End of the year blog

I’ve been writing this blog for a whole year now, and so in the traditions of every newspaper or other media outlet,  I should provide a review of the year.

Having said that, there are plenty of these already available, that I’d point readers to:

Firstly the Guardian weighs in with “The U-turn universities wanted – over overseas students – never came“.

For those interested in technology supported or enhanced learning, I have to recommend  Audrey Watters over on Hack Education. She’s provided  a series of articles on the top ed-tech trends of 2013.

And finally Martin Weller of the Open University provides us with The Year of No S**t Sherlock.

Reviewing my own blog for the year – here are the highlights:


I started my rant against MOOCs, highlighting some of the hyperbole that was starting to fly around. I also started to highlight issues around BME attainment and more broadly around degree classification rates in the sector.


The blog this month was very quiet – I was away from the university, and produced a couple of short pieces. MOOCs were still there though, with suggestions that only 10 universities would exist in the future!


This month I took the plunge,and actually enrolled in some MOOCs – I figured I’d be able to comment better from experience. Coursera now own a lot of data about me, and in return I’ve received a couple of PDF certificates (and some interesting ideas). the VC of Salford took one of the same courses as me and also blogged about it.

In the same month we saw the apocalyptic vision “An Avalanche is Coming“, produced by the IPPR and written by Pearsons (who got  a bit of bad press later in the year as so much of the BIS budget was used up in supporting HNC and HND students at private providers). This report described the end of the world as we knew it. I was dismissive, and was much of the blogosphere.


In April I carried on studying a MOOC, and wrote about the New Media Consortium report on trends in technology in HE. We also had reports of another avalanche, this time a more serious and credible one, when Steve Smith talked about finance as being the big problem for HE. We also started to see the results of the first league tables of the year, with the THE Student Experience Survey and the Complete University Guide. The latter one prompted me to start producing detailed information on the university’s performance to a wide range of stakeholders.


May was a month ion which I completed a MOOC on Surviving Disruptive Technologies, with an essay on how a low ranking UK university can respond to the disruptive influences in technology, markets and finance. I provided plenty of detail of meetings I attended, on MOOCs with Universities UK, and more importantly on BME performance, where I gained some great ideas from the University of Hertfordshire. This year’s Learning and Teaching Conference at Staffordshire (July 1st, 2014 – save the date) will pick up these ideas and use one of the same speakers.


June and we were back to league tables, with the results now in from the Guardian (a slight improvement) and the People and Planet Green League Table( a good result). I started to write about how we could improve our league table position, and this translated into workshops and talks that I delivered around some (but interestingly not all) of the faculties of the university. Also in June we saw the annual survey of opinions of HE leaders, who thought that the sector was going to change in size and shape, with mergers and closures as part of the change. This is similar to previous survey results – which seem to say,” yes there’ll be closures, but it’ll be someone else.”


This was  a quiet month – I must have been on holiday, but managed to get a piece about zombies into the blog.


This month we learned that HEFCE were going to reallocate SNC numbers from universities that under recruited to those that did well, from 2014. Clearly at this time HEFCE had no idea of what the Chancellor would say in December. This month I also started to get more interested in the ideas of Bourdieu and how we could develop social or cultural capital of students. I built this into a HEFCE project bid, but sadly didn’t get the funding.


And the final big league table of the year was produced, this time it was the Times/Sunday Times. Again I blogged about this, and provided plenty of analysis and information internally.


This month there weren’t may posts, but some crucial ones on how we might improve as an institution and on evaluation of teaching. By this point in the year, I’ve pretty much laid out my stall of what I think is important, and how we need to develop certain things further.


This month I took on responsibility for e-learning, and promptly had a day out with Blackboard, hearing what other universities are doing, and what the future of that software might hold for us. Also this month, UUK published its report on the funding challenge for universities, which started to suggest multiple sources of loans for students. Clearly finance is going to be the biggest challenge to universities (have you realised MOOCs don;t get much of a mention as we go through the months?)


