Willetts – on the benefits and funding of HE

Formerly the minister responsible for universities, David Willetts is now a visiting professor at King’s College, London and last week released a short report on “Issues and ideas on Higher education:Who benefits? Who pays?”.

From the King’s website, the report makes five key recommendations: More cash for students by increasing total maintenance support, whilst saving public spending with a shift from maintenance grants to loans


  • Ensuring any future fee increases, bringing more cash to universities, clearly demonstrates value to the public
  • Freezing the £21,000 threshold for graduates to repay the loan
  • Shifting to a more sensible discount rate for the RAB charge calculations
  • Establishing regular reviews, every five years, of the latest evidence on the costs and benefits of education to set the key figures for the graduate contribution scheme

A pleasing part of the report is the first section on the benefits of HE. At a time when we are always being asked to regard higher education as a private economic benefit, both from outside the academy, and within the institution with a reductive focus and simplistic view of employability above all else, David Willetts clealry articulates that the benefits of HE are both to the individual and society, and are both economic and non-economic. In this he references work from his previous government department of Business Innovation and Skills.


In looking at paying for higher education in England, Willetts reminds us that the current system of loans is not one of commercial loans, and might have been described as a graduate contribution scheme. However the rationale for sticking with slightly misleading terms was:

We did look at this in government but the language of fees and loans had already taken hold. It was how the structure we inherited was described. If we had tried to change it, we would have been in danger of having one official name for it and a separate colloquial description. I did not wish to go back to the days of the poll tax, which ministers were supposed to call the community charge: there was a ragged cheer every time a minister forgot and lapsed into talking about poll tax.

(We wouldn’t have wanted that embarrassment to happen….)

Willetts states that our system of  funding is differentiated from a commercial scheme  through income contingent repayment and universal access for full time students.

In addition to loans or tuition fees, the current system allow for loans for maintenance, and then there are three further items of expenditure.

  • Extra teaching costs for expensive subject, strategic or vulnerable subjects, and teaching disadvantaged students costs just under £2bn per year.
  • Direct funding to students with special needs, maintenance grants or to students who are parents is a further £2bn.
  • Capital funding of £200m per year.

The forth and final category of spending is the Resource Accounting and Budget charge, which probably only David Willetts and Andrew McGettigan fully understand. I suspect they don’t agree with each other though.

The RAB is a measure of the amount of debt that the government will eventually write off based on non-repayment. Willetts explains how it differs from other debt as follows:

However, the government does have to borrow money
now to make the loans to students. This is not regarded as
adding to net borrowing as it is matched by an obligation
to repay the loan – but it does add to net government debt
because the asset which the government acquires, the loan,
is not regarded as sufficiently liquid to count as a financial
asset according to rigorous financial rules. That is why
selling student loans reduces net government debt. If this
leaves you hungry for more detail, the July 2014 Office for
Budget Responsibility (OBR) Fiscal Sustainability Report
has a fuller discussion.

Ok, crystal clear?

The RAB charge s described as being very sensitive to lower growth in earnings, and this is one of the reasons for the rise from 28% to 46%. Willetts argues that the modelling of RAB is more accurate than the system used in other countries, and that to identify a suitable rate for a graduate tax (an alternative HE funding system) would be as difficult, and would also have provided a delay before money started flowing in.

In terms of what to do now, Willetts looks at various other proposals, while remaining with the current system:

What we need is a framework to explicitly adjust the parameters to keep it flexible and sustainable, whilst keeping the basic structure. Such a framework should also avoid endless ad hoc adjustments. Therefore, I suggest that at the start of each parliament the government should assess the latest evidence on the costs and benefits of education, and set the key figures for the graduate contribution scheme. This could be done within government or by an outside panel of experts and interested parties – or some combination. It is emphatically not a review of the whole system. It is not a Robbins or a Dearing or a Browne. Its purpose is not to change the structure of higher education funding. All three political parties, when in office, have recognised its strengths, and structural changes can distract us from uncomfortable tradeoffs. Instead, the aim is to calibrate the structure in the light of new evidence and any change in  political views on the right balance to strike.

The rationale for a 5 year review (linked to parliamentary terms) is given as:

  • matches the main public spending reviews.
  • similar to the system of setting national insurance contribution rates for five years
  • resembles the quinquennial review of the pension age
  • there are limits to how much change and complexity the Students Loan Company can handle,
  • Universities themselves used to be funded with a five year allocation of funding

All in all, a typically well argued defence of the current system for funding HE, together with a clear articulation of the wider benefits of a university education. Howver the emphasis throughout the paper on the need for graduates to pay for their education and not to cross subsidise others (as would be the case with a graduate tax) does maintain the focus on the private rather than societal benefit.

