Non Continuation Rates

Last week, HESA published their latest data on student continuation rates.. An important set of figures for a number of reasons: non-continuation is something that directly affects the finance of universities; non-continuation is potentially a failure for the individual as well as the institution, and finally this data is used in some league tables.

A concern is that overall, the non continuation rate has risen across the sector (and indeed for us at Staffordshire University), with the national figure rising from 5.7% to 6.0% of students who entered in 2013-14 not progressing to the second year.The headline statistics are

  • 6.0% of UK domiciled, young, full-time, first degree entrants in 2013/14 did not continue in higher education in 2014/15.
  • 10.2% of UK domiciled, full-time, first degree starters in 2013/14 were projected to leave higher education without gaining a qualification

Usefully, HESA provides breakdowns of the data by both age of students as well as POLAR3 low participation indicator. This doesn’t necessarily provide any greater detail than that already held by any individual institution, but it does allow for comparisons to be made against comparators.

Looking at the data for Staffordshire University we can see that :

  Percentage no longer in HE (%) Benchmark (%)
young entrants 12.2 10.1
mature entrants 14.1 13.8
all entrants 12.8 11.4
young entrants from low participation neighbourhoods 15.7 11.2
young from all other neighbourghoods 11.2 9.7

So, no surprises there, but it does add to weight to the argument that we should revise the way in which we look at the necessary interventions to support retention. If, as is evidenced here, there are groups of students who are more likely to withdraw than others, then a “one size fits all” approach to student retention will not deliver all the necessary outcomes.

In addition, HESA provide data on non continuation rates based on subject studied as well as entry tariff and types of qualifications. The rates compared to entry are summarised as:

Entry qualifications All subjects
01 A level/VCE/Advanced Higher grades AAAA or Scottish Highers grades AAAAAA 1.4%
02 A level/VCE/Advanced Higher grades at least AAA or Scottish Highers grades at least AAAAA 1.8%
03 A level/VCE/Advanced Higher grades at least AAB or Scottish Highers grades at least AAAAB or AAAAC or AAABB 2.5%
04 A level/VCE/Advanced Higher grades at least AAC 3.1%
05 A level/VCE/Advanced Higher grades at least ABB or Scottish Highers grades at least AAABC or AAACC or AABBB or AABBC 3.1%
06 A level/VCE/Advanced Higher grades at least ABC or BBB or Scottish Highers grades at least AABCC or ABBBC or ABBBCC or ABBBB or BBBBB 3.9%
07 A level/VCE/Advanced Higher grades at least ACC or BBC or Scottish Highers grades at least AACCC or ABCCC or BBBBC or BBBCC 3.9%
08 A level/VCE/Advanced Higher grades at least BCC or CCC or Scottish Highers grades at least ACCCC or BBCCC or BCCCC or CCCCC 4.2%
09 Tariff points > 290 4.8%
10 Tariff points > 260 5.3%
11 Tariff points > 230 6.6%
12 Tariff points > 200 7.4%
13 Tariff points > 160 9.2%
14 Tariff points > 100 11.3%
15 Tariff points > 0 12.9%
17 Level 3 and A level equivalent qualifications with unknown points 13.9%
19 International Baccalaureate 3.4%
20 HE level foundation course 6.1%
21 Access course 11.1%
22 BTEC 11.5%
23 Higher education qualification – Postgraduate 7.1%
24 Higher education qualification – First degree 7.6%
25 Higher education qualification – Other undergraduate 8.1%
26 No previous qualification 24.1%
27 Other qualifications not given elsewhere 17.0%
28 Unknown qualification 32.6%
All qualifications 6.0%

Or looking at this graphically:

Important lessons from this data? As A level tariff points decrease, then the likelihood of non-continuation increases. Also, for institutions or courses that recruit significant numbers of students with BTEC qualifications, then higher withdrawal rates might be expected

Putting these factors together: age, POLAR3 neighbourhood, subject and entry grades, we can use better data analytics, linked to market segmentation and enhanced personal tutoring, to identify how to provide  right support to all students, but in a way that is tailored to their needs and expectations. The key part of this will not be the identification of possible at risk students – the more difficult work will be in deciding what are the interventions needed to support an increasingly diverse range of students, and how to deliver this.

