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issue 77

9 June 2011

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'Truth: lies open to all'

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Every fortnight during term-time.

All editorial correspondence to: subtext-editors [at] lancaster.ac.uk.

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CONTENTS: editorial, news in brief, more on the Charles Carter building. Apollo, Phoenix and A C Grayling, the woodland trail, council report, want to be VC?, student evaluations, letters

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EDITORIAL

As we near the end of another undergraduate year, academics confront two opposed temptations. One is to join in with the widespread sentiment among immediate colleagues that in general the quality of students' work has deteriorated since - well, since some hard to specify time when it was better. The other is to echo the management line that students' work is in a state of continuous improvement, and that the proof of this is in the increasing proportion of them who get Firsts and Upper Seconds - a change that, incidentally, has gratifying results in terms of Lancaster's position in various league tables. The first argument is of course what politicians tend to say about school and university students when they are in opposition; the second is what they tend to say when they are in government. This flexibility should make us suspicious of both kinds of claim.

These polarised positions are reflected in responses to the new marking scheme to be introduced at Lancaster from the start of the next academic year. The official line is that, among other things, this will encourage the recognition of excellent work in those qualitative subjects in which traditionally no-one ever gets more than 75%. A more critical position is that it may indeed lead to the award of more first class marks, but that the point of it is less to ensure that high achievement is duly rewarded (and non-achievement duly penalised) than to inflate grades and thus raise Lancaster's standing in the league tables still further.

No-one knows, of course, what the effects of the new scheme will be. A sudden spectacular increase in the proportion of Firsts might lift Lancaster in the league tables, but would justifiably lead to suspicion that this was merely an artefact of the new system of marking. subtext - like, we think, the academic community at large - will keep a sceptical eye on its operation, opposing artificial grade inflation while accepting that there is some work that deserves more than the traditional top limit of 75%.

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NEWS IN BRIEF

Departure of Commercial Director

David Peeks, the Commercial Director in the Facilities Division, is to leave the University later this year, after 12 years at Lancaster, where he was responsible for what most people think of as Catering, the Conference Centre, and, latterly, the college bars. subtext has on occasions been critical of Mr Peeks, but is happy now to wish him well as he pursues his career elsewhere, and will await with interest the appointment of his successor.

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Climbing Wall

The climbing wall in the new sports centre has been installed. Climbers wanting a sneak preview can find some photos here: http://www.hangfastclimbing.com/?p=777

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Further expansion at Goenka

Lancaster already offers degrees in management subjects through the GD Goenka World Institute of Higher Education (GDGWI), India. Students are taught by local staff, but follow a curriculum designed by Lancaster University. On graduation they receive Lancaster University degrees. The first cohort of students taking degrees in management subjects through the Lancaster-Goenka partnership graduate this year. This autumn, the provision of Lancaster degrees through Goenka expands to include three engineering degrees (Mechanical Engineering, Electronic and Electrical Engineering, Computer Systems Engineering). subtext 67 includes discussion of the pros and cons of Lancaster's overseas links.

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Open Garden event

On Sunday 12 June the garden at Clearbeck House, Higher Tatham LA2 8PJ will be open to visitors from 2.00 to 4.30, by permission of the owners Peter and Bronwen Osborne. This is one of the most remarkable gardens in the Lune Valley, created entirely by the owners, and is well worth a visit. Sunday's event (admission 3) is put on in aid of the funds of the Haffner Orchestra, and there will be live music played in the grounds throughout the afternoon, as well as a home produce stall, second-hand books and teas. If you can't make it on Sunday, there are other open days: see http://www.clearbeckgarden.org.uk.

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MORE ON THE CHARLES CARTER BUILDING: PIGEONHOLES

The recent opening of this fine addition to the Management School has brought to light a further example of extravagance which astonished even subtext. A simple question: how much might a set of departmental pigeonholes cost? You know the ones, usually built of wood and hung on a wall either inside or outside an office. They offer easy access to post and allow staff to collect letters, books etc. What do readers think? 100? 500? Maybe 1000 for a large one with staff names picked out in gilt? It seems that the individual departments housed in the building requested staff pigeonholes from an early stage. A simple matter, one might have thought, but it seems the request was forgotten or ignored as the project progressed. Rumour has it that such trappings are frowned upon by those making the decisions on interior design and, after all, they obviously know what staff and departments need because they consult with and listen to the users. However, the request resurfaced as the building neared completion, only this time it was more insistent.

