20 ways to improve your university ranking

This week, THE reproduced an article from 3 years ago on how to improve university rankings. The article is mainly aimed at research universities who want to go up in the various world rankings, but since I do quite a bit of work on our analysis of and approach to interpretation of UK league tables, I thought it would be interesting to have look at the various suggestions.

Many of them are around leadership and management, and maybe don’t apply in exactly the same way in a teaching-led institution. However, the way in which we choose to run a university will have an implication on the insitution’s outputs, as we need to create environments that allow staff and students to thrive.

1. To change a university, you need to change people’s incentives

2. To attract the best faculty, you need the best leaders

3. Control quality through hiring panels

4. Hire the best

5. Know the talent list and congratulate people

6. No pain, no gain

7. Too much change, no gain

8. Pay a top salary if you want the right department head

9. Incentivise raising research money

10. Cut the red tape and reduce the number of committees

11. As a leader, be accessible

12. Clarify the relationship between administrative and academic staff

13. Start to train scholars in management when they are young

14. Pick your board or council members because – and only because – they are good for the university, and then educate them

15. Tell Government ‘No!’

16. Give staff food for their tummies as well as thought

17. Hire a scholar as leader

18. Make sure the leader stays at least five years – and preferably more

19. Give the leader plenty of power (or don’t bother hiring one)

20. Let the leader pick his or her own top team


It’s interesting to read the detail behind each of these headlines, and see how many we could tick. I’ve done it, and I’m not going to write my answer here.

However I am very mindful of 6 and 7. If we carry on as we have before we will not see an improvement in our performance and the reflected outcome in league tables. So some changes are needed, but the challenge is it make sure that we focus on the right changes, and don’t drown in a sea of initiatives. We need to communicate change in a way that everyone knows what the rationale is, that everything is being driven to improve individual attainment and institutional success.

Considering factor 16 though, I can confidently say that the coffee and muffin selections have improved massively over the years.

A long discussion about change at a recent Heads of School/Associate Deans meeting focused on how sticky or carroty we needed to be….



New research on student perceptions of higher education

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has commisioned research from Kings College London, which sheds new light on what students perceive as value for money, and what is important to them.

The research was  led by Dr Camille B Kandiko. She says: ‘This report highlights how important a quality higher education experience is for students and, with the rise in tuition fees, students want “value for money”.

‘This was seen through sufficient contact hours, resources available and institutions’ investment in teaching and learning spaces. Students want to be taught by knowledgeable, well qualified, trained teaching staff in small settings, which they find helps them learn best and develop skills for future employment.’

The findings of this project aimed to provide:

  • A better understanding of student perceptions of quality and standards, leading to the possibility of more effective relationships within and across institutions
  • Sector, academic and student groups that are better equipped to understand student engagement and thus facilitate enhancement
  • Examine the impact of recent policy developments on students’ perceptions of quality
  • A more developed understanding of how perceptions vary across student groups, institutional types and regional settings

Certainly when reported in the press, the focus was on the perception of value for money and contact hours in particular, but it’s worth looking at the full list of recommendations, and considering these as a form of checklist to see where we are performing well, and also where more development might be needed.

Reading through the 38 (!) recommendations, there are certainly some lessons for the sector as a whole and also for individual institutions to consider.

The very first is around the student finance and states:

“Institutions and the sector need to explain the relationship between fees and the quality and value of their degree. There is also a need for financial education and information for students on how universities are funded and where their money goes, as there is still a lack of understanding around the case for funding universities in a new way.”

We’ve all heard students asking what they are getting for their £9000, and it’s clear to me that the change n funding has been very badly communicated, by all parties, including  UUK and and the mission groups – student and their parents, in most cases, do not realise that university income has not changed overall.

Employability is an area that picks up a number of recommendations:

Students want more support for their employability, focusing on processes, guidance support available and development opportunities, including internships, placements and work experience. There is a need for more information on employability, with a focus on ‘process’ and development opportunities, rather than ‘product’ statistics.

