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!





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)













Autumn Statement 2015

As in previous years, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement has provided a clear steer for the future of HE. For those who don’t see HE as being driven by the Treasury view, then look no further to the announcement in 2013 on the scrapping of Student Number Controls.

This year the headlines for HE are:

International students: numbers to grow;dependants of postgraduates on courses lasting more than a year will be welcome to come and work.

Widening participation: work with the Director of Fair Access to ensure universities take more responsibility for widening access, including collaborating on outreach to reduce inequality in admissions

Postgraduate support: lift the age cap on new loans to postgraduates from 2016-17 so they are available to all those under 60.

Part time support: introduce new part-time maintenance loans from 2018-19 to support the cost of living while studying.

ELQs: For all STEM subjects, tuition loans will be extended to students wishing to do a second degree from 2017-18

Widening the range of providers: £20 million competition to set up a new Institute of Coding; create a new university in Hereford focused on engineering in 2016; help to fund the £100 million development of a new campus in Battersea for the Royal College of Art.

Research: protecting today’s £4.7 billion science resource funding in real terms; long term science capital commitment of £6.9 billion between 2015-2021 to support the UK’s world-class research base; introduce a new body – Research UK – which will work across the seven Research Councils, review of the Research Excellence Framework

For detailed analysis of the figures, and in particular the implications for the changes to student loans , then read Andrew McGettigan over on Wonkhe.

So – area of concerns: two leap out straight away, firstly, there is the change to support for students in nursing and midwifery from the 2017 intake, who will now access loans in the same way as other student. This may have an impact on attractiveness of such courses, although in other areas the change to funding did not, overall, lead to a decline in applicants.

The second area of concern is around the student opportunity fund. The focus on social mobility is strongly articulated in the recent Green Paper, and the opportunity for funding for part time students and those wishing to study WLQs can be seen as part of the same narrative. A worry for a while has been that the Student Opportunity Fund within the  BIS HE budget was an easy target   The fund in itself is safe for now but:

The government will work with the Director of Fair Access to ensure universities take more responsibility for widening access and social mobility, and ask the Higher Education Funding Council for England to retarget and reduce the student opportunity fund, focusing funding on institutions with the most effective outcomes

And again, this could be seen as part of the continuum with the Green Paper, where some of the proposal for the higher levels of Teaching Excellence Framework will reward those institutions who perform well on this agenda.

Those universities that receive significant amounts of SOF will be looking hard at their income and the possible related outputs – here I’ve drawn together the 15-16 funding allocations, with data from league tables on entry tariff, good degrees, and degree completion. More detailed analysis will be needed to consider how to measure part time students, but a few hours playing with Heidi data might reveal how individual institutions are performing

wp allocations

As I’ve written before when looking at TEF, this is another example of a great opportunity for institutions to get clever about how they can use data to measure their performance, not just for the sake of creating a set of metrics, but as a way of measuring the efficacy of interventions, and using this to provide better evidence-based decision making.

There are some opportunities in this autumn statement for us as well – for example the more welcoming statement about  international students, although this still conflicts with the broader negative views around immigration, and for us would rely on assuming that students in our target market have dependents.

Availability of loans for postgraduate study is to be welcomed, increasingly higher level qualification will be needed for certain routes into employment, or as ongoing staff development.

The changes to availability of loans for part time study should also be welcomed, as indeed should the opportunity of funding for ELQs in STEM subjects.

Overall – it could have been a lot worse for HE – the BIS budget wasn’t cut as much as predicted, but with the Green Paper currently out for consultation, we probably have enough on our plates to be going on with!



I can’t get no satisfaction

Early in January the next round of National Student Survey begins across the UK HE sector. This year for many will be seen as  a dry run for what is to come in later years – the widely discussed  Green Paper which refers to using metrics to help gauge teaching excellence. Once we get past the first year of everyone being equally excellent, then  NSS and DLHE are widely anticipated to be key measures to be used, as well as possible measures of learning gain, since the paper does hint at a lack of satisfaction with current degree classification processes.

So before we check on progress on last year’s action plans, and start to think about how we introduce this year’s survey to our students, a couple of publications from the last week are worth bearing in mind.