Worryingly though, the government still has to make significant savings from the budget for BIS this year of £450m, and so the existing expenditure on maintenance grants and on support for disadvantaged students starts to look vulnerable. While Willetts shows that not all higher education costs have been privatised, he suggests that “authoritative estimates of the scale of this public support would help tackle this misconception”.

Is it too late to make this plea – we understand the wider benefits of HE, we know that not all funding is yet privatised and the importance of this source of funding, but do we have the right  narrative to explain this, and the right speakers to say it?



What will universities be for?

There’s nothing like a Bank Holiday weekend to make a start on a blog article on a subject that plenty of others have written on in the past, more eloquently and better researched no doubt. I’m thinking of Cardinal Newman, and more recently Stefan Collini.

Newman said that the purpose of a University is:

“An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit. This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching. This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students.”

More recently, Stefan Collini has tried to reinforce the need to answer the question “What Afe Universities For”, by looking beyond a

“public perception of universities (that) focuses too much on their teaching role”


“they have become an important medium for conserving understanding extending and handing on intellectual scientific and artistic heritage.”


“This wider perspective may help us become more aware of the limitations of treating economic growth as the overriding test of value”

However much of this post is prompted by recent publications by two other writers, Joanna Williams, of University of Kent, and Andrew McGettigan, author of The Great University Gamble.

At a time when we are preparing ourselves for an HE future that will be shaped by the outcome of this year’s General Election, when so many universities are focussing on their finances, their ability to provide the necessary “student experience”, their contribution to improving student employability, then these writers challenge us to think again about what higher education is about.

Higher education, according to all of the recent major party manifestos is expressed in terms of the financial benefit to the individual (and hence to society through increased tax revenues, and repayment of tuition fee loans). However, previous work from the the Department of Business, Industry and Science – who have been responsible for universities – has shown in “The Benefits of Higher Education Participation for Individuals and Society” that people who attend university are less likely to commit crime, drink heavily or smoke, and  are also more likely to vote, volunteer, have higher levels of tolerance and educate their children better than non-graduates”. The BIS report identifies a range of market and non-market benefits and whether they relate to the individual or society.

Joanna Williams captures the rationale for celebrating higher education in a short piece for Palgrave where she says:

“The idea of the ‘student as consumer’ is derided by academics and commentators alike but it can seem as if there are few intellectually inspiring visions of higher education on offer to young people today. To celebrate higher education we need to move beyond mundane ‘skills for employability’ and to stop drawing a trivial financial equivalence between tuition fees and posh cups of coffee. Rather than focusing upon student satisfaction and the customer experience, universities need to promote the knowledge, ideas and understanding that only they can provide.”

Andrew McGettigan takes a focused look at the treasury view of HE in a new paper for PERC at Goldsmiths where he states:

The focus of policy has been the transformation of higher education into the private good of training and the positional good of opportunity, where the returns on both are higher earnings. Initiation  into the production and dissemination of public knowledge? It does not appear to be a concern of current policy.

He highlights that the Treasury view of higher education is based on the concept of human capital investment, where ultimately the information on salaries earned by graduates from individual subjects at universities, based on tax receipts and levels of payment of student loans will become a factor provided to allow decision to be made about where to study. Recent legislation has provided a series of measures to enable this that:

will also help to create an incentive and reward structure at universities by distinguishing the universities that are delivering the strongest enterprise ethos and labour market outcomes for their students.

This will provide data on the repayment rates for different subjects at different institutions, as well as the promotion of “value added” as being based purely on graduate earnings. No doubt this will then provide a new series of value judgments about universities based on metrics rooted in monetarist theory.

McGettigan questions how academics might challenge this new orthodoxy;

The risk is that academics seeking to resist this further privatisation of knowledge will be cast as vested interests seeking to protect an old, inadequate system lacking in transparency. We will end up on the wrong side of the argument. The difficulty: How to articulate what is threatened? How to defend forms of knowledge which are not subordinate to private returns? Academic freedom and autonomy now face a more pressing, insidious, financialised threat than the traditional bugbear of direct political interference. But all this may prove too abstract for effective resistance.

McGettingan cleary states that he does not have a “glib solution”, but that maybe academics (and indeed universities) could challenge the key definition of institutions as providers of

undergraduate study as a stratified, unequal, positional good dominating future opportunities and outcomes. What might find broader public support is a vision of higher education institutions that are civic and open to lifelong participation, instead of places beholden to the three-year, full-time degree leveraged on loans and aiming to cream off ‘talent’.

Although universities need to be managed and governed in such a way that they use public and private monies responsibly, from an academic perspective we need to ensure that in the drive to satisfy our neo-liberal paymasters that we don’t lose the other non-financial benefits of HE and the ability of, and indeed need for, education to be transformational, not just in terms of employability, and for the broadest range of students.

