Should universities monitor student attendance?

The recent withdrawal of Highly Trusted Sponsor Status by the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) from London Metropolitan University  in September 2012 has raised some questions in my mind about practices surrounding attendance monitoring in higher education. Let’s be clear about this though. London Met lost its status because it had, according to the UKBA sponsored students who did not have leave to remain in the UK, not primarily,  because it was failing to record attendance. (Although press reports imply that it was in fact failing to do so)

Nevertheless, it is a requirement of the UKBA that universities who wish to sponsor students on a visa must make two “checkpoints” (re-registrations) within any rolling 12 month periods and to report any student who misses 10 consecutive expected contacts without reasonable permission from the institution. Any such report must be made within 10 days of the 10th expected contact. The nature of such contacts is left to the institution although the UKBA suggests as examples, attending lectures, tutorials, seminars, submitting any coursework, attending any examination, meetings with supervisors, registration or meeting with welfare support. In order to ensure compliance sponsors may be asked to complete a spreadsheet showing the details of each student sponsored and their attendance. This spreadsheet must be provided within 21 days of the request being made (UKBA, 2012). (Taken from accessed 17/09/12)

As I said, at the start of the post, this raises some questions in my mind. I’ve had a longish career in higher education, but, apart from those courses which are sponsored by external bodies, notably the NHS it is actually rather rare in my experience for student attendance to be consistently monitored. It may not have been an issue. Students are adults after all, and perfectly free not to take up what they have paid for, and there appear to be few empirical studies of attendance monitoring in the United Kingdom. There is, in contrast, a huge literature on retention, unsurprising given the cost of early withdrawal to both institutions and students, and one would expect that failure to attend teaching events is an obvious early warning sign.  Most scholarly attention seems to have been focussed on establishing the extent of a correlation between attendance and student performance, which does seem to exist (Colby, 2004).  There has never been a consistent sector wide approach to monitoring the attendance at classes of students enrolled on University degree and post degree courses. The border agency farrago seems to me to have raised the importance of this issue for he following reasons:


  • If universities only monitor the attendance of overseas students they could be accused of discriminating against them, or, if Colby is correct about a correlation, in favour of them.
  • If that correlation does exist then it is in universities interests as organisations, to monitor attendance since better performance from students will give them higher positions in university league tables, making them more attractive to potential students.
  • For that reason, it ought to be in the interests of their students to have their attendance monitored, or, more accurately to have their absences noted and investigated. As far as I know, there has never been a large scale sector wide survey of attendance monitoring practices. (Possibly because there aren’t very many such practices.)


I have carried out a very preliminary survey of every UK university web site to see what in fact Universities are doing  about attendance monitoring. This should be regarded with extreme caution. I haven’t included the full findings here because web sites are not definitive proof and it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions. Just because a university does not publish its attendance policy does not mean it does not have one. The reason for doing the web site survey was to get a sense of the extent of the problem and indicate a potential sampling strategy to identify areas for further detailed research.  Bearing that in mind, it appears that  nearly all of them delegate responsibility for attendance monitoring to individual  departments. About half claim to have any sort of university wide attendance policy, and the content of these policies very dramatically (but even so, departments are still responsible for implementing) but only a very small number actively monitor attendance for all or most students. Practices vary from occasional attendance weeks where pretty much everything is monitored during those weeks (Durham), to advanced technological systems which read student cards (London South Bank).  Here at Lincoln practice appears to be sporadic. Many colleagues use paper sign-in sheets, something we do in my own department, but it is fairly unusual for this data to be entered into any sort of database.  It seems to be filed away somewhere, and ultimately, thrown away, which seems a rather strange practice!

So the answer to my question in the title is “I don’t know, but there does appear to be a case to investigate it further”.



Colby, J. 2004. Attendance and Attainment, 5th Annual Conference of the Information and Computer Sciences – Learning and Teaching Support Network (ICS-LTSN), 31 August–2 September, University of Ulster. (accessed 15/10/2012)

The EDU: an idea whose time has gone?

The title of this post was inspired by a colleague who suggested that I use it for an article. I might still use it, but as you’ll see below, I’m not sure that the question mark isn’t the most important part of the title.  Anyway, it arose out of some research I have been doing into educational development units, and it’s intended as more of a reflective piece on the role these units play in the 21st Century University.

I’ve just completed a reread of the second edition of  Diana Laurillard’s “Rethinking University Teaching” (Yes, I know, I should get out more !). I think her model of teaching and learning as an iterative conversation has a lot of merit. The notion that learners can simply absorb information from a lecturer, a book, video, or other “narrative” medium (to borrow Laurillard’s phrase) does seem to run a very high risk that the learner will misinterpret or misconceive whatever it is they are supposed to be learning. Obviously, if the learner has an opportunity to articulate their conceptions, then a teacher is in a position to identify those misconceptions and “correct” them, even if this takes several cycles.