Firstly a research paper from QAA, written in part by Jo Williams of University of Kent, to which Staffordshire University made  a contribution. In this, “The Role of Student Satisfaction Data in Quality Assurance and Enhancement: How Providers Use Data to Improve the Student Experience” Dr Williams looks at how different types of institutions approach NSS, and shows that across all parts of the sector, institutions and senior staff questions NSS:

In particular, the issue of question 22 of the NSS, asking students about their overall satisfaction has created endless debates in academia, if not confusion, with professionals arguing that it is methodologically and professionally wrong to base league tables on a single question which is not in itself clear. Various senior academics we spoke to concurred with this theme.

The research did show that universities in all parts of the sector listen to what students say, and that they do make changes based on what the survey reveals, for instance:

The programmes change every year so sometimes it’s because the subject changes but very often it’s because students have expressed discontent with something. Therefore, you change the personnel teaching it. You change the way you teach it. You change the content, you change the assessment, you change the feedback, you change something about it. Or sometimes you just drop it.
(University B)

Changes in practice were noted across institutions:

Our data revealed that institutions have employed various changes in response to issues students raise in the satisfaction surveys. Among other practical changes, universities have:
– recruited academic advisors and officers to take charge of the NSS
– mapped internal surveys to mirror the NSS
– renewed their focus on learning and teaching revisited and improved timetabling systems
– raised structures including building sites, teaching rooms and sports complexes
– revisited their feedback and assessment mechanisms
– organised briefings with students to enlighten them about feedback and assessment, the NSS and its benefits
– replaced subjects, at times personnel, whose NSS scores keep falling
– introduced or empowered various forums and platforms to meet several times in a year to discuss the NSS, among others. Such forums found at nearly all institutions include: NSS forums, student experience action plans, education boards, NSS improvement forums and learning and teaching advisory groups

Across the institutions in the research, other similarities were see in how data was used: for instance comparing scores across schools, holding low scoring schools to account, and comparing with other institutions.

In terns of league tables, depending on where you appear in a league table appears to influence the behaviour of the organisation.

In particular, institutions placed in the top 25% of the league tables appear to have a relaxed view of the NSS. They appear to put particular emphasis on improving the student experience and argue that this automatically triggers a higher satisfaction rate than being ‘obsessed with the NSS’ and improving league table position:

Whereas at the other end of the scale:

In contrast, institutions in the lower 25% of the student satisfaction league tables appear to place particular focus on improving their student satisfaction and subsequently their standings in the league tables.

The main conclusion of the work then is that:

In particular, institutions in the top 25% of league tables
(Universities A and B) appear to prioritise improving the student experience and let the NSS take care of itself, while those in the bottom 25% (Universities C and D) prioritise their NSS league table position and subsequently employ various tactics to promote the surveys.
Despite institutions adopting different approaches to the surveys based on league table positions, institutions generally listen to students’ demands raised in surveys and have responded by instigating various changes including recruiting academic advisers and officers to take charge of the NSS; mapping internal surveys to mirror the NSS; raising structures including building sites and revising their feedback and assessment processes.

What the paper doesn’t consider is the relative ranking of NSS scores by institutions – it is perfectly possible to score well on certain NSS scores, and appear to out perform other institutions on such a single measure, but this may not change institutional behavours which may be set to focus on the NSS position, rather than overall experience.

In other work out recently, from Stephen Gibbons, Eric Neumayer and Richard Perkins writing in the Economics of Education Review “Student satisfaction,league tables and university applications: Evidence from Britain” (S. Gibbons et al./Economics of Education Review 48 (2015)148–164), the authors make the following points:

  • NSS scores have an impact on recruitment applications, but not huge
  • students do not appear to respond directly to quality cues from satisfaction scores
  • students may already have a well developed knowledge about product quality based on perceptions of reputation and prestige
  • student satisfaction and league table position do not have a short term effect on market demand
  • the degree to which quality indicators affect demand is strongly linked to the amount of market competition for a given subject

Finally, in “Applying Models to National Surveys of Undergraduate Science Students: What Affects Ratings of Satisfaction?”  (Educ. Sci. 2013, 3(2), 193-207) by Langan Dunleavey and Fielding of Manchester Metropolitan University, the authors look at what influences the results seen for question 22 – overall satisfaction. We are all familiar with reading through a set of results, with great scores for most of the questions, and sections, but a lower score for this final crucial question, which is the one used in all league tables.

