International News

International News

Letter from London

Curious reforms

It’s the time of year when universities host ‘open days’. Prospective students troop round the campus checking out studios, equipment, facilities, canteens and accommodation, while furtively sizing up fellow students. It’s an opportunity for sixth formers to get a feel of the institutions to which they have applied and compare their relative merits and demerits. Marketing departments and recruitment staff are on full alert because with top-up fees becoming a reality this year, it is vital to make their offers attractive, both by way of facilities and study programmes.

One particularly unusual course which is raising eyebrows in the press, is a degree programme in roulette, blackjack and other arts of casino management in a specialist ‘gambling academy’. This new department at Fylde College, close to Blackpool’s Golden Mile entertainment area which is earmarked for a possible ‘super-casino’, will enlist its first batch of 350 students in end March. The college authorities don’t seem unduly worried about recruiting students, because with academic subjects being considered as too serious by some school leavers, this study programme is likely to prove an easy option for those out to have some fun.

However a foreseeable difficulty is that students with degrees in mathematics, physics, history and other academic subjects are likely to feel they are being equated with students who have a degree in say, casino management. Perhaps there is a case for degrees to be differently categorised, so outsiders have some idea whether the degree awarded involved serious scholarship or development of simpler skills.

How students spend their time at university differs greatly, but an interesting new proposal at Oxford University is the introduction of contracts which require students to attend a minimum number of lectures and tutorials. According to cynics, this contract proposal is less designed to benefit students than to protect universities against possible malpractice suits. British courts have recently ruled that students can sue their universities and colleges if they don’t receive a reasonable standard of teaching.

Nevertheless, the idea of a university-student contract seems heavy-handed. However frustrating it may be for academic staff when students don’t bother to attend lectures and tutorials, in the end it’s all part of the responsibility and development process of a young person who for the first time, has the chance to make up his or her own mind about how to spend his/ her time.

If this proposal gains currency, students’ freedom will be circumscribed in institutions which follow Oxford’s example. No longer will they be able to idle their years away learning about life, but will have to attend classes to learn the subjects they are enrolled to study. It may be a good idea, but it sounds too much like school.

(Jacqueline Thomas is a London-based academic)

United States

Foreign languages learning drive

President George W. Bush used a gathering of university presidents to launch a $114 million (Rs.524.4 crore) campaign to expand the teaching of Arabic, Urdu and Farsi. The goal of the National Security Language Initiative is to produce 2,000 advanced speakers of Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Central Asian languages over the next several years to enhance not only national security, but cultural understanding, say administration officials.

Even that is far short of the demand. The defence department alone needs 3,000 people a year with basic language skills. Yet only 15 primary schools in the entire country teach Arabic and there are only 2,000 teachers of Chinese. By comparison, there are some 200 million Chinese students learning English. Among university students, fewer than 8 percent take foreign language courses, and only 1 percent pursue a degree in a foreign language.

Some of the money will pay for university students, including low-income candidates, to study languages abroad. There are also plans to make financial incentives available to university graduates with language skills to teach in lower schools.

The programme, conceived by the then national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, is perceived as being similar to the national emphasis on science that followed the shock of the Sputnik launch by the Soviet Union in 1957. "We’re facing an ideological struggle, and we’re going to win," announced President Bush to about 100 university presidents who were briefed on the programme in Washington DC recently.

Disturbing survey findings

Fewer and fewer American university graduates, raised on watching television and surfing the web, know how to read and understand a book, according to a new national study of 19,000 people. The study, by the government’s National Centre for Education Statistics (NCES) found that only 31 percent of graduates could read a complex book and extrapolate from it. A decade ago, the proportion was 40 percent.

Some 3 percent of adults, or about 7 million people, were non-literate, meaning that interviewers could not communicate with them in English. Even among graduate students, only 41 percent could read and understand information in short texts, including product labels, compared with 51 percent ten years ago.

Mark Schneider, NCES commissioner, does not have a good explanation for the figures. He suggests that while people have become more literate with computers and other technology, they are losing the ability to read. About 13 percent of all adults had below-basic literacy, meaning they could not do much more than read and sign a simple form.

Some 63 million had basic literacy — they could understand information in a pamphlet about serving on a jury. Ninety-five million had intermediate literacy — they could look something up in a dictionary or encyclopedia.


Curious case of Chinese graduates

Almost half the Chinese students who took a English language test required for permanent residency visas in Australia failed, despite having completed their courses during the previous 12 months.

Last year, Australia’s immigration department began requiring students from a number of South Asian countries to sit the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test, which is used by education institutions around the world to assess written, aural and spoken English competency. A minimum score of six gives students 20 points towards the minimum 120 needed to qualify for a residency visa.

Of the 2,655 Chinese who sat the test on finishing their studies, 45 percent failed to score six on a 10-point scale — the level considered necessary to be able to tackle a degree or diploma programme. Most of those who failed had already spent several years studying in Australian education institutions. Yet, apparently with poor English, they still managed to complete their courses. In contrast, 94 percent of the 2,400 Indian students who applied for residency achieved the required IELTS test score.

