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

Universities are full of strange jargonistic terms. A writer in America has come up with a list of those we should axe, and Paul adds some suggestions of his own.
This article is more than 3 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

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?

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

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

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

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