The Zombies are Back

Previously on this blog, I wrote about the work of Mike Boxall of PA Consulting, and his work which suggested that universities could be split into broad groups of Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies. In fact, Mike came to our Leadership Conference this year to talk about this very topic.


Last week on this blog I wrote about the idea of marginal gains, and this prompted discussion online and face to face with various people. One of the comments on  my blog was a reference to the work of Miles and Snow, who created a typology of the various strategic approaches that organisations can take. This prompted me to go away and read  a little about this, but also to have  a conversation where we could start to build a  linkage between ideas of Mile and Snow, and of Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies.

With that in mind, and recognising that the UK HE system or market is in a state of flux, it might be worth revisiting what Mike Boxall has been saying recently, and also to look at what is happening with a couple of universities who maybe don’t qualify as innovators or oligarchs.

Mike has revisited the PA report from the summer, which was the annual survey of VC’s attitudes and opinions:

“The responses showed most vice-chancellors to be deeply pessimistic about the outlook for student recruitment and research funding, and predicting widespread institutional failures and mergers. Yet they were almost universally bullish about the prospects for their own institutions’ ability to secure growth and profits from those same problematic sources”

“We have in effect moved from a closed, stable and largely harmonious HE ecosystem to a new open and disrupted market in which the relationships and interdependencies between the internal and external life of universities are being redrawn in real time. This is putting vice-chancellors under new pressures. Wearing their representational hats, they find themselves fighting rear-guard actions against government policies that actively damage the interests of their institutions, such as visa restrictions on overseas students. Meanwhile, wearing their managerial hats, they must persuade their academic communities to recognise that the market genie will not be put back in the bottle, and that they need to reinvent their business.

It is not surprising therefore that surveys such as PA’s reflect apparently contradictory messages from vice-chancellors. On the one hand, they are telling government ministers, who “seem not to be bothered”, that their policies are jeopardising the HE system as we have known it. At the same time, they are telling their institutional stakeholders that there is a bright future beyond Student Number Controls and Resource Allocation Budget charges, if only they can overcome their deep-seated aversion to change”

With this is mind, it’s salutatory to look at two universities in the news in the last week or so.

Firstly, Glyndwr. This week the Times Higher ran a piece suggesting that there were possible merger talks between Glyndwr and Bangor. No evidence was provided, but it was an opportunity for the press to reiterate the problems at that institution – the vote of no confidence in the VC, the poor financial situation and the loss of Highly Trusted Status from UKVI. A zombie maybe?

Contrast this with London Metropolitan. Rarely out of the news last year, London Met has a new VC, formerly of Oxford Brookes, who has taken on the job that some have described as the toughest in HE. Alternatively, it could be viewed as one of the most exciting. As a welcome gift, UKVI reinstated Highly Trusted Status. As reported in the Times Higher, John Raftery has identified a clear strategy for the institution that includes: improving student experience so that a rise in NSS will have a positive effect in league tables; paying st dent mentors to support those in the year below them; embedding work placements in all awards, and also questioning if the entry tariff should be raised (something else that would improve elague table position. Not rocket science, but clear and focused.

So we can see that futures aren’t fixed – zombies might not necessarily always be zombies, and a clearly focused strategy can help with that.

In terms of Miles and Snow, with their typology of defenders, analysers, prospectors and reactors, then London Met seems to be moving firmly into the position of analyser (work, which in truth was already happening with their previous portfolio review work).

In terms of comparison with Mike Boxall’s work, then the place that no-one wants to be is that of reactor (or zombie). An interesting challenge in the last year was the change in SNC announced in the Autumn Statement – no-one forecast it, no-one had a strategy readily in place to deal with it, and so all universities had to react to a significant change in the external environment. What will be interesting in a year’s time when this change has had an impact, is to see who just reacted, and who carried out the analysis to develop a strategy to respond successfully. (My thoughts on this were on my blog).

As always, we need to be in position where we are at least analysers, and ideally developing into either a prospector or innovator.No-one wants to be a reactor or zombie.

Blog supplemental

My colleague, Peter Jones (Head of Psychology Sport and Exercise) has also blogged today about strategy inc Miles and Snow.

Employment of Graduates

In last week’s Times Higher, we had one of our rare mentions. However, it wasn’t to publish good news. The most recent data on employment of graduates from the 2012-13 cohort have been published by HESA and these showed:

“According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 92.1 per cent of university leavers were in employment or further study six months after graduating in 2012-13, up from 90.8 per cent in the previous year.”