At my own institution, as we move from our new statement of strategic intent, to the development of a new University plan, we have  already said that we will challenge and support our students through “the obligation to provide programmes that stretch our students, delivered by critical thinking, pedagogically advanced, scholarship- and research-active academics”

We need to create a narrative that shows how we can transform all of our students into fully engaged members of society who are able to engage with their subjects to the level of challenging established truths, as well as being able to engage with  the broader hopes of the academy. We need to look closely at what we mean by employability, and make sure that we give our students the opportunities to develop the social capital that they need over and above subject expertise and “transferable skills”. A university that is able to stay true to the principles originally expressed by Newman, reinforced by Collini, and recognises the dangers posed by the current limited thinking driven purely by economics will be the university that enables its students to fully engage with their subjects, to be able to challenge and help create new truths and possibly even be more employable.


Stefan Collini: What are Universities for? Publisher: Penguin (2012) ISBN-13: 978-1846144820

Newman http://www.newmanreader.org/works/idea/discourse5.html

Andrew McGettigan “The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment” http://www.gold.ac.uk/perc/news/percpaperno6thetreasuryviewofhevariablehumancapitalinvestment.php

Joanna Williams: Celebrate Higher Education http://www.palgrave.com/page/Joanna-Williams/


Essays on student fees, student engagement and student choice

“What do I Get” is the title of this collection of essays on student fees, student engagement and student choice, published by HEPI.

The title comes from a Buzzcocks song, which prompted a a flurry on Twitter of other possible HE report titles with song titles, which led to my first (and possibly only) reference in the Times Higher.


The book seeks to provide evidence of how institutions are faring in a world of £9000 fees, and how this can vary.

Some gems for me:

Edward Acton, former VC of UEA, explains how that institution developed and celebrated a career track that focused on teaching, which led to an improvement in student-staff ratios. In addition, Grove points out the need to take ownership of, and make real, a weekly study time of 40 hours. On this latter point, in the Faculty I currently work in, we will be doing a lot more work in the next year to make sure that we firstly identify all the student-centred learning that is part of a module, but then crucially, to make sure that this is communicated to our students, and is an integral pat of learning, not just “go and read chapter 2”.

Authors from University of Sheffield discuss how, in 2010, a project ran in the university to prepare for the new fee regime.. One of the outcomes from this was the definition of a Sheffield Graduate – that i,s a series of promises around the 5 themes of: course, personal development, support, community and future. An interesting new development for 2015 is the introduction of inter disciplinary projects for all undergraduates.

Richard Brabner of Hertfordshire considers embedding employability into the curriculum, noting that this is increasinglysomething that students expect from university, Again, a set of graduate attributes are described, but here they are linked to the university’s performance management and spending plans. Departments have to show how attributes are embedded and describe their plans for employability. Senior management can monitor activity, reward success and deal with under-performance.

The final essay I’ll look at here was by Ian Dunn, PVC at Coventry and responsible for the development of Coventry University College. This subsidiary company of the university was set up to provide HE with a different learning, teaching and assessment strategy in order to widen access, and crucially at a lower price. Courses range from foundation years, through to honours degrees. The LTA strategy involve modules being taught intensively over 6 weeks each. For modules which fall below a quality threshold, then detailed action plans are implemented to bring them back on track.

Notable from the various essays are the following:

  • 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?


What do MPs think about universities?

A new survey has been carried out by ComRes, asking current and possible future MPs about their views on higher education.

Politicians were asked what they wanted to hear about from universities, and also how the rated the performance of universities.

From the ComRes website:

MPs are most likely to say that they would be most interested in hearing from UK universities about their engagement with business and enterprise (43%) followed by the employability of graduates (42%).

Future MPs are most likely to say that they would be most interested in hearing from UK universities about their activities relating to widening participation and improving social mobility, and about the employability of graduates (48% for both).

Of the statements tested, MPs and Future MPs are most likely to say that they are interested in the external work of UK universities, rather than teaching and learning. Just 14% of MPs and 16% of Future MPs say that they would be interested in hearing about the teaching and learning at universities.

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).

There were also large variations in opinion depending on the political party, so for instance when considering how well universities are perceived on issues that my university might be concerned with, then the results are:

producing highly employable graduates Using their funding efficiently Widening participation
Conservative 46%


33% 47%
Labour 62%


48% 29%

(Other minority parties not shown in results)








So why does this matter?

With an election now 3 months away, then universities need to recognise that with only 24% of MPs thinking that universities perform well on engaging with MPs and other stakeholders, that there is work to be done on making it clear what our contribution is to local and national economies and to show how we create highly employable graduates.