The authors note the year on year consistency of results for individual subjects, noting how comparisons should be made:

Subjects were highly consistent year on year in terms of their relative performance in the satisfaction survey. This has implications for institutional decision-making particularly if subjects are wrongly compared against institutional averages, when comparisons should be made within subject areas (e.g., comparing with national subject averages, although this may be subject to error if courses contain different compositions of learners, for example in terms of ethnicity)

This is consistent with HEFCE advice, and why as an institution we provide sector average scores at JACS3 subject level for comparison.

Interestingly, questions about feedback were the weakest predictors of “Overall Satisfaction” whereas:

The best predictor of student satisfaction nationally for the three years analysed was “The course was well designed and running smoothly” followed by ratings of “Teaching”, “Organisation” and “Support”. This may vary slightly between subjects/institutions, so it is proposed that this type of quantitative approach to contextualising survey metrics can be used to guide institutions in resource allocation to tackle student experience challenges.

So our conclusions on how we approach the next NSS, and perhaps more  importantly NSS2017  could be:

  • 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.

Who are you?

Not the chant at a football ground, but a question we could be asking of ourselves – how well do we know our students?

At an institutional level, or indeed course level we can do two  things. Firstly we could carry out market segmentation that might tell us so much – games designers like to play computer games in their free time for instance. Secondly we can realise benefits through a data-centric approach to supporting teaching. If we can identify for instance, that for a given module, more than 50% of the students taking it entered university with BTEC qualifications, then maybe there are some conclusions for the lecturer to draw in terns of how to deliver and in particular how to assess. As we move into the era of TEF, then this ability to use data to measure outcomes might be come ever more important, with the comments made recently by Jo Johnson on the differential performance of students from WP or BME backgrounds

In terms of having a holistic view of who we teach, are there some generalities we can consider to give a holistic view, and will this help us to understand some of the current trends in higher education?

The dominant narrative in HE is always about 18-21 year-olds who are studying full time. These are the students who, for most institutions, generate most of the income, and also provide the outcomes that are subsequently used in league tables and are most likely to be used in the Teaching Excellence Framework. While recognising the importance of other groups of students, this article focuses on this grouping, since their behaviours tend to dominate policy.

Firstly we can think of how this generation of students can be defined in terms of their attitudes to technology. Born in 1997, they have never used a computer that was not controlled with a mouse or a touch interface. They have been used to having a mobile device all their lives, and a tablet computer for the last 5. So through senior school and public exams, they have been used to having easy access to the web. They can’t even envisage a time when the web wasn’t ubiquitous. They operate in a  world defined by online social media networks and physical storage is a strange concept. Clearly for us to be able to work with these students, we need to have our own high levels of digital capability, and this is a topic I will be returning to in coming weeks.

As well as understanding the technology expectations that these students bring to university, we can also look at some of their motivations. Focusing on young full time undergraduates, then they are what was termed in today’s Observer as  Generation K, or Katniss. (You may need to have teenaged children to understand this reference.)

…the economist and academic Noreena Hertz, who coined the term Generation K (after Katniss) for those born between 1995 and 2002, says that this is a generation riddled with anxiety, distrustful of traditional institutions from government to marriage, and, “like their heroine Katniss Everdeen, [imbued with] a strong sense of what is right and fair”

This generation worry about getting a job and this is understandable after major economic downturn, but the impact it might be having on these students’ attitude to higher education education is that they perceive HE as a means to getting a job. Although this is understandable, within the academy we still have a responsibility to show that higher education is more than that.

Writing in the same newspaper, WiIll Hutton, author of “The State We’re In” and now Master of Hertford College, Oxford, tackles the issues of the freedom to argue and the freedom to be challenged within universities. Hutton is primarily concerned with the retreat of liberalism and the diminution in importance of the idea of a public realm:

This disdain for notions of publicness has created a vacuum occupied by the rise of a libertarian individualism that indulges belief over reason. Non-falsifiable belief systems used only to be the hallmark of ideological communism or religious zealotry. Now, ideas, especially on the right but also to a degree on the left are less and less tested in a public realm by debate, with evidence marshalled to justify them. Instead, they are asserted as valid because the holder believesthem.

This new individualism, alongside the decline of the public, has provoked a mounting tide of, at best, siloed thinking, impervious to criticism, and, at worst, the indulgence of rank prejudice. Thus, on the right, if I feel that Britain is being swamped by immigrants, climate change is bogus, maleness is being overwhelmed by “femininazi” women or the welfare system is transfixed by cheating, then, whatever the facts, my feeling is valid because I hold it. That suffices without proof or evidence. In any case, there will always be some article in a rightwing paper to justify it.

