International News

International News

Letter from London

Widening participation price

J. Thomas
As the government’s policy of widening participation in higher education takes effect, universities are finding that there are downsides to recruiting students who may not have reached requisite academic standards, or the discipline of rigorous on-going study to complete a three-year degree course. The result is a rising number of students who drop out before completing their varsity study programmes.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), as many as a third of graduates are failing to complete their study programmes. According to the agency, students who drop out cost the taxpayer £10,000 (Rs.8.5 lakh) in wasted teaching, financial awards and loans. The overall cost to the exchequer is a staggering £420 million (Rs.3,570 crore) per year.

The problem seems to be that once students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds begin university, they don’t receive the ongoing support they need, both inside and outside their institutions. Many students find it difficult, especially in the first year, to manage finances, look after themselves in student residences and mix socially in unfamiliar surroundings. Comments James Knight, president of the National Union of Students in Wales: "It’s wrong to raise people’s aspirations but not to give them the support they need. Addressing learner needs is absolutely essential if widening access is to have any meaning."

The HESA data raises serious questions about the benefits of widening participation. There is an emerging consensus within British academia that increasing the intake of students at the beginning of the academic year, without ensuring they complete their study programmes is an exercise in futility. University managements need to do more than satisfy the government’s intake targets and work at providing solid and supportive learning frameworks to students from all backgrounds.

Another survey conducted by London Metropolitan University indicates that students admitted without traditional qualifications have a dramatically higher drop-out rate than those with good quality A level grades. These students are more likely to be from the local area, suggesting that they may not have applied to any other university. Widening participation begins close to home, which does not necessarily bring in the most competitive or talented students.

Research on widening participation comes to the conclusion that a rising number of drop-outs is the price universities will have to pay for operating a more ‘open-access’ policy. Comments Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and co-author of the LMU study: "We have to accept that the government policy on widening access, if it means admitting more students with less traditional qualifications, will inevitably lead to higher drop-out rates."

The introduction of higher university fees which begins in 2006 will also impact widening participation issues. Many universities intend to use the additional money raised to offer generous bursaries to attract students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. More bursary schemes may encourage talented students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford university education. However it is not just a question of financial support. Students from families without a tradition of university education are likely to need additional pastoral support and encouragement to enable them to benefit from higher education.

(Jacqueline Thomas is a London-based academic and journalist)

South Asia

University students rush to aid tsunami victims

Academics and medical students are in the forefront of Sri Lanka’s relief operation as survivors of the December 26 tsunami struggle with disease, food shortages and lack of shelter. Within hours of the waves created by an earthquake off Sumatra bearing down on coastal communities, university administrators in Sri Lanka were recording damage and seeking to account for the dead and missing faculty, other employees and students.

Tsunami devastation in Sri Lanka: huge academic response
Universities opened their campuses to thousands of displaced people. Upto 3,000 refugees sought shelter at the Eastern University of Sri Lanka. Four of the country’s 13 universities were directly affected. Nine days after the disaster, the casualty list stood at 16 personnel and 18 students known to be dead and a further 112 missing.

Many of the casualties occurred away from the campuses, which were relatively free from damage according to B.R.R.N. Mendis, chairman of the University Grants Commission. The start of the new semester was deferred for two weeks and exams and interviews postponed in the wake of the disaster.

The Sri Jayawardenepura University has dispatched 50 doctors to help in Sarvodaya, while 50 of its medical students are awaiting deployment. Similar numbers of students are on call at the universities of Colombo, Kelaniya and Perdeniya. Some 50 students from Ruhuna are in the field. Engineers and architects from universities across the country are also standing by to tackle the task of rebuilding the infrastructure. Plans to build a one billion new rupee (Rs.50 crore) university in a deprived part of the island are still likely to go ahead according to Mendis. He acknowledges, however, that the government might be forced to reconsider the project.

Arun Nigavekar, chairman of India’s University Grants Commission says that despite the force of the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry University sustained "almost nil damage" and Chennai was largely unscathed. E. Balaguruswamy, vice-chancellor of Anna University says there have been no reports of casualties among staff or students at any of the city’s universities. "The university and its 240 affiliated colleges have started on a massive relief fund," says Balaguruswamy. "Some students and faculty have been helping fishermen on the Chennai coast who are badly affected. University communities in the southern part of Tamil Nadu are participating in the relief operation in the worst-hit east coast area."