Ultimately, we want all of our students to succeed, and if we have decided that these are the people that we want to educate, then we have to provide the best opportunities for that success.


HEFCE Revised Operating Model for Quality Assessment

Last week HEFCE published their revised operating model for quality assessment. This is based on the responses from the sector consultation that took place last year, and where we, and many other universities, identified areas that were of concern to us. Some of these have been addressed. However, this is also part of the current sectoral land grab to have the responsibility for qualit; at the same time as publishing, HEFCE has put out to tender various aspects of its quality work.

Key points to note from the revised operating model:

  • “future quality assessment arrangements should seek to encourage innovation in learning and teaching, rather than driving providers towards risk-averse activities and homogenised provision.”
  • “approach for implementation is therefore designed to be proportionate, risk-based and grounded in the context of each individual provider and its students”
  • a set of baseline regulatory requirements will still based on parts of the existing quality code and the framework fr higher education qualifications
  • fore new entrants there will be a gateway process followed by a developmental period of enhanced scrutiny and support
  • for established providers, a review of their own review processes, followed by a data-based Annual Provider Review and a revised periodic review visit

Some common areas of contention from responses from the sector were: comparability of standards; a potential national register of external examiners, and the roe of governing bodies.

A large section of the document covers comparability of standards, and classification algorithms used.The document states that when reviewing the original proposals:

Arguments mobilised against the proposals included:
• an opposition in principle to the funding bodies acting in an area where institutional autonomy is prized
• a view that there was no particular problem to be resolved, or that the specific proposals would not resolve whatever problems might exist
• a series of more practical concerns relating to increasing the burden on external examiners, thereby disincentivising the people on whom the successful operation of the system depends.

But that “student and PSRB respondents were much clearer that modernisation in this area was important, with some suggesting that the proposed reforms did not go far enough”

HEFCE have moved away from the proposal for a national register of external examiners, but talk instead of training of examiners to ensure that they are able to check comparability of standards – there is still a worry that good degree rates are rising and that these may not be defensible

The role of governors was an area that may universities had plenty to say about in the response to consultation, where it was felt that governing bodies may not be best placed to make direct judgements about academic quality. Again, HEFCE have clarified their expectation:

The role of the governing body would be to receive reports and challenge assurances from within the institution. It should not be drawn into quality management activities itself. We recognise the predominant role of senates and academic boards (or equivalent) in academic governance, and the responsibility of the accountable officer and senior executive team, and would expect an individual governing body to be clear about the formal relationships between the elements of the governance arrangements in its own institutional context.

There’s plenty more to digest. As always, WonkHe have a guide to how the new system will work, written by Louisa Darian.

What will be interesting now is the transitional arrangements and the pilots to be run during 2016-17.





Times Higher Student Experience Survey 2016

Just before we enter league table season, the THE kicks off with their Student Experience Survey results.

This year the top university is Loughborough, followed by our geographical neighbours, Harper Adams, and then Sheffield.

Here’s what the VC of Loughborough attributes the success to:

Robert Allison, vice-chancellor of Loughborough, says that coming first in this year’s student poll was “absolutely fantastic, as it recognises all the excellent things that staff and students are doing here”.

At the heart of Loughborough’s success is the ethos that students should work with staff to create a good university experience for everyone on campus, Allison says. “When people visit us on open days, I tell them that if they’re wondering if they’ll have a TV in their room, this probably isn’t the ­university for them.”

At Loughborough “you can really embed yourself in the university, and if you do, you will have all sorts of chances and opportunities”, he continues.

For instance, final-year students often partici­pate in a research project, while others take part in international secondments, such as those enjoyed by mechanical engineering students who have just returned from visiting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“If you have that desire to co-create your university experience, rather than just seeing yourself as someone who shows up for 10 weeks a term, it takes you to a different level as a student,” Allison says.

As always, this is a survey based on a very small sample size compared with NSS, but the outcomes are still interesting.