Again, this individualism can be expressed by students – being risk-averse and not willing to be challenged or taken out of their comfort zones leads to behaviours that create “safe spaces” on campus, where we can no longer  hear certain views in case others are offended. In the same way, we might have a group of students who don’t want to be challenged too much in their learning, seeing a degree as a commercial transaction, rather than a transformational experience, the benefits of which may only be realised many years after completion. We ask students every year in the National Student Survey whether they felt their course was intellectually stimulating. We want our students to engage with their discipline, not as passive recipients, but as active scholars providing contribution and challenge. To do this though, we will need to remind ourselves of the tendency to be risk-averse, to want to be treated as a consumer and to be challenged just enough – but not so much it becomes too hard. We would do well to remember that as well as being stimulating, courses are supposed to challenge, be intellectually difficult  and to provide arguments that question individual beliefs.

Finally, this generation of students perceive themselves to be consumers. As argued in her book “Consuming Higher Education”, Joanna Williams of University of Kent argues that this attitude to consumption doesn’t come about just because of the introduction of tuition fees. Instead, Williams argues that we have a generation who have been led into this interpretation of what higher education is about, in part by the behaviours of universities:

“Rather than universities challenging the idea that a degree is an entitlement, institutions instead strengthen this notion. The provision of quantifiable information on contact hours assessment patterns and employment prospects suggests students are correct to to perceive of a degree as a product.”

Individual institutions can’t turn around and say we are having no part of this agenda as we are obliged to publish this information and no doubt will provide more in future. What we can do is explain better what the quantifiable data actually means, and more importantly, what it does not mean.

As we all write our responses to consultations on quality assurance, on the teaching excellence framework, and as we redevelop our own strategy documents in the light of a forthcoming Green Paper, we need to remind ourselves that universities do exist as more than degree factories that are there to produce “satisfied” customers. Understanding more about the backgrounds of our students and recognising the reasons for their consumerist behaviours may help us in the long term to be able to better articulate what the wider benefits of HE are, and the role of universities in liberal society.


New Beginnings

Higher Education is currently entering a maelstrom of change – we are waiting with bated breath the publication of the Green Paper, and as suggested previously in this blog much of what is possibly going to change is intensley political and driven much by the treasury. More early hints appeared on the ConservativeHome website this week:

Johnson’s proposals begin with the student experience. Some University teaching is excellent; too much is “execrable”, to borrow a word sometimes used in the department. To help raise the standard, he wants Universities to be rewarded for better teaching. The metrics used will include lower drop-out rates, good graduate outcomes for disadvantaged students, and an improved national student survey. His friends claim that evidence shows students value better teaching above lower fees: there is an reflection here of Nick Hillman’s finding, over at the Higher Education Policy Institute, that they are “less motivated by student issues, like tuition fees, than has often been supposed”.

and as we know there will be changes to QA processes:

If the new inspection body is to be the stick, there will also be a carrot. As George Osborne announced in the Budget, Universities that teach better will be allowed to raise fees in line with inflation from next year. Permitting further rises later has not been ruled out. There will be no shortage of objections to all this. Some Universities don’t want to be challenged by new entrants. There will be questions of detail, such as whether the metrics will work. There will be those of principle, such as whether it is really government’s business to tell the Universities how to conduct theirs.

More locally, we have our own disruption, reflecting on ” Smarter Futures”, and looking at the kind of university we want to be in the future as we enter a period of strategic planning. As part of that we are embarking on updating the  Academic Strategy for the university. So far, this has been discussed in various management groups and committees and is about to be available for wider consultation.

The rest of this blog piece will focus on the changes to the learning and teaching section of that strategy. Smarter Futures asks us on: recruitment and retention: challenging and supporting our students; and finally making sure they can achieve and become employable.

Writing a distinctive strategy is never easy – the aims of all universities to an extent can tend to be the same, as has been reported in a blog article on the Times Higher website this week – where it is suggested that a lack of boldness leads to all strategies looking like a whiter shade of pale.

I know that in writing this, we were urged to make sure we strived for excellence.  At the risk of this becoming a race to mediocrity and an “all shall have prizes” mentality, we’ve tried to highlight the areas we we feel we will be excellent, and those key strategic themes that we need to address.

However, we mustn’t lose sight of what a university is supposed to be – we may be driven by various metrics, both internal and external, but there has to be an underpinning commitment to the ideas of scholarship, for both students and academics, if we are to  attract both groups to be part of our community.

