Guardian Survey of Academic Staff

On the Guardian website today are the results of their recent survey of attitudes of staff in UK universities.

In the accompanying article, Nick Hillman of HEPI has said the results need to be treated with caution, and that eh changes in funding post 2012 and subsequent higher fees do not seem to have reduced the pressure in the academy. Since the change in fees did not necessarily mean a change in university income (depending on subject costs and fees charged) then this may not be  altogether surprising. Even where income may have risen, significant amounts have been specter across the sector in recent years on capital projects.

In terms of what staff said then:

  • 37% are unhappy or very unhappy. But 40% are happy or very happy!
  • top three things a university should prioritise ; learning and teaching (52%), research (45%) and  along way back in third, student experience (28%)
  • 48% think teaching is valued,(44% in RG, 53% in post 92)
  • bu only 20% think teaching has become more valued in light of recent reforms
  • 52% think the student experience agenda has led to a fall in academic standards (rising to 56% in the post 92 sector)
  • and 52% of staff in post 92s have felt under pressure to bump up student grades
  • 50% of staff in post 92 s don’t think that universities should increase their student numbers further

Lessons from this?

An area for all of us to be aware of is the feeling that staff may feel pressurised to raise grades. We do a lot of work around raising student attainment, but the bottom line is that we award marks for what has been achieved, not to satisfy some arbitrary number of good degrees. The focus has to be on making sure that we give our students the best possible opportunities to be successful, as we know the usefulness of a higher degree classification when looking for graduate employment.

It’s interesting that staff put the areas for priority as learning and teaching, followed by research, with student experience a long way behind.  This may be explained by the survey result that the “student experience agenda” has led to a fall in academic standards.

I’m not sure I agree with this simplistic approach – just because we are student focused, and making sure that students have the best possible experience when with us (and that includes being challenged as well as supported, through their learning) does not mean a drop in standards. Being prepared to offer a great student experience is not the same as being prepared to give our degrees away.

No-one benefits from a drop in academic standards – the reason degrees are classified, or why their are systems such as GPA, is to provide some level of differentiation, so moving to a position of “all shall have prizes” doesn’t help individual universities, the sector, or most importantly our students.


A post-election blog

After an election result that surprised many, we have a single party in power with a majority instead of the expected coalition or minority government. How easy the size of the majority will make it for legislation to be passed is to be seen, but it is worth revisiting the Conservative Party manifesto to remind ourselves what their plans are that will affect Higher Education, and how we might respond to this.

International Students

We will reform the student visa system with new measures to tackle abuse and reduce the numbers of students overstaying once their visas expire. Our action will include clamping down on the number of so-called ‘satellite campuses’ opened in London by universities located elsewhere in the UK, and reviewing the highly trusted sponsor system for student visas. And as the introduction of exit checks will allow us to place more responsibility on visa sponsors for migrants who overstay, we will introduce targeted sanctions for those colleges or businesses that fail to ensure that migrants comply with the terms of their visa.

It would appear that students are still likely to be included in net migration figures, which potentially damaging to university incomes. Equally concerning is the line above which is transferring the responsibility to visa sponsors (ie universities) for those who overstay. This is a significant change to the role of a sponsor – being responsible while a student is with us is understandable. Being liable for sanctions of what individuals choose to do post course is concerning, and the detail will be needed. I expect that UUK and the mission groups will continue to press the case that international students are a benefit to the universities in which they study, and bring economic benefits to the communities in which they live.


With a referendum on EU membership to take place in 2017, universities are already stepping up their campaign to show the importance of Europe for both research funding and students. UUK have already started their campaigning. Despite the incoming Prime Minister being pro-Europe, there are significant numbers of sceptics in his own party, and we shouldn’t dismiss the large numbers across the country who voted for UKIP, and who would vote to leave Europe. This is an area where we can expect to see individual universities, as well as their mission groups and representative bodies, lobbying hard.

Tuition Fees

The Coalition government raised the cap on tuition fees to £9000, with the outcome that nearly all universities in the public sector charge this, or very close to it.

From the manifesto we have:

Our reforms to university funding mean you do not have to pay anything towards tuition while studying, and only start paying back if you earn over £21,000 per year. We will ensure the continuing success and stability of these reforms, so that the interests of both students and taxpayers are fairly represented. We will also introduce a national postgraduate loan system for taught masters and PhD courses.

