagiarism detection software used by universities. In fact, essay mills typically guarantee that they will pass such software checks – why would they make this guarantee this if they were only revision aids?

So why the petition? A law won’t make plagiarism software any better. But it can make it possible to deal with the essay mills, not just the students who use them. At the moment, if a university suspects that a student has submitted an essay that they have bought, the only laws which could apply are those governing fraud. But to use this would involve university staff giving evidence against individual students, which is time consuming and unlikely to happen. (It’s important that students trust their academic tutors. Anything which reduces this trust is a bad thing. That’s one of the problems with Prevent, by the way.)

It’s also using heavy tactics. In my career I’ve had to deal with many hundreds of cases where students have cheated, and nearly always it was a student who didn’t understand what that what they’re doing was wrong (plagiarism is a difficult concept, and culturally dependent). I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times where a cheating student was clearly being malevolent. So by all means punish students who cheat – and help them understand that what they have done is wrong – but we must remember that often they cheat through ignorance or desperation.

If there was a law banning the advertising of essay writing services, and the sale of essays through such services, it would be possible to remove the issue at source. Accounts by those who have used such services show that they are clearly seeking to entice students. There are also stories of students being blackmailed once they have used the essay writing service. And under the current legal framework, universities are powerless to deal with the essay mills themselves.

This is why we need a law. It isn’t enough to deal with individual students who cheat: they need to learn; and the problem of catching them is real. There isn’t an existing legal framework which will enable universities and sector bodies to deal with the essay mills themselves. It’s time for the government to lend a helping hand.

Here’s the link to the petition. Please sign it, please share the petition. Help to #BanEssayMills

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Is university admission an academic decision?

One topic which exercises many universities is admissions: not only for the obvious reason of recruiting enough students to meet targets, but also for the question about who should be in charge.

Across UK higher education, the underlying culture is that it is an academic decision: suitability to study for a programme should be determined by the academics who teach the programme.  This doesn’t mean that actual academics always take decisions, however: many universities have agreed that specific decisions can be taken by professional service staff, as long as they fall within parameters agreed with admissions tutors. So, if a student gets more than so-many tariff points, or better than such-and-such A level grades, they can be offered a place without reference to a tutor.

David Willetts (in his very interesting book, A University Education) reminds us that the UK is odd in this regard. In the US, admissions decisions are not typically made by faculty tutors, or not even in consultation with faculty tutors. Decisions can be based, for example, upon familial donations; upon siblings having attended; or on residency within a particular state. (Before you get too shocked, I recommend that you have a read of Willetts’ book: there’s more too it than nepotism and a disregard for academic standards.)

The difference can be understood, I think, in relation to a very good underlying principle, which is that academic decisions can only be made by academics in the discipline concerned. This is at the heart of academic freedom. Ask yourself a question: what is the academic decision which is at the heart of university admission?  Is it about who socially gets to do higher education? That doesn’t feel academic to me. Is it about whether a person has the necessary prerequisite knowledge? (For instance, do you need A-level maths to take the first-year modules on the programme?) That sounds much more academic, and is at the heart of the differences in the UK. In the UK specialism takes place at the start of university education; in the US students enrol, study a wide variety of modules for a couple of years, and then choose their specialism. And they take an extra year (at least) to study, so there’s time for this breadth.

It's that picture again! 
I don’t think its controversial to say that there are US universities operating this approach which are at least as good as UK universities. The UK systems generates good graduates a year sooner than the US system, but that isn’t because we’re cleverer: its because the system is structured to produce graduates after three years. As part of this, it is necessary to have early specialisation, and this means that admissions decision have to consider specific subject knowledge and readiness for study.

Now I am going to say something slightly controversial. These tests are more about the resources devoted to pre-university education and upbringing rather than any intrinsic academic merit. We know that a private school education boosts a person’s chances of getting good A-level grades and hence a place at a ‘better’ university. We also know that, in aggregate, for students with the same A-level grades, those educated at state schools will do better overall than those educated at private school (see, for instance, this HEFCE research). This means, I think, that private school with better resources, smaller classes, and concomitant greater parental support for learning – has a better short-term impact.  But when learning resources and chances are evened out at university, the impact dissipates.

The point is that university entry based on A levels is about readiness to study. Background knowledge, confidence and social capital are what matters, because this enables a person to graduate in three years.

On this telling, university admissions should really be understood as a business decision. Remove some of the selective elements, and you won’t get the three-year throughput upon which the UK higher education system is built. (The development of foundation years to enable wider entry to selective universities supports this point: only by an extra year can pre-university educational differences be resolved.) University admission is only an academic decision because we set the system up to make it so. More time at university would enable foundation level study to become a norm. And at that point entry decisions would not be about pre-requisite knowledge, and entry barriers would come down.

And this is my challenge to the Office for Students, and to the UK government’s review of higher education. If you’re serious about removing social barriers to higher education participation, what are you going to do to enable longer degree programmes, to take the apparently academic decision out of the admissions loop?

Wednesday 22 August 2018

Down with cheats!