We have to support the notion of higher education as a transformational experience, not just a  transactional marketised service. We should be aware that we are changing lives through what we do, and this should influence the way in which we teach. As Thomas Docherty writes in “For the University, Democracy and the Future of the Insitution“:

Facts are, of course, important in teaching; but, if teaching and learning are to be historical, if they are to be allowed to make a difference to people’s lives in such a way as to give those pupils the autonomy necessary for the assertion of their own authorities, then facts become subservient to experience. It used to be ‘a fact’, for example, that the world was flat; but the experience of circumnavigating the globe changes this ‘fact’, and the experience produces new facts that are themselves, in turn, subject to further modification. If learning is anything, it is a process of transformation and most certainly not of transmission or transfer. It is a process in which I can become something, and in which I can become something other than I am at present. Learning puts me in possession of new facts; and it does this not simply by a process of abstract rationalization, but primarily through historical experience.

Working in an environment where still there are confused manifestations of marketisation and consumer behaviour then we should use our learning and teaching strategy to reinforce the broad goals of HE and scholarship, as well as delivering the right outcomes for external metrics. As Joanna Williams concludes in her book “Consuming Higher Education, Why Learning Can’t be Bought”:

Students and lecturers need to be united in the common goal of developing and interacting with disciplinary knowledge. Too often lecturers and students are presented as being on opposite sides with mutually exclusive interests – lecturers perhaps seeking to protect research time, students to ensure a better service.Learning often depends on the relationships between lecturers and students, and such relationships are prevented from developing if opposition is assumed.

Williams ends with questioning the funding for HE but reiterates the need for “the purpose of education (to be) placed at the heart of the university rather than job training or social inclusion”

As a university committed to success of all of our students, we’ve included sections on employability and inclusion but in the context of offering transformational education.

So here are our six themes, and what we mean by them.  We have tried to identify what we want to do, without reducing ourselves to something less than the ideals of higher education.

1.Developing confident and capable learners

Our learning and teaching has to be able to support all students once they arrive with us, and show them how to become lifelong learners.This is the key which will allow the fullest benefits of higher education to be attained. This is where we tall about students engaging with discipline knowledge as well as wider attributes

2.Providing challenging and supportive learning and teaching

We want to create amazing learning environments – both physical and virtual. Lots of work is already going on to change campus, and we need to keep looking at what others are doing. This week for example I visited the new Diamond building at Sheffield University – an incredible space, open 24/7 for student learning and teaching, including laboratories, workshops, study areas and a lecture theatre. We will be making sure all our new rooms, as aprt of Campus Transformation are designed to allow learning to flourish.

Online we need to transform the way we support learners. We have a  generation of first year undergraduates who  went through secondary school, with BBC iPlayer and a smartphone in their pocket that could access the web no matter where they were. Putting PowerPoint slides (that we read out earlier) into BlackBoard won’t cut it any more. I’ll be writing another short piece this week about how we will be embracing digital in future

3.Raising attainment and achievement.

This has been raised many times before in this blog – we want our students to achieve to their maximum potential. We’ve got lots of work already ongoing this year as part of the Raising Attainment Roadmap, but this remains a key strategic focus. Higher education is meant to be challenging, so we want our students to be challenged and then supported to be able to achieve.

4.Developing Employability

This blog has long argued that higher education is a transformational process, not a simple instrument to lead students into jobs. Nonetheless, improved employabiliity is a key outcome of HE, and it could be argued that many of the other benefits of HE that accrue come about partly through enhanced employment opportunities. As well as all the work already ongoing in employability, the new strategy picks up on three key issues: social and cultural capital; numeracy and data handling, and digital fluency or capability, The first will help students get through the door in the first instance, and the second two will provide enhanced skills in two areas that all graduates need today, based on the demands we see from major employers.

5.Delivering innovative learning and teaching

No L&T strategy would be complete without this – for us this means further development of enquiry and practice based learning, more use of alumni and employers in designing authentic learning tasks and an embedding of all the staff development and sharing opportunities that we have, to make sure we all move forwards.

6. Supporting a diverse population of students

As a modern university, we have a more diverse undergraduate body than many. We also have significant numbers of international students, of part time learners, of mature students. We know that we have one of the highest percentages of WP students in the country. In order to make sure that all of our students are able to attain, we will get better at mining our data to be able to identify trends in differential attainment, and build inclusive practice into all that we do, so that all student groups have an equal chance of success.