You’d hope that this would be a quiet month, but once again university finance, and the marketisation of HE became dominant themes. First and excellent essay by Stefan Collini (which I to seem to refer to in all of my faculty talks) and then the bombshell of the Autumn Statement, announcing the complete removal of student number controls. HEFCE have yet to provide detailed information on the change to number controls, but on one hand it’s pleasing to see the recognition that HE has a positive impact on the economy and on society. On the other, there does seem to be a gaping hole in the finance, and a degree of scepticism that selling off the loan book is a good idea.

And finally

So in the 50th year since the publication of the Robbins report, HE seems to be changing more quickly than ever. The disruption forecast at the beginning of the year, which was going to be all about technology, doesn’t seem to have arrived in the quite the way some had predicted. The disruption to come in terms of increased marketisation and changes to funding will be significant, and much more likely to have serious impact in the near future.

Next year I’ll be continuing to push student attainment as a key part of my agenda, analysing league tables, providing data models of award and module performance and really pushing hard on the work with BME students. I’ll also be making sure we use technology enhanced learning as best we can. Hopefully I’ll have time to keep blogging.

Happy Christmas.










Scrapping Student Number Controls

In last week’s Autumn Statement, the Chancellor of he Exchequer made a surprise announcement, that student number controls would be scrapped in 2015-16. While he was still answering questions in the House, I wrote a short blog piece on why this might not be completely good news.

Let me make absolutely clear – opinions expressed in this article (and in the previous one) are personal, and in no way reflect the opinions or decisions of Staffordshire University.

Since I wrote that piece, plenty of other commentators have provided their views, across Twitter, blogs and other more established news outlets. I’ve also received comments via Twitter and even phone calls (how retro) to talk about exactly how serious this is.

Since writing my piece, all of the various mission groups have come out with their reactions, and this is reported in the THE. HEFCE welcomes the change, especially the commitment to STEM subjects; OFFA say it is “excellent news for fair access”; UUK welcomed the news, but cautions of the need for more details about long term sustainability; the Russell Group argue that quality should be prioritised over quantity; Million+ welcome the commitment to mass higher education; University Alliance said that the increase in graduates will enable the UK to meet for skilled graduates, and QAA said this presents an unprecedented opportunity for universities and colleges.

David Willetts writing in “Robbins Revisited” states “analysis suggested that the number of additional qualified applicants who could enter higher education by 2035 will be 460,000 (an increase of about 100,000 on the current level of entrants).”

There is a clear commitment to increasing the number of students in higher education, as it is recognised that there are signification benefits to the economy by having a more educated workforce. In addition, there are a large number of non-market benefits that obtain from higher education, which have an indirect effect on government spending on crime and health for instance.

So with all of that general feeling that this is a good thing (apart from the inevitable Russell Group opinion), why am I, and others still concerned?

As I wrote before, opening up the market, and removing the current controls might remove a degree of protectionism. If numbers going to university are going  to rise (and figures of 60,000 extra students are mooted initially), where will they go? Oxbridge and Russell Group universities will not be increasing their intake massively. To deliver the education that they do, requires fantastic staff student ratios that are supported by high levels of research income, and research to inform their teaching. There is a limited amount of research funding out there to bid for, and equally, there might be a limited number of staff who are capable of generation it. This group are unlikely to take up significant extra numbers

The universities in the middle of the league tables may be best placed If they have used the recent years of easy loans and cheap finance to reinvest in their campuses and facilities, and their overall market offer, They will have risen up the league tables (see Coventry a an example) and they will be desirable enough to be able to expand and take on more undergraduate students. Their greater focus on student experience could mean an attractive offer for full time undergraduate students, and so they will be able to recruit students who might otherwise have gone to the universities lower down the league tables.

And so we come to them. Fishing at the bottom of the pond, and recruiting student with low UCAS tarrifs might be  a risky place to be. Potential students will be able to trade up to the group described above. Equally, there will be a greater challenge from HE in FE provision and from private providers, both of whom can undercut on price, and for whom restrictions will also cease.

