Uni-Nanny is watching

August 4, 2006

Students are being "electronically tagged" so that their attendance at lectures and tutorials can be closely monitored as part of moves to reduce drop-out rates.

An electronic monitoring system called Uni-Nanny, under which students identify themselves at every "learning event" with individual computer chips in their key rings, is already in use at Glamorgan University, which developed the technology.

The product has just been bought by Napier University, and deals are set to be signed with two other institutions. Technological solutions, including fingerprint scanners, have also been mooted.

Critics say that the phenomenon represents an alarming trend towards "Big Brother" surveillance and the nannying of students who should be self-motivated. But enthusiasts argue that efficient attendance monitoring is proven to reduce drop-out rates by quickly identifying students who are failing to engage with their courses.

Performance indicators published last month showed that one in six students drops out, costing the public purse an estimated £450 million a year.

Drop-out rates were as high as 35 per cent at Bolton University and .4 per cent at Glamorgan.

Steve Thomas, principal lecturer in electrical engineering at Glamorgan, who developed Uni-Nanny, said that his system reflected the realities of modern higher education, where students in overcrowded classrooms had limited contact with tutors who often did not know their names.

"There can be hundreds of students attending lectures, and 10 to 20 per cent can be missing without the lecturer having a clue who is or is not there," he said.

"Obviously some students will never want to be monitored, but most students like it because their good attendance is recognised and those with problems with their course are given targeted attention as soon as problems arise."

Although the system costs about £10,000 to install in an average-size faculty, and an estimated £50,000 for an entire first-year cohort, Dr Thomas said that it reduced the number of drop-outs and saved money that would have been spent on excessive paper-based administration.

Sally Hunt, University and College Union joint general secretary, said:

"Tagging students sounds like some kind of Orwellian nightmare. If the excuse for their implementation is to cut down on paperwork, then it is nice that some institutions are starting to recognise that excessive red tape is a real problem for staff. However, there are plenty of other avenues they can explore to slash bureaucracy."

Gemma Tumelty, NUS national president, said: "It is fair to suggest that a large proportion of students may be dropping out due to building levels of debt. Rather than treating these students like criminals, we believe there are better ways to address the problem."

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