The Future Politics of Higher Education

We’re now only 7 months from a General Election, and HE is somehow not quite on party radars yet, even after million+ and NUS ran fringe events at recent conferences. Lib Dems may be reticent after their previous pledge not to increase tuition fees (which disappeared after entering coalition), Labour have hinted at £6k cap on fees, but have yet to announce much. The conservatives have said little and UKIP are happy to remove students from the net migration figures (there’s a surprise, and puts them out of line with the Conservatives).

Clearly the financing and regulation of HE (recognising a changed environment, increased marketisation and entry of new providers) will be critical to the success of the sector and the individuals who work and study within it.

Into a vacuum though, something will always flow, and this week sees two sets of neoliberal views being promulgated.

Firstly an article in this week’s Times Higher. I’d like to describe it as muddle-headed, but t’s not that good.

Written by James Martin, a former adviser to Michael Gove, specious claims are made with little evidence, such as:

  • our universities’ failures on academic rigour and widening participation
  • too many higher education courses are of poor quality
  • with the number of firsts doubling in a decade, we need an honest debate about grade inflation and the culture of low lecture attendance and light workloads it supports
  • too many providers are weak imitations of the ancient universities.

No evidence is provided of failures of rigour (unless all degree courses have to be PPE). Poor quality is defined, based on the failure to pay back loans. The comments on grade inflation again are related to small earnings premiums

As a solution the following is proposed:

The first step in a prioritisation of education is to move universities into an enlarged Department for Education after the general election. The Secretary of State should immediately commission a genuinely independent review to determine which degrees are a sound investment or of strategic importance. Only these would be eligible for three-year student loans. Some shorter loans might encourage more efficient courses. Those who will brand this “philistinism” could not be more wrong: it is the traditional academic subjects that are valued by employers (philosophy at the University of Oxford is a better investment than many business courses). I am not arguing for fewer people to go to university. We need more students from poorer backgrounds taking the best degrees.


So this the heart of the proposal – move HE away from BIS, and to the Ofsted and target-obsessed regime of the DfE. Secondly, relate the funding of HE to graduate employment, since it is assumed that quality of education is all about the amount you earn afterwards.

grad cartoon

 “© Schwadron,”

In other news, the Institute for Economic Affairs ( a right of centre thinktank) has produced a discussion paper, “UNIVERSITIES CHALLENGED: Funding Higher Education through a Free-Market ‘Graduate Tax”

This report recognises that the graduate premium varies between courses and individuals. Instead of the existing loan scheme, or a graduate tax however, the IEA proposes that:

Universities should individually or collectively offer contracts to their students, who would agree to pay to the university they attended a given percentage of their earnings. That percentage could vary by course and institution, though some agreement between universities could be helpful to achieve standardisation. Essentially, the university would be taking an equity interest in the graduate premium earned by the student, although any student who chose to do so could, alternatively, pay the full fees up-front prior to beginning their studies.

·      If universities needed additional cash to finance their current expenditures, they could sell their rights to the graduate equity income stream through a securitisation mechanism. With or without securitisation, the risk of obtaining a low graduate premium will be reduced for students and be minimal for universities as their exposure will be diversified across many students.

·      This approach will ensure that universities have a much stronger interest in the employability of their graduates. That interest will continue after graduation. As such, universities will have an incentive to invest in careers advice and related services and in continuing to provide such services after graduation.

Wow. free marketisation, red in tooth and claw.The IEA goes on the propose that since universities will no longer depend on the state to provide loans, then they would also no longer need to be regulated for undergraduate awards. Indeed they would be free to innovate and engage in competition leading to a race to the top “because universities would have a direct economic interest in the success of their students”.

Both of these reports focus on higher education as a passport to a graduate job, improved employability and increased earning potential. Higher education is more than that, but the sometimes necessary obsession with league tables and other comparative metrics means that ideas such as these become seductively attractive to those who see education purely as a financial transaction, rather than a transformational impact on all aspects of an individual’s life and life chances.

We can expect more of this over the next few months. Within the sector and within our institutions do we need ask and answer questions of ourselves about what we are here for?

We should develop a strong argument for the mixed economy that our HE sector currently comprises, the wide range of benefits that obtain from HE and the need for open debate about how we fund and properly support our universities in the future.

Local Jobs for Local Graduates

Employability is a concern for all universities, for a number of reasons.

Firstly we need to provide our graduates with the very best opportunity to gain graduate level work or engage in in further study. As students pay increased tuition fees, then they may see that possession of a degree is the passport they need to access a better job, and will expect their university to have provided them with the best opportunities to gain employment. This of course is a disappointing and transactional view of higher education, and we still need to explain to many the transformational nature of HE, and how the benefits are greater than just  a passport into a job.

Secondly however, is the university’s commitment to its environment and local economy. Universities themselves are large employers, and in some cities may be one of the main employers of graduates. Recent work has shown the extent to which graduates are retained in their region of study.

A new publication by the City Growth Commission for the  RSA, entitled “Univercities, the Knowledge to Power UK Metros” looks at the relationships between universities and cities, and provides some deliberately provocative ideas under three main headings:

  • optimising research and teaching for metro growth
  • promoting graduate retention and utilisation
  • enterprising students, graduates and faculty

Th three screen grabs below summarise the main ideas.

rsa1 rsa2 rsa3

The challenge might be for universities who co-exist in a region to learn to collaborate with each other rater than compete, whereas  for the “metros” as defined in the paper the challenge will be to be able to investment funds for HE to support developments in research and teaching that are relevant to the locality.