As well as these 6 themes, our strategy also talks about what it means to be an academic at Staffordshire University, as well as what it means to be a student.  I hope you’ll read and feedback on the detail once it goes out for consultation.


Politics and the TEF

Prior to the general election, I wrote a blog post reviewing the various parties’ views on HE. Following the conservative majority I wrote another piece which concluded with “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”

Following the various party conferences we now enter a period when we await, with bated breath, the green paper on higher education. For an insight into the Conservative conference, then I recommend “Welcome to the Northern Powerhouse of Cards” by Martin McQuillan of Kingston University

There’s little point in looking at the other parties right now – there is not likely to be an election till 2020, and Labour haven’t identified their position on fees, let alone how they will carry out the role of opposition to the green paper.

The Conservatives are in an interesting situation. Cameron as leader, who has acted as a CEO has already indicated his intention to step down. Hence for everyone else it “eyes on the prize”. As deputy CEO, Osborne has been calling the shots on HE policy, since the Treasury is dictating policy more clearly than any other department. May is setting out her stall, and showing clear opposition to overseas students which will win her no friends in universities. Boris is harrumphing around the margins, and looking more widely Hunt is exerting everyone to work harder.Meanwhile, Javid is happy to drive through large cuts at BIS, and we can expect that many of the organisations that currently work in the HE sector may cease to exist.

It’s into this environment, with his boss supporting 40% cuts to BIS, that Johnson will need to produce  a green paper and ultimately drive legislation through parliament

All of a sudden,this looks threatening to HEFCE. The HEFCE consultation on QA is in tune with government and seems to promote a move to a deregulatory ideology and imply the demise of QAA. More recently though, with questions being asked about whether the remaining amounts of funding could be administered from elsewhere, and the need for a body to run TEF, then HEFCE themselves look more vulnerable.

The Teaching Excellence Framework will clearly be a big part of the green paper. It was a commitment from Osborne (that Treasury driver again) and is detailed in the government’s productivity plan “Fixing the foundations:Creating a more prosperous nation”

Excellence in teaching
4.7 The government will introduce a new Teaching Excellence Framework to sharpen incentives for institutions to provide excellent teaching, as currently exist for research. This will improve the value for money and return on investment for both students and the government, and will contribute to aligning graduate skills and expectations with the needs of employers. The government will consult later this year on how a Teaching Excellence Framework can be developed, including outcome-focussed criteria and metrics. The Teaching Excellence Framework will inform student decision-making, continue to support a high average wage premium for graduates and ensure that students’ hard-won qualifications keep their value over time.
4.8 To support teaching excellence, the government will allow institutions offering high quality teaching to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-18, and will consult on the mechanisms to do this. This will reward excellent institutions with higher fee income, while ensuring students get good value from the tuition loans that the government underwrites.

Johnson now needs to steer this through parliament, at the same time as BIS is facing large cuts, and he needs to produce something that will work, both as a fix in the short term, and as a longer term evaluation of teaching.

To be able to have variable fees from 2017-18 will mean measures in place during the current academic year. Inevitably this will be based on existing measures – NSS, Hesa returns, DLHE initially.

Longer term though, then a new set of measures will come in which will provide challenges to the sector, and to individual institutions. From the Times Higher Johnson has made it clear how he would like the metrics to be set up:

Widening participation and access will be intimately linked to the TEF. One of the core metrics we envisage using in the TEF will be the progress and the value add [for] students from disadvantaged backgrounds, measuring it for example in terms of their retention and completion rates. And their [universities’] success in moving students on to either further study or graduate work.

On having an impact on further marketisation, then Johnson says:

the system should “not only have the capacity for more rapid market entry, but we [should] have the capacity for more rapid market share shifts between universities than we have hitherto seen in the sector”.

and  that

he wanted a system where “market share can shift towards where teaching quality really resides. Our teaching excellence framework will be an important signal to students of where quality resides, discipline by discipline, institution by institution.”

He’s asking an awful lot from a set of metrics that are not yet defined, and that will have numerous questions raised by many in the sector.

In the meantime, what can individuals and institutions do?

Firstly there is the opportunity to respond to the government’s inquiry into assessing the quality of HE, which asks specific questions such as:

  • .What should be the objectives of a Teaching Excellence Framework (‘TEF’)?
  • What are the institutional behaviours a TEF should drive? How can a system be designed to avoid unintended consequences?
  • What should be the relationship between the TEF and fee level?

