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Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Volume 11, Issue 27; July 25, 2012


Finding tough and reliable admission standards in the UK.


Tensions mount against the UK Border Agency.


The dollars, doctor and degree debate on Canada’s west coast.


Eating safer away from home.


1) THE PLAYING FIELD – Finding tough and reliable admission standards in the UK.

Citing that traditional testing is not reliable, Britain’s Oxford University will require 90% of its applicants to write its own aptitude test. Back in 2009, just a third of Oxford applicants were required to sit such an exam.

According to a report by Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper, Oxford is not alone in stepping up admission requirements. At least 75 UK universities (roughly half of those operating across Britain) are now setting their own admissions exams for various traditional disciplines, such as law, medicine, and mathematics. This number, says Schools Minister Nick Gibb, shows a massive 50% increase during the past three years.

This disclosure fuels fears across the country that universities are indeed struggling to identify the most able applicants – a task made far more difficult in recent years due to a huge rise in the number of school leavers earning straight top marks in their A-level exams. Last summer, 27% of all entries were graded A* or A, almost three times the number in the mid-80s.

According to Mr. Gibb, “strong evidence has been emerging of grade inflation across subjects” in recent years – leaving universities little other choice than to resort to giving their own tests “in an effort to distinguish between candidates”.

In an attempt “help restore confidence in standards” of the traditional A-levels, Mr. Gibb says the government is now working to toughen up the exams, by proposing to scrap bite-sized modules and giving universities new powers to help write syllabuses and exam questions.

Meanwhile, universities such as Oxford are prepared to continue setting their own additional entrance exams. Mike Nicholson, Oxford’s head of admissions, for example, says that 85% of applicants to the university will take some form of aptitude test as part of the 2013 applications process – covering around 70% of their subject areas. Three years ago, only around 60 to 65% of candidates were required to sit an entrance exam.

According to Nicholson, the university-tailored exams are important as they act as a “sifting process” to assess candidates – particularly when comparing A-level takers with those who do not sit the A-levels (such as international students), a group he says currently makes up around 30% of the increasingly diverse applicant pool.

Source: “More students forced to sit university admissions tests”. The Telegraph, July 13, 2012.

2) ABROAD PERSPECTIVES – Tensions mount against the UK Border Agency.

Across Britain, hundreds of overseas students have now signed a protest petition, claiming their “basic rights” are being denied by recent delays in processing visas.

Since UK visa rules changed in April, any international students wishing to qualify for the new ‘post-study visas’ are now required to submit a special application after finishing their courses – paying more than £500 and turning over their passports in the process. Besides having to deal with the initial (and previously unexpected) hassle, some students now claim they have already waited as long as five months for their passports to be returned, with no end date in sight. Meanwhile, they are stuck – unable to apply for jobs in the UK (as they do not yet have the right to stay), and also unable (without passports) to return back home.

While the UK Border Agency says the applications will be “worked through by the end of the summer”, the National Union of Students (NUS) is calling the situation a “serious problem” – one which seriously puts at risk the ability of UK universities to continue attracting overseas students in future.

However, it’s not just the students who are facing increased scrutiny from higher up – it’s also the universities themselves.

According to a recent blog post run in The Guardian newspaper, written by former UKBA director Don Ingham, individual schools are also starting feel the strain under increased attention from the UKBA, specifically connected to the country’s newly tightened immigration laws. In recent months, universities have received a growing number of visits, both announced and unannounced, from UKBA police inspectors. With all institutions, both private and public, required to meet UKBA requirements in order to host international students, failure to measure up during any such visit could lead to license suspensions… with the possibility of more serious repercussions further down the line.

While individuals like Ingham are adamant that “the UKBA is not setting universities up to fail”, the scare stories do seem to be running their toll on universities, who continue to fear for their future international recruitment prospects.

Sources: “Overseas students ‘cannot leave or stay’ in visa delays”. BBC News, July 18, 2012.
& “Universities need to be ready when a UK Border Agency inspector calls”. The Guardian, July 16, 2012.

3) OVER THE COUNTER – The dollars, doctor and degree debate on Canada’s west coast.

In British Columbia, students contemplating careers in medicine had best weigh the decision to study abroad very carefully. So goes the warning of UBC Associate Dean of medicine, Dr. Dave Snadden.