The test results were revealed by Monash University sociologist Bob Birrell, who was commissioned by the immigration department to investigate Australia’s skilled migration programme. Dr. Birrell says that while one in five of all students who sat the test failed to achieve the level necessary to qualify for the visa, the figure for those from China was twice as high. "The main reason this seems to have occurred," he says "is that most of these students who enroll in our tertiary institutions do not come via the student visa system (where they must first complete the IELTS test) but through other means, such as schools or foundation programmes."

Birrell says the findings leave open the question of how students who do not demonstrate this level of language competency manage to complete their university courses satisfactorily.

The chance to obtain permanent residency in Australia after completing a university course has led to a huge growth in foreign student numbers. Between 2001 and 2004, the number of foreign Masters students jumped from about 9,400 to almost 17,000 — an 82 percent increase.


New genre of millionaire professors

A growing cadre of super-rich academics is joining the ranks of the wealthy after reaping the rewards of commercialising their ideas and inventions. The first survey on the academic rich, compiled by The Times Higher Education Supplement, reveals dozens of multimillionaire professors who have made fortunes through spin-off companies, entrepreneurial ventures and inventions.

Twelve academics identified as the biggest earners in the list, have founded companies worth hundreds of millions of pounds. The list is dominated by academics at Oxbridge and Russell Group institutions but also includes lecturers at Bradford, Dundee and Ulster universities.

It includes John King, an ex-lecturer at Queen’s University, Belfast, who has been valued at £160 million (Rs.1,312 crore), and Brian Bellhouse, an Oxford engineering professor, whose personal wealth has been estimated at £40 million (Rs.328 crore). Multimillionaire Cambridge scientist Sir Greg Winter and Oxford chemists Steve Davies and Graham Richards also feature among the top 12 earners.

Several on the list have made their millions in the past year, such as Stephen Jackson, a Cambridge biologist who founded KuDos Pharmaceuticals. The list was compiled from a survey by more than 100 finance experts. Most said that more academics were making millions from commercial ventures than ever before. Entrepreneurs have benefited from the Alternative Investment Market, which opened in 1995 mainly to meet the needs of smaller new businesses.

Prof. Winter, who founded Cambridge Antibody Technology, and Sir Tom Blundell, a Cambridge biochemist who set up Astex Therapeutics valued at £150 million (Rs.1,230 crore), say there’s been a culture change in universities. "I look back to, say, the 1970s when aspiring academics had two main objectives: to get into an academy such as the Royal Society, and to do some good research. Now academics in their thirties are aspiring to start companies, as well as get into an academy and do excellent research," says Blundell.


Kurdish universities gather steam

Kurdish students are flocking to enroll in universities in Northern Iraq, where the autonomous
provincial government has made higher education a priority. In Saddam’s time, a solitary university in Sulaimaniya served the region’s 4 million people. Even that was closed by the Baathist regime and its students barred from studying elsewhere in Iraq.

Now Dohuk University is one of the four higher education institutions in the region, literally built on the infrastructure formerly used against Kurds. Speaking from his office, rector Asmat Khalid says: "This is the room of the former headquarters of the Baath party. Now it is my room. The college of medicine used to be an army base where people were trained to shoot people. Now people are trained to treat patients. The college of law was formerly a prison and execution centre run by the secret police. There are still some bullet holes."

Dohuk is expanding rapidly, with a new campus and dormitories. More than 50,000 students study in the region’s four universities and a fifth is being built. Safeen Deziyee, spokesman for the Kurdish regional government says that higher education is part of a policy for developing the country. "Education is important as Kurdistan never had the opportunity to develop its needs. We are trying to develop a new generation and turn people into producers and not just consumers. We also have many Kurds returning from exile abroad who want facilities to continue their children’s education."

All four universities are modelled on the British system, although this could change as a result of growing US financial support. Kurdish universities are also building links with European counterparts. The University of Dortmund in Germany has developed a partnership with several Kurdish universities.

But university administrators accuse Baghdad of not giving enough assistance. Kurdish rectors are still waiting for a reply to a joint letter calling for the Iraqi higher education ministry to deal directly with its Kurdish equivalent and bolster the financial support they receive.

New Zealand

Interest write off for returned graduates

The New Zealand labour government’s pre-election promise to abolish all interest charges on student loans will come into effect on April 1 this year. Opposition politicians have called it "free money" and say the policy will encourage students to borrow as much as they can, while repaying only the minimum. Comments opposition education spokesman Bill English: "This policy will provide most benefit to those with big loans."

Vice chancellors are also displeased, saying the money could be better spent on improving funding for universities rather than helping former students. The policy applies only to those who remain or return to live in New Zealand. Tertiary education minister Michael Cullen, who is also the finance minister says it is "designed to encourage skilled New Zealanders to invest their skills in the New Zealand economy".

Officials estimate that 12 percent of debtors live overseas and owe 20 percent of the total debt. "As a further inducement to encourage people back, non-resident borrowers who are in default for non-repayment of their loans will have their penalties cancelled under a special amnesty," says Cullen.