 One of the key outcomes of reading Laurillard’s book for me though is her argument that  those misconceptions are themselves a source of data about how students come to know. We should analyse students’ submissions for common errors, and try to devise some form of understanding about why these misconceptions arise.  I can already hear the choruses of “That’s all very well, but who has the time to do that?”  And of course, that’s only one suggestion for what we need to know about students learning. How do we make learning materials customisable for different disciplines?  Not only that, how do we show that they are easily customisable? As Laurillard admits there is no real tradition of collaboration between university departments, and certainly not between universities. Indeed one might argue that the uncritical admiration of politicians for all things “Business” since 1979 has led to an inappropriate stress on “competition” between universities, which simply leads to a lot of re-inventing the wheel as they try to outdo each other in providing slightly better versions of the same service.

 Now, I didn’t really mean to start this post by pontificating about teaching or even about Government Policy – it was meant to be more of a reflective piece about the implications of Laurillard’s arguments for Educational Development Units. The research I’ve been doing into these units does tend to suggest that those working in them do see themselves as operating in a conversational framework that is not unlike the one Laurillard developed as a model of how students (and in her later chapters, organisations) learn.  This is important because, given the recent announcement about cuts to the teaching grant that was slipped outbefore Christmas, I suspect that such units are even more vulnerable than they were before.

 Actually, I do accept that EDUs have not been as successful as they might have been in bringing about a total transformation of the Higher Education landscape, but this is because they have never been large enough to play the full part in the conversation that they need to.  And, they’ve shown, in my view a quite proper reluctance to impose models of learning on academics. There is no one model of learning that is appropriate across every discipline, and to attempt to impose one would have been to guarantee failure. It’s also true that there are quite high epistemological walls between the different disciplines, by which I mean that physicists don’t take much notice of what historians are doing. (Why should they? Well, they’re actually in the same business – teaching!)  Please don’t think I’m pathologising academics as “failing” here. My argument is that they are so hemmed in by disciplinary structures not to mentionorganisational structures, that there needs to be some unit that performs the EDU’s role.  

What the EDUs can do and have been doing, is actually help to rebuild some misconceptions about learning that are still commonplace in Higher Education. (e.g.,the idea that posting PowerPoint slides on a VLE constitutes “e-learning provision”.) They can help colleagues explore the wilder shores of the VLE to find ways, such as wikis, discussion groups, course web sites, and so on to allow learners to articulate their conceptions and show staff that they need to engage with those (mis)conceptions.  They also play a vital role in helping staff to develop innovative approaches to teaching, by working with IT and other support staff to ensure that, for example, new technologies are introduced in ways that don’t compromise the safety of networks.  They could do more. The sort of research into student misconceptions described above, provided it was done together with disciplinary colleagues, would be an example, as would be a similar analysis of validation or course review documents. 


So, no I don’t think the EDU is an idea whose time has gone. If anything, that time is still to come. There is a lot of work still to be done. Yes, too many courses still accept that a presence on the VLE consists of a few PowerPoint files and fail to provide opportunities for students to participate, through mechanisms like wikis and blogs. But as more and more students are getting and benefiting from this kind of approach, then more and more students will demand it. If you want to change the practice of academics then you have to do it through their experience of dealing with their students. There has to be someone in the University who can co-ordinate and share this kind of practice.

Degrees in Second Life

Well, I guess it had to happen. A college in Texas is offering what it believes to be the first degree offered via Second Life. I haven’t had a good look around  (the web site mentioned in the blog entry I linked to above is down) yet but I can think of all sorts of reasons why this might be problematic. Before I go into that, I do want to make it clear that I do think that Virtual Worlds like SL do have a lot of potential for educators (Yes, I do have an avatar in Second Life – Feather Congrejo, although I’m a fairly rare visitor these days)

So what are my reservations. Firstly, Second Life gives me a headache if I use it for any length of time. (Must be my aging eyes, but a colleague who attended a 6 hour conference in SL reported the same phenomenon!) Secondly, it needs quite powerful graphics cards, a requirement which seems to increase with every upgrade they produce, and I think that is a big accessibility issue. Thirdly, SL is a public site, and has, inevitably, some less than salubrious areas. (Quite a lot actually!)  OK, I suspect this is actually quite a small proportion of SL’s total facilities, and students in HE are adults and we can’t hold their hands all the time, but I can’t see any HEI relishing the prospects of misinformed local media announcing that it is directing students into what might be described as “adult” web services. I suppose you could get round that by using something like Open Sim for a stand alone environment but you’d lose a lot of connectivity in doing so.