As part of electioneering, the Labour Party suggested that the Conservatives would raise the fee cap to £11,500. No-one has acknowledged this, however a rise in fees was not ruled out by William Hague.

The implication for individual universities might depend on where they sit in terms of league tables, and attractiveness to full time undergraduate students. There will be those who will be able to show that the market allows them to charge an increased amount. Others, however, might be challenged more on the value for money that they provide, and so we may see a wider range of fees being charged.  This was the intention when the £9k cap was introduced, so maybe a higher cap will encourage more marketisation.

It’s pleasing to see  a commitment to loan schemes for postgraduate study, bu these will lead to high marginal tax rates for those who take them, possibly limiting the attractiveness to just the debt-averse and likely high earners.

 Learning and Teaching

We will ensure that universities deliver the best possible value for money to students: we will introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality; encourage universities to offer more two-year courses;

Articles have already appeared in the press about the idea of a teaching REF”. It will be interesting to see how teaching quality is to be assessed. Current tools such as the NSS only provide a proxy, and I can’t imagine a return to the days of QAA visits with teaching observations, at least not if the universities’ remit remains in BIS.

We will encourage the development of online education as a tool for students, whether studying independently or in our universities.

David Willetts was very keen on MOOCs, and promoted the work of FutureLearn. An expansion of online education, more usefully described as technology enhanced or supported learning, is a no-brainer – technology will continue to play an increasing part in learning, as in so many other industries and services

Data for prospective students

….require more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates.

This is a concerning one – if you are a university whose students are highly employable, and who get the cream of the graduate jobs, then the data to prospective students which can be garnered from Student Loan Company records as well as tax receipts, will be a benefit. If, however, you are the kind of university whose mission is more focused on widening participation, on teaching students who have low social capital, then this development in data availability will provide no favours. I would expect million+ to be paying particular attention to this, as the reduction of university education to something that is measured as nothing more than an individual economic benefit is a diminution of what we actually do. The recent work by McGettigan is worth reading on this.

 And more generally

Through the Nurse Review of research councils, we will seek to ensure that the UK continues to support world-leading science, and invests public money in the best possible way.

There is always the question of how well the science and research budgets will be ring-fenced, particularly with the further cuts to come. It may be they will be protected in cash terms, if not against inflationary pressures.


The final big question is where the remit universities will sit. BIS is going to be asked to make major savings, and it could be that universities move to the Department for Education. Those observations of teaching and an Ofsted style regime might be more likely if this is the case.

Savings will have to be made, and one area that is vulnerable is the money for widening participation, or the Student Opportunity Fund. This will disproportionately affect million+ universities, although the justification for its removal will no doubt point to research that shows that raising fees has not reduced the numbers applying from WP households, although from the BBC website:

“It is incontrovertible that growth in participation in higher education by disadvantaged young people is disproportionately to lower tariff providers and through using BTECs,” says the Ucas admission service’s analysis of the 2014 intake.

What do universities do?

If I knew the answer to that, I’d be doing a different job! But these are my starters:

  • Market research to identify fees that could be borne by the market
  • Internal benchmarking of employability and graduate salaries (where possible) to pre-empt new data sets
  • Impact assessment of increasing fees vs possible reducing numbers
  • Impact assessment of removal of SOF, and what fee level would be needed to replace the income
  • A better understanding of student entry characteristics, including entry tariff and type, leading to learning and teaching approaches that are tailored to enable these students to succeed
  • Developing a strong narrative about the benefits of being in Europe for the HE sector
  • Developing a strong narrative about the benefits of international students to the HE sector – and making friends will all MPs who have a university in their constituency to make sure they are fully aware.
  • Identify internal mechanisms to demonstrate teaching quality – better for the sector to develop this itself.

What is still not clear is how universities might be regulated, how quality mechanisms will operate in future, and how the regulatory and quality regime will be changed to encompass the more diverse range of providers.

All in all, there’s going to be a lot of change – but we already knew that, didn’t we?



Complete University Guide 2016

The first major league table is published today, the Complete University Guide.

This table uses metrics  on ten measures: Student Satisfaction, Research Quality, Research Intensity, Entry Standards, Student: Staff Ratio; Spending on Academic Services; Spending on Student Facilities; Good Honours degrees achieved; Graduate Prospects and Completion.