Also, we need to be aware that the two main parties have different preconceptions about what it is that we do well, or otherwise, meaning we might need to tailor our messaging. We might also need to find out what the other, currently minority, parties think.

Student Engagement and Experiences

Two new publications from the Higher Education Academy which are timely.

The first is on the UK Engagement Survey 2014. 32 institutions took part in the survey which looked at how students engaged with various aspects of their studies.

From the HEA website:

Among the key findings are pronounced variations between the engagement reported by students in different disciplines. Predictably large differences were found between disciplines regarding the development of skills in numerical analysis (64% of students in European languages reported very little development compared to 3% of Engineering). Other disciplinary differences mirrored the results from 2013: 26% of students in Maths and Computer Sciences, and 20% of students in Physical Sciences, felt there was very little emphasis in the course on the evaluation of points of view and information sources, compared to 2% of History and Philosophy students and 3% of Social Studies students.

Rather than just accept these outcomes as they are, and dismiss the results by expecting a lack of numeracy amongst social scientist and a lack of critical thinking amongst engineers (nothing like a good stereotype), then maybe we can reconsider how we could use our Graduate Attributes programmes to identify these gaps in our curricula, since we know that employers do look for numeracy and critical thinking amongst other skills.

At Staffordshire University we will be running our own version of an engagement survey this year for final year students on those awards that are part of our Paul Hamlyn/HEA “What Works” retention project.

The second new publication from HEA is on “Managing the student experience in a shifting higher education landscape“, where a comparative study has been made of different types of institutions and how they have responded through management of student experience after the introduction of higher tuition fees.

From the HEA website:

“It found that the two research-intensive universities seemed to be responding to the changed environment in different ways to the other four institutions who were, in general, responding by centralising services, standardising procedures and strengthening management controls. For example, the research showed a removal of the responsibility for recruitment and admissions from academic departments, and a central determination of contact hours. Organisational change in the research-intensive examples, meanwhile, usually took the form of changing the reporting lines of student-related services to create more coherent functional groupings, rather than comprehensive reorganisations, the authors report.
Other key findings:
the case study institutions have all placed greater emphasis on enhancing the quality of teaching and learning, a process usually begun before 2012, but given added emphasis since then. The report shows that the research-intensive institutions have become more prescriptive about teaching and learning matters, usually by issuing guidelines.
there was an increased emphasis on employability across all institutional types, but with variations in emphasis. This new emphasis includes employment-related curriculum changes and enhanced support for advice and placements.
higher tuition fees were affecting the character of students’ interactions with their universities everywhere, but the tendency to treat students as customers seemed to be more pronounced with managers at the less research-intensive universities.”

I don’t think that we can be surprised by any of the results, and can reflect that as a less research intensive university that our focus has been on employability through the Staffordshire Graduate programme and with a focus on centralised student services.

The point I would take issue with is this tendency to treat students as customers. While I fully recognise that the fees being paid by students means that they expect a certain level of service, I still believe that treating students simply as customers is a detrimental move. As I have written before, higher education should be transformational, and not just a transaction. It should involve students working as partners in their learning together with the academic and other staff. When we allow students to see themselves as customers, then we see a range of negative comments on Facebook that accompany things the university does in the way a supermarket might be criticised, rather than seeing comments of support for an institution in which they have a shared investment.

Reflecting on the changed education landscape, and changing behaviours, the authors of the report say:

“These changes add up to create a higher education landscape which is both fluid and unpredictable, with major challenges for institutional leaderships and managements and their academic and professional staffs.”

The future is an interesting place.



There’s an election coming

If you hadn’t already noticed.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably work in a University, or are interested in higher education, so you know that there are more stories to tell than the tired UKIP one of immigration which all other mainstream parties appear to be trying to imitate.

A number of interesting publications came out in the last week or so, all about HE policy, and all worth looking at in more depth.

Firstly, Universities UK has launched its campaign “Back Universities” with three priority areas that it wants an incoming government to focus on:

  • Research and innovation – making the case for closing the gap between the UK’s investment in research and innovation and that of its major competitors
  • International students and immigration – calling on government and universities to work together to attract qualified international students and staff to the UK
  • Student funding – highlighting the need to develop a sustainable student funding system
    No surprise that once again the issue of international students is on the table –the recent decision about post-study work visas and the perceived lack of welcome are already having an impact on students from India and leading to the loss of income to a range of universities.

On student funding, another interesting publications came out recently. The Institute for Pubic Policy Research has published a report proposing that a student loan system should be extended to postgraduate study.

The paper publishes modelling of the costs and risks of a postgraduate loan scheme offering £10,000 for a taught masters course, to be repaid at 9 per cent on future earnings between £15,000 and £21,000, with other features of the scheme consistent with the existing undergraduate loans. The model assumes this is made available to roughly 47,000 full-time students and 24,000 part-time students.

