The results are out. And those of you planning to go out of the country for studies would have secured the required grades. Travel tickets are booked and the student visas (if going to the west) is about to be issued. You are in the process of running around for those last-minute things to finish your packing. Having ticked everything off your to-do list, you feel all set to take your seat on the roller coaster ride known as 'university'.
Ask any university student and they will tell you that life at university surely has its share of ups and downs. However, one of the most crucial stages of this journey is the beginning.
Life at university is a complete turnaround from what it is when you are at home in your own city and in the comfort zone of your own family. You will now be in an absolutely new environment in an unknown country (which you even may be visiting for the first time) with a completely new set of people and with several new responsibilities.
So how can you try to ensure that this three to four year journey at university gets off to that perfect start and prepares you well for the obstacles ahead? How can you make the university your home away from home? Here are seven focus areas that you, as a university fresher should keep in mind to ensure a smooth life.
Make the most of freshers week
The official purpose of this week is for universities to get students registered on their courses, settle into their accommodation, get their timetables sorted and probably receive an introductory talk from the chancellor. Make full use of this week to explore the campus as well (if a tour is not provided) and familiarise yourself with where lecture halls and departments are located. This will help you save time and avoid panic once classes begin. Finally, do not forget to celebrate the beginning of the year - this is the time to celebrate and go 'all out' before work begins!
Coping with work
Once classes begin, you are bound to get busy. The approach to work at university is very different from that which you were used to in school. Emphasis is on self motivation - work will often be given out by lecturers and not expected to be handed in, so it is crucial to realise from the start that the work must still be done in order to gain a thorough understanding of the subject.
You are also expected to do a great deal of work outside lectures without being asked to do so. Majority of the time at university is devoted to lectures involving little or no participation, so learn to use tutorial time to your best advantage. In other words, self-study is key.
Despite all this, there will always be a mentor/personal tutor available for you to contact and who would be happy to help you.
Being a first year student can be frightening, and you may feel that having good flatmates is critical - but it is not. Not getting along with flatmates is not the end of the world as there are plenty of other opportunities to make new friends - with those on the same course or those who are part of the same society, for instance. Just remember, everyone is in the same boat so be yourself and try to talk to as many people as possible. Also, remember, you are off to a fresh start with new people. So this is the chance to leave past equations behind you. Everyone is as eager as you, join with as many people as possible and you are bound to find those who you get along with.
Societies and clubs
One of the best ways to meet like-minded people, to have fun and broaden your horizons at the same time is to join one of the several clubs and societies that are such an integral part of university life. Your freshers week will usually have a 'freshers fair' where socieities promote themselves - do not miss this event as you will surely find a club or society that appeals to you. You will find the more usual football and drama societies to less mainstream ones like parachuting and probably even a Harry Potter society. These clubs usually organise events throughout the year and any participation will be valued on your résumé too.
One aspect that you have probably never worried about in your life so far is money and budgeting. However, that is likely to change as money management is a huge responsibility while at university. For this reason, it is important to realise from the start that your funds are limited and so you must keep track of how much money you have available to spend each month, taking into account how much you will be paying in rent as well. You are likely to spend more during the first month or two, as you may have to buy things such as books, stationery and a table lamp among others. Once you have worked out an average monthly budget, keeping to it becomes easier.
Cooking and daily living chores
Keeping your room tidy, doing laundry and washing the dishes are now solely your burden. While some of you will find it easier to manage these tasks along with studying, for others it might take some getting used to. Chalking out a timetable and assigning a few hours during the week for such chores will help maintain a balance with studies.
Cooking is also another important aspect while at university. If your university has the option of meal plans, consider yourself lucky as there is no need for you to worry about what to eat for each meal. For the rest of you who do not have such a luxury and have never cooked before, the internet is your best friend. While it is quite understandable that the first few meals may not look and taste as good as those prepared on Masterchef, you are bound to get better at the craft as the weeks go by.