Staffordshire has risen 10 places to 78th this year. In terms of where we do well, we can look to see where our scores exceed the sector average:

  • helpful/interested staff
  • personal requirements catered for
  • good personal relationships with teaching staff
  • cheap shop/bar/amenities
  • tuition in small groups
  • fair workload

So as we might expect, we do well in the way we work with our students, and we know that Stoke in Trent is a relatively cheap city in which to be a student.

Areas where we seem to be falling behind are around social life, community atmosphere and environment on campus. Our ongoing investment in campus transformation should god a long way to address this, and by September 2016 when all of our computing, music, film and games students arrive onto the main redeveloped campus, we should find ourselves working in an even more lively environment.



Latest WP Data

The latest data on widening participation have been published by HESA.

The latest statistics show that of all UK domiciled, young, full-time, first degree entrants in 2014/15:

  • 89.8% were from state schools. Two thirds of HE providers had over 90% state schools entrants.
  • 33.0% were from NS-SEC classes 4-7. This proportion varied from 10.0% to 58.3% across HE providers.
  • 11.4% were from low-participation neighbourhoods.

Interestingly when we look at our own university’s performance against WP by digging into the data tables, we see:

  • we recruit 99.3% of our students from state schools or colleges, against a benchmark of 96.1%
  • we recruit 47.6% of our students from SEC classes, 4,5,6 and 7 against a benchmark of 42,2%
  • 23.3% of our students come from low participation neighbourhoods, against a benchamrk of 15.1%

Looking at the raw figures would appear to show that we do a good job in recruiting and supporting WP students.

For me the questions would be though – how could we support these students better? Are there ways in which by knowing the background of our students we could tailor our personal tutoring processes Are there ways in which we need to provide additional study skills support to allow students to maximise success and minimise the chance of failure or withdrawal? Are there ways in which we could help students develop the necessary social and cultural capital during their time at university, to be able to maximise their opportunities when entering employment?

Some of these are easier to solve than others.As we begin to expose better information to personal tutors, we will be able to provide more of teh personalised support necessary. Linking this to a technology based approach that could predict the necessary interventions would be the next step. The most tricky one will be that of developing the cultural capital needed to succeed. This is where know that the advantages that come from a non-WP background play out. We’ve tried to emphasise the need for this in our current Learning and Teaching Strategy. The tricky bit is going to be about the implementation, while not making value judgements about the relative worth of different sets of cultural or social mores.

This last one counts as a wicked problem!



These are the days of miracle and wonder

This year’s New Media Consortium Horizon report for higher education has just been published. Put together by a range of experts from across the word, including our own Dave Parkes, the NMC report tries to indicate the rends in technology that will have an impact on learning and teaching in HE.

The graphic below summarises the contents:


Short-Term Impact Trends: Growing Focus on Measuring Learning

Learning analytics can use the data produced by VLE systems and other interactions, Together with the possible need ot be able to measure learning gain to satisfy potential TEF requirements (in England at Least) mean that we can expect to see greater use of data to inform how well students are learning.

At the same time, this is a cultural shift for the way in which we monitor learning in universities. This week on Spiked-Online, Jim Butcher suggests that:

Data collection feeds off and reinforces diminished trust. Students are not trusted to study, so they need to be watched and prompted. Lecturers are not trusted to teach, so they, too, are watched and judged on their ability to provide a good ‘student experience’.

The reality is somewhere between the technological solutionism that the boosters of various systems would propose, and this stance. The trick is to reognise, as the NMC report does, the need to develop the right ethical framework to deliver an analytics approach. In addition, we should be seeking to measure those things that matter – not just those that can be counted – and to use information that will reduce the burden of bureaucracy and provide genuinely useful information for staff and students

Short-Term Impact Trends:Increasing Use of Blended Learning Designs

The NMC report states that “Blended learning integrates both online and face-to-face modalities to create a cohesive learning experience, providing learners with flexibility and support. These hybrid approaches hold the potential to foster independent learning and collaboration, as well as provide more channels of communication among
students and instructors” and notes that advancing blended learning requires the promotion of scalable innovative course designs.

This one of those areas where blended learning or online learning develops in one of two ways in institutions. Either it is a top down strategic approach, or it is developed from the ground  up by enthusiasts, almost leading to a series of cottage industry approaches.