Crucially, the modelling suggests a non-repayment rate (known as the RAB charge) of 6.9 per cent. This is considerably lower than the non-repayment rate of 40–45 per cent estimated for undergraduate loans.

In response a number of Russell Group universities have dismissed the idea, suggesting that scholarships would be a better approach, although Rick Muir of IPPR points out in the Guardian that a mass scholarship scheme would be unaffordable.

Finally the Institute for Fiscal Studies has written about the socio-economic differences in higher education.

Writing on the million+ website, our VC, Michael Gunn said:

“This research confirms that the support which universities provide for students when they are studying is crucial in terms of outcome. The report’s findings support the government’s decision to retain the Student Opportunity Allocation and suggest that those who say that there is no need for this funding are on the wrong side of the argument and the evidence base.

Student Opportunity funding helps widen access to higher education but it also provides universities with vital extra funds to support students once they have entered a course and plays an important role in retention and social mobility.”

From the IFS website:

“We find that the large raw differences in university outcomes between individuals from different socio-economic backgrounds can largely be explained by the fact that they arrive at university with very different levels of human capital. Comparing individuals on the same course makes relatively little difference to the remaining socio-economic gaps in university outcomes, with those from higher socio-economic backgrounds still 3.4 percentage points less likely to drop-out, 5.3 percentage points more likely to graduate and 3.7 percentage points more likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 than those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.”

But an interesting outcome was that the performance of the school that students had attended previously had an effect on outcome:

“amongst students with the same grades on entry to university, those from worse-performing schools are less likely to drop-out, more likely to complete their degree and more likely to obtain a first or 2.1 than those from better-performing schools.”

That last gem makes it even more difficult to work with contextual admissions, or even to assess the impact of WP policies when the performance of a school is probably not a piece of data that we capture.

All in all, it seems as though the various representative organisations and think tanks are putting out information to try to inform policy at the next election. Higher education is rarely one of the top door step conversations for canvassers, but as more and more people in the UK are university educated, and more and more are questioning the role and value of HE, then we should welcome the fact that some cogent and important arguments are being aired.

Transaction or Transformation

As I wrote in last week’s blog, there is an increasingly loud neoliberal voice driving the future of universities.

As we move into the first year where student number controls are scrapped, and the effective protectionism that they afforded to universities lower down the league tables, then it’s important that we reflect on who we are, what we are trying to achieve and how.
However this is where my personal opinions may differ from organisational thinking, but a university is nothing if it is not a place where ideas are allowed to be expressed and challenged.

As Henry Giroux (author of “Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education”) has written in a piece entitled “Higher Education and the New Brutalism“:

“Viewed as a private investment rather than a public good, universities are now construed as spaces where students are valued as human capital, courses are determined by consumer demand and governance is based on the Walmart model of labor relations…….in particular, the ideal of the university as a vital public good no longer fits into a revamped discourse of progress, largely defined in terms of economic growth. Under the onslaught of a merciless and savage financialization of society that has spread since the 1980s, the concept of social progress has all but disappeared amid the ideological onslaught of a crude, market-driven fundamentalism that promises instant gratification, consumption and immediate financial gain.”

For us to be successful, we need to be able to express clearly why we exist as a university, and what benefits that the organisation brings. We are focussed on being modern, relevant and vocationally inspired, and the VC has provided his exposition of each of these descriptors. But in marketing ourselves to potential students, to the businesses and other organisations that we work with, and to ourselves, then we should be able to provide more critique debate how we can express and enact these ideals.
The university as a concept is seen as being under siege. We are increasingly driven by league table rankings and external metrics. I don’t have a huge issue with this – many of the measures that are used are those we should all be able to sign up to – student success, satisfaction and employment. At the same time however, an over-reliance on these metrics reduces the value of higher education to a transaction between a consumer paying fees, who expects to be treated as a paying customer, and for whom an undergraduate degree course has become a rite of passage to the expected 2(i) and a graduate job.

The first challenge then is for us to learn to work with students in such a way that we can satisfy the transactional nature of education, while ensuring that their exposure to an environment where challenge of conventional wisdom, where a democracy of ideas is still valuable, so that when they do gain that 2(i) and gain a job in a widget factory we will have done more for them than provide them with just a passport to work, but provided them with a truly transformational education.

The second challenge is for us to be clear about what a university exists for today. Stefan Collini in “What are Universities For” in providing a critique of the sacred cow of Newman’s view of a university says:

“The twenty first century university needs a literary voice of comparable power to iterate in the idiom of our time the idea of the untrammelled quest for understanding”.

So when we say we are modern, relevant and vocationally inspired, we should develop a full understanding what we mean by each of these terms, and how they can be articulated beyond the immediacy of the dominant neoliberal threat to the academy.

