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Sector news, 5 - 11 August 2013

Are universities collecting too much information on staff and students? Guardian, 5 August 2013

This article looks at the work of the University of Huddersfield to collect information on student use of the library and how they study, in an effort to make staff and students more aware of what works well to help students succeed. The university is also researching the possibility of incorporating analysis of emails and other text interactions between staff and students to detect how negatively a student feels about the course, and therefore how much they are at risk of quitting. There is also the worry that using big data sets involves ‘scary ethics’ because it influences how universities allocate resources, and using lots of data can also involve monitoring the behaviour of staff, and increases their workload. The University and College Union is wary about using quantitative data sources as a performance management tool.

Poorer students risk losing out to 'middle-class bias', says university tsarObserver, 10 August 2013

The man charged with promoting fair access to Britain's universities has warned of a middle-class bias in higher education, claiming that colleges are "missing a lot of excellence". Professor Les Ebdon of the, head of the Office for Fair Access (Offa), said universities trying to maximise their income were encouraged to admit "good middle-class" applicants rather than take a risk on disadvantaged students who were more likely to drop out. He said it was vital to retain funding, now under threat, which compensates institutions for accepting youngsters from the least well-off backgrounds. Figures out last week showed that two-third of A level students from the independent sector went to Britain’s leading institutions in 2010-11 compared with less than a quarter of those from the state sector. Ebdon revealed that Offa's latest strategy, to be submitted to ministers shortly, will be to target the parents of disadvantaged children to encourage them to believe that a university education is relevant to their offspring.

Rise in number of teachers claiming they are under pressure to inflate gradesGuardian, 11 August 2013

A significant number of teachers at academy schools have contacted a confidential helpline to claim they are being pressured to artificially inflate pupils' grades by the school authorities, Britain's biggest whistleblowing charity has claimed. Public Concern at Work (PCW) has seen an 80 per cent increase in the number of complaints from the education sector over the last 12 months, boosted by a noticeable increase in calls from teachers at academy schools. Many say they have been asked to ensure that marks for coursework and internally assessed exams remain high, even if the marks are not deserved. The charity received 111 complaints from the education sector in the first six months of 2012; 132 in the second six months of that year; and 199 in the first six months of 2013.

Making FE lucrative: Government tempts graduates into college teaching with grants of up to £20,000TES, 9 August 2013

A new bursary scheme that aims to encourage more graduates to teach maths and English in further education colleges has been announced. Grants of up to £20,000 will be offered to maths graduates, while £9,000 will be available to graduates teaching English and those wishing to focus on teaching students with special educational needs. The government said it is offering the incentives in order to help businesses that struggle to find young people with the numeracy and literacy skills they need. In addition to the bursaries, £1 million in grants will fund high-level specialist training for those already working with students with SEN, through continuing professional development (CPD). The news was welcomed by FE professional body the Institute for Learning (IfL), which has been calling for some time for a bursary system in the sector similar to that operating in schools.

Profit-making university is just the start, minister saysThe Independent, 8 August 2013

The Government is today signalling a growth in the number of UK universities operating on a profit making basis. It follows BPP University College of Professional Studies becoming the first university in the UK to offer a wide range of university courses on a profit making basis. The college offers courses in law, accountancy, business and health and has more than 36,000 students on its books. The move towards “for profit” universities came in for criticism last night from lecturers' leaders who claimed the record of profit making universities in the United States showed they had cost students and taxpayers dearly. A report by the US senate education committee found that for profit companies had spent significantly more on marketing and recruitment than they did on teaching students and that billions of dollars of taxpayers' money was “squandered” and companies prioritised shareholders' profits over facilities for students. Simon Renton, president of the University and College Union, said he has serious concerns the move could open the floodgates to more for-profit companies becoming universities, and he asked the government to think hard about awarding for-profit companies university titles. Universities Minister David Willetts welcomed BPP’s announcement.

Give skills qualifications the prestige of A-level brand, urges head of CBI The Independent, 11 August 2013

Top-class vocational qualifications should be called A-levels so they have the prestige they need to rescue the UK from its chronic skills shortage, the head of the CBI urged in an exclusive interview with The Independent. John Cridland, director general of the CBI, said he believed there had been a “blind spot” at the Department for Education over vocational qualifications, but that he was “encouraged” by plans announced last month to run a new “tech level” alongside A-levels – offering qualifications in a range of subjects including engineering, IT, accounting and hospitality. Mr Cridland said he was “hugely impressed” by the new university technical colleges for 14- to 18-year-olds championed by the former Education Secretary Lord (Kenneth) Baker – but pointed out only five were currently open while they were 29 in the pipeline and a further 20 planned, compard with 3,000 secondary schools. He said he believed Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, had moved a long way towards the CBI’s vision for education in the past year, by reviewing performance league tables, slimming down the national curriculum, giving teachers more freedom and putting forward the proposal for tech levels.

Harder subjects on the rise as pupils go for top universities The Independent, 11 August 2013

Teenagers are opting in their droves for academic subjects that will gain them places at top universities, this year's A-level results will show. The results, out on Thursday, will show a major increase in the take-up of core subjects such as maths, physics, chemistry and biology as pupils heed warnings from leading universities that these are the key to them gaining places at universities including Oxford and Cambridge. For some years ministers have been warning against the take-up of what they consider easier subjects such as media studies and argued in favour of a move towards more traditional academic fare. Andrew Hall, head of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), said: "I think the young people are getting very savvy. Students are thinking with their heads rather than their hearts."

A-level reforms will reduce access, say vice-chancellors The independent, 11 August 2013

Britain's top universities have joined critics attacking Michael Gove's A-level reforms. In a survey, 22 leading universities said the Education Secretary's decision to scrap AS-levels as a qualification to count towards a final A-level grade is a serious misjudgement that will damage state-school pupils' efforts to be admitted to higher education. The Labour Party survey of vice-chancellors, pro-vice-chancellors and admissions directors showed that almost 67 per cent opposed Mr Gove's reforms, with only 18 per cent backing the changes that are due to be introduced in 2015. The new figures challenge the Department for Education's claim that the reforms will raise standards and that leading universities are backing Mr Gove.