It’s all about the money, money, money

It’s been a busy week for publications about funding for universities, student numbers and the winners and losers in the next round of HEFCE allocations.



(from Under Creative Commons licence)

As we all know, funding for HE is increasingly tight, particularly with the “miscalculation” that led to significant amounts of loans being made available to students on sub-degree courses at private providers, and the need to support a further 30,000 student places as announced in the Autumn Statement. Andrew McGettigan has provided excellent commentary on the growth of private providers, both on his blog and in an article for The Guardian. McGettigan suggests that the cuts in teaching grants to universities are being made to compensate for the overspend on students at private providers, and that the “major fiscal challenge facing BIS is self inflicted”.

HEFCE has published information on recurrent grants and student number controls.

 The overall budget we have set for the 2014-15 academic year is £3,883 million. This budget reflects the third year of the progressive shift of HEFCE grant to the student support budget, to meet the cost of increased tuition fee loans under the Government’s new finance arrangements for higher education. While HEFCE teaching grant is being reduced, the overall resource rate for teaching is set to increase as a result of these higher tuition fee loans. The total HEFCE grant comprises:

  • £1,582 million for recurrent teaching grant
  • £1,558 million for recurrent research grant
  • £160 million for knowledge exchange
  • £583 million for national facilities and initiatives and capital funding

Linked to this, HEFCE have announced their student number controls for 2014-15 entry (remember  the SNC will not exist after this year). As indicated in the Times Higher, Staffordshire University will have its SNC cut by 3% (as a side note, it’s a shame this is one of the rare times that we appear in this periodical). This is not a surprise, but we have to remember that not all of our students fit into the SNC – our portfolio of business is much wider than this, encompassing postgraduate study, work based learning, part time provision and partnership activity.



As well as announcing grants and student number controls, a further letter from HEFCE last week proposed that in future, institutions will need to provide more information to students and others on their income and expenditure.

HEFCE has undertaken (work) at the Government’s request with the British Universities Finance Directors Group (BUFDG), GuildHE, the National Union of Students (NUS) and Universities UK (UUK) to explore the presentation of information on institutional income and expenditure (including tuition fee income). This work aims to support higher education providers in meeting the Government’s accountability expectations, in a way that is mindful of competition between institutions and seeks to minimise additional administrative burden on universities


Institutions are asked to identify a local web-site solution by the end of October 2014, ready to publish information from their 2013-14 audited financial accounts by January 2015.


From the guidance note, the following information is proposed:

hefce finance


This doesn’t seem unreasonable, but I have a few questions.

  • If this is to minimise administrative burden on universities, then why do it at all?
  • Why not provide a central resource based on the data already available through HESA?
  • The proposed infographics look lovely – but will they clearly identify to students the actuality of financing a university
  • And finally, are students the best qualified to judge the expenditure and income of a complex organisation such as a university?

At no point would I suggest that we shouldn’t provide information to students and other stakeholders, but over the years the amount of data available is increasing (league tables, KIS, Which? university guide) and just providing more does not necessarily allow people to make better decisions.


Differences in Degree Outcomes

A new publication by HEFCE (28th March 2014) looks at degree outcomes of students who entered HE in 2007-08, and shows correlations between various factors, including the correlation between ethnicity and degree classification.

The key findings of the report are:

  • Students with better A-levels do better in higher education
  • The proportion of students who gain a first or upper second in their degree studies has risen since 2004
  • There is significant variation in degree outcome for students from different ethnicities
  • Female students are more likely to achieve an upper second or higher than male students with the same prior educational attainment
  • Students from disadvantaged areas tend to do less well in higher education than those with the same prior educational attainment from more advantaged areas
  • Independent school students enter higher education with better A-level grades than those from state schools
  • State school students tend to do better in their degree studies than students from independent schools with the same prior educational attainment
  • In all levels of A-level achievement, state-schooled entrants to HE tend to do better in their degree studies than independently schooled counterparts with the same prior GCSE attainment
  • Students who have remained in the state school sector for the whole of their secondary school education tend to do better in their degree studies than those with the same prior educational attainment who attended an independent school for all or part of their secondary education
  • There is a relationship between a student’s level of attainment at A-level relative to the average of the school and his or her potential for success at degree level
  • Degree outcomes are not affected by the average performance of the school that a student attended

The report has been reported widely in the media, in this country and overseas,, with Aaron Kiely of The Guardian writing:

New figures show that white university students receive significantly higher degree grades than those from minority ethnic backgrounds with the same A-level qualifications. This suggests that higher education institutions are somehow failing black students, which should be a national embarrassment.

