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What's going on in Higher Education?

Your weekly newsletter containing updates on the state of higher education

Week beginning 29/05/17

How do international students shape UK towns and cities?

This week, the Guardian’s Higher Education supplement asks: ‘how much do people living in UK towns and cities really know about the ways in which overseas students engage with the local community beyond their studies?’ The author’s answer is less concerned with the well-known economic benefits, preferring to describe how international students ‘volunteer in local schools and work with the elderly and refugees. They bring new cultural perspectives to issues in the classroom, and they form networks of alumni who support businesses and take home memories of and fondness for cities and regions around the UK’.

This is not to say that the economic benefits are insignificant: the article reports that the net benefit stands at £25bn, and that 200,000 jobs are supported by those who come from scores of countries across the world to study here.

The author, however, seeks primarily to draw attention to the ‘soft’ impact of such diversity in university towns and cities. She notes the efforts made by some higher education institutions to involve international students in their community engagement projects. This is mutually beneficial, allowing the students to appreciate aspects of British society beyond their campus whilst providing the locality with much needed volunteers who can often bring alternative viewpoints and valuable skills.

These reciprocal benefits are harder to measure, but important to acknowledge considering the uncertain future that international students face with regard to the new Higher Education Act and ongoing Brexit negotiations. In a sector increasingly understood through metrics, she says, we must remember that not everything can, or should, be quantified.

It’s not essay mills that are doing the grinding

The author of this Times Higher Education article lays the blame of the rise of essay mills, where students pay third parties to complete their assignments, on the marketisation of the HE sector. Going on the premise that students write essays ‘simply to satisfy university demand for them – which, in turn, allows universities to satisfy student demand for degrees’ the article claims that this amounts to a ‘simple business arrangement, with which an outsourcing agreement around essay production seems entirely compatible’.

The government is as to blame as students, apparently. A Labour peer unsuccessfully attempted to attach an amendment to the recent Higher Education Act that would have made these essay mills illegal. That the amendment failed led this author to conclude that ‘neither students nor universities are much concerned with learning, and the government either has not noticed or does not care’.

The author goes on to implicate ‘millenial’ students in the increasing success of the mills, making the tenuous claim that students who turn to essay mills do so because they ‘provide extensive interaction with writers, turning the construction of essays into the kind of social exercise with which modern students are comfortable’. This reductive claim taints an otherwise promising examination of the cultural and psychological forces that have made selling essays a successful business plan.

Finally, the author does question the veracity of the sources which suggest that this form of cheating has risen in prevalence. He asks whether the essay mills problem might have been inflated in recent years for political purposes: ‘could it be that an obvious villain is urgently required to divert attention from the real ills of UK higher education?’


Hightlights from the week's papers

Number of university dropouts due to mental health problem trebles. The Higher Education Statistics Agency has collected worrying data on the mental wellbeing of students in the UK.

Empowering students to improve resilience The Unite Group have recently published research into the ‘internal’ characteristics and ‘external’ social relationships which determine resilience, which has a proven link with retention rates.