Modern. We expect all of our students to be learning at the forefront of knowledge so that they become discipline experts, and that all of our academic staff are themselves creating new knowledge and scholarship. This is not just about training for jobs – this is about providing our students with the opportunities to engage with and in scholarship and to learn that there are limits to knowledge and that they will need to learn how to solve unfamiliar problems and challenges based on incomplete information.

Relevant. The relevance of a degree at its most reductive could be seen as being relevant to specific industries or job roles. However, when it is expected that many of the jobs that will be available in 10 years have not even been invented yet, then we have to ask relevant to what? Our degrees will be relevant solving the problems to the society we want to live in. To be relevant our graduates will need to be able to provide critique and challenge to the status quo, and take their place as true global citizens.

Vocationally inspired. Are we in danger of reducing higher education to the role of training students for the world of work? The evidence about the improved life chances of people who engage in HE shows that the gains are much broader than getting a job. We need to ensure that our students are employable, but that doesn’t just happen through awards that are vocationally inspired. If it did, then hardly anyone with a humanities degree would find work, But they do. Employers recognise that these students are able to study and engage in critical debate at a high level and have spent a number of years working with others who are clever and engaged – just the kind of people that employers want. We need to avoid dangerously reinforcing to the outside world that we are just a part of the process of producing workers for employers. As an institutional do we want to subscribe to the idea that the degree has become a transaction – you pay us £9000 a year, and you’ll get a better job because of it? We know that HE is transformational and not just a simple transaction.

The vandals seem to be at the gates, and perhaps understandably so after a long economic depression where utility has become the most sought after prize, but this is the time that we need to reiterate what we stand for. We are, and always will be, modern, relevant and vocationally inspired – we need to explore the full range of what these things mean, and looking at our definitions of gradate attributes we can see how we can start to create a broader definition for success as one of our graduates.
(note – this is acting as a working draft of a paper on Transaction vs Transformation)

The Future Politics of Higher Education

We’re now only 7 months from a General Election, and HE is somehow not quite on party radars yet, even after million+ and NUS ran fringe events at recent conferences. Lib Dems may be reticent after their previous pledge not to increase tuition fees (which disappeared after entering coalition), Labour have hinted at £6k cap on fees, but have yet to announce much. The conservatives have said little and UKIP are happy to remove students from the net migration figures (there’s a surprise, and puts them out of line with the Conservatives).

Clearly the financing and regulation of HE (recognising a changed environment, increased marketisation and entry of new providers) will be critical to the success of the sector and the individuals who work and study within it.

Into a vacuum though, something will always flow, and this week sees two sets of neoliberal views being promulgated.

Firstly an article in this week’s Times Higher. I’d like to describe it as muddle-headed, but t’s not that good.

Written by James Martin, a former adviser to Michael Gove, specious claims are made with little evidence, such as:

  • our universities’ failures on academic rigour and widening participation
  • too many higher education courses are of poor quality
  • with the number of firsts doubling in a decade, we need an honest debate about grade inflation and the culture of low lecture attendance and light workloads it supports
  • too many providers are weak imitations of the ancient universities.

No evidence is provided of failures of rigour (unless all degree courses have to be PPE). Poor quality is defined, based on the failure to pay back loans. The comments on grade inflation again are related to small earnings premiums

As a solution the following is proposed:

The first step in a prioritisation of education is to move universities into an enlarged Department for Education after the general election. The Secretary of State should immediately commission a genuinely independent review to determine which degrees are a sound investment or of strategic importance. Only these would be eligible for three-year student loans. Some shorter loans might encourage more efficient courses. Those who will brand this “philistinism” could not be more wrong: it is the traditional academic subjects that are valued by employers (philosophy at the University of Oxford is a better investment than many business courses). I am not arguing for fewer people to go to university. We need more students from poorer backgrounds taking the best degrees.


So this the heart of the proposal – move HE away from BIS, and to the Ofsted and target-obsessed regime of the DfE. Secondly, relate the funding of HE to graduate employment, since it is assumed that quality of education is all about the amount you earn afterwards.

grad cartoon

 “© Schwadron, Jantoo.com”

In other news, the Institute for Economic Affairs ( a right of centre thinktank) has produced a discussion paper, “UNIVERSITIES CHALLENGED: Funding Higher Education through a Free-Market ‘Graduate Tax”

This report recognises that the graduate premium varies between courses and individuals. Instead of the existing loan scheme, or a graduate tax however, the IEA proposes that:

Universities should individually or collectively offer contracts to their students, who would agree to pay to the university they attended a given percentage of their earnings. That percentage could vary by course and institution, though some agreement between universities could be helpful to achieve standardisation. Essentially, the university would be taking an equity interest in the graduate premium earned by the student, although any student who chose to do so could, alternatively, pay the full fees up-front prior to beginning their studies.

