Tuesday, August 04, 2009

British universities accused of dumbing down after number of first class degrees doubles in a decade

Universities have been accused of falling standards after it emerged that the number of first-class degrees has almost doubled in a decade. A scathing report by MPs claimed university vice-chancellors are guilty of 'defensive complacency' over fears of grade inflation. It also voiced frustration that different institutions appear to use wildly varying standards to grade students. This suggests that top grades from some newer universities are not the same as those gained from top colleges, such as Oxford or Cambridge.

The powerful all-party Commons' select committee on innovation, universities, science and skills provides a damning indictment on standards in higher education. MPs have accused universities of not doing enough to safeguard degree quality, with vice chancellors guilty of 'defensive complacency' over the subject. Vice chancellors are already under fire after seeing their average pay rise by nine per cent to £193,970, which is virtually Gordon Brown's salary.

Meanwhile, figures in the report show that the proportion of graduates awarded a first has risen from 7.7 per cent in 1996/7 to 13.3 per cent in 2007/8. The proportion of upper second class degrees has also risen from 44.5 per cent in 1996/7 to 48.1 per cent in 2007/8.

MPs concluded that 'different standards may be being applied' at different universities. Committee chairman Phil Willis claimed that 'inconsistency in standards is rife and there is a reluctance to address this issue'. His committee 'found no appetite' in universities 'to explore key issues such as the reasons for proportional increases in first and upper second class honours degrees in the past 15 years'.

MPs said: 'It is unacceptable to the committee that vice chancellors could not give a straightforward answer to the simple question of whether first class honours degrees achieved at different universities indicate the same or different intellectual standards.' For example, there was no clear answer to MPs' attempts to discover whether an upper second history degree from Oxford University and former polytechnic Oxford Brookes University were equivalent.

The report argued that the current system for ensuring quality is 'out of date' and needs to be replaced. It described as 'absurd and disreputable' the claim that the growing demand for courses, including from overseas students, is proof that university standards are being maintained.

The report also attacks the elite Russell Group of universities which had claimed there was no evidence of 'degree inflation' and pointed to a strong correlation between entry qualifications and degree results.

MPs said: 'In our view, it is not a sufficient defence of the comparability of standards to show that they match the improvement in A-level grades. 'On this logic, if A-level grades have inflated unjustifiably (and there are many who think they have) then so must higher education degree classes.'

Gillian Evans, a lecturer in medieval theology at Oxford University and an expert in university regulation, yesterday attributed the rise in first class degrees to competition for league table positions. She said: 'I am quite sure the reason proportions have gone up is exactly the same as the reasons A-levels have gone up: it's straightforward grade inflation, chasing a place in league tables.'

And Liberal Democrat universities spokesman Stephen Williams added: 'Universities often raise the issue of grade inflation in GCSEs and A-levels so they should not be afraid of examining degree classification to ensure that standards are high.'

But Wendy Piatt, of the Russell Group of leading universities, insisted that 'universities are not schools'. She said: 'An essential feature of a university is its academic freedom and autonomy with the responsibility to award degrees and standards.'

Lord Mandelson, Business, Innovation and Skills Secretary, said: 'I don't recognise the committee's description of our higher education sector, which is in fact world class and second only to the USA as a top destination for overseas students.'

More than half of university students will be forced to rely on help from their parents when the new term begins, research suggests. In total, parents are contributing 61 per cent of their child's weekly term time income (around £69), up from 58 per cent (£64) last year, the sixth annual Student Living Index found. Almost four in ten students will be juggling their studies with part-time work in order to make ends meet.

Critics have previously claimed that universities are under pressure to award more first class degrees due to the growing number of overseas students who pay higher fees. UK students are also demanding a return for their money after the introduction of top-up fees.


U.K. to Review and Tighten Requirements for Citizenship

The U.K. government is planning to review its immigration policies, in a move likely to make it more difficult for foreigners to become British citizens. Home Secretary Alan Johnson plans to announce as early as Monday new proposals under which foreigners would have to score a certain number of points to become British citizens -- a requirement already in place for people entering the country to work or study.

This would extend a system, modeled after one in use in Australia and introduced last year, that grades workers and students hoping to enter the U.K. on criteria including education, age and need for their skills. The changes were aimed at making it easier to slow the flow of foreigners looking for work in the U.K. when the economy weakens.

Further details of the new proposals weren't immediately available, but a Home Office spokeswoman said their aim would be to "provide flexibility for the government to respond to the changing economic needs of the country."

The move comes as unemployment is now at a 12-year high and as concerns about terrorism have fueled a surge in protectionist sentiment in the U.K., long one of the world's most open countries. Earlier this year, workers at a number of refineries staged large-scale strikes to protest the use of foreign workers. Meanwhile, once-marginal anti-immigration politicians have been gaining ground.