The outcome? Somewhat surprisingly, it was agreed that pigeonholes were to be provided. All well and good but for some reason the matter was referred to the project architects. As one might expect they did what architects do and designed a set of pigeonholes - well, three sets actually, one for each department. Freestanding in open plan space they can now be seen and admired. On one side they provide a mix of locking individual pigeonholes complete with letterbox, complemented by a number of small drawers which must have some purpose though no one subtext consulted could identify it. On the other side one finds a mixture of lockers, presumably for cycle helmets, shopping bags and the like. This multi-purpose storage solution is clearly the 'future', as comedian Peter Kay used to say of garlic bread. However, users have identified at least one important drawback, namely the size of the letterbox hole. With a little bending letters of varying sizes can be posted into the locked compartments but bulkier items, such as books, are a different matter. Ah yes, the cost of these state of the art pigeonholes? 6655 plus VAT each, a total of 23,958. subtext would be interested to know who authorised expenditure of this kind, all the more so given questions about fitness for purpose. Any information welcome.

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APOLLO, PHOENIX AND A C GRAYLING

subtext's collective eye has been caught by two recent news items about private, for-profit institutions of higher education. The institutions in question are of very different kinds.

One is BPP, which claims to be the only private, for-profit institution in the UK to hold degree-awarding powers (since 2007), and was granted university status by David Willetts in July 2010. Since 2009 BPP has been owned by Apollo Global, a subsidiary of the Apollo Group, the biggest for-profit provider of higher education in the USA. BPP has over 36,000 students, taking courses in accountancy, business and law. Most of the teaching is online, though some non-virtual contact is also offered. The BPP website lists 28 'UK locations', eight of them in London. The nearest to Lancaster is said to be Preston, but the interested web surfer will find that all the courses there are run by BPP's Manchester office, and the only Preston facilities mentioned are those of the University of Central Lancashire.

The scale of BPP is dwarfed by Apollo's main institution, the University of Phoenix, which in terms of numbers is the largest university in the USA, with a student body of 500,000. An article by Howard Hotson in the latest London Review of Books suggests, however, that this spectacular figure may now be in decline: the University of Phoenix is under official investigation in several states for possible malpractice, and numbers of new students fell in the last quarter of 2010. On 2 June the Times Higher reported a 'write-down' of the value of BPP, following a similar downgrade of the University of Phoenix, as a result of the recruitment of lower than expected numbers for finance and accountancy. This news may mean that Hotson's conclusion, that what we are seeing now is 'just the beginning' of the growth of this kind of higher education in the UK, is unduly pessimistic - or perhaps not, since numbers at BPP could grow again when more of its students are studying for degrees and are eligible for student loans.

Dodgy in a different way (or arguably so) is the New College of the Humanities whose foundation was reported in the Guardian on 6 June. For a fee of 18,000 a year, its students will have the opportunity to be lectured to by, among others, A C Grayling, Linda Colley and Steven Pinker. They will also be expected to be 'science literate', thanks to lectures by such as Richard Dawkins and the physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University (on no account to be confused with the University of Phoenix). These luminaries and their students will be very much co-present with their students - nothing virtual about this institution - and students will also have weekly Oxbridge-style one-to-one tutorials, though not with anyone very famous. They will have 12-13 contact hours each week. This is not so different from what Lancaster's FASS students get, if a quick calculation in the subtext warehouse is correct. But according to Grayling, speaking to the Guardian in defence of his choice of the private route, that level of contact will be unsustainable in public universities with the present level of funding, and more will begin to think about going 'independent'.

Grayling's initiative has met with a ferocious response from Lancaster's own Terry Eagleton, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/06/ac-graylings-new-private-univerity-is-odious. Plenty more on recent developments on the Guardian website.

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THE WOODLAND TRAIL

The woodland trail has been open for some time, but a combination of bad weather and laziness has prevented a review until now. The trail is 2.6 miles long and goes round the perimeter of the campus. The most obvious access points are close to the start of the northern cycle track into town, and on either side of Bigforth Drive immediately as one turns off the A6. The path is also easy enough to find throughout the eastern, motorway-hugging, part of its length. Simply head up the banking and it's a few metres into the trees. Although one would think that following a trail around the perimeter of the campus would be straightforward, it's easy to lose it on the south west sections. Still, given that one knows roughly where one's heading, it's simple enough to pick up again.