It also requires quite a lot of skill in building a properly immersive environment. It can be done, but it takes time and skill, and teaching in SL seems to require that quite a lot of time is devoted to orientation. (I suppose that’s a one off cost with each cohort of students though) The other issue is about how to devote sufficient time to each student, while continuing with Real World work.  I’ve always thought that one great advantage of technology enhanced learning is that it does allow the “quieter” students a chance to get involved. But there’s no getting away from the fact that it does take more time to deal with 30 problems or questions than it does to deal with the 5 or so assertive students in any class.

Teaching as stand-up comedy?

I saw this in the Guardian last Monday, and I think there are a few lessons in it that we might take on board.

Now, I have some reservations about turning everyone into stand up comedians, but I did like that last line about “I will never resort to PowerPoint in a lecture again”. It is important to interact with the audience, and I think we do often hide behind our visual aids. Anyway I’m always open to learning from strange new sources. But I’ll stop blethering on, and let you read and judge for yourselves.

Remodelling Teaching, Rethinking Education

CERD organised a one day conference on this topic today, and it proved a very interesting day indeed. I’m not going to say too much here, because we do intend to provide much more information about the day, including papers from the speakers via the web. From my point of view, the first presentation from Professor Mike Bottery of the University of Hull, proved particularly interesting. He was talking about the deprofessionalisation of teaching, or more accurately how teachers are moving away from being regarded as professionals (with all the rights to set one’s own agenda that that implies) to “branded technicians” – essentially people charged with delivering a set of specific competencies to meet a particular demand for a particular type of education. As this is my blog I’m going to reflect on the relevance of is to my own work, which is that this is precisely my concern about what we were being asked to do in the old TLDO. The whole agenda seemed to me that academics were seen as failing to come up with the goods, whereas in my view they quite obviously weren’t. (Also nobody seemed to know exactly what “the goods” were!) and we were faced with pushing a lot of unconvincing agendas about PDP, and skills for example that relatively few people seemed particularly interested in.  The challenge for the EDU is to reclaim its credibility as a professional support mechanism, and I think we are now going some way to doing that by communicating more with our own clients than with external agendas. (Not that the external agenda has gone away, of course.)  The last speaker, Michael Apple also picked up on this. issue, but he was much more concerned with how educational institutions engaged (or rather didn’t) with their communities. He gave the example of how communities in Brazil had incorporated street gangs, (who previously had been excluded, not altogether surprisingly)  into local decision making processes. Clearly that’s an extreme example, but he did suggest that Universities tend to exclude a lot of people who are absolutely essential to their work, (building, catering, gardening, secretarial, staff and so forth) from decision making processes, and they might benefit from a more inclusive approach.  Coincidentally I had occasion to visit another University recently where I noticed that the development unit formally made provision for these staff, and the development programme was structured in the same way as it was for everyone else. Well, it’s not much but it’s a start.

The other two sessions, were a very interesting debate about Rethinking Higher Education presented by Professor Mike Neary, of Lincoln and Dr Glenn Rikowski from Northampton, and a session on workforce reform, social partnership, and the construction of consensus. This last was very much about the research into Trade Union involvement in workplace remodelling in schools, and in truth I didn’t feel I had, or have a lot to bring to this debate. (A deplorably instrumentalist attitude no doubt, but there you are!)  On the other hand, the Rethinking HE session was quite thought provoking, arguing that universities should be the sites of co-production of critical knowledge on the part of both of staff and students. I don’t disagree, but I do worry about the replacement of one orthodoxy with another. Mike was talking about the notion of Mass Intellectuality, or Marx’s notion of the general intellect. The latter gives me pause for thought. I don’t think Marx meant any sort of singular Orwellian “newspeak” or “new intellect” but it’s easy to be interpreted that way. I suppose the same goes for mass intellectuality, but at least that seems to me to accomodate multiple viewpoints.  I think I just have a natural antipathy to anything that smacks of mob rule, and am  rather uneasy with anything that  might facilitate it.

The other thing I was a bit dubious about was beginning with the quotation “We work but we produce nothing” which apparently comes from the student revolts of 1968. But that falls into the trap of believing that corporeality is an essential property of “something”. Work always produces something – even if it’s just a headache! In this case I find it hard to believe that the students’ work did not produce at the very least  a new sense of self among themselves.  (and that quotation, come to think of it!).  There’s a lot more to think about here, though, and I think I need to take it to my research blog for that kind of reflective consideration.

Where does CERD go. Well, we’ve taken some steps towards working with students. Perhaps we should start to give some thought to the needs of the wider university workforce. Let’s face it without the catering staff’s coffee the place wouldn’t run at all!