Institutions need to offer more course?level information and better organisation of their offering of internships, placements, work experience and skills support, all tailored to specific subjects, with support available from those with experience in those industries and fields.

Because most students want to go into specific graduate fields, generic graduate employment statistics or wage statistics are largely irrelevant.

The last one of these is interesting since KIS and DLHE type information and the data that appears in league tables tends to be aggregated Maybe this is an opportunity for some specific case studies to be used to demonstrate where students go to after graduation?

Feedback inevitably is mentioned, with a recommendations about ensuring that the feedback loop is closed and that this should be done at  a local level as much as possible.

There are recommendations about quality enhancement through development, support and recognition of staff engaged in teaching:

There should be support for staff development and training (both initial and continuing support), public information about teaching qualifications, along the lines of the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) and institutional reward for teaching and recognition of teaching excellence.

Staff should be supported, trained and developed to enhance teaching and learning; good teaching staff should be retained as a priority.

Staff need to be supported by their institutions to provide the interaction, support and guidance that is important to students. This includes manageable teaching loads, a balance between teaching and research responsibilities and meaningful reward, recognition and progression opportunities related to teaching and support activities.

It’s pleasing at Staffordshire we have developed our portfolio route to HEA fellowship in line with the UKPSF. However, there is a question still about the level of recognition and progression is available to staff who focus on teaching activities.

There are recommendations about localism of student representation, and series of recommendations of how Students’ Unions could work to provide greater opportunities for interactions between groups of students.

The transition to HE is highlighted as an issue to be considered:

Students need more support for the transition from school or college and into higher education, particularly in terms of how to study, the level of support provided by the institution and the expectations for students. Improvements in transition needs to be balanced between higher education institutions and Schools, as higher education institutions alone cannot respond to ‘consumer choice’ when consumers are trained in a certain environment with subsequent expectations. Students suggested videos and websites that could help prepare them for the academic expectations of higher education

Students need sufficient transitional support, and the recognition that students’ transitional experiences differ widely (and wildly upon occasion); additional support can include materials and information sent before students enrol, extended Freshers’ Weeks, such as ‘The First 100 Days’, and Re?freshers’ Weeks for second year students.

For us, I think there is more work we can do on understanding the nature of incoming cohorts and their previous educational background and preferred ways of  studying. Many of us took traditional A-levels, studied at the more traditional universities, and maybe we assume our students are the same as we once were. If they have been to college and gained a BTEC, then they are a very different type of learner, but if our teaching is designed to suit the high flying A-level entrant then we are creating a difficult transition for many of our students.

Finally, students also commented that  “their educational experience was ‘not like American films’  and so there is a potential opportunity for British filmmakers in this area.” Clearly Brideshead is not a suitable reflection for most universities, and this comment from students confirms my feeling of the need for a new campus novel – where is the next David Lodge?







Staffordshire University International Partnerships Conference

This week we hosted our first ever international partnerships conference, with delegates from all over the world, from our overseas partners.

The aim was to build relationships between our partners, and to discuss issues affecting transnational education, particularly quality assurance and enhancement. It was personally a great opportunity to meet up with colleagues and old friends I have worked with over the years, frequently through reviews, valdations and exam boards.

My keynote was around improving student outcomes and engagement, and I placed considerable emphasis on league tables, how they are constructed, and how we perform in them. League table position is a concern to us as well as to international partners, but hopefully I managed to shed some light on how they work, what we are doing to address the results, and where we actually do OK.

My slides can be seen on Slideshare, and meanwhile, here are some of the Twitter questions that came up during the talk.






Graduates in the UK labour market 2013

A new report this week from the Office of National Statistics suggests that when focusing on recent graduates who were employed, the percentage of them who were working in a non graduate role has risen from 37% in April to June 2001 to 47% in April to June 2013. Although this time series is variable, an upward trend is evident, particularly since the 2008/09 recession. This may reflect lower demand for graduate skills as well as an increased supply of graduates.

At the same time however, the report does highlight that graduates are more likely to be employed, less likely to be searching for work or less likely to be inactive.