In both cases however, what we need to capture is are the learning designs that work. Here at Staffs we have developed some very clear models of e-learning and defined approaches to blended learning. We’ll be doign a lot more with these as we move through the implementation of digital capability as our quality enhancement theme.

Medium-Term Impact Trends:Redesigning Learning Spaces

Technology disruption is abougt more than just computers and internet access. If we start to change the way in which we want people to learn, then we also need to change the physical resource too. The NMC report points to examples of changing teaching rooms, with  “acoustic panels and ceiling microphones for the capturing of audio without disruption, and mobile furniture for flexible arrangements” as well as descriptions of the changes to library facilities which move away from stacks containing books and periodical to new kinds of spaces that offer more collaborative and individual study areas.

Like many other universities, we are already working in this area – our two new exemplar classrooms in the Brindley building showcase some cutting edge classroom technology, coupled with flexible furniture arrangements, while our libraries have been reconfigured to provide significantly more space for BYOD working and group or collaborative approaches, while not losing the areas needed for silent private study.

Medium-Term Impact Trends:Shift to Deeper Learning Approaches

From the NMC report –  “A primary goal of higher education is to equip students with the skills they need to be successful in the workforce and to make an impact on the world”. This aligns with our own objectives and the report proposes that to achieve this, there should be a greater move towards project-based learning, challenge based learning, inquiry-based learning, and similar methods to foster more active learning experiences, both inside and outside the classroom.

Again,  we would argue that in many of our disciplines we already do this – Games Design, Engineering, Media Production and Computing, amongst others, all use approaches that rely on project based activities. Within one of our faculties, there is a major push to transform all modules by using a practice/problem based learning approach.

Long-Term Impact Trends:Advancing Cultures of Innovation

To achieve some of the necessary changes, NMC propose changes in the way that institutions themselves work, and for the first impact trend look at how the ways of thinking used by a startup company could be used in an HEI context:

Like startups, institutions are becoming structured in ways that allow them to constantly evolve, reflecting and pushing the boundaries of the global marketplace. This includes deviating from hierarchical decision-making processes to promote collaborative strategies and incorporate student voices.

The contemporary workforce calls for employees that are agile, adaptable, and inventive and universities and colleges are increasingly revamping their existing programs and creating new ones to nurture these key skills. In the US alone, the number of formal
entrepreneurial courses in higher education has grown exponentially over the past two decades with nearly 25% of today’s college students aspiring to be entrepreneurs.

This why we focus on enterprise-led thinking and entrepreneurship in our own Staffordhsire Graduate definitions, and more importantly, why we will be revising these as part of our redeveloped Learning and Teaching Strategy.

Long-Term Impact Trends:Rethinking How Institutions Work

Inevitably, technology will change the way in which institutions themselves operate. Examples given in the NMC report include the following wide range of possible changes:

  • the need to make students more work-savvy
  • curricula that encourage students to work with peers from different
    disciplinary backgrounds on innovative solutions to complex problems.
  • new paradigms centered on online learning
  • exploring alternate methods of delivery and credentialing
  • adopting the “Education-as-a- Service” (EaaS) model, a delivery system that unbundles the components of higher education, giving students the option to pay for only the courses they want and need (this last one is not that dissimilar from the idea of the Amazon University in another recent blog piece

Without trying to guess what the future for any given institution might be – and it will change depending on mission, existing or planned student base etc – the message should be that any university that might want to move away from a traditional 3 year degree model will need to look closely at how it might deliver  courses differently, as well as how it would need to design itself internally and the way in which it operates to allow this to happen.

Wicked Challenges

As well as the key trends, NMC identity a series of problems, ranging from easily solved to wicked. They can be see in the diagram above. Previously, a wicked challenge identified was the recognition and reward  of teaching and learning. This is now replaced by balancing connected and unconnected lives, and keeping education relevant.

Balancing connected and unconnected lives means that we must make any connections between staff and students relevant and transformative – there is little point in using technology if it does not deliver a further transformation.