Finally, starting life away from home can be quite scary - it being even worse if you have never lived alone before. To make things easier, try to establish a routine quickly as this can make your new environment feel more stable and will hopefully make you feel more settled. Also, make it a point to get out of your room often as the several new opportunities and people around you will keep you busy and make you less likely to miss home. However, don't forget to stay in touch with friends and family as speaking to someone you are close to can be an instant mood booster. Still, if you find yourself to be really struggling, do not be afraid to make use of the student support services as universities are experienced in helping students settle in.
DUBAI: Not hundreds or a few thousands, but over a staggering 200,000 people from the Gulf countries bought fake online degrees and diplomas from dubious Pakistan IT firm AXACT in the past four years.
This shocking revelation comes from none other than former AXACT staff turned whistle blower Sayyad Yasir Jamshaid, the key figure in the New York Times story.
His tip-off not just led to the arrest of AXACT CEO Shoaibh Shaikh and the dramatic collapse of his global multi-billion dollar fake degree empire but also spawned a series of criminal investigations worldwide.
“At AXACT’s 24/7 Karachi headquarters, we handled roughly 5,000 calls daily. “Of them 60 per cent came from the UAE and Saudi Arabia,” Jamshed told XPRESS in a freewheeling interview.
“As one of the 110 quality assurance auditors, my job was to listen to the interactions between customers and sales agents. We had a software which filtered incoming calls from various countries. It was rendered useless as almost every second call I picked was from the Gulf.
"Between 2011 and mid 2015, AXACT issued degrees and diplomas from 350 nonexistent universities to over 200,000 Middle East residents, mostly from UAE and Saudi Arabia,” said the Pakistani.
XPRESS cannot verify Jamshaid’s claim, but independent investigations and conversations with AXACT sales agents in Pakistan show he may not be off the mark.
“We were 900 plus agents working round the clock and attending nonstop calls from GCC countries for years, so one can well imagine how many degrees were sold in these places,” an AXACT employee told XPRESS on conditions of anonymity.
A young Pakistani college dropout who was trained to speak heavily accented English said the UAE and Saudi Arabia were the company’s real cash cows.
“Most UAE clients preferred multiple degrees and would happily fork out between Dh50,000 and Dh100,000 for each certificate. “In Dubai alone I know at least a dozen professionals with up to five degrees in various disciplines. I know this because I was communicating with them in the guise of a professor from the Midtown University,” he said.
Rochville, Brooklyn Park, Gibson, Grant Town, Ashley, Nixon, Campbell, Belford, Para-mount California were among hundreds of other AXACT-owned universities popular among UAE expats and Emiratis.
XPRESS has names, credit card transaction details and payment receipts of several high-profile Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain based clients who paid ridiculous amounts to obtain degrees from such institutions, all of which existed only on stock photos and computer servers.
The glossy degrees bear attestation stamps and seals of various government entities and some are even accompanied by US State Department authentication certificates carrying the signature of John Kerry.
According to Jamshaid, AXACT made money from three key areas – priority learning assessment (PLA), research and sponsored programmes (RSP), sale of degrees and legalisation/ attestation through embassies/ministry of foreign affairs/ ministry of higher education.
“Legalisation charges started from $5,000 and went up to $60,000. In September 2014, the month before I quit, the firm made $800,000 from PLA, $400,000 from RSP where PhD aspirants seeking help for writing theses were directed to other websites operated by AXACT. Sale of degrees accounted for $1.7 million.
From the websites and professors to glowing endorsements, video testimonials and accreditation, everything was fake. It was a well-knit racket. We even had a dedicated Google Search Engine Optimisation (SE0) team which ensured AXACT owned universities showed up in search results.”
A Dubai-based Lebanese who shelled out Dh85,000 for Gibson University’s MBA programme, said the charade was so convincing he never suspected a thing. “Who would’ve thought that the soft-spoken professor Terry Howard I interacted with for months was not a university faculty based in USA’s Virginia Islands but someone sitting in a call centre in Pakistan? I am ruined.”