·      If universities needed additional cash to finance their current expenditures, they could sell their rights to the graduate equity income stream through a securitisation mechanism. With or without securitisation, the risk of obtaining a low graduate premium will be reduced for students and be minimal for universities as their exposure will be diversified across many students.

·      This approach will ensure that universities have a much stronger interest in the employability of their graduates. That interest will continue after graduation. As such, universities will have an incentive to invest in careers advice and related services and in continuing to provide such services after graduation.

Wow. free marketisation, red in tooth and claw.The IEA goes on the propose that since universities will no longer depend on the state to provide loans, then they would also no longer need to be regulated for undergraduate awards. Indeed they would be free to innovate and engage in competition leading to a race to the top “because universities would have a direct economic interest in the success of their students”.

Both of these reports focus on higher education as a passport to a graduate job, improved employability and increased earning potential. Higher education is more than that, but the sometimes necessary obsession with league tables and other comparative metrics means that ideas such as these become seductively attractive to those who see education purely as a financial transaction, rather than a transformational impact on all aspects of an individual’s life and life chances.

We can expect more of this over the next few months. Within the sector and within our institutions do we need ask and answer questions of ourselves about what we are here for?

We should develop a strong argument for the mixed economy that our HE sector currently comprises, the wide range of benefits that obtain from HE and the need for open debate about how we fund and properly support our universities in the future.

Westminster Forum – Higher Education Data Landscape

I recently attended this event in London, which provide some great speakers, and useful networking opportunities, as well as showing what others are doing with HE data, and where we might want to do more. These notes taken at the event provide an insight for colleagues; I also have the slides from the presentations for those who want to look in more detail.

The event was opened by Sir Tim Wilson, former VC of University of Hertfordshire, who referenced the 2011 white paper which had asked to lessen the burden on information provision, but noted the level of complexity and diversity due to different providers in a more heterogeneous sector

Paul Greatrix (Registrar at University of Nottingham)

Paul introduced the ideas behind redesigning information landscape. He raised his concern about regulatory landscape also and government requirements. He identified that provision of more information does not necessarily mean better decision making

Scale of challenge for HEIs was the need to respond to 550 different external reporting requirements in addition to any internal reporting

In reference to league table providers, Dr Greatrix identified plenty if objections, but HEIs care because they have  impact on potential students and the wider public, even though league table results can lead to perverse behaviours such as VCs and senior managers focusing on the wrong things.

In conclusion, he identified an uncertain future but with grounds for optimism. The fundamental issues were around regulation and the need for proper data, organised in the right way. It was not that there is not too little information re HE but that it needs to be underpinned with proper IAG for those with no previous family HE participation.

Malcolm Scott ( BIS Digital economy directorate)

Everyone is talking about data but there is nothing new about big data.  The reason we a etalking about if now is due to the actual volume of data, massive increase in volume, growth of technology to sort data and bring it together, and the ability to get value out of it. Data can provide value to existing and new industries.


Government t has designated big data as one of 8 great technologies and has Looked at skills, infrastructure and hygiene factors that must be right to be able to exploit data. Major investments have already been made such as the Turing Institute and large km array telescope

Importantly he raised this issue: How do we get managers to realise data can make org better?

This can be alternatively expressed as the organisation will lose advantage of it doesn’t use data properly.

He suggested that on the supply side there is shortage of big data skills, expecting 13-23% rise in demand for big data staff in UK by 2017, noting that the people needed are not just computer scientists

Johnny Rich (push.co.uk)

Johnny pointed out that the information landscape for students is confusing and that Students don’t know what they need to know, Eg what’s it really like to study x at y?
As students go through jungle they will latch on to things that they recognise, eg league tables, names of courses. These may not actually be the useful things, as they will only spend a maximum of 1/3 of their time studying

He proposed that many information requirements are an unnecessary burden but a necessary evil. Sometimes data or information provided can be a part of marketing, but not what we want to know about- eg traffic light health guidelines on a sandwich wrapper. Regulation and the manufacturer might want this, but the customer isn’t likely to make a purchase decision on this. Is KIS is like this?

He proposed that KIS…

  • ignores the information needs of the disenfranchised
  • only tells them what they think they want to know
  • is better than nothing

and thta the NSS was about:

  • Satisfaction is not quality
  • Enhancement not choice

The NSS  however indirectly affects choice as it feeds into league tables.

He proposed a Marketing 101 approach – find your point of difference eg shampoo adverts, and start from there.

Graeme Wise (NUS assistant director policy)

Graeme introduced the policy context in which HE data is used and alignment of interests between data provides, collectors and users.