As you would expect the headline about the number of gradates in non graduate jobs has led to the inevitable questioning of the value of a degree. It’s worth noting that “graduate” in the definition used by ONS is anyone with tertiary education. And for more on this story, you can listen to me talking about in to Perry Spiller on 20-11-13 on Radio Stoke (about 15 minutes into the programme on iPlayer, available until 26-11-13)

For our university, it is reminder to me of two things: firstly the imperative of pushing student attainment, so that more students are ale to graduate with good degrees, and be competitive in the jobs market, and secondly to ensure we continue our focus on the Staffordshire Graduate, to ensure that our graduates leave here work ready and employable.

The Funding Challenge for Universities

FundingChallengeForUniversitiesA new publication by Universities UK entitled”The Funding Challenge for Universities” came out last week, with the following chapters and key points.

Chapter 1 The Economic Challenge

Under economic challenge the report reviews the evidence that graduates earn more than those without a degree, and concludes that this is still the case. Although there is evidence that some graduates enter non graduate jobs initially, they rapidly move upwards through organisations to positions where a degree becomes necessary.

The report concludes that even with the growth in the number of graduates, the continuing differential in pay indicates that there is not an over supply of graduates and that with evidence of a future need for more graduate level skills, that there may be scope for the number of graduates to grow further, to support economic growth.

Chapter 2 The Funding Challenge for Universities in England

This chapter reports that between 2005-06 and 2011-12, income to universities rose by 44%, while expenditure rose by 39%. The income has changed from being dominated by HEFCE teaching grant, to being mainly from tuition fees.

At the same time, there has been an increasing reliance on organisations to fund infrastructure improvements from their own reserves, which suggest that should student number controls be lifted , resulting in any increase in enrolments, universities may not be able to fund the capital infrastructure needed to support the student experience.

Reviewing the difference between the number  applicants to university, and the number who accept places, suggests there is still unmet demand which could also support a growth in the number of enrolments.

Chapter 3 The Funding Challenge for the Government

Clearly any increase in the number of students enrolling would lead to an increase in the cost of student loans and an increase in public sector borrowing.

A number of ways to mediate against this are proposed, for instance increasing interest rates, increasing time for repayment, reducing the repayment threshold. The other changes are more macro – reducing other elements of spend by BIS, reducing spend by other government departments, or increasing government income.

Private funding is mentioned at this point.

Chapter 4 Funding Challenge Faced by Other Countries

This chapter looks at funding mechanism in other countries, where growth in tertiary education is happening at the same time as constraint on public resources.

The US, Korea and Hungary are considered in detail.

Chapter 5 Conclusions

The report concludes that there is a need to continue to increase the number of graduates, while recognising that funding challenges exist if quality and competitiveness are to be maintained. Three main factors are identified: increased government funding; reduction in RAB charges; need to acres funding for capital expenditure now to accommodate student numbers in the future.

The amount of private funding in other systems is highlighted, and the report goes on to state that UUK will now be looking at alternative student finance models for England, with the following principles:

  • student number control – that institutions should have autonomy over admissions and selection and thsi shoudl not be dictated to by the funding process
  • no student to be disadvantaged by background
  • public-private finance models – recognition that public funding should be part of the system but should be focused on providing support where the market cannot sustain investor return requirements, eg if the student or course presents an increased level of repayment risk to investors
  • alternative forms of funding – should not constrain other forms of funding or prevent insttutions developing independent models to fund their students
  • system to cover all institutions
  • tuition fees – flexibility to be retained to vary key aspects, eg level of level of fee cap, earning threshold before repayments

 My Comments

A no doubt welcome and realistic paper which is looking at the reality of how we will fund HE in the future, particularly since there is  a recognition of the need to increase further the number gaining degree level qualifications. The report certainly starts to provide some ideas to what Steve Smith described as an avalanche (from an earlier blog post)

“an avalanche really is coming in terms of the costs of student support.