Whistle blower Jamshaid, who fled to the UAE from Pakistan in the wake of death threats, says there is still hope for the victims.
“I have used my knowledge of AXACT’s protocols to help 17 UAE residents get refunds totalling $300,000.” Since the money was paid using credit cards, victims can file dispute claims with their banks,” said Jamshaid.
XPRESS has refund receipts of two UAE residents who have got their entire money back following Jamshaid’s intervention.
Among them is an Abu Dhabi-based Indian, 39, who recovered $33,300. The junior accountant was mired in debts after maxing his credit card limits and taking personal loans to fund his master’s programme in business administration from Grant University and a string of certification courses from other bogus universities.
Alarmed at the scale of the scam, Pakistan interior minister Chaudary Nisar has sought help from the Interpol and FBI.
And now with Pakistan talking about extending the investigation to the Dubai where AXACT had an office, it remains to be seen how it would impact bogus degree holders in the UAE where forging academic qualifications could land one in jail for 10 years.
They’re almost universally loathed by professors as being too subjective and an unreliable indicator of performance. But beyond that, surprisingly little is known about student evaluations of faculty teaching. How many colleges require them, and what do they ask? How many students complete them, and what effect do they have on instructors’ careers? A committee of the American Association of University Professors wanted to help answer some of the questions, and help stir discussions about a better way to rate professors in the classroom. Survey responses gathered by the committee from some 9,000 professors suggest diminishing student response rates for course evaluations, too much focus on such evaluations alone in personnel decisions -- especially for non-tenure-track faculty -- and a creep of the kinds of personal comments seen on teacher rating websites into formal evaluations.
But while the committee argues that whatever value student evaluations ever had is shrinking, it says student surveys can play an important role in a more holistic faculty evaluation system. “I’m a department chair myself, and it matters to me to get some feedback from students about how their experience in the classroom was,” said Craig Vasey, who heads both the AAUP committee that conducted the study and the department of classics, philosophy and religion at the University of Mary Washington. “But [student evaluations] have to be supplemented by class visits by peers and reviews of syllabi, and participation in ongoing faculty development.”
Noting that one survey respondent had offered up what is a perhaps a more fitting name for student evaluations -- “student satisfaction surveys” -- Vasey added, “We’re not calling for them to be abolished, but there’s something dishonest about what they are and how they’re being used.”
Last fall, the AAUP’s Committee on Teaching, Research and Publication sent out 40,000 invitations to tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members to participate in its online survey about teaching evaluations. It asked questions about institution type and required mechanisms for evaluating teaching -- such as student evaluations on paper or online, development of teaching portfolios, engagement with an on-campus center for teaching, and evaluation by peers or administrators. It asked about the existence of a faculty mentoring program, how student teaching evaluations are crafted and by whom, and faculty members’ feelings about them.
The committee received about 9,000 responses back. The majority came from tenured professors (54 percent). Some 18 percent came from full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members and 15 percent from tenure-track, not tenured faculty members, according to a write-up of the data to be presented at the annual meeting of the AAUP in Washington this week. Most respondents were from four-year, teaching-intensive institutions (48 percent), followed by four-year research institutions (35 percent). The rest were from community colleges or professional schools.
Here’s what respondents said: frequent use of online and paper evaluations is now about even. Required use of quantitative evaluations beat required qualitative evaluations, at 55 percent versus 44 percent, respectively.
Respondents who said their institutions had adopted online evaluations reported much lower student return rates than those who stuck with paper evaluations: 20-40 percent versus 80 percent or higher.
“With such a rate of return, all pretensions to ‘validity’ are rendered dubious,” the paper says. “Faculty report that the comments coming in are from the students on either of the extremes: those very happy with their experience and/or their grade, and those very unhappy.”
