Marginal Gains

Much if my work at the moment is about considering performance. That could be institutional performance in league tables, the performance of individual awards in Portfolio Performance Review, the performances of students in individual modules and that if the staff teaching them.

We know we have some big changes that we want to make- any analysis of a league table or internal monitoring and benchmarking document will show where we seem to be outperformed by our comparator universities.

To think about how we make the changes necessary, I’ve looked for ideas from elsewhere. We already have a range of plans, of interventions which might seem to be overtly managerial, but which need to happen to gain some quick wins. After discussion with a PVC at another university, I have reflected on the need to make sure that managerialism doesn’t become punitive, or become the barrier to moving to where you want to be in the future.

I want to try out some other ideas, and the idea of Marginal Gains might be one.

The idea of marginal gains comes from the world of sport, firstly with Clive Woodward leading England to winning the 2003 World Cup, and more recently with Dave Brailsford leading TeamGB cycling to Olympic success and Team Sky to consecutive Tour de France wins.

There is an argument that you only do this once everything else is nearly right, but for me this philosophy could also be used alongside other major change, as long as we realise that we mustn’t forget to deal with the big problem!


The idea, as Brailsford expresses it, is that he believes that by breaking down and identifying every tiny aspect of an athlete’s performance and then making just a 1% improvement in each area the athlete’s overall performance can be significantly enhanced.


Plenty of others have looked to see how this could be applied to education , for instance in The Guardian in 2012 “An unexpected Olympic legacy: how to make marginal gains with your students” and on the Marginal Learning Gains website.

So if we want to see an overall performance improvement in the university, we couldbreak down all our activities and make each one of them better by just 1%. And the idea is that adding together all of those small improvements will make a big difference overall.

For the university then, where could we each work to make those 1% improvements?

At a personal level, we could all make changes of our teaching to try to make it more accessible. We could be 1% more approachable to students. We could be 1% better in providing proper feedback on assessments. We could be 1% better in being professional – turning up on time, not treating students as confidantes.

As an institution and from a strategic level we need to think about what our key indicators are, and where we can make marginal gains to improve in each of them. League tables again are an obvious starting point – although they are no more than an external reflection of how we perform, they do, to  large extent, measure things that matter to us such as student satisfaction and student attainment. So some 1% increases in each of these might start to show some overall performance differences (so long as we don’t forget to deal with the big issues).

blog supplemental

This article has been quoted by the VC in his weekly blog, and has generated comments already from one of our faculties. It’s good to see that this is provoking debate, but despite promoting this as a way of thinking, I still emphasise- don’t forget to sort out the big fundamental issues.

We can be better than this part 5

A new term and a new set of challenges face us, specifically how to make sure that the latest cohort of new entrants is best supported to be as successful as possible.
In the last year we’ve created a focus on student attainment, looking at how we might improve individual module results, considering why we award relatively fewer good degrees compared with others and why there is a gap in attainment between white and BME students.
In the last week, UCAS released early data on student admissions for the 2914 cycle.
One statistic that really stands out was the huge rise in students who gained AAB+ equivalence through BTEC  qualifications.

This was then reported in the Telegraph as universities dumbing down– with no explanation of why a BTEC should be considered in this way compared with A-levels.
Million+ weighed into the conversation (during the week when they sponsored a fringe event at Labour conference and then said very little about it) by claiming that this increase in students applying to university through vocational routes suggested that Labour’s claims of students being left behind were unfounded. Let’s deal with that first- the young people the Labour party is talking about are NOT the ones gaining good higher nationals that will equip them for higher education- they are talking about the other 55% who don’t go to university.

But for us, what does this mean? Remembering back to our Learning and Teaching Conference in the summer, when Winston Morgan was talking about BME attainment and Liz Thomas about the need for inclusive pedagogies, then we might need to gain a better understanding of what qualifications our students are arriving with

If you are teaching a first year class, all of whom attained over 300 points through traditional A-levels, then there might be one way to approach that class. If, however, the majority of the class have entered through a more vocational qualification, them maybe the teaching style and assessment needs to be adapted. Or maybe a proper academic skills development programme is needed.

The first step in this would be knowing exactly what qualifications individuals are starting their courses with, and also an overall snapshot of the educational background of a cohort.

If we could set free the relevant data, and most importantly, be prepared to act upon it, we might be able to make some small but significant changes that could really drive student success.

Get on your bikes and ride!