Three years ago the National Union of Students (NUS) conducted a study on the experiences of black students. The findings showed that they face a range of barriers in all levels of education, which affect satisfaction and attainment. The figures made for uncomfortable reading. It emerged that one in six black students had experienced racism in their institution, a third felt their educational environment left them unable to bring their minority perspective to lectures and tutorials, and 7% openly labelled their learning environment as “racist”.

This reinforces the importance for universities to address this issue. Although the reasons for the attainment gap are complex, failure to respond appropriately could be a reputational risk factor.

The data shows that allowing for A-level achievement, students who declare themselves as white consistently have a higher chance of achieving a good degree.

alevel and ethcicity

Responding to the report, David Ruebain of the Equality Challenge Unit said:

‘HEFCE’s report underlines something that the HE sector has known for some time – there is a persistent attainment gap for minority ethnic students. ECU and other organisations including the Higher Education Academy have been working with higher education institutions to help understand the complex reasons behind these figures and to identify initiatives that make a difference.

Most recent figures show that the overall ethnicity attainment gap has in fact decreased for two consecutive years, but it is clear that HEIs need to fully acknowledge the issue and commit to improving support so that all students are able to achieve to their potential, whatever their ethnicity

– See more at:


Clearly to really understanding the issue of Black and Minority Ethnic degree achievement, we will need to look at a range of factors, and the underlying theme of the report is that there are benefits in universities using contextual data when offering places to potential students. An alternative reading of this is could be that if universities use data about their students more effectively, then they could develop their learning, teaching and assessment approaches to be responsive to their student intake.

Having a better understanding of where our students come form, their previous study (A-level, BTEC, or access course) could mean that those teaching first year classes could be instrumental in leveling the playing field for all students at the start of their higher education journey.



Charlie is my darling

A guest post by Dr Peter Jones, Head of the School of Psychology, Sports and Exercise at Staffordshire Univeristy

I am a big fan of 30 credits modules.  They allow me to move away from the learn, cram and exam of 15 credits, allow me to take my students on a comprehensive journey of the subject area and gives students time and space to really engulf themselves in the subject matter, get into the literature, explain the mechanisms and get to grips with the subject.

The trouble with my 30 credit modules is that after while students get a little jaded.  So I like to mix it up.  Share the module with someone else.  Bring in guest lecturers and subject specialists.  But this is not enough.  I have a need.  A need for technology.

I’ve engaged in technology enhanced learning (TEL) for about 14 years.  My first institution developed its own VLE and had a HEA funded CELT (Centre for Learning and Teaching) so I am a complete convert to technology.

Don’t get me wrong I realise that TEL is not the panacea to all my L&T problems.  Indeed when I first used it took a lot of time for little return.  However, a lot of technology can be time saving, beneficial for academics and provides another offer for my students learning experience.

I never cancelled a class again after I adopted technology, as I always had something in hand electronically to cover absence.  For those complex lectures which were full of mechanisms, graphs and formulae I’d Adobe’s my sessions so students could go back and watch then again.  Podcasting was great for the session outlined the details of the assessment or feeding from the assessment, so even absent students were not disadvantaged and attainment was improved

For all coursework assignment students were required to post any questions they had on assignment on a discussion board for all to see.  The academic duly responded and this ensured a level playing field and avoided the sending numerous similar answers to numerous similar questions sent by my numerous similar students.  Exam revision sessions were more effective by students sharing potential exam questions and answers using group Wikis and improved attainment.

The reason I, and all my team, could do this and embraced it, was because we had a Charlie.  Charlie was a learning technologist with tattooed (full sleeve) arms with an in-depth knowledge of a) football b) Barcelona and c) Learning and Teaching.  He could provide me (and my team) with a whole spectrum of technology enhanced learning software embedded within Blackboard.  More importantly I could go to him and he would have a technology offer for me.  He had a laptops overflowing with new software which he could prescribe like a digital physician.  I could take away and experiment with and return to him for forensic investigation.