The U.K. began tightening its immigration policies several years ago. The points-based system has raised hurdles for all but the most highly skilled workers to enter and live in the country.

The Home Office said its proposals will be put out for public and political consultation. The spokeswoman said the proposals would aim to strengthen the country's current citizenship process, which already requires candidates to display good conduct, speak English and demonstrate that they are making a contribution to the community. "The points-based system has already proved to be a powerful tool for controlling migration for the benefit of both British people and the economy," she said.

This week's proposals will likely include changing a rule that allows workers who have been in the country for five years to apply for a passport, by making that period longer, a person familiar with the matter said.

This year, England, which receives the majority of the U.K.'s immigrants, is expected to overtake the Netherlands to become the most densely populated country in Europe. According to government calculations, immigration will add seven million people by 2031 to the U.K.'s population, which is currently more than 60 million. Critics say recent increases are placing a huge burden on public services, as hospitals and schools face increased demand but no increase in their budgets.

In elections last June, two members of the British National Party won seats in the European Parliament, the first electoral success for the anti-immigration party.

Other European countries also are clamping down on new immigration as their economies slow and citizens complain that too many people are being allowed in. Britain, however, with France and Germany, was among the first to open its borders to large-scale immigration from non-European countries after World War II.

Some industries have complained about the increased restrictions. Both Britain's catering industry and its powerful banking sector have said that tightened immigration rules have made it harder for them to attract global talent and fill jobs that can't be filled through local hires.

The points-based system was also criticized this weekend in a report by a committee of U.K. lawmakers, who said it gives undue priority to factors such as qualifications and ignores ability or experience.

Some critics, such as member of Parliament and former Labour government minister Frank Field, have said the points-based system's effect has been trivial, and that it has reduced the number of foreigners looking for jobs in the U.K. by only 8%.


Many elderly British patients forced to live in agony after NHS refuses to pay for painkilling injections

It takes a socialist to have a heart of stone. But after Stalin and Co., should we be surprised? Leftists talk the talk but they don't walk the walk where compassion is concerned

Tens of thousands with chronic back pain will be forced to live in agony after a decision to slash the number of painkilling injections issued on the NHS, doctors have warned. The Government's drug rationing watchdog says "therapeutic" injections of steroids, such as cortisone, which are used to reduce inflammation, should no longer be offered to patients suffering from persistent lower back pain when the cause is not known. Instead the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is ordering doctors to offer patients remedies like acupuncture and osteopathy. [QUACK MEDICINE! I can't believe it]

Specialists fear tens of thousands of people, mainly the elderly and frail, will be left to suffer excruciating levels of pain or pay as much as £500 each for private treatment. The NHS currently issues more than 60,000 treatments of steroid injections every year. NICE said in its guidance it wants to cut this to just 3,000 treatments a year, a move which would save the NHS £33 million.

But the British Pain Society, which represents specialists in the field, has written to NICE calling for the guidelines to be withdrawn after its members warned that they would lead to many patients having to undergo unnecessary and high-risk spinal surgery. Dr Christopher Wells, a leading specialist in pain relief medicine and the founder of the NHS' first specialist pain clinic, said it was "entirely unacceptable" that conventional treatments used by thousands of patients would be stopped. "I don't mind whether some people want to try acupuncture, or osteopathy. What concerns me is that to pay for these treatments, specialist clinics which offer vital services are going to be forced to close, leaving patients in significant pain, with nowhere to go,"

The NICE guidelines admit that evidence was limited for many back pain treatments, including those it recommended. Where scientific proof was lacking, advice was instead taken from its expert group. But specialists are furious that while the group included practitioners of alternative therapies, there was no one with expertise in conventional pain relief medicine to argue against a decision to significantly restrict its use.

Dr Jonathan Richardson, a consultant pain specialist from Bradford Hospitals Trust, is among more than 50 medics who have written to NICE urging the body to reconsider its decision, which was taken in May. He said: "The consequences of the NICE decision will be devastating for thousands of patients. It will mean more people on opiates, which are addictive, and kill 2,000 a year. It will mean more people having spinal surgery, which is incredibly risky, and has a 50 per cent failure rate."

One in three people are estimated to suffer from lower back pain every year, while one in 15 consult their GP about it. Specialists say therapeutic injections using steroids to reduce inflammation and other injections which can deaden nerve endings, can provide months or even years of respite from pain. Experts said that if funding was stopped for the injections, many clinics would also struggle to offer other vital services, such as pain management programmes and psychotherapy which is used to manage chronic pain.

Anger among medics has reached such levels that Dr Paul Watson, a physiotherapist who helped draft the guidelines, was last week forced to resign as President of the British Pain Society. Doctors said he had failed to represent their views when the guidelines were drawn up and refused to support the letter by more than 50 of the group's members which called for the guidelines to be withdrawn.