To quote the late Freddie Mercury….

bhf start

This year a small group of us, all with links to the University, will be taking part in the British Heart Foundation midnight ride from Manchester to Blackpool, on 27th-28th September. While most people are warmly tucked up in bed, we’ll be out, pedaling along empty moonlit roads for a few hours.

Our little team is called HalfRiceHalfChips – in acknowledgement of the perfect accompaniment to a reviving Bhuna. As always, we’ll be grateful for sponsorship – please click through to our JustGiving Page. In return, we’ll promise not to post photographs of us clad in lycra.

Alternatively, if you’d like to join us for the ride, then give me a call or email.


The Innovation Challenge

A new publication out this week from the university think tank, million+, looks at the current state of research funding in universities and makes a case for a revised approach. In addition, the million+ website carries a blog piece by its chair, our VC Prof Michael Gunn.

Inevitably, since million+ universities are those who are least likely to receive the big grants and funding from REF, there is some critique of the current concentration of research funding to a small number of institutions such might prevent others from capitalising on their intellectual capital, and being able to provide new ideas into their communities.

The key findings were:

> The UK Government invests less in research and development than the leading 22 OECD countries, as a percentage of GDP

> The UK has a low level of private investment in research lying 19th of OECD countries in terms of private sector investment in research and development as a percentage of GDP

> In 2012-13, 25% of the UK’s total recurrent research funding was allocated to five universities, 50% to twelve universities and 75% to 31 universities; the remaining 130 universities shared 25% of recurrent research funding

The recommendations of the report are:

The UK Government should increase its investment in science and innovation and set a target to be in the top ten of OECD countries by the end of the next Parliament in 2020

• New approaches are needed to ensure taxpayer investment in research is more widely distributed so that businesses, wherever they are located, can benefit from the expertise of research staff and so that students get a better deal

• The UK Government should continue to fund excellent research wherever
it occurs in universities but amend the criteria to avoid critical mass thresholds excluding smaller units of researchers from funding allocations
• Funding for 2* research should be restored and an expanded science and innovation budget deployed to invest in research of national significance

• All universities with research degree- awarding powers which currently
do not benefit significantly from other taxpayer research funding should be guaranteed funds to invest in research infrastructure and staff capacity
• A new stream of funding should be established to support translational research in universities which receive less research funding from the Funding and Research Councils

• The importance of investing in STEM subjects is accepted but under-investment in social science and research associated with the creative industries must be addressed

• Account should be taken of the impact of government investment strategies in research on the institutional unit of resource available to invest in the student experience

The report provides examples of how member universities of million+ are engaged in relevant research and innovation with local and national businesses, including reference to Flux, a Staffordshire University spin out company.

A particular critique of the status quo is reserved for the hyper-concentration of research funding, and the report highlights how this has an impact on overall student experience. For instance:

despite more students being taught at modern universities at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, the average recurrent research investment was only £127 for all students or £661 for postgraduate students. This compares to corresponding figures of £2353 and £8136 across the 24 Russell Group universities. The investment per postgraduate student in modern universities is around 12 times less than in Russell Group universities, despite far larger numbers of students.

While much of the funding will not necessarily directly affect students, in an institution with greater expenditure and investment in facilities and research staff, there will be obvious benefits to the learning and teaching experience, particularly when a defining feature of higher education is that students can expect to be at the forefront of their discipline and be taught by those who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge.

Overall, a report worth reading which hopefully creates the case for reviewing the way in which research and innovation is supported in universities.

Education at a Glance

“Education at a Glance” is the misleading title of a new publication from the OECD, as 570 pages will not be read at a glance by anyone!

However, there are gems to be pulled out from the report, and both the Guardian and Times Higher have identified some key messages for universities.

From the Guardian:

“The UK’s massive expansion in university education has not led to a parallel increase in skills, an international study has discovered, with only a quarter of the country’s graduates reaching the highest levels in literacy, well below other top-performing nations.”

And from the Times Higher:

“The UK is ranked relatively low among the most developed nations for the literacy skills of graduates, with its performance described as “a puzzle” given the elevated reputation of its universities”

Interestingly, the Guardian also reports that he skills gap is even greater when numeracy is considered.

On a more positive note, Nicola Dandridge of UUK is reported as saying:

“the sector recognised complaints from some employers about graduates’ skills, and argued that some of this was down to schooling. She added: “However, higher education can have a role in developing students in key areas of employability.” Universities were addressing this challenge, she said, in part through increased links with employers such as work placements”

Clearly our work on Staffordshire Graduate Attributes and the focus of employability, enterprise and entrepreneurship throughout our awards will allow our graduates to be able to compete successfully on graduation.