The problem is graphically illustrated by the small town of Stratford on the North Island’s west coast. Stratford, like many small towns and rural districts, has an acute shortage of skilled people in the age group 22-35. Mayor Brian Jeffares’ solution is to reallocate money from a trust that pays local students’ university fees and offer to pay off the loans of graduates who come to live and work there.

A 2005 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report indicates that nearly a quarter of New Zealanders with higher education qualifications live overseas, the highest proportion in the developed world.


Amends for Nazi injustices

German universities are confronting their National Socialist past with projects that include
finally reinstating academic titles stripped during the Third Reich. Research has shown that many institutions did not merely acquiesce to the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies, but welcomed them.

Urban Wiesing, head of the Ethics and History of Medicine Institute at the Eberhard-Karls University in Tubingen, is leading the institute’s first comprehensive study into Jews at Tubingen during National Socialism. "Tubingen had a long anti-Semitic tradition. Even at the start of Hitler’s regime, the number of Jewish students and professors was dwindling fast," he says.

Weeks before, the Nazis introduced a law imposing a maximum of 1.5 percent for ‘non-Aryan’ first-year students, Tubingen’s rector, August Hegler, proudly stated that the university had "solved the Jewish question".

Prof. Wiesing and his team, with the support of rector Eberhard Schaich, found that Tubingen was one of the universities least affected by the "cleansing" of Jewish professors after 1933, as there were few left to remove. Those who remained were either fired or forced into early retirement. "Unfortunately for the university, a Nobel prize-winner was among them," says Wiesing. Physicist Hans Bethe, sacked in 1933, later won a Nobel prize.

Tubingen was not alone in its approval of Nazi ideology. Several other universities, including Hamburg, Cologne, Kiel, Frankfurt, Bonn and Berlin’s Humboldt, have joined Tubingen, belatedly trying to make amends. Cologne has restored titles to 70 Jewish graduates stripped of them 60 years ago.


End of official history

President Chirac has called for a law that requires schools to teach that the French empire had a positive role to be repealed. His intervention in early January followed protest from historians, teachers and human rights and anti-racism groups who object to the glorification of the empire — which they say caused exploitation and suffering — and to the imposition of a politicised ‘official history’.

Laws were passed last February recognising the part played by French colonialists repatriated from Algeria, and by Algerians who fought with the French in the bloody war of independence (1954-1962).

A contentious clause was added by MPs from President Chirac’s ruling conservative UMP party sympathetic to former French settlers in Algeria. It says school lessons must recognise "the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in north Africa" and acknowledge the "distinguished position" due to the "history and sacrifices of combatants of the French army who came from these territories".

A petition against the clause last year said "retaining only the ‘positive role’ of colonialism imposes an official lie about crimes, about massacres sometimes going as far as genocide, about slavery, about racism inherited from this past".

The row has echoes in the UK where chancellor Gordon Brown has said Britain should stop apologising for its colonial past. Labour MP Gordon Marden, a former editor of History Today and member of the education selection committee, has called on schools to teach a rounded history of the rise and fall of Britain’s empire.

Prof. Claude Liauzu, who filed the petition says that since 1870, history teachers in France had total freedom to teach within the framework of the ministry’s curriculum. "The reason for our refusal (to accept this law) is defence of freedom of teaching, which goes beyond the colonial problem," he says.

Hubert Tison, general secretary of the Association of History and Geography Teachers which wants the clause withdrawn, says there is no place for "official history". In early January, Chirac said the present law is dividing the French people, and "it must therefore be rewritten".


Maturity spurt prompts school reforms 

Like most youngsters, Keiko Asano is itching to get to big school. "It’s frustrating being a big girl and surrounded by babies," says the taller-than-average 12-year-old at Seimei elementary school in Tokyo. Mentally, too, like many of her peers, Keiko is more mature than children 10 years ago, says her teacher Maiko Ikeda. It’s time for a change, he says, in how children are sent to middle school at the relatively late age of 12-plus.

The government is now suggesting the nation change to a nine-year system that will combine primary and middle-school. This would enable staff to introduce middle-school-style teaching of specialist subjects to 10-year-olds.

One ward in Tokyo, Shinagawa, is set to be the first to roll out the new system at the start of the next school year this April. Ten-12-year-old girls in particular are experiencing a spurt of mental and physical growth not seen in past generations, says the Shinagawa board. Two to three years later, both boys and girls reach a great psychological turning point, it says.

Since the 1940s Japan has followed a six-three-three system — six years of elementary school followed by three years of junior high school and an optional further three years in high school. Shinagawa’s nine-year system will allow primary and middle school pupils to learn in the same school buildings, which will also ease the strain on education boards caused by Japan’s declining birthrate.

The phenomenal spurt of maturity in the new generation of Japanese children has been attributed by some psychologists and doctors to the increase of meat and dairy protein in the Japanese diet. Girls and boys are reaching puberty earlier than their parents’ generation by one year.

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