Writing in the Financial Times on 5th December 2013, Emran Mian (of the Social Market Foundation) suggests that the “flipside of changes is they will increase pressure on poor-performing universities”.

” Removing the cap on the system overall should mean that any individual university, including new entrants, can recruit without a cap on their growth as well. At the moment, numbers are controlled both at the level of the system as a whole and at each institution. If both caps are removed in 2015-16 this will mean that universities can choose to “go for growth”, providing innovation in their course offerings, improving the student experience or potentially dropping their fees to win students from their competitors.

The flipside of these changes is they are likely to increase very significantly the pressure on poor-performing universities. In a system where supply is constrained and demand exceeds supply by a comfortable margin, everyone can fill their classrooms. Lift the caps and then quality and price start to matter much more.”

And from the Social Market Foundation website:

“Expanding student places makes a lot of economic sense. A third of the increase in labour productivity between 1994 and 2005 was due to higher numbers of graduates in the workforce. By allowing universities to increase recruitment, the Chancellor is encouraging strong, middle-rank universities and new entrants to expand and put pressure on the universities at the bottom. This should mean those universities have to innovate more and offer lower fees.”

So where does this leave us?

Firstly, we need to see the detail from HEFCE on how next years extra places will be allocated in the last year of SNC, but then this university and others will need to have some hard conversations about what we really need to do now, as we could clearly be one of the universities under pressure (remember, this article is based on personal opinions).

Here’s what I would suggest doing immediately:

  • Work as hard as possible to make sure that the university is NOT at the bottom of the league tables, so that we can become a destination university.
  • Make sure that improving student attainment, satisfaction and employability is central to everything that we do.
  • Review our current recruitment planning process – for one year it won’t be worth looking at targets for ABB students an others, and centrally developed targets across faculties. Once the cap is removed there will be no need to allocate numbers to faculties, provided they are able to resource activity. Use the time to develop a recruitment strategy for 2015-16
  • Use management information on portfolio performance more rigorously – if an award produces only 29% of students with good degrees, it damages our league table performance – do we want large numbers of students in that area, or do we need to improve their experience and outcomes?
  • Quality and price are going to matter, we won’t want to reduce price, so how do we drive up quality -we need to make a significant step change?
  • Identify what we have that really is unique – some specialist courses maybe, or 2 year fast track awards?
  • Develop opportunities for recruiting students from growing markets such as the “MINTs” (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey)

This could be the time that the free market really starts to hit higher education. Changes to fees and finance are probably not far away, but there could be a feeding frenzy at the bottom of the market in a very short time. We need to make sure that we are not part of that.

BME Student Attainment

Previous blog posts have looked at the attainment of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) student attainment. At Staffordshire University, we will be carrying out more work in this area, as part of our drive to improve student attainment, recognising that students who succeed in their studies and gain good degrees, are more likely to gain good graduate jibs. This is clearly a benefit for the individual student, but also for the institution as it will have a positive effect on our league table position.

Previously we have looked at the attainment gap between white and non white students, and seen that the gap in our university is similar to that nationally.

Recently the Equality Challenge Unit published its “Equality in higher education: statistical report 2013”, which has the following headlines:

  • 17.7% – The difference between the proportion of white qualifiers receiving a first or 2:1 and the proportion of black and minority ethnic qualifiers receiving a first or 2:1.

There is a persistent gap in the degree attainment for students with different ethnicities, although this has decreased for the second consecutive year.

However, when we analysed the figures closely we found the gap differed widely depending on the age of the student:

  • 8.6% – ethnicity attainment gap for students 21 and under.
  • 26.3% – ethnicity attainment gap for students 36 and over.

The pattern is repeated for disabled students, although less pronounced:

  • 2.5% – disability attainment gap for students 21 and under.
  • 6.9% – disability attainment gap for students 36 and over.

A significant drop in the numbers of mature students applying to university has been widely reported. If older students are less likely to receive a good degree, more may decide that going to university isn’t worth their while. It seems clear that more needs to be done to support and retain this group of students.