In response, NICE chairman Professor Sir Michael Rawlins expressed outrage over the vote that forced Dr Watson from his position, describing the actions of the society as "shameful". He accused pain specialists of refusing to accept that there was insufficient scientific evidence to support their practices. A spokesman for NICE said its guidance did not recommend that injections were stopped for all patients, but only for those who had been in pain for less than a year, where the cause was not known.

Iris Watkins, 80 from Appleton, in Cheshire said her life had been "transformed" by the use of therapeutic injections every two years. The pensioner began to suffer back pain in her 70s. Four years ago, despite physiotherapy treatment and the use of medication, she had reached a stage where she could barely walk. "It was horrendous, I was spending hours lying on the sofa, or in bed, I couldn't spend a whole evening out. I was referred to a specialist, who decided to give me a set of injections. The difference was tremendous". Within days, she was able to return to her old life, gardening, caring for her husband Herbert, and enjoying social occasions.

"I just felt fabulous – almost immediately, there was not a twinge. I only had an injection every two years, but it really has transformed my life; if I couldn't have them I would be in despair".


Britain's "Green" expendiiture is mostly going into foreign pockets

Clever! But there is nothing clever about the Labour government anyway

The blueprint for Britain’s green revolution was launched this month at a low-carbon bus factory in Surrey. Yet as the government attempts to cut emissions and build a low-carbon energy system, the bus plant is likely to be a rare example of homegrown green manufacturing. Today Britain is almost entirely dependent on foreign multinationals to provide the equipment and expertise needed to decarbonise the country. And despite the government’s grand plans, industry executives say it has failed to remove the barriers that have restricted the growth of new firms.

Vestas is a good example. Last week the Danish firm decided to close Britain’s only large factory that makes parts for wind turbines. Workers staged a sit-in protest against the closure and remain at the plant this weekend. The company said it was moving production to America where the demand for onshore wind power was stronger.

“The whole idea of this huge green British industry is a lot of hype,” said Peter Hunter of NEG Micon UK, which built the plant before it was bought by Vestas.

The government has put wind energy at the centre of its plans to remake Britain’s energy infrastructure. Crucially, though, the bane of the industry — planning — remains unresolved. The average onshore windfarm takes two years to get planning approval, one of Vestas’ biggest complaints. The government’s new Infrastructure Planning Commission, which will decide on big applications, should help speed up offshore wind projects but won’t help onshore developers. The commission can only decide on projects of 50MW or greater; the average onshore project is 30MW. Furthermore, the Tories have opposed the planning commission and have vowed to overhaul it.

Critics say it is little surprise, then, that Britain — endowed with enormous offshore wind-power potential — doesn’t have a single homegrown company to provide for the market. Our continental neighbours Denmark, Germany and Spain, on the other hand, are home to six of the world’s top 10 turbine manufacturers and employ 80,000 people in the wind sector. Britain employs 4,000.

The accountancy firm Ernst & Young recently warned that if Britain didn’t resolve the planning issue it would risk a huge drop in investment, with only £53 billion invested by 2015 compared with the £90 billion projected. As a result, it said, Britain would miss its 2020 renewable-energy targets and create 40,000 fewer green jobs.

In the meantime, Britain remains vulnerable to the whims of foreign manufacturers which will, naturally, set up where they can make the most money with the least hassle. Mark Wilson, of the advisory firm Catalyst Corporate Finance, said: “A reliance on overseas investors is alarming for two reasons. First, there is a risk that our clean energy infrastructure won’t get built if investors turn their attention to more lucrative markets, as Vestas has done, and we will therefore miss our renewables targets. Second, most of the returns would flow out of Britain to overseas firms.” According to Nathan Goode, of accountants Grant Thornton, this is already happening under the UK’s renewables obligation certificate (ROC) scheme, the government’s main subsidy programme to encourage the building of low-carbon energy plants.

In April’s budget, the government ratcheted up the ROCs payable to offshore wind, tidal and biomass developers. Goode said the move has had unintended consequences. “The extra subsidy just pays for price inflation on turbines that are being manufactured abroad,” he said. “The money is actually leaking out of the British economy.”

The price of ROCs is also unpredictable. Under the scheme, utilities must source an annually increasing percentage of their energy from clean sources such as wind. They can either buy ROCs from renewable developers to meet their obligation or pay a fine into a central fund that is distributed to providers of clean energy. Utilyx, an energy consultancy, said the value of ROCs could drop by two-thirds, from £18 per kilowatt hour to as little as £5 over the next three years as more projects come onstream. This would be a huge blow for renewable-energy firms dependent on that income.

A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research said the government could replace ROCs with more straightforward subsidy programmes that have proved effective elsewhere — such as Germany’s feed-in tariffs or the Danish system of loan guarantees given to projects that use Danish-made turbines.

“Without some radical changes, the only thing likely to land on British shores is the cable bringing in the power,” said Hunter.


