An end to higher education jargon? Here’s the prospectus

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I’ve previously written here about the prevalence of challenging acronyms in our sector (and offered this exciting quiz to test everyone’s knowledge). In addition to acronyms though university staff very easily fall into using jargon.

And as this recent EAB piece on higher education jargon notes, this can be quite disorientating, particularly for ‘first generation’ students, i.e. those with no family history of university participation. Moreover, we quite often really aren’t aware we are doing it, accustomed as we are to the use of such language.

In general, those of us working in higher education are often pretty poor at writing our documents and websites in plain English, but it is often the case that we assume that our students will understand the specific higher education terminology which we all take for granted.

The jargon in this article is from a US context so there are inevitably some items which are not only confusing for students but also for a UK audience. Anyway, these are the 10 terms identified in the piece:

1. Bursar – bit of an old school term this so hardly surprising it is confusing to many.

2. Office hours – students can be confused about whether this means a time when an academic is in their office and does not wish to be disturbed or is present and available to talk. True both sides of the Atlantic.

3. MWF and TR: I had no idea what these meant. Apparently they are typical course catalogue abbreviations for days of the week. TR is Thursday. Who knew?

4. FAFSA: US financial assistance for students – Free Application for Federal Student Aid apparently.

5. Syllabus: It’s an odd word when you think about it.

6. Credit hours: US specific term.

7. Placement test: No, me neither.

8. Librarian: Bizarre, this:

As one student recounts, he had no idea how useful librarians could be to him as a student. He cites a study that found students mainly think of librarians as “glorified ushers.”

9. Orientation – not much in use in the UK but we do talk about induction sometimes which might be equally confusing.

10. First-generation: similarly, in the UK we often refer to “Widening Participation Students” without any consideration about whether the students concerned actually understand what we are talking about.

So, university policy makers, regulation drafters and student comms professionals really do need to think about the casual deployment of jargon.

I’d add the following terms to a UK list:

  • Module
  • Tariff
  • Transcript
  • Tutorial
  • Seminar
  • Enrolment
  • Matriculation
  • Curriculum
  • Bursary
  • Intern
  • Semester
  • Masters
  • Campus
  • Dissertation
  • Plagiarism
  • Prospectus
  • Scholarship
  • Graduand
  • Fresher

And, of course, Registrar – no-one has any idea what this means.

Some universities do offer handy jargon-busting guides for students such as this one from Aston University.

What other examples of university jargon to avoid would you suggest?

16 thoughts on “An end to higher education jargon? Here’s the prospectus”

  1. Ant says:

    Masters, agreed. What about Master’s?

  2. David Morris says:

    ‘Formative’ and ‘Summative’…

  3. Paul Ashby says:

    I was once asked by a post-Doc “What is a Registrar? Is there only one of them?”

  4. Paul Greatrix says:

    Good spot. It should have been Master’s

  5. Paul Greatrix says:

    That’s fantastic. There is, of course, only one (per institution).

  6. James Lush says:

    I think syllabus is also the word in schools? So perhaps not that problematic

  7. Porters – whilst very friendly I think expecting them to carry your luggage may be a step too far!

  8. Gary says:

    I’m only in it for the Jargon and inventing new acronyms (JAINA)

  9. Eliza says:

    I find Vice-Chancellors, Chancellors, Pro-Chancellors, Pro-Vice Chancellors, Provosts all rather confusing..the job titles I mean.

  10. Laura D says:

    Certain universities are fond of names for their terms eg Lent term which I find a little bit old-fashioned.

  11. mjb504 says:

    A personal favourite is Pedagogy.

  12. Bob says:

    “TR is Thursday”. No: TR is Tuesday-Thursday with the T standing for Tuesday and the R for Thursday.

  13. Luke Chapman says:,2013:884817106897969156_favorited_by_767652637936418816

    Luke Chapman



  15. I ditched the graduand ages ago. Terrible newspaper!


    Sandra Fradley

  17. Abida Akram says:,2013:884817106897969156_favorited_by_846675343389937665

    Abida Akram

  18. No. This isn’t a matter of replacing ‘fancy’ words with ‘plain English’, but rather of making HE sound more like business.


    Graham Donelan

  20. Lydia Arnold says:

    HE jargon can be very confusing and alienating … Time for a rethink, or maybe clear guidance …


    Longley English


    Nicola Hemmings

  23. Sahar Erfani says:,2013:884817106897969156_favorited_by_531002858

    Sahar Erfani

  24. An end to higher education jargon? Here’s the prospectus… – includes Registrar but unaccountably omits PVCs and Deans

  25. AlisonMcNab says:

    Alarmed to hear of study that found students mainly think of librarians as “glorified ushers” in @registrarism blog…

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