Three times a year Charlie ran bespoke staff development session for my academic, he guided the technophobes towards the digital light and he helped us reinvent our teaching.  Charlie was my darling.  Without him our teaching would have been jaded and average, our NSS scores for the four L&T questions would not have achieved 100% satisfaction each.

I think everyone needs a Charlie.

Oops, we got the sums wrong

Interesting times ahead as it became apparent on Friday that the RAB charge has increased again, and that we are now at the point where the cost of running the current funding system for teaching in universities is becoming more expensive than the previous system. This is not going be a palatable story for government, for universities and tax payers (hardworking, of course).

Basic sums on a blackboard
image by – gratuit

According to the Guardian

Nick Hillman, who worked for Willetts during the introduction of the policy, made the comments after it emerged that the rate of default on student loans is now so high that the £9,000-a-year tuition fees system could end up producing zero financial reward for the government.

Speaking to the Guardian, Hillman called for action to address the “big funding gap” looming in the universities sector caused by mistakes in the government’s modelling and the fact that graduates are earning less than expected.

Last night, the Universities UK alliance of higher education institutions urged the coalition to open talks with Labour on the issue, saying it was vital to think more carefully about how universities can be paid for.

Clearly the funding system has faults, and needs to be reviewed – the news earlier in the year of the amount that had been spent supporting students on sub-degree programmes at private providers seemed to come as a shock to many.

David Kernohan, at Followers of the Apocalypse provides his own take on this news, suggesting the following plan:

  • another independent inquiry into HE funding
  • the need to keep student number controls a bit longer
  • why does the graduate job sector look so bleak
  • Nick Clegg should apologise
  • review the idea of marketisation…..

Not sure the last 2 are going to happen, bu there is merit in the first 3.

And then two days later, this story is published, again in the Guardian:

Willetts told Channel 4 News the government is “committed” to the current tuition fees system, which ministers believe is “far more sustainable than any alternative”. He also dismissed warnings that it will not bring in enough money to fund universities, saying the estimates of how much students will repay are likely to “bounce around” depending on what experts are forecasting for earnings over the next 35 years.

But, pressed several times on whether fees would have to rise or graduates would start having to repay money sooner, he said: “We’ve got a system with a £9,000 fee and a £21,000 [earnings] repayment threshold. That is our system that we are committed to. Above all it means students don’t have to pay upfront… We have fixed the fees for £9,000 for this parliament.

“But we will have to see how the income of universities performs. But we have a structure for £9,000 and £21,000 and that is working.”

Cathy Newman, a Channel 4 presenter, tweeted that she asked Willetts the question again about the possibility of higher fees after 2015 as he was leaving the studio and the minister replied “could be”.

I’m not going to claim that a single off the cuff comment reported on Twitter can be considered a policy announcement, but this would not be a surprise. Some universities are already pressing for the fee cap to be removed, as they don’t feel that £9000 covers their teaching costs. Removal of the cap would satisfy the neo-liberal argument of opening higher education up to “the market”.

Clearly this a time for the various university mission groups and representative bodies to create a consistent and powerful message about how we believe universities should be funded, to ensure that those who can benefit from higher education will be able to do so, and to support the wide diversity of our sector.

Last year, Steve Smith suggested that another avalanche was coming,and that it was financial not the MOOC revolution being promoted by Sir Michael Barber and Pearsons. Looks like Professor Smith was right.

We Can be Better Than This. Part 3

I keep returning to this theme, but since I have a role in academic enhancement, and specifically to look at ways of improving the attainment of individual students, with the resultant impact this should have on institutional success, then it’s really key for me.

Firstly, we now moving into the league table season (ignoring the THE World Rankings, as like most chippy northerners in million+  we don’t trouble them too much). The data is all in and is being counted and manipulated by the various compilers. Looking at some of the data through Heidi, then some of the work we did last year seems to be paying dividends. The next step really would be to be able to model all of the parameters used in the various tables, and develop some predictive tools, which will allow us to target specific areas, either academic subjects, or aspects of finance or staffing..

Secondly, we need to reinforce this message of student attainment and institutional success across our institution. I’ve given talks and presentations  on league tables and student attainment to 10 out of our 12 schools, where we look at how the input of academic practice impacts on league table performance,.I always ask where in a league table do we think we should be. The answer has never been lower than 70th. This is a huge strength we can tap into – we have a university plan that clearly states our ambition in this area, and we have huge numbers of staff who believe we can be there! We should not underestimate what a powerful engine for change this can be, if harnessed properly. To help reinforce the message, then this years Staff Fest Learning and Teaching Conference is on 1st July, and is all about student success. This is an area that everyone should be engaged in. A success for me will be if there are too many attendees for us to fit into the lecture theatre – take that as a challenge!