Britain's "Green" policies threaten housing provision

So where are they going to house their rapidly growing population? All those "asylum seekers" have got to be housed somewhere

If Ed Miliband, the energy secretary, is to be believed, by 2016 every new home built in Britain will be carbon neutral. It’s a laudable goal, but even compared with the highly ambitious targets that have become so typical of the march toward Britain’s “green revolution”, it is a tall order. The building industry has issued a fresh warning that the plan poses a greater danger than a few missed targets. Fewer new houses will be built, price rises will make new developments too expensive for aspiring homebuyers, and a recovery of the sector will be hindered.

Britain is one of the worst countries in Europe for energy efficiency. The government’s zero-carbon goal is the most ambitious in the world and it falls on the still-struggling housing industry to lead the way. Not surprisingly, support among property developers is lukewarm. According to a recent survey from Loughborough University’s civil and building engineering department, construction firms would rather pay fines for not meeting the new targets than risk losses on developments for which there may not be a market. “There’s a danger this is going to be a barrier rather than a stimulus for the market,” said Mohamed Osmani, a lecturer at the university who commissioned the study.

The problem, industry argues, is that making new homes energy efficient — kitting them out with gadgets such as rooftop turbines, solar panels and cavity insulation — could add up to £40,000 to the price. How much of that the government will subsidise, and which technologies will work best, is still unclear.

“There are no benchmarks or data and builders have a problem believing in the potential of clean and renewable technology to achieve these goals. If there are not enough financial and technical incentives, they will prefer to absorb financial penalties rather than implement the new standards,” said Osmani.

The industry is also concerned that without an established market for carbon-neutral homes, mortgage providers may baulk at lending against houses that appear to be more expensive than less energy-efficient homes of a similar size.

Britain is trying to do something that has taken others decades to achieve. Casey Cole of Fontenergy, which helps developers create low-carbon energy-generation projects, said: “Denmark’s reaction to the oil crisis in the 1970s was to move away from gas and oil towards community-owned district heating — combined heat and power networks that move the heat from incinerators and power stations. We are starting 20 to 30 years later.”

Builders questioned in the Loughborough survey found the timescale too ambitious. “The study showed they believe these standards could be achieved — but not by 2016. A more realistic date for designers and housebuilders is somewhere around 2021 to 2024,” Osmani said. The slump in the housing market has further complicated the situation.

Nicholas Doyle, project director of Places for People, one of Britain’s largest housing associations, said the upshot could be a bottleneck in the supply of new homes at a time when demand will be climbing back to pre-slump levels. “The challenge is how to pay for this and not have an impact on the number of new starts,” said Doyle. “We cannot afford to slow down the number of new homes built. Housing demand has not gone away. There is still a growing population and limited supply.”

It is also unclear what cocktail of technologies and building techniques will work best. But with 2016 looming, some housebuilders could be forced into commissioning sustainable power-generation projects that pose unknown technical, commercial and legal challenges.

Cole said: “Developers are used to putting in gas fittings and walking away, but things are more complicated when you provide heat or move renewably-generated energy.”

What is certain is that the government will have to play a big role in creating the right financial incentives. “The provision for feed-in tariffs in the energy Bill last year could offer a long-term and reliable source of revenue,” said Doyle. “There’s a role for government in facilitating the delivery of this. We need it to help funders come on board to create these funding mechanisms.”

It is in the government’s interest, after all: fostering a green building industry would help achieve its lofty goal of creating 400,000 jobs in low-carbon sectors. Some fear, however, that the 2016 standards could even make new housing less sustainable overall. The focus on making each housing unit carbon neutral may lead to lower-density developments that use more greenfield space and encourage more car use, said Aurore Julien, at Llewelyn Davies Yeang, an architectural practice.

“The new standards may have contradictory consequences,” she said. “They will be easier to achieve for greenfield developments with low density that have more roof space for solar panels and wind turbines. Are these developments in the interests of sustainability? Maybe the target should be more to do with high in-built energy efficiency.”


1 comment:

John A said...

"The Government's drug rationing watchdog says "therapeutic" injections of steroids, such as cortisone, which are used to reduce inflammation, should no longer be offered to patients suffering from persistent lower back pain when the cause is not known."

I am reminded of migraines. For many years, my mother was told she would grow out of it (started roughly with puberty) and/or it was "all in your mind" (ie, psychosomatic rather than real). She did not even get sympathy until her early forties, when she providentially started seeing a G.P. who himself suffered, after moving to a new area.

As far as I know, the cause[s] of migraine remain unknown. But medicines are available that help some - such as one niece, who starts getting recognisable symptoms some two hours in advance and often can stave off a full attack with medicine. Would she be denied this medicine because the cause is unknown?

How many other "unknown cause" problems with "known" palliatives/cures will go untreated?