Review of the year – in blogs

An easy way for media outlets to fill space in the dog days running up to Christmas is to provide a review of the year. This blog is not going to shirk from that less than onerous task, as we look at what was reported, debunked, or analysed in these pages over the last year.

January 2015

The year started off with a look at the first league table out of the blocks – the People and Planet League Table. A bit of  a slide for us in this one, but as the Guardian reported at the time:

A number of universities seem to have become frustrated over time with the “green league”, which has also this year been renamed to remove the word “green” from the title. Concerns centred on the time involved in collating the information required, some criticisms of aspects of People & Planet’s methodology, and perceived goal-post changing

Also in January we looked at the UCAS data release for the previous year, which contained the surprising information that some universities have increased their number of applications, and that there is a gender divide between subjects.

February 2015

In February, we looked at a report which showed what MPs thought about universities – 3 months before an election, it seemed like a good idea:

“When asked about how well universities perform, then while 78% though universities did well at world leading research and 71% though they did well at competing internationally with other HE sectors, only 56% thought universities did well at producing highly skilled and employable graduates and 48% thought they did well at contributing to local employment and the local economy in their areas. More worryingly only 38% thought universities did well at using their funding efficiently (funding from their assets, students, the government and others)”

Also we looked at the numberr of good degrees begin awarded across the sector, new writing on BME success from the Runnymede Trust, the need to be CMA compliant and a report from HEPI, which led to my first quotation in the Times Higher and the following ideas:

  • the increasing focus on employability – are we keeping pace with others in the sector on this?
  • the development of graduate attributes – how distinctive are these between individual universities?
  • the increase in use of  performance management tools – how do we ensure we have the right data, and use it for enhancement?
  • provision of foundation year programmes – is the CUC model one that others might choose to replicate?

March 2015

Not much happened on the blog in March, apart from an article “Let’s Talk About Race”.

It’s something we still need to be talking about.

April 2015

In April, we reported that StaffsUni had improved in the Times Higher Student Experience Survey 2015 and had risen  rises 2 further places in the Complete University Guide.

Most prominent this month though, was the steady march towards teh General Election, and this included   a review of the major parties’ manifestos. Somewhat presciently, the Lib Dems were considered in this article under “The Others” – a rare bit of foresight into their likely election performance.

May 2015

May brought us a General Election, so in advance of this I produced a reflective piece ion what universities are for, and post-election wrote a piece on the changes we were likely to see. Pleasingly, this was republished by the Guardian, so luckily there was nothing too controversial.

Late in the month, the Guardian University League Table came out, with another rise for StaffsUni. This was the most read of all articles through the year.

June 2015

Starting with an article referencing Supertramp (song titles do appear frequently if you want to go searching), this month we looked at the annual PA survey of Vice Chancellors, who felt that the UK is lagging behind in every major area of innovation, and propose the following as the reasons for this:

  1. deep seated conservatism of university cultures
  2. constraints of inflexible organisational structures
  3. fragmented and tentative nature of change initiatives
  4. perceived lack of incentives for innovation
  5. improved confidence in resilience of sector
  6. widely held views that current models of HE provision and participation will remain the same for years to come

We also looked at the use of data – both in terms of the end to produce graduates who are numerate and data literate, but also to have university staff who can use data effectively.

July 2015

Graduation month for us here at StaffsUni, and another popular post for the year – a guide to staff on how to behave at graduation ceremonies, with such tips as:

  • “You may have heard the same speech several times for the last however many years. Remember to laugh at the joke. Not too heartily”


  • “If you can gatecrash the senior staff reception, then this is the place for the best snacks”

On a more serious note, we saw Jo Jhnson’s first major speech, as well as HEFCE launching its consultation into QA arrangements. HEFCE may have been premature, as Johnson announced the TEF, and hinted that QAA could be the ones to run it…..