There’s a petition open on the government petitions website which seeks to address a real problem for UK higher education.  In my view, anyone with an interest in quality and standards, the health of our sector, and student wellbeing, should consider signing it.

The petition ...
The petition – here it is – asks government to legislate to make it illegal to provide or advertise contract cheating services.  Contract cheating services offer to provide essays for students – written to the precise specification provided by the student, and often guaranteed ‘plagiarism free’.  The services claim to be an aid for students’ revision, but this strains credibility.  If all students needed for revision was a model answer, why would a plagiarism free guarantee be a particular selling point?

The truth is that these services are writing essays to order, which students can submit as their own coursework.  This is cheating, plain and simple, and is bad for the reputation of UK higher education, for the student experience and for academic standards.

The petition has been started by Iain Mansfield – you’ll find him on Twitter as @IGMansfield – a former civil servant who knows about higher education from a governmental angle.  I’ve dealt with a fair few examination irregularities during my career, and it is clear that when students are desperate, they can do silly things.  Remove the supply of contract written essays, and there’s one fewer way for students to make a serious mistake.

If the petition gets 100,000 signatures, it will be considered for debate in Parliament, which is a starting point.  Similar laws have been passed in New Zealand, Ireland and many US states.  If they can do it, so can we.  And we should, in my view, do something about a real problem.

According to HESA there’s almost half a million people working in UK HE.  This gives us plenty of directly affected people who can help to make a difference.  Please spread the word, and sign the petition.

Thursday 16 August 2018

Mastering support for students

One of the things I enjoy about my job is that I get to meet and work with people from across the UK higher education sector, and one of these great folk – Gale Macleod at the University of Edinburgh – recently pointed me to an interesting research paper she had co-authored. The paper – “Teaching at Master’s level: between a rock and a hard place” – looks at programme directors’ perceptions of the challenges faced by PGT students.

(The full reference is: Gale Macleod, Tina Barnes & Sharon R. A. Huttly (2018) Teaching at Master's level: between a rock and a hard place, Teaching in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2018.1491025; it’s at if you have access to the journal …)

The paper argues that there’s a mismatch between the formal expectations of postgraduate students (for instance, via the QAA’s level descriptors) and the reality as experienced by programme directors. The study is based upon a reasonably sample-sized survey; my more limited direct experience chimes well with the paper: “… there is a gap between the reality of PGT students’ readiness for study at Master’s level and institutional assumptions and the QAA vision”.

Since we're talking about Master's, here's a Margherita ...
The issues are about readiness for Masters’ study – the extent to which students are able to be independent and critical learners – and also about the impact of students’ lives on their ability to study: taught postgraduate students are more likely to have work or family responsibilities, meaning that their face real time pressures on their studies. And as well as this, universities often (and my experience definitely chimes with this) assume that taught postgraduate students are much more capable of managing their own learning. This creates a serious problem – learners are less capable (in the sense of being able to facilitate their own learning) than assumed; and institutions do not focus support on these same students.

So what conclusions do I draw from the paper?

This is a tricky problem. Taught postgraduate programmes are serious endeavours for UK universities. In 2016-17, income from taught postgraduate fees amounted to almost £1.25billion across the whole of the sector. That’s about 3.5% of all income, so it’s not by any means overwhelming; but it’s also a tidy sum in absolute terms and about half of the net institutional surplus across the sector. About 1 in every six students in UK universities are studying for a taught postgraduate qualification: again, not the largest group, but also not trivial.

So it’s a problem worth solving, but with these kinds of numbers it isn’t business-critical for most universities. The issues will also vary more sharply by programme: where a programme attracts many students and has higher fees, it is more likely that the university will put in place (at a programme or faculty level) resources to support students. (Some of the most impressive teaching and learning support takes place on MBA programmes …) Conversely, where a programme doesn’t attract many students the likelihood that the university will put in place any necessary support is low.

This is the nub of the problem. In my experience, universities often have a number of taught postgraduate programmes which are very marginal – low student numbers, low fees. They may play an important role in the academic life of a department or school, and provide a small but important pathway for research students. But in financial terms they are a cost. The challenge for universities is whether they should take any action, as the net cost of delivery is often small.

What would action look like? On the positive side, it is possible that a university which addressed student support for taught postgraduate would see an increase in student numbers, and therefore a reduction or elimination of the financial problem. But the reality is that many universities are operating in relatively fixed markets, and this won’t happen in the short term. More likely, there is a need to look at how the cost of a programme can be reduced: sharing modules, reducing options – this can create the space to provide better support for students. Whilst this can look like central managerialism whittling away at the freedom of a school or department to offer interesting programmes, if done well it can help to create a more vibrant departmental offer. Local academic leadership matters tremendously for this to work.

University professional services can play an important role in helping to address the problems identified in the paper. The accessibility of support services to students who are have time pressures is critical. For example, are librarians available online, or out of normal hours? How easy is it to learn how to use online resources such as VLE’s or library catalogues? Do inductions or student welcomes take account of the distinct needs of taught postgraduate students? These matters can often be improved without any – or much – resource, and can make a big difference.

Perhaps something which should be higher up to-do lists than it is at the moment?