Within two days of the disaster, a team of surgeons from the faculty of medicine at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta flew to Aceh.

With controversy over the question of warnings from the US being downplayed, Thailand’s Kasetsart University announced that it would establish a warning centre at a coastal resources research institute at Ranong, which was almost completely destroyed. The university’s Centre for Disaster Studies and Tsunami Monitoring would also study changes in the Andaman Sea.

Five of the seven most affected countries are Commonwealth members. John Rowett, secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities will discuss with the Commonwealth Secretariat the role of its 470 members in responding to the crisis.


Academic cost of terrorist violence

Violence in the run-up to the general election in Iraq is impeding hopes that academics overseas will return to help rebuild the country’s shattered university system. Tahir Khalaf Al Bekaa, higher education minister in the interim administration, acknowledges the level of violence and uncertainty are a barrier. "We expected faster progress but certain problems have got in the way, including funding and terrorism that clearly targets university professors and teachers, 37 of whom have been killed since the end of the war," says Bekaa. Others have been kidnapped for ransom, he says.

The latest incident was a mortar attack on a university in which a female academic was injured in early December while Dr. Al Bekaa was on a visit to London. Insurgents fired two mortar rounds into the grounds of The Technology University in Baghdad, claiming their target was US troops encamped in the grounds. Al Bekaa described the attack as "heinous" and condemned the killings.

Al Bekaa’s own home in Baghdad was shaken by an explosion on the same day, although it seems he was not the intended target. He dismisses the insurgents as "enemies of democracy" determined to undermine the prospects of elections on January 30. Thousands of Iraqi academics fled to the US, UK and Arab countries during the years of sanctions and political repression.

The minister was in Britain to reinforce links with UK universities. Britain has been the most active international partner in university reconstruction, largely through the efforts of the British Council. While Iraq has 390,000 undergraduate and 18,000 postgraduate students, there are only 16,500 lecturers and barely half have progressed beyond a Master’s degree.


Survey ranks international varsity reputations

A first-of-its-kind Australian survey, has ranked the country’s universities in terms of their international standing. The ‘group of eight’ oldest and most research-intensive institutions top the 39 varsities listed. The Australian National University and the University of Melbourne share joint first place, followed by Sydney, Queensland, New South Wales, Monash, Western Australia and Adelaide universities.

University of Melbourne: top international standing
The rankings, drawn up by two researchers at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, used six criteria: the international standing of staff (40 percent weightage); quality of graduate programmes (16 percent); academic standard of new undergraduates (11 percent); quality of programmes (14 percent); university resource levels (11 percent); and a survey of Australian deans and overseas university executives (8 percent).

The survey drew responses from 40 institutions worldwide and from 80 Australian deans. They were asked to rate each Australian university in comparison with foreign universities and then to rank the six categories. All respondents rated quality of staff as most important.

One interesting finding was how closely the Australian rankings mirrored World University Rankings (November 2004) in The Times Higher Education Supplement and Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, published last August. Both placed 14 Australian universities in the top 200.

Ross Williams, chief author of the study says that local students are unlikely to use the rankings but high-achieving foreign scholars would find the list invaluable when deciding where to apply. The rankings will be updated each year, with the survey conducted at three-year intervals. It might be extended to include New Zealand and Asian universities.


Distance learning lifeline for education

Brazil plans a massive expansion of distance learning in 2005 to address a teacher shortage and make education more accessible. The government plans to spend R$ 20 million (Rs.32 crore) on distance-learning programmes in 2005, an increase of nearly 50 percent on 2004. Selma Leite, president of UniRede, a virtual network of 70 public universities and higher education institutions, welcomes the change. According to ministry figures, Brazil has a deficit of 235,000 teachers in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology.

Of the 51 higher education courses offered through distance learning and authorised by the education ministry, 45 are aimed at training or further developing teachers’ qualifications. Only 9 percent of Brazilians between 18-24 enter higher education, compared with 30 percent in Argentina and Chile. Lack of investment has created a crisis in state higher education. Student numbers at the Federal University in Para state, for example, have risen from 14,000 to 36,000 in ten years but the number of teachers has remained the same.

Distance learning is already being developed. The faculty for technology and science in Salvador, in the north east, has been authorised to offer 43,500 distance-learning places. And distance-learning students with Brazil’s capital market institute (Ibmec) in Sao Paulo have tripled since 2003.