Thirdly, we could look again at some of the messages Gordon Tredgold proposed in his recent leadership workshop on FAST (focus, accountable, simple, transparent). Linking this to work on improving student and institutional success  means cutting through complex action plans, strategies, pilots projects etc and making a simple statement – “we want to be a top 50 university”, and then making sure our actions all relate to that, for instance:

  • focus on student success to improve degrees outcomes and help individual students to attain their goals;
  • recruit the best students possible – this might be a virtuous circle if we move up a league table
  • improve employability of our students mainly by making sure they get good degrees and ensuring our graduate attributes have a real impact
  • make sure we make favourable data returns
  • ensure we investigate and provide remedies for the outliers in the data (as always there are some)
  • develop an aspirational portfolio of undergraduate and postgraduate awards – top universities teach certain subjects
  • use portfolio perform ace measures to decide the shape of the portfolio, not just market information

We’re at an interesting time – the changing rules on student number controls, possible future changes in fee caps, consolidation of our campuses, changes in technology and estate redevelopments mean that now should be the time to have a clear focus and simple target.


After all, as Lou Reed sang, you’re going to reap just what you sow.

Hacking the University

Student as Producer

“Hacking the University” was the title of a talk I went to at #digifest14, by Joss Winn of University of Lincoln, which covered among other things the idea of “Student as Producer”, originally envisaged for Lincoln by Mike Neary. This came out of an HEA funded project, but has now become the Learning and Teaching Plan for the university – concise, simple and understandable.

Joss talked about the role of a university and reflected on how in the 19th century, research and teaching were combined together, but that since then the two had drifted apart, and n some cases a forced binary divide created.

With the new teaching and learning plan, all new validations had to show how the idea of student as producer was being embedded. This was therefore happening slowly, rather than as a big bang approach, but it was suggested that the ideas were clealry manifest in the curriculum. This was then a low burn approach but Joss suggested there was a lot of lots of senior engagement through conferences etc. The fact that Lincoln were given lot of publicity through HEA also mean that they were being watched which gave everyone encouragement to keep going.

So what did this have to do with hacking the university? Well simply put, this was a new set of ideas that gained traction and had impact across the institution. The question is how far this can be taken, and whether there are other ways of challenging and changing a university.

Can we hack our university?

In any large organisation, it’s easy for innovation to be stifled, or worse, for it to become a paper exercise where success is measured in the production of a paper for academic board or senate, a policy document, or a set of guidelines (actually this list could go on and on).

Is there another way of creating and supporting a drive for innovation, such as the skunkworks idea? A place where innovators, creative thinkers can be brought together free from the constraints of discipline?


So here’s three ideas which sort of link to what we say we are doing in our various strategies, but might be another way of seeing some output and impact more quickly.

1.  As previously written in these pages, the digital future is going to be so much bigger than the digital past. But how does a university address this issue? Is it something to have a locus in an IT services department? In an education development unit? In a business planning and forecasting group? How do we harness the existing knowledge and horizon scanning within a set of constraints that do not reflect what the future will hold? I’m going to be working with a couple of key people to identify some kind of digital manifesto for us

2.  Working with the students as producers idea, we also need to encourage further the idea of teachers as producers. Academic staff who are research active in the traditional way can easily publish. In a teaching led organisation though, we need to consider a broader range of scholarship and outputs. We’ve gone some way towards this but can we make another step change?

Everyone has 22 days of self managed scholarly activity,and we are working to  make sure we see outputs from this. One way we could support people could be to use our university blogging tools more creatively, in the way that the LSE do. We could create easy forums for staff to present and share their ideas.

3.  And finally. Well,  I’m not sharing my final idea for hacking the university, but here’s a challenge. If we want to encourage student co-production of learning, and encourage staff scholarly outputs, then we in management and leadership roles could set  a different example.

I write this blog and talk at external events, so my challenge is this – for everyone on my weekly email list to produce a guest article for this blog. 500 words on a topic relating to HE policy, digital futures, university developments – it should be easy!


#digifest14 – What happens next?