Faculty members said they had little to no input in crafting evaluation instruments, and pointed out that teaching in one field is quite different from the next -- something evaluations should reflect.
In a comment section the survey, some faculty members said they’d seen the kind of “abusive, bullying effects of anonymity that are today pervasive on websites… making their way into student evaluations,” the committee says. “Women faculty and faculty of color report negative comments on their appearance and qualifications, and it appears that anonymity may encourage these irrelevant and inappropriate comments and attacks, which are sometimes overtly discriminatory.” Those findings are in line with recent research suggesting strong gender bias in student evaluations.
Other professors talked about how being a tough professor works against them in student evaluations. Here’s an example: “My students often give me (I'm a woman) lower course evals than my peers because I assign a lot of work and hold them to high standards. They don't like this in the moment, but I know from talking with them that a few years later, students are able to see the ways in which this work influences their current abilities and vision and they are grateful. But I don't get the benefit of this perspective.”
Most evaluations are done in the last weeks of the semester, according to the survey. Some institutions allow students to complete the evaluation even after they’ve received their final grade, potentially compromising objectivity.
Some 25 percent of professors say their evaluations were frequently published for students and others to see. Other means of evaluation vary. About half of respondents said they were evaluated frequently by administrators, and about two-thirds by peers.
“The development of teaching portfolios, mentoring of junior colleagues or teaching assistants, or engagement with an on-campus center for teaching and learning, while often recommended, was tagged as required by very few respondents,” the committee says.
Roughly half of respondents reported a mentoring program for junior faculty on their campuses, but few were involved with one. And while 75 percent of respondents said there’s a center for teaching and learning, most said the centers were better known for helping instructors with technological needs than pedagogical ones.
Most agreed that teaching and learning centers demonstrate a campus’s commitment to pedagogical excellence, and 86 percent supported the idea of mentoring programs for junior faculty. Even more respondents (90 percent) said institutions should evaluate teaching with the same seriousness as research and scholarship. While two-thirds of respondents said student evaluations create upward pressure on grades, some 77 percent were against the idea of quotas to fight grade inflation being imposed by the administration.
Who decides what goes into a student evaluation instrument? Some 55 percent of respondents said that was not the job of the faculty primarily. Some 62 percent said decisions concerning the use of student evaluations in personnel decisions, such as promotion, tenure and merit, did not lie with the faculty.
Over all, some 69 percent of respondents said they saw some or a strong need for student feedback on their teaching. But only 47 percent said teaching evaluations were effective. “We saw numerous claims that faculty are evaluated and recommended (or not) for contract renewal or promotion as a result of the grades they assigned, especially claims that there is administrative pressure to pass many students who deserve to fail courses,” the committee says.
The committee pays significant attention in its write-up to adjunct faculty concerns, to include graduate teaching assistants, saying that most respondents noted that traditional monitoring of teaching was limited to those on the tenure track.
For adjunct faculty, the committee says, there is “significantly less support and, oftentimes, exclusion from participation in mentoring, teaching programs, instructional development and peer evaluations. Given the reality that [non-tenure-track] faculty are responsible for teaching the majority of courses and that graduate students represent the next generation in higher education, this lack of mentoring and attention to quality seems disturbing and a cause for concern.”
The committee also argues that online course evaluations, with their low rates of return, “aren’t working” for any faculty member, tenure track or not. It endorses having faculty within departments and colleges -- not administrators -- develop their own, more holistic teaching evaluations, and they raise the possibility of ending student anonymity, saying that students might be more accurate and fair if required to give their names.
Perhaps most importantly, the committee calls on “chairs, deans, provosts and institutions to end the practice of allowing numerical rankings from student evaluations to serve as the only or the primary indicator of teaching quality, or to be interpreted as expressing the quality of the faculty member’s job performance.” Addressing adjunct faculty concerns, the committee adds, “We especially call on administrations to stop the lazy practice of making contract renewals on the basis of such partial, biased and unreliable data.”
Philip B. Stark, a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of a widely read 2014 paper that was critical of student evaluations of teaching, said he was even more against them now, given the growing body of evidence of their unreliability -- especially concerning gender bias.
“I no longer think [student evaluations] should be used in any formal way by any institution, especially not as a measure of teaching quality and especially not for the purposes of hiring, merit evaluations, firing, tenure, et cetera,” Stark said. “They do not measure what they purport to measure.”
Stark said he thought that basic items such as “Could you hear the instructor from the back of the room?” or “Could you read the instructor's handwriting?” or even “Did you enjoy the class?” might be worth collecting, but only for the instructor’s eyes.
Vasey’s committee doesn’t claim that its sample is representative as a whole. In fact, the paper discusses at length the fact that non-tenure-track faculty, for example -- a minority of respondents -- actually make up the majority of the teaching force. But it says the survey results offer a valuable snapshot nonetheless.
Adrianna Kezar, director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California, has studied student evaluations extensively, along with how adjunct faculty employment impacts student learning. She said student evaluations are the primary means for evaluating non-tenure-track faculty, and often for non-rehiring. Like the AAUP committee, she said student evaluations shouldn’t be abolished, but that non-tenure-track faculty need more robust, complete measures of performance.
“Research demonstrates that student evaluations can be valuable among several sources of input on faculty teaching but need to be combined with other sources including peer observations, syllabus review, portfolio analysis and teaching philosophy and reflection, among other approaches,” she said. “Single metrics of teaching have not been found to provide a complete enough picture for improvement.”
Kezar said via email that the issue has implications for student success, namely that overreliance on teaching evaluations for adjunct faculty ratings has led to “integrating effective educational practices such as active or collaborative learning because students often resist new evidence-based teaching approaches that require greater engagement and challenge and therefore penalize instructors who use such approaches. Faculty are often given higher evaluations if they do not challenge students to work hard.”
Of course, not all course evaluations are created equal. Ken Ryalls is president of IDEA, which offers colleges and universities research-based course evaluation systems that can control for class size, student motivation and other factors. He said he understands faculty concerns about low response rates baring statistically insignificant data, but that the correlation between response rates and teacher ratings is actually quite low.
Ryalls said IDEA has an 81 percent response rate on paper and 66 percent online, and that a mobile device delivery system eliminates the paper advantage, since students can fill it out at their fingertips.
“Even without a mobile option, response rates can be just as high online as with paper if teachers take certain actions,” he said. “Faculty can clearly communicate their expectations for student compliance, ensure confidentiality, monitor response rates, send reminders, and create a culture that values student feedback.” The most effective ways to get students to complete course evaluations is to assure them that their responses will be valued and make a difference in the future of the course, Ryalls added.
Qualitative comments, just like numerical scores, “should be used as part of a global picture and analyzed over time to look for informative patterns of feedback that may help instructors improve,” he said. Instructors also may guide students on how to write helpful comments before the surveys are given.
Ryalls said he agreed with the AAUP paper in that faculty members should have input in what questions are asked. He also supported a more comprehensive faculty ratings system. Ideally, he said, student evaluations should count for no more than 30 to 50 percent of the overall assessment of one's teaching, and ratings should be collected from at least six classes before summative decisions about effectiveness are made.
“When we stop thinking of evaluation as an event that occurs at the end of the semester and start thinking of it as an ongoing process that is based on multiple sources of information," Ryalls said, "we will begin to accept the value of student ratings gathered from a reliable and valid system.”
In the education sector, there is a growing awareness of the shortcomings of traditional degree programs, and the need for more technical and vocational training which will produce graduates who have the skills needed in specific industries. In the GCC in particular, with governments looking to increase employment of nationals, there is a growing focus on developing vocational and technical training that will meet the needs of national industries at the same time as providing rewarding and productive career opportunities for citizens.
Read more: Aligning education with the needs of business