Secondly we can  start looking at the various measures of value added or learning gain for different groups of students. HEFCE are already supporting a range of projects involving over 70 institutions to look at learning gain.

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

Finally, recognising that TEF will be used to drive rapid shifts in market share (a euphemism?) then we will all need to get very good, not only at supporting the widest range of students, but also at understanding how the metrics apply to us, and how we can build internal systems to replicate them.




The Midnight Bike Ride

Once again a small number of hardy souls from the University will be taking part in the annual British Heart Foundation Midnight Bike Ride from Manchester to Blackpool, over the night of 26th-27th September.

If you’d like to join us, there is still time to book into the event via the BHF website – it’s not a race, so endurance is more important than speed, just let me know if you’re coming along and we can meet up at the beginning. And maybe the end.

Even better, it would be great if you could sponsor one of us – here is the link to my JustGiving page

Bike Ride_1018789795


I promise not to flood this blog next week with pictures of me or other senior colleagues dressed in lycra……

Differences in Degree Outcomes

New from HEFCE this week, a report on “Differences in Degree Outcomes:the Effect of Subject and Student Characteristics“, which looks at the outcomes of students who graduated in 2013-14. Some of this data I have previously reported when looking at HESA data on the impact of ethnicity on degree outcomes for the previous year.

The results of the HEFCE survey are not startling – they almost reinforce things that we already know in terms of what factors have an impact on achievement: the challenge now is to learn how to address each of these, and with the recent comments by the new universities minister on widening participation, and our own commitment to supporting a diverse population of students then awareness of these trends and how we then tackle them will be crucial for success of individuals and of the institution.

HEFCE considered the following variables when looking at the differences in outcomes:

  • age
  • disability status
  • ethnicity
  • The Participation of Local Areas measure (important for high WP populations)
  • sex
  • subject of study
  • prior attainment (in terms of qualifications held on entry to higher education)
  • previous school type
  • institution attended

The interesting part of the analysis is not the differences in outcomes that can be seen, but how much these differences can or cannot be explained by the influence of other factors.


Certain subjects are more likely to award 1sts/2(i)s, and the table below represents those subject we offer at Staffordshire – it will be interesting to compare our recent results with those for the sector by subject.

Subject % first or upper second % first
Subjects allied to medicine 69% 24%
Biological sciences 70% 18%
Physical sciences 73% 25%
Mathematical sciences 73% 35%
Computer science 66% 28%
Engineering and technology 74% 30%
Social studies 73% 16%
Law 69% 12%
Business and administrative studies 71% 21%
Mass communication and documentation 75% 15%
Historical and philosophical studies 82% 19%
Creative arts and design 72% 21%
Education 68% 18%
Combined 60% 16%

I always thought it was apocryphal that law didn’t award firsts – across the sector it would appear to be true!

Entry Tariff

On entry tariff, there is a clear relationship – higher entry leads to higher numbers of good degrees, which can also be seen when looking at league table data. This is one of the reasons that the Guardian league table uses a “value added” measure which seeks to adjust for entry tariff..



Mode of Study

In general, part time students have worse outcomes compared with full time. Even adjusting for variations on entry tariff, part time students have worse outcomes than full time.


The raw data shows that young students are 11 percentage points more likely to gain a good degree compared with mature entrants.


Across all entry tariffs, women are more likely to gain good degrees than men.


Graduates with a disability are slightly less likely to gain a good degree than those without a declared disability.


This is the area with the biggest gap. 76% of white students gain a good degree, compared to 60% of black and minority ethnic students.

Even allowing for other factors, the unexplained gap is still equivalent to 15%.

Previous School

In most cases students from state schools outperform those from independent schools.

Neighbourhood HE Participation

Students coming from neighbourhoods with the highest rates of HE participation also gain the highest numbers of good degrees.


The recent speech by Jo Johnson referred to the importance of universities in driving social mobility and the sector’s work in widening participation.

This data provides further information that could be used to justify the costs of supporting WP in universities, and for focusing on trying to close gaps in attainment.

Much focus is given to looking at the data provided by UCAS but to understand how well the sector and individual universities are performing in terms of closing these gaps, then much fuller datasets need to be considered, taking into account retention and progression and ultimately employment – even if all our students gain the degrees they deserve, but still fail to progress into appropriate graduate roles, then social mobility isn’t realisable for everyone.

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?