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)

Technology for teaching in public

I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter to a book on teaching in public, specifically concerned with how we can use technology to do this. Now, I could probably knock out something on the commons, open educational resources, web 2.0 and that stuff, but a) it’s been done, and b) I want to make it a bit more theoretical. I’ve been reading quite a lot about the neo-luddite movement,  which isn’t about machine breaking, but about critiquing the role of the machine in modern society. (So put that sledgehammer down THIS MINUTE!)

Anyway, I’ve just been reading about Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that crowd, who began to protest about the effect that mechanisation was having on culture and the general intellect, and developed a philosophy that I understand (bear with me, I’m new to this)  is sometimes referred to as American Transcendentalism, evidently to distinguish it from more religious forms of transcendentalism.  Like the neo-luddites, they weren’t particularly anti-technology, but recognised that the changes it brought weren’t always beneficial.

I really haven’t got very far with this, but I’m dimly beginning to make some connections with Marx’s notion of mass intellectuality. We often hear claims that universities aren’t producing graduates with the skills that the economy needs, (although no-one seems to be able to describe those skills in any detail), but the kind of critique of industrial thinking that the ne0-luddites and the American Transcendalists were indulging in seems to be a profoundly useful counterweight to the idea that there are a set of tips and techniques that ensure national well being.

The problem is of course, is that if this is done in public, then it is vulnerable to critique  that if universities cannot directly benefit the state, or at least demonstrate how they are doing so, then there is no logical reason for the state to pay for them. Not that there’s anything wrong with critique and debate of course. But just as the Devil has all the best tunes, that’s an argument that has simplicity on it’s side. The rebuttal of that argument is complex, involving well rehearsed arguments about blue-sky research, the value of critical graduates, (both of which the state does benefit from) and  accepting that there might indeed be alternative funding streams . On the bright side, I guess the use of open shared technologies promotes the creation of far more ideas.

But I accept that I need to think a lot harder about this, and find some evidence of how universities are engaging with open technology.


Read a bit more about this last night, in a 2005 article by Barnett. He does seem to assume that the term “university” refers to a sense of universality that surrounds the university, and has always surrounded the University. I’m not so sure. I’m inclined to agree with Olaf Pedersen’s rather more mundane explanation, which is that the term probably originates from the Latin phrases used in papal bulls that referred to the “universality of the teachers and students” in a studium generale. I’m no Latin scholar, so I’ll dig out the quote Pedersen uses if I’ve time.

That’s not to say that some in the University have not appropriated the meaning of universality for themselves over the centuries. I’m pretty sure they have. But I think Barnett’s claim really can’t be given more than the status of an assertion unless of course you include his own appropriation of it as evidence. Which it is, I suppose.

Then again, I’m just nit-picking here. I think Barnett is largely right to draw attention to the multiplicity of “knowledges” and the university’s role in their expansion. From my point of view the consequences are that there cannot be one single “idea of the university”. (Whatever Cardinal Newman might have thought!) I think I’m beginning to disagree with my supervisor’s idea of a changing “idea of the University” over time. I suspect that there have always been multiple and competing “knowledges” (Church, State, Town, Gown etc. in medieval times.)

For the EDU of course, the issue is which “knowledge” has the most power. And what are the consequences of the exercise (or not) of that power?