The closing speech at #digifest14 was by Ray Hammond, a self-styled futurologist. These are my notes, more details can be found on the Jisc website.


Hammond suggests that we have no language for the future, that the lack of language may inhibit our thinking, for instance the idea of a “mobile phone” does not begin to describe what such a device does today. It is also not useful in explaining future of where the device is going and blinkers us to what it might become. Lack of language makes it difficult for us when new technology arrives. We might have a word but no shared mental model. How can we best exploit a technology? What are downsides?  A lack of common language means we cannot understand implications

Today our lives are mediated by technology. Future of education will be shaped by technology but does not take away human component. For instance we are now building an “always on” network. Form of connectiveness that can’t be described easily, so what is this digitally connected place?

Hammond proposed 6 drivers of change

1. In our students’ lifetime there will asymmetric population growth. Most in sub Saharan Africa. Another 50% of people will need fresh water and food.

2. Continuing climate change.

3. Ongoing energy crisis. Because of population  growth and greenhouse effect. Need cleaner and more sustainable energy when demand could increase by 100%

4. Continuing modem globalisation. Truth lies between between 2 poles of viewing globalisation as evil or as an opportunity for unfettered capitalism. Globalisation if ethical and sustainable is greatest force for good.

5. Triple medical science revolutions: DNA decoding and profiling; stem cell medicine and nano scale medicine, eg drug delivery. This could lead to personalised medicine, and increasing lifespans for those in the rich world and who could afford. Who wants to live forever?

6. Accelerating exponentially technology development. Causes dislocation and problems with understanding. For example,  kids who  want to build apps. 6 years ago they didn’t exist! (or at least the term didn’t).  What will we be talking about in 5 years?


I’m not sure these ideas were revolutionary – I remember having conversations in the 1980s about teh challenges of population growth and food and water security.

But there is no denying, the rate of technology change is accelerating in a non linear manner.

4 years ago no-one had an iPad, and no-one could have described how they might use one. To find out how long iPads have been around, I spoke to my iPad, and Siri told me the answer.


At this conference nearly everyone was using a mobile keyboard-less, wireless device to take notes, photographs, share messages, collaborate, engage in debate, contribute, check references, read, listen, etc.

Here’s my prediction. In 10 years we won’t be carrying a recognisable tablet computer. If I knew what we would be using, I’d be working somewhere else.

So what does this all mean for us in higher education?

A later blog post will return to the ideas of #digifest14, and try to create a manifesto for change for a university, which considers all the disparate developments in a digital world: in business intelligence; in learning and teaching; in the ideas of hackerspace and skunkworks; in responding to changing student needs and expectations; changed student populations; in changing staff abilities and identities and finding a way of encompassing this at the heart of an organisation

I’ll tell you something else about this future – it’s a going to be lot more than buying and installing a few new components for a VLE or a student information system.

Hang on, it’s going to be a fun ride.

Digital Environments and Identity

This blog piece is based on 2 of the workshops at #digifest14, “Understanding students’ expectations and experiences of the digital environment” and “Visitors and residents: understanding student behaviours online”.

The first of these looked at previous Jisc supported work and started with a review of expectations and experiences which recognised the need to differentiate between general digital environment and study environment and digital aspects

Today students’ transactional needs include hygiene factors such as wifi.

Students have vague or blurry expectations of how they will learn with technology

Younger students expect technology to be frictionless. Many uni systems are quite chunky in comparison.


The workshop focussed on:

  • Can institution meets students rising expectations of digital access and use?
  • Do your students learning experiences prepare them to live and work in a digital society?
  • It’s 2020. How will students experience digital environment?

More detail on this can be found at the digital student blog and design studio pages.

The second workshop looked at ideas of digital identity, and how students and staff might behave online. The starting point was Prensky’s idea of digital natives and immigrants. This has been superseded in the intervening years, since Prensky differentiated by generation, suggesting that the young were digital natives. In this newer approach, David White of Oxford University suggests the terms resident and visitor, and further separates behaviours depending on whether they are professional/institutional or personal.


As an exercise we each mapped our digital identity using referring to each of our online presences. An interesting issue arose – if a service such as Twitter is used and is just professional, how much can be personal? Is there an advantage in revealing something of yourself as an individual as part of the need for authenticity, especially for leaders (see Goffee and Jones – “Why Should Anyone be Led by You?”).