Given that much of the route goes through what might be more accurately called 'road verge with a few trees' rather than 'woodland', it's surprisingly pleasant. The section close by the motorway is, of course, affected by traffic noise, but it's still possible to hear a few of the louder birds. A sign promises that a wide range of wildlife, including 120 bird species, bats, and deer, live in the area. Taking this too literally and actually looking for them will likely lead to disappointment, but you will see some sheep in the distance. South east sections of the trail offer good views out towards the moors. Close to Bailrigg House the route passes by the organic garden and chicken coop maintained by Green Lancaster. Until a few days ago there was also a section of trees hung with magnifying glasses on the northern side of the trail. These were very pretty, but most of them have now gone. Whether an art project has finished or they've been stolen is unclear, but now only two magnifying glasses remain.

The trail surface is mainly woodchip, with wooden boardwalks over the boggiest areas. It's currently good for running or walking on, but will clearly require regular maintenance. The trail is already being used by some horse riders, and without regular top-ups the wood chips will eventually sink beneath the mud. All in all, though, the woodland trail is a very good thing. Sections are very pretty, and for runners it's much better than jogging round the perimeter road.

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COUNCIL REPORT

At the latest meeting of the University Council, due to the indisposition of several of his D-Floor colleagues, the Vice-Chancellor was called upon to make a number of extra presentations and introduce agenda items on their behalf. Perhaps Council is simply getting its money's worth in the short time the VC has left!

The meeting started with a presentation on the 'Lancaster Student Experience'. This was a summary of the results of a survey carried out by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Colleges and the Student Experience. It was no surprise to see amongst the 'wish list' for students: no hidden course costs, increased academic contact, free access to sports and improved social spaces. Comparisons with other institutions already show Lancaster in a favourable light and further advances are being made in quiet study areas, the college advisor system and more work placements.

The Vice-Chancellor reported on the official opening of LICA and the Charles Carter building. He also confirmed planning approval for a single wind turbine on the Hazelrigg site. Nationally we are still waiting for the promised white paper - now expected at the end of June. The Vice-Chancellor also confirmed that his final date in office will be the 7th of December.

The President of LUSU reported that after a closely fought battle Lancaster narrowly lost out in this year's Roses event. He reported that the LUSU Strategic Plan has been completed and is now ready to be passed by the Trustee Board and LUSU Council. The President also thanked the members of Council who visited the LUSU offices and given him their support in looking for expansion room. The NUS Conference took place over Easter with Liam Burns being elected as the new President of NUS. A LUSU team have been on a fact-finding trip to Sunway University in Malaysia, where they had extremely positive meetings with staff and students.

The Pro-Chancellor then gave a long and detailed description of the processes put in place to find a new Vice-Chancellor. Uncharacteristically, he then opened the floor to debate and discussion. He stated that in order to progress things as swiftly as possible he had set up a 'Proto-Committee' and that this has now formed the basis of the actual Search Committee. He said he is happy with Senate's decision to elect its own representatives and delighted with the selection of Gavin Brown and Clare Powne. The head-hunting company has already had a series of talks with a range of university staff.

The Chief Operating officer reported that the new Sports Centre is now expected to be opened in July. Work on Alexandra Square is now complete, and both the LICA and Charles Carter buildings have been shortlisted for an award by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Council approved a proposal to name a laboratory after a company who is giving financial support to the university. The AEROFLEX Wireless Broadband Laboratory will be located in the School of Computing and Communications.

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WANT TO BE VC?

Amongst the vacancies currently advertised on the university website one in particular stands out. The ad for VC says that 'Candidates will have a record of distinguished leadership experience gained in a complex, knowledge intensive organisation, underpinned by significant management and budgetary responsibilities. Academic credibility and the ability to provide effective external representation will be essential.' One wonders whether 'knowledge intensive organisation' means 'university'? Possibly not. Pay is negotiable and will include a Performance Related Element. Presumably applicants can expect something similar to the pay of the current VC, which in 2010 was 215,000 (http://www.lancs.ac.uk/press/pdf/ar10.pdf). Staff who fancy their chances should be working on their CVs. The deadline is close, but how close is unclear. The advert says 12th June, the further details say 16th.