According to the Society for Canadians Studying Medicine Abroad (or SOCSMA), each year between 80 and 100 BC students graduate from medical programs in foreign countries, such as the U.K. or Australia. The problem, Snadden explains, is that over the past five years, such students have managed to secure less than 2% of UBC’s residency positions after they’ve completed their overseas studies. Internationally trained students must compete for a limited number of residency spots against all other foreign applicants in UBC’s ‘International Medical Graduates’ or IMG category. Given that last year only 26 of the 292 residency positions offered at the university were allotted to foreign education doctors, the chance to ‘come home’ to practice medicine after overseas studies is very slim.

“[Students] need to know how much more severe the competition is if they go abroad and want to apply for residency position here upon graduation,” says Dr. Snadden.

But BC medical school warnings don’t end there. On the same day Dr. Snadden made his remarks, the SOCSMA made a related announcement of its own – accusing UBC of “selling” postgraduate residence spaces to doctors from countries around the Persian Gulf (such as Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait), whose governments currently pay around $75,000 per student per year, to have them study abroad.

While Snadden disagrees that this separate “visa trainee program” (currently hosting 43 doctors in teaching hospitals across BC) contributes to taking away precious jobs from BC graduates – arguing that the program’s funding goes to support the hospitals where they work, and pointing out that they are sent home after their residencies – others fail to see how the program is fair… or beneficial to Canada.

SOCSMA president and Vancouver General Hospital heart surgeon, Dr. Andrew Thompson, argues that a large medical school like UBC doesn’t need to sell spots to stay afloat, and especially at the cost of opportunities for Canadian residing in BC.

“Canada takes doctors for postgraduate training from countries no Canadians would ever go [to study],” Thompson says. “So is it appropriate for UBC to be selling educational bandwidth at the same time as it is denying these doctors a right to return to BC ?” And, Thompson adds, selling this bandwidth to doctors who will then go back home, instead of serving Canadian communities – which the B.C. residents returning home would be more likely to do.

Source: “Med students studying abroad cautioned”. Vancouver Sun, June 19, 2012.

4) GLOBE TIPPING – Eating safer away from home.

Since traveling brings you into contact with many things your body isn’t used to, it’s easier to get sick when visiting new locations. In fact, according to the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 10 million overseas travelers fall ill each year with diarrhea and other sicknesses related to drinking water and food. So to help you steer clear of food-poisoning and water-borne illness on your next trip, be sure to keep the following tips in mind:

1. Be aware of who is handling the food. Avoid anywhere that food handlers don’t practice good hygiene (ie: tying back their hair, wearing protective gloves, etc). If you see food servers touching their face, smoking, chewing gum, or sneezing/coughing near food, avoid purchasing from that vendor.

2. Look for crowds. Remember, locals get sick from poorly prepared food too, so be sure to check which stalls and/or restaurants attract the biggest crowds. If there’s a lot of people eating there, it’s usually a safer option – with a higher chance of freshly prepared food as well (ie: no prepared dishes sitting around if there’s lots of customers).

3. Be selective. As raw food is more subject to contamination, it might be a good idea to avoid any salads, uncooked vegetables, and unpasteurized juices or milk products.

4. Spice things up. Familiarize yourself with spices such as chilies and turmeric – known to have anti-bacterial properties – and seek out dishes that include them. Acidic fruits, such as citrus fruits or pineapples, are also safer bets for a healthy snack.

5. Boil tap water before consuming. If you need to use tap water from an unknown source, bring it to a good roiling boil for several minutes first. Also, avoid consuming any beverages that may be mixed with local tap water, such as juices and/or any beverages containing ice (note: freezing does not kill most microorganisms).

6. Not all bottled water is safe. When drinking ‘purified’ or bottled water, be sure to check that any seals are intact. Counterfeit or re-filled bottles are not uncommon.

7. Wash and peel vegetables and fruit prior to eating. Bacteria can be present on the exteriors and even on sliced areas of fruits and vegetables, so if you’re traveling in an area with unsafe water, be sure to wash any produce with bottled or filtered water.

8. Eat hot foods hot, and cold foods cold. If the dish you order is supposed to be served hot / cold, make sure it is indeed hot / cold when served to you – otherwise it may not be safe to eat.

9. Wash your hands thoroughly before eating or handling food. If fresh water or soap is scarce, use antibacterial hand gels or wipes to clean your hands after using a restroom or before eating.

10. Sanitize “high touch” areas. Since germs hang around longer on nonporous materials like plastic, you might want to consider wiping down any common surface areas when traveling, such as tray tables, seat armrests, tv remotes, etc with an alcohol-based wipe or gel before you use them.

Source: “12 tips for safe eating while traveling”. Mother Nature Network, July 15, 2012.


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