These were  a pair of really interesting workshops – and thinking back to my blog post on the need to put “digital” at the centre of what we do, they give us some tools to understand what our students expect and experience, and what we might need to do when looking at our own digital competence and identity



Digifest 14 – Keynotes

This year, JISC ran its annual event as a festival, rather than as a conventional conference, which meant lots of great branding and ideas that we could translate into some of our events in Staff Fest. This blog piece picks out some of the highlights from the main keynote sessions of Digifest 14.


Introducing day 1 was  Martin Harrow (Chief exec Jisc) who introduced us to exploiting potential of technology. Crucially, Jisc has been re-organised and is now more able to deliver its role better and at lower cost, recognising that in a fast moving digital world, the digital future is bigger than the digital past.

Diana Oblinger of Educause

The first keynote was by Diana Oblinger of Educause, and the talk can be seen here.

Why are we still talking about digital?

Why is digital a bolt-on rather than designed digital?

What would a true digital experience be for a student?

How do we translate from commercial space into education?

Being digital is not just about a PVC with an iPad instead of a piece of paper. (this is a quote, I didn’t make this up!)

Digital changes the nature of work, changes our society and is about man and machine working together.


Demographics drive new consumption patterns- in USA 82% students combine college and work. Students now come from non-traditional minorities or are first generation and unprepared for college, or have significant financial needs.

The changes lead to change in what we need from education.

There are 3 areas where we can add expertise

  • Engagement
  • Empowerment
  • Alternative models

 Engagement. Leads to more learning. Most powerful if face to face, but what if we used the best that technology can offer? Could be immersive and collaborative.

Higher order learning comes from complex challenges. Eg gamification. And students seek to want more of this!

Practice helps develop expertise and also generates data. With massive amounts of data patterns emerge that could lead to personalisation and adaptive learning systems

Empowerment. Lots of information is available but how do we empower students who don’t have this already in their heads. Must remember all students are different.

internal bars

external bars

Students need help with complex lives. Could developsStudent success plan with counseling and intervention software by drawing  all data together and creating early alert programs. Students are often unaware that their success is at risk, which could justify intrusive advising using predictive analytics and intervention

Too much choice can be enemy of student success. Students might choose courses they are not prepared for. we could use software to provide better informed module choices based on individual prior results etc and providing clearer pathways to graduation. This may be more suited to the North American system where a student may choose a major after 2 years of study.

Alternative models – Education is a tightly interconnected interdependent system. Eg market, mission and margin and changing any one will impact on the others. We live in a course rich world eg MOOCs. Credentialing MOOCs will change their the value proposition. Customers who are over-served may seek a  proposition that reflects their needs,  ie they are not after the same experience as before. In the US there is increasing assessment of  about competences now instead of credit hours, however IT systems are not set up to deal with this. Time is an opportunity cost for students which may drive changes to delivery systems. But if a student never goes to campus, how do you provide student support?

This talk finished with three questions:

  • What will it take to exceed expectations in digital world?
  • Do we have capabilities required to deliver value from IT?
  • How can we optimize education for a digital future?

Not unlike a TED talk, but a great start.

Paul Curran of City University London

The VC of City talked about aligning university and IT strategy. The issues at City are similar to many others.

Staff and students needs and competences are changing.

City are aspiring of be in top 2% unis in world and so are investing in people, IT and estate. They have decided that some IT to be sector leading and some sector average.

Previously had a devolved cottage industry approach to IT so now had to align IT with strategic plan so that it was more responsive to student needs. The university bought into Moodle, Office365 and Sharepoint. These became core products

They are now spending less on IT with fewer staff but with more junior staff who can relate to students. At the same time they enhanced the skills of IT support staff.

In 2013-14 introduced a uni wide module evaluation system to collect student feedback and provide management reports.

Have provided Easy access to student records for staff, including student performance and metrics. All solutions are scalable to operate on different devices.

Challenges for staff were identified – for academic staff this was around developing ability to move between digital and real world. For  IT staff it was about relationship management, system integration and training.


Two very different keynote addresses, ranging from the inspirational TED style approach of asking lots of challenging questions, and the more prosaic, but hugely important explanation of why IT strategy needs to be aligned with overall strategy.