From the press release:

“Coventry University becomes the UK’s leading “new” university (former polytechnic) replacing Oxford Brookes University.


The University of Cambridge heads the ranking of 126 UK universities, with Oxford in second place and the London School of Economics and Political Science third. The other top ten universities are Imperial College London, Durham, St Andrews, Surrey, Lancaster and University College London.”

No real surprises in the top 10, and the continued and sustained rise of Coventry is notable.

One of the changes from last year to this, is the way in which research has been reported – previously there has been a report of research quality, but this year (and until the next REF) we have separate indicators for research quality and for research intensity.

The second change is that the table includes the results of People and Planet Green League Table, although these results are not used in any calculation of overall score or ranking.

Staffordshire University rises 2 further places to 103rd, and is represented in 24 of the subject tables, with improvements in position in , Accountiung and Finance, Aeronautical & Manufacturing Engineering, Art and Design, Business & Management Studies, Geography & Environmental Science ,Hospitality, Leisure, Recreation & Tourism, Marketing, Nursing and Sports Science.




Seeking Cyclists

For the third year running, a group of intrepid Staffordshire University staff will be taking part in the British Heart Foundation Midnight Bike Ride, which runs from Manchester to Blackpool, through the night of 26th-27th September.

So far, we have willing participants from:

  • Academic Development Unit
  • Faculty of Business Education and Law management team
  • Business School
  • School of Sciences
  • School of Engineering
  • School of Psychology Sport and Exercise

If you’d like to join us, then there’s plenty of time to get your bike out of the shed and do a bit of practice. It’s not a race, and we won’t be going that fast ( at least I won’t). Get in touch if you’d like to join the merry band.


Those Manifestos and HE

The first election in which I could vote was 1983, when I was a student at Sheffield University, living in the only Conservative constituency in the city. At the time there was much talk of tactical voting, asking people to split the anti-Conservative vote. As it happened, the Conservative candidate was re-elected, although the seat more recently has been held by the Lib Dems through Nick Clegg.

In that election, if you wanted to know what the parties were saying, you actually had to buy copies of the manifestos, from WH Smith including the “longest suicide note in history”. Leap forward 32 years, and manifestos are now readily available online, so here is a cut out and keep guide of what the major parties have to say in 2015 about higher education.


Firstly on immigration:

We will reform the student visa system with new measures to tackle abuse and reduce the numbers of students overstaying once their visas expire. Our action will include clamping down on the number of so-called ‘satellite campuses’ opened in London by universities located elsewhere in the UK, and reviewing the highly trusted sponsor system for student visas. And as the introduction of exit checks will allow us to place more responsibility on visa sponsors for migrants who overstay, we will introduce targeted sanctions for those colleges or businesses that fail to ensure that migrants comply with the terms of their visa.

And on universities:

This year, for the first time, over half a million people have been admitted to our universities, including a record proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. From September, we will go even further, abolishing the cap on higher education student numbers and removing an arbitrary ceiling on ambition. Our reforms to university funding mean you do not have to pay anything towards tuition while studying, and only start paying back if you earn over £21,000 per year. We will ensure the continuing success and stability of these reforms, so that the interests of both students and taxpayers are fairly represented. We will also introduce a national postgraduate loan system for taught masters and PhD courses. We will ensure that universities deliver the best possible value for money to students: we will introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality; encourage universities to offer more two-year courses; and require more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates. We will ensure that our universities remain world-leading We will maintain our universities’ reputation for world-class research and academic excellence. Through the Nurse Review of research councils, we will seek to ensure that the UK continues to support world-leading science, and invests public money in the best possible way. And we will encourage the development of online education as a tool for students, whether studying independently or in our universities.

So in summary, two year degrees (again), caps on student migration (nothing new) but a welcome commitment to loans for postgraduates.


The key Labour announcement on reducing the fee cap to £6000 came out a while ago, and has been subject to much analysis already. In addition the manifesto says:

We will make sure that apprenticeships can lead to higher level qualifications by creating new Technical Degrees and supporting part-time study. They will be co-funded, co-designed and co-delivered by employers and they will be the priority for expansion within our university system.

Reduce tuition fees to £6,000 a year

Our economy and our society benefit from the talent and investment of people who come here, including university students coming to study.

So happy for international students to come to the UK, and some ideas about Technical Degrees. Are these going to be the new Foundation Degrees? A surprisingly short amount on HE, unlike our next candidate…..