However, as so often, I an left with the question – could we do more around numeracy to support our students better? I’m not proposing high level mathematics here, but topics such as the ability to use a spreadsheet sensibly, to be able to understanding basic probability and statistical tests, and an understanding of how to handle and present data. Numeracy was identified in the recent Kaplan report on what employers want – maybe a university could steal a march over others in being the first to embed these skills into programmes.

Alternatively, if we don’t want to embed the skills, then maybe its time for either individual students or institutions to look at some of the latest developments in MOOCs and competency based education, currently happening in the US.

Clay Christensen (he of disruptive innovation fame) is now promoting the idea that vocational competency based education is the new disruptor. Maybe for developing specific skill sets (such as numeracy, or enhanced literacy) there may be a place for individuals or unis to engage with this agenda to provide them with the added skills in literacy and numeracy that the OECD identify are lacking in UK graduates.

Could this be an end to my MOOC skepticism, and the development of a Staffordshire University optional course to enhance numeracy skills?


Last Year’s Resolutions

On September 2nd last year, I published a blog article of resolutions for the academic year, so now is probably a good time to review progress against each of them:

1. Make student attainment a focus for Academic Development Unit activity

This was certainly a focus of discussion for the Heads of School/Associate Deans group and proposals for improvements were progressed wtih Deans and others. Just as importantly, studnt attainment became part of the Academic Strategy.

2. Make sure every group of staff knows how they can contribute to improving league table performance

Plenty of work published on this, either as analysis of league table results, in blog articles and in talks across the university. Not sure how well embedded this is yet. We state that league table position is a Key Performance Indicator, but we could do more on consistent messaging and activity to support this.

3. Give talks  in all faculties and schools throughout the year

Very grateful to the schools and faculties that have invited me to talk to staff about league tables, student attainment, BME student performance, NSS and technology enhanced learning. The most engaged areas from my perspective are PSE, and the faculties of BEL and ACT.

4. Run an event on campus to address the issue of BME student performance

BME student attainment was eh subject of a keynote address and workshops at the summer StaffFest Learning and Teaching Conference. Great to have a larger number of attendees than ever before, but still this an area for improvement – looking at the attendance, for one School, only one member of staff was present. If we are a teaching led institution, then I cannot understand how this kind of event is not relevant to everyone?

5. Develop undergraduate and postgraduate award portfolio performance tools

The undergraduate tool was successfully developed. This year (data permitting) it will be available earlier to faculties for use, with more emphasis on performance, rather than recruitment.

An intial postgraduate analysis has already been supplied to faculties.

6. Learn how to use Blackboard, particularly analytics

I’ve made some progress on this, mainly in terms of setting up the governance processes but there’s a lot more to be done, now that management fo BB comes within my remit (it didn’t last September).

7. Review personal tutoring and other L&T enhancement processes

As part of the restructure in ADU, I handed the project on personal tutoring over, and received e-learning in return. A good deal. This academic year, some early adopters will be using the revised personal tutoring policy. Other enhancement projects, around student attainment and module performance are now working their way though exec, so watch this space.

8. Give keynote speech on MOOCs

I presented on this at an HEA event at University of Hertfordshire. More broadly, I presented (together with Dave Parkes) on digital futures, digital literacy and the NMC Horizon report to one of the facuties.

9.Stop writing blog articles about MOOCs – they were so 2012.

There were fewer articles about MOOCs this year.

10. Do not publish blog articles that might offend…….chiz

Academics need to be able to challenge the status quo. What I write in this blog is not to offend but occasionally to challenge and open up debate.

At a time of change in the HE sector and for our university I see this as critically important. When an academic  can be suspended from their university,with “part of the evidence against him is that he sighed, projected negative body language and asked “ironic” questions while interviewing candidates for a position at the department”; when a firm of lawyers blog about the need for a university to be able to deal with high performing employees who, although academically brilliant, have the potential to damage their employer’s brand and when the THE publishes a major piece by Fred Inglis on the obligation of academics to speak truth to power, then I hope that in a small way that this blog, and the reflections on and the challenges arising from my work are my contribution to the development of the academy.

As for next year’s resolutions – well the ADU are rewriting teh academic strategy implementation plan, and my work will come out of that. The only other two resolutions so far are things that I will not be engaging with 2014-15. Those who know me, know what they are, and why.