August 2015

A quieter time of year, so another chance to look at the importance of numbers, and a review of The Metric Tide. This would come in handy later in the year when we saw the consultation on TEF, but more locally, I suggested that we should be getting good with data:

  • To make sure all colleagues are aware of how measurable outcomes affect us reputationally and reflect the results and experience of actual students
  • To provide a consistent reliable management information to act as a trigger
  • To raise the data understanding capability of all groups of staff.

September 2015

A new academic year, and in a speech to UUK, Jo Johnson said “there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system”. Based on no evidence whatsoever. However, this set out what we were about to learn in the Green Paper. My conclusions were:

  • A commitment to great teaching won’t be argued with – the mechanisms of assessing it will be.
  • The change in regulation for alternative providers might be seen as a threat to some institutions (probably only those in the bottom quartile of league tables, or current FE providers of HE)
  • The focus on widening participation should be welcomed – provided that funding and full data analysis is part of the deal.

Also in September we saw a rise in our position in the Good University Guide, and in final piece on good degrees, I wrote that:

“As we move into a potential quality regime that could be metrics based, together with a Teaching Excellence Framework, which will certainly use a variety of metrics (possibly including learning gain), then there will be plenty of work to be done in generating data and analysing it..

However, the focus also has to go beyond analysing data. How can we use it to understand our students both as individuals and as cohorts? How can we use data to support our staff better in teaching and assessing their students? Finally, how can we learn to change practices and behaviours based on evidence?”

October 2015

This month, we looked at the politics behind TEF, and suggested that: “one of the unintended consequences that TEF might bring about is a gaming of the system. I’m not suggesting that data returns that feed into league tables are inaccurate, but one part of a successful league table result is a set of carefully constructed data returns. It’s equally likely that it will be possible to do something similar with any TEF submission, so all institutions will learn very quickly how to report data in the best possible way”.

The month ended with a detailed piece explaining the rationale behind our revised Learning and Teaching Strategy, that went out for final consultation.

November 2015

The month started with “Who are You?” – questioning who our students are, what they want, how well we know them, and how well we understand the reasons behind a rise in consumerist behaviour.

In the second week, we got the big story of the year, and every wonk blog started churning out pieces on the Green Paper, in particular, on the Teaching Excellence Framework. This blog, never one to miss a trend, was no exception.

This was followed by a piece on student satisfaction, with another song title to start, which suggested that we needed to:

  • carry on listening to students, responding and being seen to respond to surveys
  • make sure we focus on all the measures that make up a league table
  • make sure that courses are well organised and running smoothly
  • don’t expect league table moves to immediately be reflected in increased applications
  • and remember – the student experience is what really matters, not the survey itself.

The research reported in this formed part of a talk given to our Academic Group Leaders that month, where we looked at a range of ways data could be used.

December 2015

The last month of the year saw a review of the most recent Equality Challenge Unit data. Still we see a gap in degree attainment for students who don’t come from a white background.

UUK published 2 major documents – firstly a look at trends in HE, showing an anticipated need for more people in the economy with master level qualifications, and a second piece on supply and demand for higher level skills, which provided useful business insight into the gaps between what universities are providing, vs what employers think that they want.


It’s been an interesting year in HE. The dominant narrative that a degree is primarily about enhancing employment outcomes (not employability) is being increasingly reinforced. The ideas around TEF mean a potentially bureaucratic behemoth will be created, which clever institutions will learn to turn to their advantage. Students increasingly behave as consumers, but within the sector we don’t always understand how we have contributed to this set of behaviours. Data, and using it well, is becoming increasingly important.

My blog stats showed that I’ve had over 11,000 hits on the site now, so I think I’ll carry on.

For the next year, I expect this blog will be covering:

  • changes post-Green Paper consultation
  • the need to use metrics appropriately
  • the use of technology in learning and teaching
  • league tables (again)

And of course, the use of 70’s song titles and references in articles.

Now as we look forward to the next years, this writer will leave the last word to Morrissey – Happy Christmas, everyone.


(from This Charming Charlie)