Green Party

The Green Party actually have a whole section on HE:

Higher education is in crisis. The fundamental purpose of universities should be to promote critical enquiry, social innovation and cultural renewal. But these aims have been sidelined in an atmosphere of increasing managerialism and commercialisation.
Higher education is vital to our cultural health. It should be concerned with public engagement and increasing social participation, not considered merely a production line for enhancing the earning power of individuals. The current focus on research ‘outputs’ – in the narrow definition used by the Research Excellence Framework – means that the crucial role of lecturers as teachers has been denigrated. This emphasis needs to be reversed.
The Conservative-led Coalition and the Labour Party bear responsibility for the current system of university funding, which is largely dependent on tuition fees that now stand at £9,000 a year for undergraduates. This was a betrayal of a promise and has blighted the future of thousands of young people who now graduate with a debt of at least £45,000. With the removal of public funding from most undergraduate and all postgraduate courses, UK universities are now all but privatised. The only people to benefit from the current system are university Vice-Chancellors and senior bureaucrats, who award themselves massive pay rises, while those on the ground who carry out teaching and research face ever more punishing terms and conditions of employment. In practice, this severely compromises the quality of education through reduced student-contact hours with overstretched staff.
Zero-hours contracts are now commonplace and shocking disparities in pay characterise every campus, especially among service workers, who are commonly denied a living wage. Conversely, university administrative departments continue to swell as money is routinely wasted on copying expensive private sector practices – including ludicrous rebranding exercises – in search of ‘market share’. The future of the arts and the humanities has been endangered by a systematic denigration by the dominant political parties and university administrations alike, who create a perception of such courses as an expensive luxury without the vocational ‘usevalue’ that renders them worth the financial risk. The Green Party believes that the arts and humanities have an essential part to play in creating a more democratic, sane and participatory society.
The situation for mature students is even more dire. Over the past five years, every continuing education department in the UK has been scaled back or closed down altogether, often as a managerial response to caps on students numbers and diminished funding for the sector as a whole. Adults wishing to return to education are faced with a situation where short courses and part-time study are considered not cost-effective in market terms.
In December 2010, just after the trebling of tuition fees, Caroline Lucas MP argued that the costs of a free higher education could be met by increasing corporation tax for larger companies to the level paid in other G7 countries and ring-fencing some of that money. Businesses depend enormously on graduates’ skills and knowledge, so it’s only fair that they invest in the higher education system from which they benefit. Allied to this, the cost of studying the qualifications that universities stipulate as entry requirements is prohibitive. An ‘A’ level for those who are not registered as school or college students attracts a fee of several hundred pounds. Access to education diplomas are also meshed within a loan system for those over the age of 24, and uniformly cost in excess of £3,000. The part-time and short courses for which non-traditional applicants can enrol are often hugely expensive, especially when measured against the contact-time with lecturers.
‘Lifelong Learning’ is a phrase that is much used by politicians and education professionals. Giving people the opportunity to be ‘second chance’ learners should be a crucial part of what universities offer to wider society. Countering the monetisation of higher
education across the entire sector is vital to reverse the destructive and wasteful market model of university education.
The Green Party would address this through:
• Ending undergraduate tuition fees. We appreciate that the current level of applications to study at university reflects the paucity of other opportunities available to young people. This is part of a wider social problem that must be tackled. To be saddled with a huge debt for the right to access higher education at the beginning or middle of adulthood is neither ethical nor sustainable. Because of the way the student loans system works this would cost about £4.5 billion over this Parliament, and in the long run around £8 billion a year.
• Cancelling student debt issued by the Student Loans Company and held by the government. Taking account of the loans that it is expected would never be re-paid, the total value of these loans is estimated to be around £30 billion. Assuming that these loans would be paid off over the next 25 years, and taking account of interest, this amounts to around £2.2 billion a year in revenue that the government would not receive.
• Reintroducing student grants costing £2.2 billion over the Parliament. In the longer run we would support student living costs through the Basic Income.
• In the longer term, considering scrapping fees for academic postgraduate courses.
• Restoring access to lifelong learning by supporting mature students and their families. We will reverse the 20-year programme of dismantling the lifelong learning sector.
• Reintroducing the block grant to universities. It is essential that teaching and learning can be supported effectively across the sciences and the humanities.
• Encouraging universities and pension funds such as the Universities Superannuation Scheme to divest from fossil fuel companies. This would follow the example of the University of Glasgow.
• Supporting the 10:1 ‘fair pay campus’ campaign. We are committed to ending the scandal of Vice Chancellors paying themselves £300,000 a year while cleaners on the national minimum wage have to resort to food banks.