He was anticipating research on financial outcomes of HE from different institutions, using combined data from SLC, ,tax records as these linked data sets will provide model of earnings and outcomes from different unis and subjects which would be a driver for further marketisation
Looking at other public policy agenda- public sector data and fashion for analytics- he proposed the provocative thought of industries moving from production to service (eg software was previously a product, now a subscription service, eg Microsoft, media industries) and will education become that kind of industry, with a move from students as consumers to students as producers.
He looked at the ecology of data collection that spans student life cycle with the consolidation of data at output end, whereas an area for most attention is on the daily experience of students.
Fashion for analytics is not a passing fad and this is a challenge to sector – it is possible to get itvery wrongly not being there, or by doing it badly..
He proposed that in ideal world, everything collected for external purposes should be available for internal purposes, and need people with insight and experience as well as analysis skills to apply to real world student experience issues, eg retention, learning space utilisation, curricula. He suggested we involve student representatives to legitimise and shape the work


Phil Richards (JISC)

Phil had 2 main messages – Overcoming barriers to sharing, and making data a priority for senior management

The barriers to sharing were proposed under three headings: Co opetiton, Compulsion and Coherence.

Making data a priority for senior management came under 4 Rs:

  • Reputation– league tables, Unistats, research metrics, Which? Guide,
  • Recruitment and retention-this is an area for  investment decision for software- for example the ability to identify at risk students either before they arrive or how they behave when on campus
  • Risk mitigation – in a new HE paradigm we need detailed scenario planning (however who had considered removal of SNC in last year’s planning?)

Andy Youell (Director HEDIIP)

Andy started by considering the future of data and information, noting that many organisations were not designed to keep up with technology meaning that ad hoc solutions emerge, frequently in silos, which provide a sort term result only.

He asked- What is “here” like? There are Over 500 data collections which lead to duplication, inconsistency, lack of data sharing, lack of comparability across collection eg in sometjign simple such as the definitional difference between a course and a programme

Also highlighted were data management and governance issues,,eg security, quality, accessibility. There is often low awareness of where data is held in institution, low awareness of where is being supplied from and to whom.

The HEDIIP vision was one of new systems that reduce burden for data providers and improve quality, timeliness and accessibility of data and info about HE

The benefits are to: reduce the cost of data (duplication, inefficiencies); increase value of data (analytical capability, quality and timelines linking using standard identifiers), and improve information (clarity).

John Gledhill (Tribal – supplier of SITS)

John pointed out that we tend to sum up 3-4 yrs of education in snapshot data and that student data collection is low resolution and low frame rate currently. In future we might need to capture data that we think might be worthless, for instance working in areas of unstructured data eg Facebook, Twitter, RSS, as well as structured databases and file systems.

Steve Egan (HEFCE)

Steve talked of the need for accurate data definitions to protect those who want to play the game properly, but questioned how we can produce timely data, eg HESA? For example, for widening participation, the  data is 2 years out of date, and this has implication for funding.

Since students make decisions on range of information some of which is influenced by data, then they need to be able to trust the data, for example claims for employability, noting the weaknesses of DLHE data.

Government also needs good data to be able to identify what is happening with part time students, SIV subjects and accountability. Better and more timely information will lead to better decision making

Summary by Sir Tim Wilson

Are we using external data internally?
Is data collection and analysis a cost or an investment?
Have to change because if we don’t it won’t get better. Some people enjoy being victims and complaining. Has to change to make things better for students and all stakeholders
Willingness to move to a common good, which is not the same as uniformity.
We have the power and knowledge to do data analysis which needs transformational leadership, vision and innovation.

StaffFest 2014 Leadership Conference

This year our first keynote speaker was Mike Boxall of PA Consulting (and author of “Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies” amongst others).

Mike started by looking at Levitt’s definition of marketing myopia, proposing that universities don’t know what business they are in, and that the biggest threat is that they might be an irrelevance in a changed world.


After introducing a “new normal” for higher education, Mike took a look at a number of the prophets of doom, including Clay Christensen (who I’ll be referencing in my Faculty L&T talks next week) and Sir Michael Barber of “An Avalanche is Coming” infamy, Mike proposed 4 different groups of universities: the oligarchs, the not-yetis, the zombies and the innovators, where each group was classified on the relationship between their balance of strengths and weaknesses and their strategic focus.


Mike then explored 4 possible HE futures: university rules; co-opetition; learning lives, and wiki learning, all as shown in the photos below.



Finally we were presented with the question of where did we want to play?


On Monday, PA Consulting will publish their annual survey of the opinions of UK Vice Chancellors. Mie made a few references to this at the beginning of his talk, and I’ll be providing my own take on the report once it’s available.