In the news: 9 December 2016

Calls for university admissions overhaul as report reveals just 16% of A-levels are correctly predicted

The vast majority of predicted A-level results turn out to be wide of the mark, revealed a report Predicted grades: accuracy and impact from UCU released yesterday.

The report, covered in depth by the BBC and Times Higher Education amongst others, analysed the results of 1.3m young people over three years and found that only 16% of students got their predicted grades across three A-level results. The Guardian and Telegraph also reported the finding that three-quarters (75%) of estimated grades were "over-predicted" with students failing to reach the mark their teachers predicted. Around one in 10 (9%) of grades were under-predicted as students did better than anticipated.

Writing for Wonkhe, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said the findings added weight to calls for a complete overhaul of the UK's university applications system that currently sees students apply to university based on their predicted grades. She stressed the report, by Dr Gill Wyness of the UCL Institute of Education, was a criticism of a broken system and not the hard-working teachers tasked with the "impossible job" of grade predicting.

Responding to claims from UCAS's chief executive, Mary Curnock-Cook, that the current system works well, Sally Hunt highlighted in the Huffington Post a previous UCAS statement that the clearing process was 'cumbersome' and only worked well for those students who had access to high-quality careers advice. She added: 'Curnock-Cook argues that nearly three-quarters of students are placed in their first choice institution... [but] students' choices might have been different if they were able to make a more informed decision.'

Lords join list of critics attacking controversial Higher Education and Research Bill

The controversial Higher Education and Research Bill received its second reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday. Ahead of the debate, UCU had launched its Lobby a Lord campaign encouraging members to contact a peer with a link to their university and set out the union's concerns about the bill.

Writing in the Telegraph, Sally Hunt said this was the wrong bill at the wrong time. She warned that the bill would harm our globally renowned higher education system and said the reforms came at a time when universities are still reeling from the huge implications of Brexit. She also took issue with plans to relax rules on who could call themselves a university, the lack of efforts to deal with insecure contracts in universities and colleges and the planned Teaching Excellence Framework (Tef).

The universities' umbrella group Universities UK also set out its concerns in a letter to the Guardian. UUK reiterated Sally's point about the ease with which untested organisations would have access to degree-awarding powers and raised concerns about the potential for the secretary of state to intervene in areas such as academic standards and course funding.

Lords from all sides were queuing up to criticise the bill before the debate even started. A scathing University of Oxford chancellor, and Tory peer, Chris Patten said the Lords must blunt the government's attack on university autonomy while Labour peer Lord Stevenson said it was a bizarre time to consider, let alone drive through, further market-led reforms in universities.

In total, 69 peers, many with current or former senior roles in universities, spoke during the debate where the bill was criticised as a "juggernaut" that will override universities' autonomy and willingness "to speak truth to power!".

UCU members at Aberdeen walk out in row over jobs

UCU members at the University of Aberdeen walked out on Wednesday in a dispute over job losses, downgrading of staff and job security. The dispute centres on four members of staff at the university's medical school who, following protracted negotiations, have been offered the choice of either being made redundant or accepting new contracts on reduced terms.

The Times pointed out that the university was pressing ahead with job cuts despite recruiting in other areas and offering hundreds of staff a free Christmas dinner. While the BBC noted that all four members of staff under threat are of Asian ethnic origin, which UCU said raised the question of whether the process had been discriminatory.

Aberdeen UCU spokesperson, Derek Dawson, said: 'It is hard to comprehend why the university is pleading poverty and going ahead with these job cuts while recruiting staff in other areas. Making people redundant should always be a very last resort but for the university to be doing this now, just before Christmas, while inviting 400 people to a free Christmas dinner is enough to make you choke on your turkey.'

The impossibility of measuring success

Writing in the Guardian this week, Sir Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education and speaker at UCU's forthcoming Cradle to Grave conference, set out the problems with university performance targets. He argues that the things universities need to improve to get a decent Teaching Excellence Framework score, and therefore increase their fees, are not guaranteed to improve teaching - points made recently by Sally Hunt for the same newspaper.

He says measuring certain aspects simply cannot work in a drive to improve quality as by seeking to measure some things, usually because they are easier to measure, a default decision has been taken not to measure other, more important, ones.

Scott says this phenomenon is well understood in health where specific targets, for example referral-to-treatment times in selected conditions or A&E waiting times, suck up resources so things get worse elsewhere.

He concludes that the only solution is to try to measure everything. But that is plainly impossible, because some very important things are difficult to measure, and also because "even the most pumped up managerialists accept there must be a limit to the time and effort spent on measuring things."

Why GCSE English and maths resits need a radical change

Writing for the TES this week, UCU's vice-chair of the further education committee, Sean Vernell, says colleges simply cannot go on facilitating resits for the tens of thousands of young people being forced to resit their GCSE English or maths exam. As a result of the government making it compulsory for all young people to keep resitting the exams until they get a grade C, over 250,000 16-18-year-olds resat exams this year.

Vernell says that, while it is an admirable aim to improve students' English and maths, it is a logistical nightmare. At City College Norwich, they had to hire a showground arena and a fleet of double-decker buses to cope with the rise in entries. 

He argues that it is time for a radical change and the end of the compulsory resit programme. He suggests it is replaced with a new independently funded English and maths study programme based on 100% course work.

Bolton vice-chancellor pay rise criticised

The Bolton News reported this week that vice-chancellor George Holmes would enjoy a £19,700 pay rise - an increase of nearly 10%. UCU general secretary criticised the decision at a time when staff pay is falling in real terms, and in light of the university's refusal to respond to UCU's requests for information about leadership pay and perks. She said: 'As staff pay falls in real terms and many academics are stuck in insecure contracts, inflation-busting salary increases of the level at Bolton show just how out touch some vice-chancellors are.

'Bolton in particular has a shocking record when it comes to scrutiny of the vice chancellor's pay and perks. The university refuses to answer Freedom of Information requests about George Holmes' pay and perks and, while we understand the full extent of spending on pay and perks for the boss may make uncomfortable reading for some, that is no excuse to escape proper scrutiny.'

 

Last updated: 9 December 2016