Wednesday, June 16, 2010

U.S. Education Department takes aim at for-profit colleges

The Education Department is proposing a number of rules today designed to protect college students and taxpayers from abusive or fraudulent practices, including aggressive recruitment tactics and allowing ineligible students to enroll and receive aid.

Though all colleges that receive federal aid would be affected by the changes, the most controversial proposals are aimed at for-profit colleges, which have come under more scrutiny as their enrollments have increased.

In an effort to rein in student debt and high default rates, for example, one proposal would require colleges to disclose graduation and job placement rates and information about the effectiveness of their career and technical programs. Federal data show that 44% of 2007 graduates who defaulted on loans within three years attended for-profit institutions.

Most of the 14 key issues, outlined in a 503-page document shown to reporters Tuesday, were developed through negotiations over the past year with the higher education community. A final version of the rules would take effect in July 2011.

Education officials will follow up this summer with details on a proposal that would cut off federal aid to for-profit colleges whose graduates can't earn enough to repay their loans.

The issues are complicated "and we want to get it right," Education Secretary Arne Duncan says. "This is about accountability, and protecting students."

Next week, a Senate education committee will examine federal spending at for-profit schools.

Advocates of stricter regulations are encouraged by a preliminary review of the proposals.

"There's a real concern that taxpayers are subsidizing programs that are overpromising and under-delivering," says Pauline Abernathy of the California-based Institute for College Access & Success.

Harris Miller, president of the Career College Association, which represents about 1,450 for-profit institutions, said the group doesn't agree with all the proposals, but "we agree that students need to be protected at all times from schools that color outside the lines."


Student complaints to adjudicator about their university soar by a third in Britain

Complaints by students about the way they have been treated by their university have soared by 37 per cent in the past two years.

Figures released today show just over 1,000 students complained this year, according to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, which is responsible for dealing with the complaints. Most of the complaints concern universities' reaction to appeals against grades or accusations of plagiarism.

Rob Behrens, chief executive of the OIA, predicted a further rise in complaints as public spending is cut and student fees increase.

"The labour market is very difficult for students right now," he said. "They want to get the best they possibly can from their university experience, which means they will complain if they don't get what they think they deserve. Students see themselves more and more as customers and they are more assertive than they have ever been."

The year-on-year rise in complaints coincides with the introduction of top-up fees of £3,225 a year in 2006.

In one case, an international student who had been at a Chinese university for two years submitted a final year project which, after being run through a computer program, showed matches to submissions made at other universities. A panel determined it as plagiarism and failed the submission. The OIA ruled the finding was unsafe as the panel had only taken evidence from its chair and recommended she should be allowed to resubmit the project.

Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, said: "It comes as no surprise that there have been more complaints than ever before and as students are being saddled with ever larger debts these figures show that they expect a better experience from their universities."

Of 1,007 complaints made, the OIA ruled that 811 were eligible for review. Of these 75 per cent were dismissed, 5 per cent were upheld and 13 per cent were declared partly justified.

Of the 811, 64 per cent were over "academic status", meaning they were related to appeals, assessments and grades. A further 11 per cent were about misconduct, including plagiarism and cheating.


British junior High School science exams 'still too easy'

New science GCSEs drawn up to replace exams that were not challenging enough have been rejected by the qualifications watchdog for being too easy. Ofqual ordered every major exam board in the country to revamp their science papers last summer, due to "serious concerns" about the dumbing down of courses.

But the latest efforts by examiners to "stretch and challenge" pupils have been turned down again by the watchdog because they are still not of a high enough standard. The 36 new courses drawn up by five examining bodies, including AQA, OCR and Edexcel, have all been dismissed because they are not demanding enough, especially for the brightest students.

Ofqual said each of the newly submitted qualifications does "not address the concerns raised" in its review last summer, and sent them back to be redrafted.

The new outlines for courses in science, additional science, additional applied science, biology, chemistry and physics are due to be taught in schools across the country from September 2011.

Kathleen Tattersall, Chair of Ofqual and Chief Regulator, said: "Ofqual's job is to make sure that standards are maintained. If qualifications do not meet our standards, we cannot accept them into the regulated system.

"Schools are expecting detailed information about the new qualifications in time to prepare for first teaching in September 2011. Ofqual hopes that that will still be possible, but progress will depend on the quality of the revised qualifications."

No deadline has been set for exam boards to respond with further proposals, but Ofqual said it hopes to have all the new courses ready in time for schools to prepare to teach them in 15 months' time.

The NASUWT, the largest teachers' union, called for the replacement of separate exam boards with one qualifications body to provide more consistency and value for money. Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, said: "This latest development only highlights the inefficiency of having several awarding bodies struggling to interpret the requirements of the regulator, Ofqual."

Last summer Ofqual called for the courses to be revamped amid concerns that standards had slipped since an overhaul of the subjects under Labour in 2006. The introduction of flagship "21st century syllabuses" had been intended to make the subject more attractive to pupils, including topics such as recycling and mobile phone technology. But in a major embarrassment for ministers, experts said the reforms had led to classes being dumbed down and becoming "more suitable for the pub than the schoolroom".

The intervention by the watchdog was the first time it had formally stepped in to force exam boards – which also included CCEA, the Northern Irish qualification body and WJEC, which operates in England and Wales – to alter their tests.

A spokesperson for AQA said: "We are addressing the issues that Ofqual has raised, and will be resubmitting our specifications for accreditation. "Teachers and students can be assured that these new specifications will be ready in time for first teaching in 2011."

A spokeswoman for the OCR board said: "OCR is naturally disappointed that the regulator did not accredit its GCSE science specifications. Given that they were built to Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) criteria, this ruling clearly indicates that Ofqual had major problems with its partner quango - and that the Government was right to scrap it.

"OCR trusts that Ofqual will now reach a new level of transparency about what is required from awarding bodies and will start work on amending the syllabus immediately."


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