I cannot see that system surviving, and expect any incoming government in 2015 to look again at the student finance system and to try to reduce its costs. Think for a moment about how it might do that, and how that might influence student demand for different types of institutions. To mention just one controversial way to reduce costs, what would be the effect of re-examining the Browne review’s notion of requiring minimum qualifications before students gain access to the loan system?”

There must be some worries here though too though. The paper suggests that extra funding could come from a realignment of BIS or other budgets, or increased government revenue. In the current climate of austerity, that seems unlikely, and the focus is more likely to be around how the student finance system will be able to operate in future.

There is acknowledgement that the fee cap should be able to rise (it cannot stay where it is anyway, as inflation will reduce the real income to universities over time). the question will be whether a raised fee cap would see all institutions again charging the maximum or close to it, or a real market in fees.

The suggestion of allowing different forms of finance is interesting – eg parental support or increased private investment. This does worry me though, particularly in terms of being able to ensure that social mobility of those who do not have access to such funding is not affected.

The suggestion that public funds should be used to provide support for those students and courses where investors may not see a return is equally worrying – will students, particularly those from lower income or risk  and debt averse households be more likely then to be channeled in to the subjects where there is a clearer economic reward, rather than the education that they want.

An area not covered is how we might actually deliver undergraduate education. The implication in the reports is that any growth in numbers needs to be matched with a growth in capital investment and infrastructure. Although this is desirable, there are other things that could be considered. For instance, how can universities use their estate more efficiently? Can fast track degrees allow growth in graduate numbers with a reduced capital requirement? Can clever use of technology reduce the reliance on the physical campus?

I look forward to the next publication in the series.





Did you know?


“Shift Happens” or “Did you know” is a PowerPoint presentation that first surfaced in 2006 in a US high school. It soon went viral, and various other versions created. I came across it when visiting open evenings at secondary schools.

A 2013 version is available on Vimeo, and well worth 6 minutes of anyone’s time, if nothing else to reflect on why do we teach what we do, how do we address globalisation and what will we do with rapidly changing technology.

I will be shamelessly using a couple of the ideas in my presentation next week at our Partnerships Conference at Staffordshire University.

Blackboard Education Leadership Forum 2013

Strategies to improve student recruitment engagement and retention

This one day event was an opportunity for both Blackboard and users of its software to showcase their ideas and experiences. These notes summarise what I took away from the day, the full set of slides will be sent to participants later, and I will share with colleagues as necessary.

Some of the most interesting comments were from Rick van Sant at the end of this piece  – for example how to drive technology adoption in an institution and the impact of requiring all marks to be in grade book.

The other idea I particularly like is the use of students to provide technical support, at least to other students, if not to staff.

MOOCs inevitably make an appearance, but the hype seems to have gone, and people are trying to identify the reasons for doing them.

 Jay Bhatt, (CEO, Blackboard)

Jay suggested we are approaching a perfect storm in education and need to ask the questions:

What is the value proposition?

Is the education interaction available the right one?

He felt that BB has opportunity to influence perfect storm.

Compared to other markets, there appears to be a lateness in globalisation of education, but this is now happening in areas of population growth

He cited the lack of universities and HE places in China, suggesting that they will turn to western brands and online education.

Considering the US, where 76 % of high school students have a mobile device, why do educators still use textbooks?

Looking ahead to Education 2020, we need to understand where education is going. This will involve:

  • Truly global – By 2020 40% of all college grads will come from  India and China
  •  Non-traditional learners – In US 85% of learners are non-traditional
  •  Consumer preferences – current course constructs are antiquated
  • Learner centric education
  •  Big data in mainstream – even BB isn’t doing enough on this   Data should support retention. How can we use analytics to support this?
  •  Online mobile everywhere – online enrolments has grown 10x growth rate of traditional enrolments

Jay recognised that BB has to improve- products not well integrated with each other. They could be better at innovation and needed to be a better citizen to the education industry

The BB plan for the future is : Accelerate, integrate, innovate

On MOOCs, he suggested that the key thing is that they bring attention to online large scale education .