United Kingdom

New education minister under close scrutiny

Britain’s newly appointed education secretary, Ruth Kelly is being linked to an ultra conservative Roman Catholic cult and accused of snubbing her "sisters" in Parliament.

As the 36-year-old Kelly was being briefed by civil servants on the Tomlinson report on secondary education, newspaper cuttings were piling up. Most were incredulous that she had managed to juggle ministerial duties in the treasury and cabinet office with four young children. Others quoted unnamed colleagues asking how she had been so rapidly promoted despite extensive maternity leave.

Kelly (second left): intensive coverage
At a party for education correspondents at the department of education and skills, she admitted being taken aback by the coverage. When asked about her alleged membership of Opus Dei, depicted as a sinister cult in the bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, she was swept away by Kim Howells, her junior minister. However Andrew Soane, spokesman for Opus Dei, confirms that the new education secretary was in contact with the organisation and had attended its meetings. She is the only British politician he was aware of with connection to the group, which has 500 members in the UK. Soane says he found much of the coverage of Opus Dei to be "grossly offensive". "We are not a secret organisation — we’re in the phone book," he says.

Kelly’s Roman Catholic faith will remain under scrutiny. The Family Planning Association was the first to wade in. It hoped she would maintain the government’s commitment to tackling teenage pregnancy. Comments Anne Weyman, FPA’s chief executive: "Young people must be informed about all the issues within sexual health, including contraception and abortion."

Kelly, a former Guardian journalist, was excused the three-line whip in a House of Commons vote on living wills in mid-December. She did not vote on lowering the age of gay consent, or allowing unmarried or gay couples to adopt. However, a department official says Kelly will draw a line between her personal life and policies.

She sends her two school-aged children to a Roman Catholic primary, and says their headteacher seems unfazed that one of her parents is the current education secretary. Kelly was privately educated at Millfield’s prep, Sutton High and Westminster school. Her first school visit in post was to the Charter school in Dulwich, south London, which opened in 2000. "My priorities are the priorities of every parent — raising standards and good discipline so that children can really learn," she says.

One Sunday newspaper, under the headline "Miaow! Blair babes ditch sisterhood to sharpen claws on Kelly", carried unattributed quotes from female MPs who said she has done nothing to promote women’s issues. But Valerie Davey, MP for Bristol West and member of the education select committee, says she will bring a "breath of fresh air, a woman’s perspective and a financial rigour which has been lacking" to the education department.

United States

Conflicting sex education messages war

Thousands of American pupils are being taught that touching another person’s genitals "can result in pregnancy", HIV can be contracted from sweat and tears, condoms fail to avert HIV infections in nearly one in three cases and legal abortions leave up to one in ten women infertile, according to a damning review of the Bush administration’s abstinence-only sex education policy.

The dossier compiled by California Democrat congressman Henry Waxman, accuses the White House of allowing sex education lessons to be hijacked by a Christian fundamentalist agenda, and of spreading alarm and misinformation — including representing religious beliefs as hard scientific fact and promoting outmoded sexual stereotypes.

An audit of approved curricula such as Sex Can Wait, found that 80 percent contained falsehoods and distortions, says the report. One erroneously states that women who have had a legal abortion are at increased risk of having mentally handicapped children. Another bizarrely equates the HIV virus to a penny, then compares it to the cartoon like ‘Speedy the Sperm’ which by this scale would measure nearly 19 ft. asking: "If the condom has a failure rate of 14 percent in preventing ‘Speedy’ from getting through to create a new life, what happens if this guy (penny) gets through?" "You have a death: your own," it answers starkly.

Multiple references discounting the effectiveness of condoms contradict findings from the Center for Disease Control, America’s public health agency, declaring them "highly effective", in preventing HIV transmissions, the report notes. Stressing marriage and family values, curricula also promote ultraconservative views of gender roles, the report adds. One lists ‘financial support’ among women’s needs and ‘domestic support’ among male needs.

Abstinence-only curricula are taught in half of America’s states with annual funding doubled under President Bush to $170 million (Rs.740 crore). Teachers are banned from informing students about contraception. Schools wishing to teach about it must seek alternative funding.