“Universities with the lowest employment and further study rates are London Metropolitan University (81.4 per cent), the University of Bolton (82.4 per cent) and Staffordshire University (84 per cent).”

This doesn’t look great as a headline statistic, particularly with all the work that colleagues have done on promoting the Staffordshire Graduate attributes, in particular the employability programme on a number of champion awards.

I decided to have a look at some of the numbers for the last few years (recognising that we are starting to see an improvement in graduate outcomes and employment as described in league tables) so there seems to be an anomaly, and consult with those who know more than me.

In league tables, the career prospects score relates to percentage in graduate level work and higher level PG while employment indicator in HESA data relates to percentage in (any) work or further study.  So it is possible for us to have a comparatively low employment indicator with an improving career prospects score.

So that starts to explain why scores in league tables are different.

Another really important factor, and one which is ignored in the Times Higher article, is that because institutions are not directly comparable, then results cannot be compared directly. The benchmarks for institutions also need to be taken into account, which allow for subject mix etc.

“if the benchmarks were ignored such comparisons would not take account of the effects of different subject profiles or the different entry qualifications of the students. In general, indicators from two institutions should only be compared if the institutions are similar. If the benchmarks are not similar, then this suggests that the subject / entry qualification profiles of the institutions are not the same, and so differences between the indicators could be due to these different profiles rather than to different performances by the two institutions.”

So what we could do is to look at our own performance is consider how our scores differ from our benchmark score. The table below shows this.

Employment indicator (including further study)
year Base
or studying
+/- total UK indicator missed benchmark? (%)
09-10 1310 1150 87.8 88.2 0.81   90.4 -0.4
10-11 1365 1145 83.8 88.1 0.84 90.3 -4.3
11-12 1455 1230 84.4 88.5 0.80 90.8 -4.1
12-13 1625 1365 84.0 90.0 0.75 92.1 -6.0

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Learning and Teaching Conference 2014

This year’s University L&T conference, run as part of StaffFest2014 had as its theme Student success: raising attainment. Attendance was better than it has been in previous years, which was good news, but more of this later.

An introduction and welcome by the VC, Prof Michael Gunn, was followed by an introduction by me, where I looked at our league table position, emphasising the importance of student attainment. Using the strapline “we can be better than this”, I also introduced some of the data around attainment of BME students, before summarising the outline for the day and introducing our speakers.

Prof Liz Thomas

Liz spoke about Inclusive Pedagogy, introducing the 4 outcome indicators used by HEFCE – achievement of a degree; classification; employment, and graduate outcome. She explored the key themes of engagement:

  • Active and collaborative learning
  • Participation in challenging acadmei activities
  • Formative communication with academic staff
  • Involvement in enriching educational experiences
  • Feeling legitimated and supported by university learning communities

Successful engagement involves an overlap between social, service and academic spheres, as below:


Liz also introduced data on differential attainment based on gender, ethnicity and disability, as well as looking at the impact of students from the different quintiles of the Polar3 classification.

Liz emphasised the importance of engaging all staff, not just academic, and said that the partnerships between staff and students were a key strategic enabler.


Dr Winston Morgan

Focussing in now on a specific issue, Winston took us through ideas on how to solve the attainment gap between BMR (or BAME) students and white students.

As well as presenting plenty of data to illustrate the existence of an attainment gap, Winston presented key questions to ask about our institution, before we start to understand how to solve the gap:


The main factors that determine or drive the gap are:

  • Prior knowledge
  • Student age on entry
  • Performance of white stdunets
  • Other more difficult to identify factors (academic confidence of BAME students)

If qualifications on entry are the driver of the attainment gap, then the institution must change either the admissions policy or change the L&T practices to suit the admissions policy. For example, on admission policy, students must be selected by specific subjects and grades, not just UCAS points When admitting students form BTEC backgrounds, then the entry tariff must be raised by 20-30% to allow for their previous learning styles. An increase of 30-40% should be considered for the tariff from access courses.

If the admissions policy can’t be changed, then Winston proposed changing the L&T practices to sit the admissions, by adopting the practices of BTEC and Access programmes, ie, fewer exams, multiple assessments, lower SSRs. Finally, provide the skills so that students can cope with the challenges and assessments of university.

Winston concluded by looking at the “identity gap”, as shown below:


Followed by messages to close the racial identity gap:


This was a challenging talk, and even though Winston spoke for longer than intended, I wasn’t going to ask him to stop! Over the next few days I heard so many positive comments about what a great talk it was.

Nonetheless, it does leave us with some significant challenges, some of which the BME project group can look into, but the key questions will be:

  • How much do we know about the issue at Staffordshire?
  • How could we change our admissions policy?
  • How could we change our L&T practices?
  • How could we address the issue of racial identity, and do we have role models in senior posts?

Paul Mangnall

The final keynote speaker was Paul Mangnall, Principal of Stoke on Trent 6th Form College. Paul provided a quick run through the processes used in schools (and in FE) maintain and ensure consistency.

Paul ran through the processes of teaching observations, noting that one observation a year led to a “cup final” scenario, with possible over preparation, unrepresentative performances, and increased pressure to perform. Instead, the process now involved observing a member of staff twice over a three day window.

  • The formal lesson observations were operationlised by:
  • Each member of staff formally observed twice per year
  • Observation window – any lesson to be observed within a 3 day period
  • Key strengths and areas for improvement identified for “close the loop”
  • Holistic view – included student progress against target grade, assessment, and student files
  • Trained observation team, formal moderation process
  • Links to departmental and individual performance management targets

The interesting thing about Pauls’ talk was that he described the same kind of observation processes that are used already in other universities. There is clearly scope for us to learn from other sectors and institutions.

Plenary sessions in the afternoon were on: the work of the BME project group; the Paul Hamlyn ”What Works” project group; the new personal tutoring policy;, and supporting students through the enabling centre. The final question time provided an opportunity for speakers to respond to queries about BME attainment, transitions to HE, electronic assessment and digital literacy

In conclusion, I was really pleased with the conference and the way in whuch so many people really engaged with the important theme of improving student attainment.

The only question I have is this: since we are a teaching-led organisation, then why weren’t all of our academic staff in attendance? It was particularly interesting to see who went to the leadership event three days later instead.

For future years we’ll be working hard to make this event much harder to avoid – with topics that are important for everyone who teaches or who supports teaching, then this shouldn’t be difficult. Well also work more closely with our faculties to engage them earlier in the planning process.

Hobsons Choice – International Student Decision Making

A recent publication by Hobsons EMEA “Beyond the Data: Influencing international student decision making” provides a ten point plan which provides an insight into how international students make decisions about overseas study. The report contain useful information on who a typical international student might be, the motivations for selecting a particular institution, information gathering, decision making and application, and ends with questions about “what is teaching quality”.

In addition the report shows that ‘student experience’ and contact time are much less important to applicants than institutional and course-specific league table rankings.

The ten point plan is summarised as:

  1. Course, then country, then institution: that is the order of an international student’s decision-making process. Students select a course to study first, then they evaluate the country and only after doing that will they select the institution
  2. Fees are the second most important consideration for international students and are the number one reason for declining offers
  3. Subject/course rankings are more important in student decision-making than institution rankings or other factors including fees
  4. Perception of student satisfaction does not drive choice of institution
  5. Graduate outcomes are a key factor in international students’ decision-making
  6. Each institution has a role to play in marketing their country as a desirable destination
  7. Country level messaging reinforcing welcome and safety of international students will support institutional marketing
  8. Institutions must be clear on their brand value proposition for each course
  9. Students want to engage with institutions and their content through visual social media sites (YouTube and Instagram) during the research phase of selecting an institution
  10. It is not just about giving out information or an offer: students need to be nurtured from the information gathering phase through to enquiry and then application.

As someoen who works with league tables and portfolio performance, I was interested in teh survey results on how international student perceive teaching quality:

When students are asked to rate the importance of factors related to teaching quality respondents said that academic reputation (76 per cent), subject or course ranking (76 per cent), student satisfaction with the institution (74 per cent), tuition fees (72 per cent) and use of technology in teaching (72 per cent) were their most important determinates for teaching quality. It was interesting to us that graduate employment rates (64 per cent) and teaching hours per week (57 per cent) were less important. The two least important factors were the age of the institution (33 per cent) and high entry requirements (39 per cent).

When studnets were asked to comapre the variosu factors, and trade themm off against each pther, then fees can be seen to be the ost important, with subject ranking just behind. Studnet satisfaciiotn seems to be of little importance!


Overall, a document worth reading, especially for anyone involved in international student recruitment – it may reinforce the things we already know, but, for example,  I didn’t know that student satisfaction was seen of being as such little importance when used in deciding where to study, That doesn’t mean it’s unimportant, as it’s of massive importance once a student is with us.


Times Higher Student Experience Survey

Another day, another league table. This time it’s the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey.

Rather than the large sample used in National Student Survey, this survey is based on a focus group of students recruited through UCAS, who were questioned in 2012-13. For this university the sample size was 116.

The article alongside the data states:

All respondents were members of YouthSight’s student panel – who are recruited via Ucas – and their views were gathered between October 2012 and June 2013.

The Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey is broken down into 21 attributes of universities, chosen by students as key indicators. Participants were asked to rate how their university performed in each of the areas using a seven-point scale. Each attribute was assigned a weight reflecting its importance within the overall student experience.

The same wording and weighting methodology have been used for the past five years, with the greatest weight applied to the attributes that correlated most to whether or not the respondent would recommend the university to a friend.

Only universities achieving 50 or more ratings have been included in the final dataset, and each university’s score was indexed on a scale from one to 100. A total of 111 institutions (102 last year) met the minimum sample threshold required based on respondents from a total of 14,300 respondents.

The difference in scores of similarly ranked institutions will not be statistically significant. When results are based on a sample of 100, we have to accept some imprecision to arise from sampling variability. But that does not mean to say that these results are without meaning. In this context, the relatively high level of consistency in our data from year to year is reassuring. For example, in each of the past four years, the universities of Sheffield, East Anglia, Dundee, Oxford, Cambridge and Leeds have all featured in the top 10 – this consistency demonstrates the impacts of best practice as opposed to sample variability.

So of the universities that showed significant rises or consistent high rankings – what do they suggest is the reason?

Sheffield – academic skills classes and the chance to learn a foreign language, culture of listening to students

Bath – good industry connections, sports facilities, involving  students in decisions, even the design of some of the new accommodation buildings, dedicated student experience forum made up of students, senior academics and service staff heads

Falmouth –  investment in teaching facilities, the development of a mentor scheme for incoming students and the introduction of more counselling and living support staff

Stirling – Reduced class sizes, improved student feedback and having employability embedded into its degrees

The article notes that post-92 universities, and in particular those aligned to million+ tend to have a more diverse student body, with mote mature students, and who are likely to be less satisfied.

Common themes from the article about how to succeed in student experience seem to revolve around involving students in decision making, genuinely responding to concerns and providing a wide forum for debate as well as embedding employability and improving feedback.

And as for the score for our university – well a disappointing drop (and difficult to understand when in the same year our NSS figures improved). Mind you in the previous year we had a significant climb of 14 places, which does bring into question how reliable such a small sample can be.

Comparing our scores against the means, then our biggest outliers are: Good social life; Good extra-curricular activities / societies; Good community atmosphere;Good accommodation.

Complete University Guide 2015

The league table season for UK universities has started, with the publication of the 2015 CUG table.

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Looking at the top 10, there are  no surprises – the same 10 universities as were there last year, albeit in a slightly different order. There’s not that much surprise at the bottom end of the table either!

From the press release from CUG:

The strongest climbers (rising ten places or more compared with last year) include two specialist art-focused universities – the University of the Creative Arts (up 24 places) and the University of the Arts Bournemouth (up 18).
They are beneficiaries of a revised approach to classifications of staff, which has enabled them to treat many of their technical staff as academics, thereby significantly improving student: staff ratios.
Other climbers are Abertay (up 20), Derby (up 16), Manchester Metropolitan University (up 15), Cardiff (up 13), Winchester and Sheffield Hallam (up 11), and Bath Spa, De Montfort and Queen Margaret (all up ten places).
Ten universities fell ten places or more: Royal Agricultural University (down 32 places); Aberystwyth (down 17); Birmingham City (down 16); St George’s, University of London (down 12); Hull, Northampton, Buckinghamshire New, and Anglia Ruskin (all down 11); and Bedfordshire and Ulster (down ten).

The good news for Staffordshire University is that we have risen by 8 places, which is testament to work we have done in the last 2 years, focusing on student attainment and student satisfaction. In fact in all of the criteria measured, bar research which is unchanged for all universities, until the outcomes of REF, our actual score has improved. Of course everyone else has been improving too, but we are now going in the right direction!


So for Staffordshire, some good news, but as Paul Greatrix (@registrarism) at Nottingham University observes, “Overall, there is not a whole lot to get excited about this year”.