On Citizenship- BB need to be contributing back to industry and used  BB Connect and push technology for reporting bullying through use of a  mobile device. BB have decided not to monetise this, and pushed it out free to US school districts

Blackboard Labs will deliver some innovations into public area for beta testing, for example the development of an online polls system, instead of voting clickers

 Sue Rigby, University of Edinburgh

This presentation was on how Edinburgh we using BB for recruiting and positioning. As a research focused institution, they want to recruit international elite who can afford the fees and by 2020 want 15000 postgraduates with  50% of these off campus.

They intend to achieve this via online delivery and aggressive marketing with an increased digital presence for marketing .

They intend to place courses and programmes online, in particular part time vocational masters, with  10 new awards per year.

They don’t  think MOOCs will transform education for Edinburgh, despite the fact they have run them through Coursera. They are now exploring if MOOC can be shared with U21 network. However a large number of students were exposed to Edinburgh through MOOCs and this was cheaper than any other form of marketing.

Edinburgh also ran an online open day which attracted 400 unique visitors from 60 countries. This included the use of academics in chat rooms. This meant huge training requirements and although moderately effective was not sustainable.

Edinburgh now use static video to showcase masters awards.

There were incidental benefits though- more digital awareness, more trained academics, , more focus on marketing as a valid activity, more preparedness to try new things

It was noted that lots of academics are neither digital natives nor even digital converts, and still rely on papers and books.

Esther Jubb , University of Derby Online

Now running 23 online programmes with 65% of students from UK. In 2009 there were 1100 students with £1m turnover – that is now 2400 students and £4.4m turnover. In the University, part time students contribute is 44% of income and 29% of student numbers.

The key message was –  It’s hard!!!!

The Derby online model is to use a dedicated separate business unit.

The biggest difference is in how academic staff are used. Discipline leads exist in the unit who line manage associate lecturers who are remote from the university. Derby Online Recruit online specialists to deliver the programmes, thus ensuring that everyone is dedicated to being an online tutor. There has been no problem recruiting Specialist online tutors. May even  be working for other unis! Offer them support and a community of practice

Student recruitment is carried out using a virtual open day using BB collaborate, and is focused on individual programmes and the support services available. There is a 40 to 50% conversion rate at open days!

To support engagement and retention, Online learning advisors, like a client manager, will proactively check students, eg if not engaging with learning materials.

It was noted that students want learning experience to be consistent. Lecturers have to use a common template. There are also content development standards – since learning content is commissioned not just from Derby staff.  Derby Online se “universal design for learning” so don’t need to make further reasonable adjustments.

The following success factors were cited- executive support, evolution after10 years, clear focus on online only, the existence of the perfect storm where technology is here and people are comfortable with it, tough economic climate

There were some issues though – Derby Online don’t use the existing TEL team as they are funded by faculties. There was also an issue of access to library budgets.


Peggy Brown Syracuse University

Peggy talked about the impact of MOOCs on recruitment and retention. At Syracuse, all staff are already required to teach online as they are a  well-known and established online provider. However it is different teaching in MOOCs, compared  to credit bearing course.

She cited the need to recognise institutional motivation behind running a MOOC eg for professional development, to provide a certificate of completion or even earn a scholarship

Syracuse therefore used their MOOC as a marketing tool – successful completion meant that studnets had fees waived for part of the course they subsequently enrolled in.

 Angie Clonan and Luke Miller, University of Sheffield

Angie and Luke presented on an internally funded development to develop MOOCs when there was institutional indecision about MOOCs.

They used BB coursesites as the staff were already familiar with the software, which was open and robust

The stats were:

  • 1394 join requests
  • 1048 registered
  • 603 started
  • 136 continued to end and 73 certificates issued.

Not everyone was interested in getting a certificate. Participants were from 61 countries. From evaluation, the reasons for non-completion were time commitment and technical. Incentives to complete would have been more valuable accreditation, access to instructor, reduced time commitment

It was difficult to evaluate or to provide cost benefit analysis howver the cost was about £70k for all 3 MOOCs.