Ward Horn, assistant US secretary for children and families says telling pupils to avoid sex, then teaching them about condoms, sends conflicting messages. "Imagine, I’m leaving on business and my wife says, ‘I know you’ll be faithful, but just in case, here’s a condom’ — it’s hardly an expression of faith I’m able to control myself," he says. "The only 100 percent effective way of avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to be sexually abstinent."

But critics complain this is out of touch with the reality that 61 percent of 17-year-old American students are sexually active. "Millions of kids are being subjected to propaganda and scare tactics," says Waxman.

However, Leslee Unruh of the National Abstinence Clearing-house which offers students T-shirts proclaiming, "Pet your dog not your date," dismisses the report as sour grapes from supporters of "so-called safe-sex programmes", cut off from government funding. "Sex is dangerous," she says. "You can die from sex these days."


New front in war against Aids

A new campaign by Pakistan’s government is calling on teachers in religious schools to declare "a jihad against HIV/ Aids". A handbook by the National Aids Control Programme tells Islamic leaders, including those who run the country’s madrassas, that it is their religious duty to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

Madrassa school children: Aids epidemic threat
Pakistan is classified by the United Nations as a "low prevalence, but high risk" nation for HIV. While an epidemic has not yet hit the country, experts agree it could be around the corner if social taboos are not tackled. The government hopes that these highly respected moral teachers will set an example by casting aside their own discomfort to carry out the Islamic obligation to help the sick and prevent disease, however difficult. Mullahs are also in a good position to disseminate information to Pakistan’s rural population. Many areas have no government school or health service, but there is a mosque in each village.

Convincing the madrassas to change their curriculum is no easy task, however. The majority of Pakistan’s estimated 20,000 seminaries provide little other than recitation of the Holy Koran and basic literacy. But even in the most conservative areas, a few religious tutors are leading the way. Maulana Abdul Mateen is a mullah who has been imparting HIV/Aids education for the past eight years in Baluchistan, a south-western province. Mateen is convinced that Islamic teachers and Aids campaigners should collaborate because both are dedicated to working for good health. However, on the subject of safe sex, he preaches only monogamy and abstinence. "If a person is actually suffering from HIV or Aids we recommend he uses a condom to save his wife," he says "but please don’t tell people that Maulana Mateen has given permission to use condoms without conditions," he adds quickly.

For many, an HIV/Aids campaign without condoms would be unthinkable. But Mateen has nonetheless educated 200,000 religious students in 350 schools about other methods of prevention and promotes tolerance for HIV-positive people. In this extremely conservative environment he has opened an important new front in the war against Aids.


Restrictions imposed upon Islamic schools

Holland’s centre-right government is setting restrictions on the running of Islamic schools after the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim last November. A proposed law will insist that all new schools have a board consisting entirely of Dutch nationals and formulate a plan to integrate pupils with Dutch society. Most controversially, it will also restrict the number of socially-disadvantaged pupils per school to 80 percent of the total.

"This will be impossible to do," says Rasit Bal, head of the Islamic Schools Board Organisation (ISBO) of the Netherlands. Normally an application is lodged two years before a new school opens. "You cannot know what kind of children you will get. They come from all over the city," says Bal.

The Dutch government says it wants to promote integration by restricting minority schools. But Bal says the legislation is not based on educational or pedagogical research. "It is a political rule which will not help the problems the government says it wants to resolve."

Geert Driessen, an expert on Islamic schools at the University of Nijmegen, says more than 96 percent of children in such schools are disadvantaged, and less than 2 percent of parents were born in the Netherlands. "Islamic schools allow parents, who may be on the fringes of Dutch society, to become more involved in their children’s education," says Driessen who believes restricting such schools would merely force pupils into city sink schools which could increase disharmony rather than the integration the government desires.

Pupils at Muslim and other minority schools are also more likely to have additional Dutch language instruction at a time when subsidies for teaching Dutch as a second language have been reduced in mainstream schools, says Driessen.

Holland has some 40 Islamic primaries and two secondaries. Some 7 percent of primary-age pupils attend such schools, 40 percent of them Moroccan and 37 percent of them Turkish.

Dr. Driessen’s study published last year found that 70 percent of Muslim parents would prefer their children to attend such schools, translating into a demand for another 120 Islamic schools. ISBO plans to open new schools at the rate of two to three a year. But these plans are now in jeopardy. "We have the freedom under the constitution to open our schools, but the government wants to make it more difficult," says Bal.