So for our own data for 2012-13, we need to consider age as well as ethnicity, and when considering disability (where we had hardly any gap at all in 2011-12l) we will also build in age to the analysis.

To support work across the university on addressing this challenge, this year’s Learning and Teaching Conference on 1st July 2014 will have  a keynote speech on the attainment gap, and ways to tackle it, delivered by Dr Winston Morgan of UEL – put it in your diaries now!



Why the UK Should Commit to More International Students

A recent publication from the Institute for Public Policy Research, “Britain Wants You” makes a strong case for increasing the number of international students coming to the UK, but recognises the conflict in government policy between different departments – the Home Office committed to a reduction in net migration, and BIS supporting international students.

student migration chart for twitter option 2

Its key recommendations include:

  • the abandonment of the net migration target, which is a bad measure of policy
  • investment in gathering improved longitudinal data about students’ pathways through the immigration system
  • more selective and targeted screening of prospective international students, and greater support for education institutions that are licensed to sponsor them
  • introducing a modest levy on international students for NHS coverage, equivalent to the typical cost of private medical insurance for a student (around £100–£200 per year), but offsetting this charge with corresponding advantages, including increased working rights during and after study
  • an intelligence-­led independent review of the burgeoning student visitor visa route to monitor any unusual patterns


As well as case studies of individual colleges, the report includes a section on Indian students, and points out that from 2012 to 2013, the number of Indian students in the UK fell by 24%, despite an insufficient number of institutions of suitable quality in India and rising prosperity meaning that an increasing number of Indian parents are becoming able to support children studying overseas. A survey of potential students suggested that although they have historically seen the UK as a favourable destination, other international destinations were equally or more attractive. The post study work options in the UK are less favouable than some other destinations and 91% of students thought that this would put some off from applying to the UK. In addition, students found the visa application process difficult.

The report concludes with:

BIS has made predictions about the extent to which the sector could grow in the coming years, but the government’s own net migration target is preventing it from allowing the sector to grow. This is causing damage to the UK’s education sector and the national economy. The government and education institutions need to come together to form a new consensus to plan for growth in the international education sector.

Given that current policies in this area appear to have reached an impasse, and public anxiety about immigration is showing no sign of abating, it is essential that the government introduces rational, workable solutions. These measures should not penalise genuine institutions and genuine students, as this has a negative impact on the UK both in terms of earnings and reputation. Above all, the government now needs to commit unequivocally to increasing the number of international students studying in British education institutions.

As universities move into a new regime where student number controls are removed, and the market for home/EU undergraduates is freed up further, it becomes essential to make it desirable for  international students  to come to the UK. Universities need to be able to attract this source of income, but also need to provide the benefits to all students of a more internationalised experience that a diverse student body can bring.

The Autumn Statement and HE

Thursday 5th December saw the release of the autumn statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. With a bit of a surprise in there about student number controls.

After quoting from the 1960 Robbins report, the statement describes how there has been an increased demand of higher skilled workers, and how there is still a salary premium for graduates. Higher education is therefore considered as a good investment for those who wish to pursue it (it might be useful to look at the recent BIS document  where the benefits of HE to both the individual and society, are described as being more than just economic).

A key change then is:

“However, this strong demand for higher education significantly exceeds the supply of
places. This is in part because the numbers of students providers can accept have been tightly
controlled since 2009. This cap acts as a bar to aspiration, as people with the grades to enter
higher education are excluded from doing so. And it also prevents the UK from developing the
highly-skilled workforce demanded in modern economies.
1.202 Autumn Statement 2013 announces that the government will remove the
cap on student numbers at publicly-funded higher education institutions in England
by 2015-16. This will enable institutions to expand their provision to meet demand from an
estimated 60,000 young people a year who have the grades to enter higher education but
cannot currently secure a place. For 2014-15, the government will significantly increase
the cap for HEFCE-funded institutions by 30,000, allowing those institutions that want
to begin expanding straight away to do so, and encouraging competition. To ensure that
institutions provide places in the subjects most needed in the economy, the government will
provide extra funding for STEM students of £50 million per academic year from 2015-16.”