Wendy Kilfoil,  University of Pretoria

Wendy spoke about the use of Learning Analytics in a country with 15% HE participation rate. Overall the country has 27% dropout in first year and only 25% complete in 3 years, while at Uni of Pretoria the figures are much better, with  8.1% dropout and 39% completing in 3 years.

Now using analytics for BB Learn. Integrated BB and Oracle Peoplesoft  and,then get lecturers to commit to putting formative marks on BB.

The system enables students to reflect on their progress and allows faculty staff to feedback on course design. The university provides dashboards for a range of different users, eg student, lecturers, award leaders, deans, exec


Rick van Sant, (Blackboard)

The final talk of the day was about improving experience through technology adoption

We are probably in late majority in developed world, and early adopters in developing world , so the lifecycle position depends on which market you are in.

There may be a chasm in lifecycle caused by  MOOCs, regulations etc and other disruptions .

Considering a capability maturity curve, Rick felt that 80% of universities were still in phase 1 , or exploratory phase.  Hardly any were in the phase where elearning had become mission critical. This suggested that institutions needed to know where they are, to be able to identify where to go next .

Rick suggested the need for an elearning adoption ecosystem, which cannot be based on a single technology or product. The ecosystem is about building the digital culture. As part of this, Blackboard should be owned by the teaching and learning community and not the IT department

For a successful ecosystem to develop, the following were proposed:


  • Dedicated eLearning coordinator or distributed champions
  • Use students for blackboard support!! Even Faculty staff will learn about tech from students
  • Senior academic leadership to drive vision
  • Policy development to facilitate eLearning eg hiring policy, appraisal
  • Level of person and course usage – analytics
  • Clear differentiation between passive and active engagement – is it just a repository for information Digital business processes complementing digital learning- need to create a digital culture, re social media, wifi, mobile etc.
  • What is the university strategy to 21st century education and digital culture.
  • All of these need to be connected.

Rick also talked about the barriers to adoption by faculty staff:

  • Fear of the unknown- knowing fear is there means we can understand why there’s problem
  •  If it ain’t broke – can we answer why they need to do something different
  • We’re all alone  in this together – divide and rule, ego surrounding what we are as academics
  • Know thyself – don’t know ourselves as teachers, why would you know about science of t&l?


He suggested that there are four types of faculty-

  • Entrepreneurs
  • Risk averse
  • Reward seekers
  • Reluctant

which can be plotted as a 2 x 2 matrix of motivation on x axis and skill on y axis.


The most important factor to success in technology adoption is ease of use, which is why they have been making BB easier to use.

Suggested there should be Faculty wide demos,  Lots and lots of training, creation of champions and mentors,  help centres located where staff are located, newsletters (no more than 1 page)with tips for beginners and pros.

He concluded by saying we need to be creating a new norm driven by top down institutional value change and bottom up student demand. This can be supported by management policies to support digital usage and providing the right technology. Finally he suggested that requiring faculty to enter all grades in grade book would lead to staff getting over the fear of using the system. This could lead to rapid expansion of use of other features by staff, plus students respond to grade book if there is rapid and constant feedback!

Going to University is Good for You!

A new publication from BIS, “The Benefits of Higher Education Participation for Individuals and Society: key findings and reports “The Quadrants”” is reported on in the Higher which shows that  that “People who attend university are less likely to commit crime, drink heavily or smoke, according to a new database of evidence on the social benefits of higher education and are are also more likely to vote, volunteer, have higher levels of tolerance and educate their children better than non-graduates”.

The different benefits are divided into those which help the individual, the market and society, as well as those benefits classified as non-market, with many benefits fulfilling several such functions.

T he report is based on plenty of existing social science research, but provides a useful starting point for those who want a reference to the wider benefits of HE. There are ideas in here that we can be using as part of our marketing, and in particular when explaining the rationale for a university like ours and the diverse programmes that we offer.

It also lays bare the joke I use in one of my lectures – if HE participation  makes you less likely to be obese, less likely to smoke, drink or be divorced, I am clearly a statistical outlier.

The quadrants are reproduced below from the BIS document: