Thursday, January 20, 2011

Professor Fluffy

Professor Fluffy is the officlal name of the mascot shown below.

We are told that universities may only charge the upper limit of £9000 per year in fees, if they commit to “widening access”, but like many aspects of the new fees regime, the details are unclear. It seems natural to consider whether scholarships could be used for this purpose, or alternatively just as way to attract good applicants, and if so, how to design the scholarships.

Yesterday Liverpool University held a kind of open-house session to discuss organisational strategy with staff, with reference to the funding regime. I went over to find out what the thinking is on scholarships; my own observation on the topic is that the university has, for PhD study, just one scholarship that is not restricted to any particular kind of applicant, and despite the fact that this particular scholarship can hardly help much to increase student numbers, it has the effect of attracting applications from ambitious students, who may then be available to pick up alternative PhD studentships.

My thought was that we should consider having one or two undergraduate scholarships based entirely on academic results that made no reference to a student’s background. What I learned, talking to our widening-access expert Tricia Jenkins, is that the idea may not apply so well at the undergraduate level. The difference is that at postgraduate level, the student is deemed to be responsible for his academic track-record, but someone with high-school qualifications is not. This refers to the well-known fact that a student from a poorly-performing school will outperform (at university) a student from a very good school, if they have the same A level grades. Indeed, apparently 3 B's at A level from a weak school is better than 3 A's from a strong school, in this sense. Consequently, if a scholarship is based on academic excellence, it should be biased this way.

The downside is, that such a scholarship could not possibly be used to attract students from good schools, no matter how smart or committed those students were. And, these scholarships would require decision-making about how exactly to design the bias in favour of certain types of applicant (it is not just about schools — should you also give a student credit for having been in foster care for some number of years?)

Anyway, I couldn't get away without learning about Professor Fluffy, who as the picture suggests is sort of a mascot, designed to attract the interest of primary-school children in going to university, based on the observation that by the time they are their teens, you've left it too late. Fluffy was born in Liverpool in 2004. Apparently he (or she) makes more money for the university than any other professor, due to licensing fees — it would appear that Fluffy is quite widespread. By now, Fluffy has a Chinese sister, Professor Long Long. And the plan is that Fluffy (along with other colleagues, tba) will shortly feature in mobile phone apps designed for young children. I don't know the details, presumably not “tap fluffy to hear her complain about the rejection of her last research grant application.”


Anonymous said...

I'm very interested that students with BBB from a poor school perform better than an AAA from a good school: where is this data from? I would tend to agree with you that splitting up the pot based on how bright school leavers are seems a logical idea and I'm interested that it may not work.

Rahul Savani said...

We might consider a select few interviews for the purpose of deciding on who to give undergraduate scholarships to.

Michele said...

If "A" (or "B") means the same in all schools it is not clear to me what is wrong with favouring students from a poor performing school?

Tricia Jenkins said...

Hi Paul - very interesting - would you like to come and have a cup of coffee with us and meet the Professors? Tricia

Paul Goldberg said...

Tricia, I should come and meet them some time (bit busy right now though!). Regarding the question of where the data is from - this is indeed important, I don't know about that myself but any policy should surely be based on very reliable data. (Yet another problem I though of just to complicate things further - if you try too hard to adjust for school's performance, you risk sending the message that schools don't have to try hard to get good performance.)