Plenty in here to cheer those who lament the rise of the neo-liberal revolution in universities (it’s almost like reading one of my more ranty blogs, or a piece by Henry Giroux), however, will this remain empty rhetoric?


Always worth a look at the new kids on the block:

Previous government policies of pursuing higher education targets and introducing tuition fees have had a crippling effect on our young people’s finances and job prospects. The average student now leaves university with a debt of £44,000, yet students are less likely to find a graduate-level job than ever before. 47 per cent of recent graduates were ‘under-employed’ in 2013, as opposed to just 37 per cent in 2001. This marks a 27 per cent increase in the inability of graduates to get a job utilising or requiring their degree qualification.
The taxpayer fares little better: 45 per cent of all student loans have to be written-off.
To combat this growing problem, UKIP will drop the arbitrary 50 per cent target for school leavers going to university. We will not increase the current level of undergraduate courses until we can be sure there are sufficient vacancies in the economy to provide at least two-thirds of students with skilled graduate jobs. We will also encourage students to choose careers that will help fill the current skills’ gap, to both benefit Britain and set them on the path to a solid, prosperous career. UK students taking approved degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM), mainly at universities funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, will not have to repay their tuition fees. This is on condition that they work in their discipline and pay tax in the UK for at least five years, after they complete their degrees. Accordingly, UKIP will adjust the number of STEMM subjects funded to allow for a greater uptake of these subjects.

Student visas The international student community makes an important contribution to the UK. Because students are in Britain only on a temporary basis, we will categorise them separately in immigration figures. All non-UK undergraduate and post-graduate students will be required to maintain private health insurance for the period of their study.

Where do you start……..The level or number of undergraduate courses is not actually set by government currently, so difficult to see how UKIP think that they won’t increase it. Who will “approve” degrees in STEMM subjects? Many graduates are successful in careers not related to their discipline. However, an interesting commitment to removing tuition fee debt for students of STEMM subjects (notice that medicine has crept in there), although this fails to recognise the importance of the humanities and social sciences. And to note that students would not be included in net migration targets.

The Others

I’ve not looked at Plaid Cymru or the SNP, since I am mainly interested in HE in England, although the views of these and other minority parties will become relevant if the outcome is a coalition or minority government.

The final word should go to Nick Clegg, seeking re-election in Sheffield Hallam, and where I voted in my first general election.

Liberal Democrats have ensured that no undergraduate student in England has to pay a penny up front of their tuition fees. Students in England do not have to pay anything until they are earning over £21,000 per year – a figure which will increase in line with earnings – and over that income, monthly repayments are linked to earnings.
This means only high-earning graduates pay their tuition fees in full.
We now have the highest university application rates ever, including from disadvantaged students. But we need to ensure higher education is accessible to all those
who can benefit, including at postgraduate level. Liberal Democrats in government secured the first ever income-contingent loans scheme for graduate degrees, which we will protect and seek to extend.
We will:
Ensure that all universities work to widen participation across the sector, prioritising early intervention in schools and colleges. This will include running summer schools and setting up mentoring programmes between students or alumni and school pupils.
Require universities to be transparent about their selection
Work with university ‘mission groups’ to develop a comprehensive credit accumulation and transfer framework to help students transfer between and within institutions, enable more part-time learning, and help more people to complete qualifications.

Improve the Key Information Set and explore the option of
a standardised student contract. We will legislate to reform
regulation of the higher education sector, improving student protection.
Establish a review of higher education finance within the next Parliament to consider any necessary reforms, in the light of the latest evidence of the impact of the existing financing system on access, participation (including of low-income groups) and quality. The review will cover undergraduate and postgraduate courses, with an emphasis on support for living costs for students, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds.


They would appear to have been influenced by the recent publications from Which? and CMA, in terms of student contracts and student protection. Any review of HE finance will have to look at the costs of the current system o floans, where the RAB charge appears to making it more not less expensive than previous funding systems.