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CONTRIBUTED ARTICLE

STUDENT EVALUATIONS

Sam Clark, PPR

Many of us will by now have been emailed the results of student evaluations of courses we've taught this year: at the end of a module, our students are invited to fill in an online form mixing Likert-type questions (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree) with free comment boxes. Any good teacher wants to know how well her teaching is going, but here are three reasons to doubt that forms like this are going to tell her.

1. Irrelevant correlations: many studies suggest that evaluation scores don't reliably track teaching quality. For example, high scores are instead correlated with teachers who: (a) match gender stereotypes in dress, mien, and social behaviour [1]; (b) mark generously, or more generously than students expect [2]; and (c) present in an enthusiastic style, regardless of content [3].

2. Anonymity breeds contempt: as anyone who's read youtube comments knows, anonymity encourages some people to speak expressively and without normal filters: to say things they'd never say to your face, haven't really thought about, and couldn't defend. There's good reason to make anonymous channels of communication available to our students, but not owning their words in evaluations may not promote honesty or usefulness, let alone civility.

3. Competent judges? Evaluations may tell us whether our students like us and our teaching or not. But if we want to know whether we're good teachers of our subjects, why think our students are competent to judge? They typically have no teaching experience. They don't know what they don't know, or what they need to know, or how to gain that knowledge. The best learning is often unsettling, inconclusive, and not what we expected. Perhaps someone in the middle of that difficult process of development isn't in the best position to judge how well it's going.

None of these are reasons to stop listening and responding to our students, but they are reasons to wonder whether the evaluation tools we use actually tell us what we want to know. What would be better? I don't know. But perhaps the first question to ask is whether a human relationship as complex as that between teacher and learner can be made legible by any such bureaucratic device.

References:

1. Kierstead, D., D'Agostino, P., & Dill, H., 'Sex Role Stereotyping of College Professors: Bias in Students' Ratings of Instructors, Journal of Educational Psychology 80(1988): 342-4.

2. Greenwald, A. & Gillmore, G., 'Grading Leniency is a Removable Contaminant of Student Ratings', American Psychologist 11(1997): 1209-17.

3. Naftulin, D., Ware, J., & Donnelly, F., 'The Doctor Fox Lecture: A Paradigm of Educational Seduction', Journal of Medical Education 48(1973): 630-5.

Further discussion:

Adams, J., 'Student Evaluations: The Ratings Game', http://www.vccaedu.org/inquiry/inquiry-fall97/i12-adam.html (accessed 3.vi.11) Glymour, C., 'Why the University Should Abolish Faculty Course Evaluations', http://www.hss.cmu.edu/philosophy/glymour/glymour-universityFCE2003.pdf (accessed 3.vi.11) Heumer, M., 'Student Evaluations: A Critical Review', http://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/sef.htm (accessed 3.vi.11)

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LETTERS

Dear subtext

Just to be picky I'll think you'll find the deposed councillors (in the university ward) were both Greens, not Lib Dems.

Paul Smith, Research Associate in Hydrology, Lancaster Environment Centre [Quite right and our mistake. According to the Council website, in 2007 in the University Ward the successful candidates were Ian David McCulloch (Green Party) and Morgwn Trolinger (Green Party). The Lib Dem candidates each got only 12% of the vote. In the 2011 election the Greens went from 12 down to 8 councillors - due, they reckon, to a combination of longstanding councillors standing down, and some very energetic campaigning by Labour - Eds.]

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Dear subtext

Interesting to read your comments about the new Charles Carter Building.

I've walked past it many times but never ventured inside.

The sign above the door says 'Charles Carter'. Was there not enough space to add 'Building'? At least the building has a name sign from its opening; it took a couple of years for Infolab to have a sign.

I imagine an open day tour one day will pause outside the new building.

Guide: 'This is the Charles Carter Building. Charles Carter was the first ever VC of Lancaster University.' Prospective student: 'I see that building over there is called The George Fox Building. Was he the second VC?'

Steve Elliott, School of Computing and Communications

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The editorial collective of subtext currently consists (in alphabetical order) of: Rachel Cooper (PPR), George Green, Gavin Hyman, David Smith, Bronislaw Szerszynski and Martin Widden.

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