The message for me is this:

Our future is digital. It will be central to everything that we do, and the winners will be those who understand the changing needs and nature of students, and who can design their systems and change the skill base of their staff to respond. Putting this at the heart of a business is key.



All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

This article tries to draw some distinctions between using management data or business intelligence, and the use of “big data”, with some caveats about the latter and the possible blind trust in numbers from the less-than-numerate.


Last week I went to a demonstration of a piece of a piece of software to help with student retention. There are some great things that the tool allows – integration with student information systems (including SITS), access to VLE analytics; the ability for any member of staff to flag a concern about a student. In addition to that however, the system looks at the last three years worth of retention data, looking at who withdraws and why and then  predicting correlations (if not causality).

So far, so good. I’m a big fan of exploiting data that we have available to us, to allow us to perform more effectively and successfully.

For example, looking at national data, we can identify how well we perform as an institution compared with others, either overall, or in individual subject areas. From this we could identify how successful we are in recruitment, or in degree outcomes

At a more granular level, ,we can look internally at portfolio performance information, to see how academic awards perform overall compared to each other – how overall retention rates or good degree outcomes compare between subjects. At a lower level of granularity, we look at the marks achieved on individual modules, their distribution, and how they compare to each other.

All of this provides simple and useful management information (or at the least granular level, business intelligence) which can help us to improve what we deliver, and improve the outcomes for our students.

What it does not do is provide a “big data” approach to education.

With enhanced student information, linked to personal tutoring or coaching we could start to look at how we could support individuals better, to identify their likely outcomes and to support them in achieving them. This is still a management information approach.

Going to eh next stage though, of profiling students, based on their various individual characteristics is where the water starts to be muddied.

We cloud provide information to tutors on information such as: entry qualifications; attendance; engagement with the VLE and marks obtained. In addition we also hold information on age, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic class, first generation HE, distance from home and many others. Individual staff may not be able to make any inferences from this themselves, but an algorithmic approach could.

Considering retention, the big data approach would look at all of this, and provide algorithms to identify a risk factor for students withdrawing. It could use a traffic light system – red, amber and green, with those scoring red as being most likely to withdraw.

Kate Crawford of MIT and writing a blog for the Harvard Business Review says:

But can big data really deliver on that promise? Can numbers actually speak for themselves?

Sadly, they can’t. Data and data sets are not objective; they are creations of human design. We give numbers their voice, draw inferences from them, and define their meaning through our interpretations. Hidden biases in both the collection and analysis stages present considerable risks, and are as important to the big-data equation as the numbers themselves.

Depending on how the algorithm has been decided, we would then decide where to focus our interventions. Assuming that there will always be withdrawals, maybe we would’t intervene in studnets flagged as red, a their probability of withdrawing is high?

We’d need to look behind the algorithm, These are not as agnostic as the purveyors of technology might have us believe. If we found that students with BTEC entry qualifications were more likely to withdraw, we might flag them as a concern. However, we also know that students of a BME background are more likely to have a BTEC qualification. Our  algorithm might now have produced an unintended consequence of flagging these students as a high risk of withdrawal, and our policy might possibly even limit the interventions we might use.

If we adopt a big data approach, just to this simple aspect of HE, further questions arise for me:

  1. What information do you share with teaching staff – do they see the colour coding?
  2. What do you share with students – do they know how they have been categorised?
  3. How easy is it to change categorisation?

The HE sector has plenty of data to use, some of it could be treated as “big data”, and although  it might be useful to identify some correlations, unless we include human agency in our decisions then we cede control to a series of computer algorithms. We have to be prepared or able to challenge the outputs, and must not naively trust any set of numbers we are presented with.

I’ll finish with a couple of quotes from David Kernohan of JISC:

After all, if big data can reduce every problem to a bar chart, you don’t need people to choose the option that the machine tells you will make the numbers go up. – See more at:


those of us who wish to continue being knowledge workers need to start making sense of data (and for that matter finance, but that’s maybe another story). If every policy position is “justified” by a slew of numbers, we need more people that can make sense of these numbers. Maths – naturally – is hard and we’d all rather be shopping or watching cat videos. But if we want to understand the decisions that affect the world around us, we need to learn to read numbers and to be confident in disputing them. Policy is now quantitative – we need to get better at teaching people how to participate. – See more at:

My title, by the way, comes from a poem by Ricahrd Brautigan, and was used as the title of a series of BBC documentaries in 2011.