An early response by University Alliance said:

“The announcement of additional student places is excellent news for the students, universities and the UK. This shows that the Government are future focussed and fully recognise the role that graduates and universities play in driving the UK economy towards a more prosperous future.

“These extra places will ensure the UK can meet the need for additional highly skilled graduates helping us meet the demands of the future economy.

“Despite the difficult climate for all young people entering the job market it is still the case that a degree is by far the best route for most individuals. Universities will work hard to help with the transition into employment for all students.”

I think we can expect other similar responses from the other mission groups.

The expansion of student numbers will be funded by the sale of part of the student loan book. The statement goes on to say:

” Freeing higher education institutions from number controls will help improve quality
in the sector by increasing competition and allowing institutions who face strong demand
to expand. To maintain quality in the sector and ensure value for money, the government
will retain number controls at alternative providers in 2014-15 on the basis of their
2012-13 levels. From 2015-16, it will allow student numbers at alternative providers
to be freed in a similar manner as for HEFCE-funded provision. The higher education
sector has an internationally excellent reputation for quality. The government will continue to
closely monitor quality of provision across the sector and reserves the right to reimpose number
controls on institutions that expand their student numbers at the expense of quality”

I do think that the first sentence needs further examination. Firstly, increasing competition will not necessarily raise quality (especially when this is term is not defined). Secondly, many institutions may chose not to increase numbers of undergraduate students, despite rising demand, as they may  not be able, or indeed want to meet that demand.

The converse of course, is not reported in the statement. In encouraging competition, the situation may become more difficult for some universities, who may have relied on recruiting students who were unable to get into more  selective institutions. As the SNC is removed, so is some of the protection that the current regulated market provides. It can be well argued that this is a form of protectionism that a free market should of course not support.

The ability of alternative providers to be freed from number controls also from 2015-16 must present a risk, in terms of the number of loans that the government might need to provide for students at these providers, recognising the impact on BIS finances caused by  the rapid expansion in HNC/HND numbers at these institutions.

What will be interesting now, is how universities will choose to plan or change their student recruitment strategies, and to what extent this statement might impact on strategic plans that were not anticipating a removal of number controls.



A Punk View of HE?

OK, I was never a punk, maybe I was too young in 1976, and the nearest I got was a Boomtown Rats gig, but as we survey the current state of HE, I do wonder if there is a need for a new narrative, to either run in parallel with conventional thinking or at least to challenge it when needed

My article below on Stefan Collini’s  critique of HE funding and marketisation, reminds us that there is a need in the academy for innovative and original thinking – that’s what brought us to work here in the first place, and that desire to research or inculcate originality of thought in our students is what drives us on. Even spreadsheet-toting managers like me.

In the Guardian recently, Nick Petford, VC of Northampton University wrote an article on What can universities learn from punk?

“We are a sector well placed to make the required changes that, against a backdrop of austerity, send a positive and compelling signal to the world, one of strength and confidence. Efficiency and effectiveness must be for real if the UK sector is to maintain its world class status. Key to success is to hold tight to one principle: that the ultimate driver of success is the students at our institutions and the quality and value of their experience.”

Not very punk……..I totally agree that a driver of success is the quality and value of student experience, but I think we need to go further than playing along with the neoliberal agenda as presented to us. University leaders need to challenge government thinking – current austerity was not caused by the universities, and changes to our funding don’t help address deficits (but they are designed to allow new private providers to enter the market more easily).


A punk approach would not be to defend the status quo, but would be based on anti-establishment views and the promotion of individual freedoms (to quote Wikipedia). The seismic changes occurring in UK  HE mean that universities need to remember  that although they are a major part of the establishment, at the same time, they also exist to challenge that very establishment.

To quote The Jam:

” I think we’ve lost our perception –

I think we’ve lost sight of the goals we should be working for

I think we’ve lost our reason

We stumble blindly and that vision must be restored!”