So you pays your money, and you takes your choice. The big issues for HE in future will be about regulation of the variety of providers, long term sustainable funding and support for stdnets other than full time undergraduates. However, for thjsoe waiting to plan for teh future, the most significant change already happened in the Autumn statement in 2013. The removal of the student number controls for entry to awards this summer will have significant impact on the sector. The removal of SNC is effectively the removal of market protection or a “safety net” for low performing institutions. This could have more immediate impact than much of what we might be waiting for in May.

Times Higher Student Experience Survey 2015

This year’s THE Student Experience Survey has been published, with few surprises among the top performers.

Despite several new entries into the top 10 this year, both the University of Cambridge (fourth place) and the University of Oxford (fifth) retain their high positions, as do the University of Exeter (eighth, down from seventh) and the University of Leeds (unchanged at ninth). “This year’s results reinforce how much can be achieved by those universities most committed to improving the student experience,” says James MacGregor, director of YouthSight, which provides the data for THE’s Student Experience Survey. “The relative stability of rankings between years highlights the remarkable gains made by a few.”

Bath University come out top and the reasons provided by their VC include:

  • nurturing environment for excellent enterprising minds
  • Student liaison groups in each department
  • a strong relationship with the students’ union
  • spending more than £1 million a week on improving the infrastructure over the past year

As last year, I still think that the results should be taken with a pinch of salt, based on the relatively small sample size of students For instance for this university, the results are based on responses from 116 students, recruited through UCAS. So, a small sample, and one that does not represent the fuller and wider student population.

However Staffordshire University’s position has moved as follows:

year position
2015 88
2014 97
2013 60

So a gradual improvement, and looking at all of the various factors, we can see an improved score in all but three of the areas:

  • Good environment on campus/around university
  • Good security
  • Good library and library opening hours

The ongoing campus investment, and the recently revised library hours will hopefully improve student satisfaction in these areas, and we will see the benefit in the forthcoming NSS results

That WonkHE Power List

This week WonkHE (the blog and website for HE wonks) published it’s “power list”, an idea clearly not influenced at all by the Sunday Times or GQ…

Compiled by an independent panel of HE experts, the 2015 HE Power List represents the top 50 movers and shakers in English higher education. Who has the most influence in the sector? Who will be instrumental in shaping its future? For the first time, the HE Power List brings you the top 50 names that set the agenda – often behind the scenes, sometimes in full view, inside and outside of universities and across the world of politics and policy making

Well worth a read, as the panel who compiled it clearly understand our sector.

The top 3 places are held by politicians – Osborne, May and a top 10 which contains 8 politicians and 2 civil servants. Our first academic appears at 15 with the VC of Cambridge, one of 11 VCs to feature. As well as the leaders of a number of think-tanks, the heads of NUS and UCU are present, but only one university mission group is represented with Wendy Piatt coming in at number 50.

Janet Beer has commented on the diversity of the list – only 12 of the 50 are women and only 1 of the top 10.

This list clealry shows those who influence the policy that will have an effect on HE, as well as those who have stuck their heads above the parapet to be noticed for their work in supporting and developing the sector.

Just for fun though – is there another Wonky Power List we could create – those who challenge the status quo and keep us thinking about how universities might work in the future, as well as those whose products drive us in certain directions?

Here’s my starter for 10.

Stefan Collini – author of “What are Universities For?”

Evgeny Morozov – author of “To solve everything, click here” and a critic of technological solutionism

Henry Giroux – author of “Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education”

David Ruebain – head of Equality Challenge Unit

Jay Batt – head of Blackboard inc – one of the main VLEs used in the HE sector, how much does this drive the way we teach?

Tim Cook – CEO Apple, just imagine working without an iPad…..

Feel free to suggest who else might belong to such a list.






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?


ISMO Conference

The International Studies of Management and Organisations Conference took place at Greenwich University on 8-9th December 2014, and here are my notes of particular points of interest.

The keynote speaker was Andrew McGettigan (author of “The Great University Gamble”) who spoke on “Third stream mission and beyond –  activities in the new market domain”

Andrew talked about the new bundles of contracts that universities are now working with, suggesting that an old understanding of HE will not aggregate to new models.  Universities were traditionally associated with knowledge and learning, but their mission may be growing beyond that now and so the previous mission may be seen to be less relevant

He proposed that universities have a greater role in “place making” culture. Universities’’ engagement in municipalisation sees them potentially taking over provision that was previously provided by local government. This will inevitable have an Impact on university business plans and  lead to the rise of the civic university.