Keeping education relevant is key from an employability perspective – we know very well that employers note a lack of skills in graduates, but also that the skills gap itself not well defined. However in this blog, I have frequently argued that a degree is not just training for employment but should provide a broader transformative experience. NMC identity that the wicked problem is in reconciling the multiple demand of higher education, both as the transformative experience and in the provision of skills:

“In this climate, national and institutional leaders are challenged to devise new systems that combine the best of both worlds, offering learners a collegiate experience that prepares them for a meaningful life of work, production,and thoughtful inquiry.”

Technology Trends

Finally NMC identify 6 technology trends that they believe will have impact:

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: One Year or Less

  • Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)
  • Learning Analytics and Adaptive Learning

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Two to Three Year

  • Augmented and Virtual Reality
  • Makerspaces

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Four to Five Years

  • Affective Computing
  • Robotics

Since we have a Leaning and Teaching Conference this summer which will be focused on Digital Capability, I’m looking forward to hearing from our own colleagues (as well as two external speakers) how we are already engaging with some of these new technologies in our learning and teaching.

In conclusion, the NMC report provides a great starting point for thinking about how we want to use technology in a University. Crucially they don’t eulogise just about the tech, but ask us to focus on what the actual trends are, and what the challenges are, and how hard they are to solve. Any digital transformation has to take this into account, and not just focus on the shiny baubles of new technology. The real gains will come from when we understand how to use technology as well as changing our organisational thinking,  to then transform the way in which we work and the way in which our students learn.






Disruption – again……

In a piece on, titled “How Amazon could destroy college as we know it”, Alexander Holt speculates on how Amazon could move into the business of HE. It’s based on an imagined speech by Jeff Bezos in 2030, reflecting on what Amazon has achieved. It’s based on imagination, but supported by references to actual achievements by Amazon. As with all service provision that has previously been primarily state or public funded, we know full well that venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs see that HE is ripe for “disruption” and that technology will play a key part in this solutionism.

Holt envisions Amazon developing their already developed classroom used to support their staff, together with “badging” of competences to create mastery of tracks such as logistics. The next step proposed is that of the Amazon University to support internal staff development. So far, so similar to plenty of other in-house training or development schemes. The next imagined step is the interesting one – what if Amazon opened up these classroom, badges and courses to anyone? What if they offered access to Prime customers at no extra cost, to be able to study for a qualification and to keep them locked into the Amazon customer experience?

At a time when the MOOC-boosters have gone a little quiet (remember the heady days of 2012?), then maybe looking at those companies such as Amazon, or Google, (even Facebook) with their “closed garden” view of the internet, and their sheer dominance over the provision of web services, and maybe we can see the latest potential disruptor of higher education.

A couple of years ago I took a few MOOCs, one of which was on disruptive technologies. As a final assessment, I wrote a paper (essay in UK terminology) on how technology would disrupt HE. At a time when we are looking at the possible outcomes of a Green Paper review that was fixated on ideas of teaching excellence, but focusing entirely on metrics of students who have been full time undergraduates, then maybe we need to look again at how technology might (or might not) change higher education. At the time I argued that MOOCs wouldn’t be the game-changer that was being suggested at the time. However, we need to find a better use of technology that will be the key in helping to change HE, provided that it is used in a way to reduce gaps in inequality of access to learning, not to increase them, and  to enhance the learning experience of students in meaningful way. A blog post from 2014 revisited these ideas.

If you want to read the original essay, then a copy of it can be supplied!





End of Green Paper Consultation.

So after a few  months where policy wonks have pored over the fine details of the Green Paper consultation, on Friday the music stopped, and everyone had to submit their reponses. (actually the music stopped on the 10th).

Interestingly, there seems to be a high degree of consensus for once, between the various mission groups and representative bodies, particularity in relation to the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework.

Despite comments from Jo Johnson prior to release of the consultation, that “teaching was lamentable”, this view of a dysfunctional sector is not recognised by pretty much everyone else in it, and so such a toxic comment might be more the view of an individual, or small number of individuals who can see fault in one small part of the sector, rather than take a holistic view to see what those problems are in context.

The general response is that groups and individual institutions welcome the Green Paper and the commitment to supporting excellence in both teaching and research

Universities UK

The UUK response states that UUK:

  •  commits to working with the government to develop an effective Teaching Excellence Framework.
  • recommends that the second proposed iteration of the TEF be a pilot that gathers evidence on implementing teaching excellence
  • evaluates how this information can be usefully presented to students
  • disagrees with proposals for linking fee caps to multiple levels of TEF
  • proposes that the Office for Students should be called the Office for Students and Higher Education to reflect a broader mandate covering teaching funding, overview of research and third-stream activities.
  • Degree awarding powers should be based on four year track record and there should be a public interest test for granting university title
  • raises concerns about moving quality-related research funding (QR) into Research UK and asks for a clear commitment to protect dual support and the distinctiveness of the funding councils and Innovate UK


The GuildHE response again “welcomes the government’s focus on raising teaching standards and improving access to higher education.” and recognises that TEF “provides a real opportunity to enhance teaching within universities and raise the profile of good teachers but there are clearly many potential pitfalls along the way that we need to avoid”.

The problems around using existing metrics are articulated and:

This points to an evolution of TEF as something driven by the conversation around the teaching and learning opportunities that are delivered to students, i.e. TEF should become less about the metrics than about this conversation. There are very interesting parallels here to the current method of quality assessment – also configured as a conversation. Synergies between the new TEF intentions and the existing QA process should be identified and harnessed


Our own mission group, million+ has responded, “highlighting concerns in a number of areas and urging the Government to work with the sector to ensure that any changes introduced are in the interest of students, universities and employers” and again identifies problems with the existing metrics to populate TEF:

“Linking fee increases with a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) based on metrics that are proxies for teaching quality, is unlikely to provide students or employers with an accurate picture of the rich and varied teaching and learning environments that universities offer. This risks damaging the reputation of the higher education sector in the UK and is why we recommend that the government defer the introduction of a multi-level TEF in 2018 until further work has been undertaken to determine the best way to promote teaching excellence.”


Finally to be covered here, the Council for the Defence of British Universities has responded, and not surprisingly, is not supportive of much of the Green Paper:

the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – is put forward to address putative problems, without providing any evidence that these problems exist. The proposed TEF would be an expensive and bureaucratic system that would entail increasing complexity and disruption for years to come. The use of proxies, such as the NSS or graduate income, for teaching excellence is at odds with the ethos and values of education and scholarship. Both the content and the methodology behind the Green Paper come across as counter to the academic values that lie at the heart of any university worthy of the name. These values include reliance on reason, argument, and evidence; critical and creative thinking; rigorous analysis of data; and precise and meaningful communication. There is no recognition in the Green Paper that the primary purpose of universities is to foster these values; instead, universities are equated with businesses, value is defined purely in economic terms, and students and staff are set up in opposition as consumer and vendor respectively, working to serve conflicting interests (to pay as little as possible for the product purchased and to charge as much as the ‘customer’ will take).


For those who would like a critical nuanced exposition of the Gren Paper, then I’d recommend the ever excellent Stefan Collini, writing in the London Review of Books with an article titled “Who are the spongers now?”, where on TEF he concludes:

“So what will the TEF actually produce? At a minimum, the following: more administrators to administer the TEF; a greater role for business in shaping the curriculum and forms of teaching; a mountain of prose in which institutions describe, in the prescribed terms, how wonderful their provision and procedures are. It also seems pretty certain to produce more efforts by universities to make sure their NSS scores look good; more pressure on academics to do whatever it takes to improve their institution’s overall TEF rating; and more league tables, more gaming of the system, and more disingenuous boasting by universities about being in the ‘top ten’ for this or that.

What is it unlikely to produce? Better quality teaching”

So we seem to have stakeholders from across the sector, saying pretty much some of the same things:

  • the metrics proposed as proxies for teaching excellence, can’t be relied upon to show teaching excellence
  • changes to the routes for new providers are being regarded with some suspicion
  • the time allowed to develop and implement TEF is too short
  • there is concern about linking fees to varying levels of TEF
  • dual support of research should be supported

What will be interesting now is to see how government responds to a sector who know themselves well, and who have identified where more work is needed to translate policy proposals into actions – with this overwhelming amount of agreement, it will be hard to push ahead exactly as outlined in the Green Paper. Lets’s leave the last words to Collini again:

“But don’t worry: the Green Paper is only a ‘consultation’ document. That must mean that if cogent objections are put forward to the premises, reasoning and conclusions it contains, none of these proposals will come to pass. Well, mustn’t it?”

HESA Data Release

HESA have just published their statistical first release for student enrolments and qualifications obtained at Higher Education providers in the United Kingdom 2014/15.

This is always a useful summary, to see the size of the HE “market”, and whch subjects appear to be growing or in decline, data which of course can be cross-referenced to UCAS data releases to to see how trends in applications map to trends in enrolments.

The headline data shows nothing new – the total number of students engaged in HE study dropped by 2%, largely due to the 6% drop on part time enrolments. Part time still continues to be a problematic area for the sector.


In terms of subjects, we can see how individual subject areas are growing or in decline, which should influence the way in which institutions might want to proactively manage their portfolio.

The latest information shows that the areas of growth for undergraduate study are: biological science, computer science, subjects related to agriculture, engineering and technology, with the biggest gain in creative arts and design. On the other hand, there has been a sector wide drop in enrolments at undergraduate level again in languages, but also in business, law, history and philosophy, and education.


On attainment, and an area of interest in light of comments on possible grade inflation in the recent discussions around the Green Paper, HESA note that “of those gaining a classified first degree, the proportion who obtained a first or upper second has shown a steady increase from 64% in 2010/11 to 72% in 2014/15. In 2014/15, 22% gained a first class degree compared to 15% in 2010/11.”. This steady rise will be reflected in league tables of course, but importantly for my own institution, our good degree rate has risen (not to the sector average), but to a defensible level.

Looking at data n where students come from, we can see that the UK is still a desirable location for HE study. Considering English HEIs only, the data shows:

hesa14-15 domicile

Not surprisingly we see that China remains the biggest provider of students to English HEIs, and continuing drop in students from India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, while there has been a big rise in students from Hong Kong.

As always the HESA data release provides excellent background information for anyone wanting an understanding of the shape of the UK HE sector, and where the trends are in types of students, their level and mode of study, their domicile, their outcomes and the attractiveness of the various subject groups.



Review of the year – in blogs

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

January 2015

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

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

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

February 2015

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

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

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

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

March 2015

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

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

April 2015

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

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

May 2015

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

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

June 2015

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

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

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

July 2015

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

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


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

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

August 2015

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

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

September 2015

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

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

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

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

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

October 2015

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

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

November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

December 2015

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


(from This Charming Charlie)













Skills and employability

This post looks at a couple of recent publications, which ask how many graduates do we need, what skills do graduates need, and where might the gaps be? As we are gong though the process of refining our strategic plan and operating model, and asking ourselves what kind of a university we will be, it’s important we understand what kind of people our graduates will be

A couple of months ago the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development suggested that  as many as 58.8% of UK graduates were in non-graduate jobs. This was based on a research process of self-reporting, and even if this figure seems overly high, then clearly a number of graduates are not matched well with the roles in which they find themselves, which is not good for the individual, or for the organisation.

CIPD suggested that the findings raised questions about the size of the HE sector in relation to our labour market needs. They conclude with;

Policy-makers need to scrutinise the range of courses offered by the HE sector and seriously consider the social and private returns to them. We conjecture that they will conclude that, in many cases, public funds could more usefully be deployed elsewhere in the education and training system. Our findings suggest that the presence of a large HE sector will not necessarily lead to the attainment of the knowledge economy so beloved by successive UK governments.

It is worth remembering that many of the social returns that come from engagement in higher education are indeed social, and affect wider society and are not purely economic. In a marketised HE system, then policy makers do not have jurisdiction over the range of courses that are provided – mainly because in the main public funding is no longer directed to the course, but to the individual in the form of a loan

CIPD  make good points about the need for wider opportunities for post 19 education, and also point out that in previous generations, many would have felt “under-employed” in their role.

Last week University UK produced  a new report “Supply and Demand for Higher Level Skills”  which provides a counterpoint to the CIPD position, and again asks if there are too many or too few graduates, and looks at the relationship between their subject choices and the future labour market as well as considering employability skills.

There are 6 key recommendations from the report, summarised as:

  1. There is currently an undersupply of graduates that will
    continue into the foreseeable future;…..There needs to be a better understanding of why certain graduates become mismatched, which skills could prevent this and where they can be best attained
  2. universities and employers need to talk about ‘employability skills……..Universities and employers should jointly develop a ‘skills translation’ exercise to help all parties understand how and where these ‘soft skill’ principles can be practically developed and applied.
  3. there will be demand for a greater number of workers with higher – but not necessarily degree-level – qualifications…….Young people should have the opportunity to develop higher-level skills through a system of integrated pathways between the two forms of provision, one that provides a theoretical underpinning to technical knowledge and offers the chance for upskilling in line with economic, operational and technological change
  4. the sector needs both a clearer and a more granular understanding of the size and content of provision across both further and higher
  5. in spite of a strong supply of STEM  students, there are continued shortages of highly-qualified workers in technical industries. Identifying – and mending – this obstruction in the talent pipeline is crucial
  6. there should be a heightened focus on skills utilisation. What sort of management and business practices best utilise higher-level skills and how can similar practices be adopted by firms of diverse sizes and sectors?.

The UUK report summarises a number of surveys looking at skills that employers look for in graduates, and the extent to which graduates do, or do not, have these. While recognising the difficulty of identifying relationships between the various surveys, the authors note that “there is consistency in that most surveys point to graduates’ lack of work experience and some combination of ‘necessary’ or job specific skills.”

UUK suggest that universities have two things to tackle in this regard – making sure that students gain the necessary employability skills at the same time as gaining subject level knowledge which will provide skills in critical thinking, analysis and creative thinking.

Crucially UUK identify that when universities talk about employability skills, for instance teamwork, communication, they don’t necessarily understand this from the perspective of an employer. Hence the recommendation for a skills translation exercise, to make sure that all parties understand what is meant, and what is needed.

UUK also looked at how graduates of different disciplines self-reported  their levels of skills, which provided the following:


There are some clear message heres, then, for different subject areas to consider in terms of where the focus is needed in developing non-subject skills.

Another report published this week by HEPI was “Employability – degrees of value“, written by Johnny Rich, in which the emphasis is on understanding employability, not just employment, and Rich argues for a new framework of employability embracing knowledge, skills and social capital. A novel part of this report, and one that is rarely mentioned is the importance that social capital plays in securing employment, and in being able to develop employability.

Similar in part to the conclusions of UUK, Rich proposes a generic set of skills, the level of which might vary by subject This same set of skills can be mapped by employment role, and so mismatches can be seen. A consistent framework for employability is proposed, designed to reduce the burden on academics, and which would allow students to personalise their course and their skills profile according to their needs and ambitions. This is not that dissimilar to our own Staffordshire Graduate Employability Programme in theory, if not in delivery.

In drawing these three strands together we can see that as  a university we need to be mindful of what our students want and need, especially in how we can make sure they are best prepared for when they leave us: not just to be “job-ready” but to have the embedded deep employability skills that they will need for their whole careers. Some of the sections of our new Learning and Teaching strategy already refer to reviewing and updating our Graduate Attribute statements and referring directly to social capital needs.

As we move into the next phase of our strategy delivery, then with our increased focus on employability we can be working now to ensure that our Staffordshire Graduate statements remain meaningful, not just for us but for students and potential employers, and that we have a common understanding of what we mean when we talk about transferable skills.

When we work with ministry panels or advisory boards, or use external expertise in curriculum development, we need to make sure that we are asking questions not just about subject and technical needs of employers, but also gaining that deeper shared understanding of what transferable skills are needed, and how we can help to develop them.

We need to make sure that graduates from all disciplines have the right mix of skills, to make sure that they are not mismatched to employer requirements, and finally, we must ensure that our graduates gain in social capital while they study with us, to make sure that they can compete with, and indeed be better than, everyone else.