Stefan Collini on marketisation of HE

Stefan Collini, (author of “What are Universities For?” in which he challenged the common claim that universities need to show that they help to make money in order to justify getting more money and argued that we must reflect on the different types of institution and the distinctive roles they play) has published an essay in the London Review of Books entitled “Sold Out” which is a review of “Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education” by Roger Brown, with Helen Carasso and “The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education” by Andrew McGettigan.

This is a fascinating and detailed analysis of the rushed experiment being carried out on the English higher education system, and is timely after the last week’s BIS announcements about removing designation from a number of private colleges, who were otherwise consuming more of the student support budget that originally anticipated.

Collini clearly worries about what has been done in very recent years to UK HE:

“Deep changes in the structure and dominant attitude of contemporary market democracies are everywhere putting pressure on the values that have sustained the ideals of public higher education. Unfortunately, the UK has put itself in charge of the pilot experiment in how to respond to these changes. Other countries are looking on with a mixture of regret and apprehension: regret because the university system in this country has been widely admired for so long, apprehension because they fear similar policies may soon be coming their way. In many parts of the world English higher education is, to change the metaphor, seen less as a useful pilot experiment and more as the canary in the mine.”

He writes about the change in the market, and the desire of government to create a “level playing field” to encourage competition:

“Anyone who thinks the change in 2010 was merely a rise in fees, and that things have settled down and will now carry on much as usual, simply hasn’t been paying attention. This government’s whole strategy for higher education is, in the cliché it so loves to use, to create a level playing field that will enable private providers to compete on equal terms with public universities. The crucial step was taken in the autumn of 2010 with the unprecedented (and till then unannounced) decision to abolish the block grant made to universities to support the costs of teaching – abolish it entirely for Band C and Band D subjects (roughly, arts, humanities and social sciences) and in substantial part for Band A and B subjects (roughly, medicine and the natural sciences). From the point of view of private providers, that change removed a subsidy to established universities which had hitherto rendered private undergraduate fees uncompetitive in the home market. Now that every type of institution offering these subjects is largely dependent on student fees, the way is open to rig the market to drive down the price.”

W can clearly see the effect of one of these changes this week. Reports show a huge unanticipated increased spend by BIS on loans for students of HNCs and HNDs at private providers, with a knock on effect that a numberof private colleges have just lost their designation status to prevent them recruiting further.

Collini also discusses the idea of “reform” as described originally in the Browne report, and says

 “the implication is that there is something wrong with the present arrangements that these changes will put right. And the logic of such reform is to reclassify people as consumers, thereby reducing them to economic agents in a market. The cunning of government propaganda, in higher education as elsewhere, is to pose as the champion of the consumer in order to force through the financialisation and marketisation of more and more areas of life. Who do the student-consumers need assistance against? Who is preventing them from getting what they want and therefore should have? Universities, it seems.”

An interesting analysis follows of the impact of tuition fees – and how a potential student might perceive the difference between £8000 a year and £9000 a year. In terms of paying back teh money, there is little difference that an 18 year old might plan for. However, a rational decision  might be to opt for the institution that might be investing an extra £3000 in their teaching and learning experience. Collini concludes:

Overall, therefore, the price differential is a phantom factor that says more about a university’s confidence than it does either about the value for money of particular courses or (to any great extent) the future financial burdens of the graduate.

And when he considers the rate at which graduates pay back loans, he notes the following:

It will be no surprise if, after a while, there are statistics for graduate repayment rates not just from different universities but from different courses. If a particular course shows a very low repayment rate, why not harness ‘anti-scrounger’ sentiment and cease to treat it as eligible for publicly backed loans? The joke is that a fee system is justified, in coalition rhetoric, as making universities more independent. The reality is that it may provide an alternative lever by which to force ‘market’ judgments on universities in deciding which courses to offer.

This of course is the opposite of that from the recent UUK report on UK HE finance, where it was suggested that “public funds should be used to provide support for those students and courses where investors may not see a return”.  In either scenario there has to be a worry about how some subjects and their students will be funded in a brave new world, if study and learning cannot be reduced to a set of purely economic returns.

It’s a long article, but I recommend reading it – and McGettigan’s book is now on my reading list.