He suggested that across the political parties there was a growing policy consensus on devolution, with commitment to more local decision making. This will have an impact on tertiary education, and ideas such as this will have informed the recent RSA Cities Growth Commission reports. It was clear that these kinds of ideas were now being taken up by treasury eg the recent announcement of the Northern Powerhouse.

Andrew also reminded us that Greg Clarke is now Minister for Cities and Universities and that we should take note of that explicit linkage. The idea now is that the growing knowledge economy is about the regions not just limited to  London and is not about financial services

He proposed that in future universities will rely on a broader definition than that usually used for 3rd stream income (eg knowledge transfer), but in getting value from buildings and other assets and we can expect other sources of income to increase eg catering and other services that might be provided to cities.

Universities could be expected to become one stop shops for advice not just knowledge transfer. They may become a  replacement of local authority and local provision, for example after the closure of libraries sports centres. There are already plenty of examples of university activity in these spheres already, for instance the bus companies at Herts and Brookes, Cambridge housing association for staff as well as students.  Northampton University’s regeneration plans in the city were cited as they have led  to the Treasury underwriting a major bond issue. Although this increase in third stream activity is so far still piecemeal, there is a one notable change which is in education, through the sponsorship of academies, free schools UTCs etc.

One of the outcomes of universities diversifying in this way is their increased access to private investment and then borrowing increasingly. There has been an increase in debt to income ratio from 20% to 30% although we cannot yet assess what ratio would mean universities become unsustainable.

A major question for universities diversifying in this way however is that of democracy. So far we have not considered any democratic deficit in universities as they have not been as concerned with local or civic affairs However, as they become more involved in local services then questions are more likely to be asked. Are they well run? Are they democratic? If not, how can or should they contribute to local economy? Further expansion of a university into local functions should need a review of their governance (see review of governance in Scotland by Ferdinand von Prondzynski) so that they become more accountable. Governance should  be open to public and journalists with places on the board to be advertised and for there to be staff and student representations.

In conclusion, Andrew McGettigan expected that we will see policy announcements will be about cities and universities which will have implications for civic participation.


Another speaker of note was Simon Brown who talked about ERDF and NW enterprise.

  • Key was getting to the students- needs to be all the time not just GEW.
  • Differs between unis – those Unis which are research rich can get to students through societies as students are there all the time
  • Unis that are more vocational did it through curriculum, need to get through tutors etc
  • Getting the message across to students is a challenge for everybody
  • Getting message to tutors is also a challenge- do they see it as a changing role?
  • Universities going through seismic changes Previously tenure position based on your body of knowledge that you transferred to students. Not any more.
  • Enterprise and entrepreneurship aligned to employability. Employability no longer just in careers Not just the domain of business schools!
  • Staff need to be educated to help them as they got to where they are by knowing “stuff”
  • Don’t just get a degree in business, get a degree for business.

Overall, a conference well worth attending – my own paper was well received – but the most interesting comments were from Andrew McGettigan and leave me asking – do we relaise how much power might be transferred to unelected bodies? But also – what a great opportunity for a university to really drive civic regeneration!

Student Consumers

This week I gave a presentation at the ISMO conference at Greenwich University which was based in part on a previous blog article which questioned how we needed to treat degree courses still as transformational, when students are increasingly expected to be consumerist in their approaches.

The slides are here:

After a look at Newman and then Collini, I started with the work of O’Byrne and Bond (Darren O’Byrne and Christopher Bond (2014): Back to the future: the idea of a university revisited, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 2014, Vol. 36, No. 6, 571–584) who considered three paradigms that operate in HE – the academic, managerial and consumerist.


I then considered ow we could use a new pedagogy, appropriate use of technology, a subverted interpretation of graduate attributes and a rethinking of leadership to provide a way of satisfying the challenges arsing from the three paradigms.


The neoliberal, capitalist view of HE is not going to go away any time soon. Universities will still continue to recruit students who try to measure them on simple metrics such as student experience and employment 6 months after graduation. However, universities do themselves a disservice if they choose to respond to student demands in such a simplistic way.

Through the appropriate use of pedagogy, through implementation of the right technology solutions, through a revised approach to expressing the nature of graduate attributes, and through having university leadership models that enable greater participation in decision making and engagement, we will be able to show that higher education is more than a passport to employment and is still transformational.