Embedding entrepreneurialism into courses and providing enterprise modules are areas that we have already developed within our own Staffordshire Graduate Employability programme. The next step for us might be how to broaden this to have an impact in all subject areas, and how to work more closely with employers and enterprises within our region to develop the placements needed.

Overall, this is an interesting paper, with some different ideas – if nothing else it makes clear the necessity to develop graduate employment in local economies that are not just based in London!

The rationale for equality and diversity

A new publication out this week, from the Equality Challenge Unit is “The rationale for equality and diversity: How vice-chancellors and principals are leading change”.

As someone who has blogged in the past on BME student success issues, and has done a small amount of work in my own institution on this, I though it would be useful to see how leadership might influence how universities are tackling the various diversity and equality agenda.

In his blog, David Ruebain, chief executive of ECU, writes:

“Achieving equality and diversity through changing your institution’s culture and practices takes time. Meaningful change requires strong leadership and an understanding that equality is an integral part of a university’s mission.”


“..we wanted to look at why some universities and some senior leaders are more successful in advancing equality and diversity than others. Our summit partners were keen to explore what made these institutions stand out from the crowd: what drives these leaders to become proactive and public champions of equality and diversity?”

The report then covers the research aims and methodology; the institutional drivers for equality and diversity; personal drivers for vice-chancellors and principals, and evidence of benefits and impact including overall performance, globalisation, modernising learning, minority ethnic staff and students, widening participation and women in senior academic roles. case studies from 12 universities are presented to back up the research findings.”

Looking at the institutional drivers: ecu1

It is perhaps telling that that respondents considered that creating an inclusive environment for students was the most important, and seeking external recognition was the least important.

Interestingly, the personal drivers of VCs were considered and “this translated into a concern to increase attainment levels and reduce any gaps between different types of students (for instance, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, or from minority ethnic backgrounds).”

Certainly my own passionate belief that in this institution we need to work more to understand why students with a BME background do not achieve in the same way as their white counterparts is driven by my own views of social justice and family history. Even this week I have been shocked by comments about how or why different groups perform and how important or unimportant this might be as an issue.

A number of universities had revisited their teaching and learning strategies, to ensure that they were inclusive, and had seen benefits that were experienced by all students. When Winston Morgan spoke to our Learning and Teaching Conference earlier this year, he highlighted that many of the action we may take to reduce the attainment gap between white and BME students will often improve the quality of education for all, and actually maintain the gap.

The recommendations from the report are primarily for VCs and leaders – how to use personal leadership, how to involve governing bodies and how to hold leaders to account against progress, recommending the need to “walk the talk”.

Looking at the individual case studies, then a few highlights for me on BME student attainment are as follows:

Wolverhampton University: a student-related objective is to increase the proportion  of BME students awarded 2:1 degrees. Attainment champions have been appointed in a number of schools. There are also objectives to close employability gaps for BME and  disabled students.

Kingston University: To send a strong message about commitment to equality, Bonnie Greer was appointed as Chancellor. With BME students accounting for more than half of the undergraduate population, their higher attrition rate and  attainment gap is a significant challenge that the 2012-2016  strategy seeks to address. An objective has been set to increase the proportion of BME undergraduate students achieving a first or 2:1 degree to 54.9%. Other measures include an increase in retention and progression rates for BME students. Energy is also being put into improving employability by setting
up an employability advisory panel and developing strong relationships with major employers.

Oxford Brookes: the university is taking a data-driven approach and has
undertaken in-house research into BME student attainment in order to drive the work on enhancing the student experience.

In conclusion – a useful addition to the canon of material on how to tackle equality and diversity issues, with a strong message that leadership can make a significant difference.

In terms of BME student attainment, then linking the importance of leadership and the need for data driven approaches, to the very clear recommendations from the research of Winston Morgan (around entry tariffs, assessment types, how well the academic staff and leadership reflect the demographic of the student population etc) would mean that a university would be able to identify the steps it needs to take to work towards reducing the attainment gap.


Quality Assessment in HE

An interesting week for the wonks, as HEFCE announced that it was reviewing the arrangements for quality assurance in the sector, stating:

“UK higher education is undergoing rapid change. Our future quality assessment arrangements must continue to be internationally respected, to have the confidence of students, and to support a world-class HE sector.
We are looking to develop innovative approaches that are risk-based, proportionate, affordable, and low burden. Any new arrangements must build on established strengths and good practice, including institutions’ own robust quality assurance systems, and reflect the values and cultures of higher education. They will also need to demonstrate value for taxpayers’ and students’ money”

and after feedback from various stakeholders, will put the work out to tender.

Obviously, QAA (the current provider of Quality Assurance) had something to say:

“QAA has internationally recognised expertise in providing quality assurance and enhancement to an exceptional standard. In recent years, we have continued to adapt the quality assurance framework to meet the needs of a growing and dynamic sector, working with HE, FE and alternative providers. We look forward to continuing the development of quality assessment, protecting the public interest and supporting the UK higher education sector’s international reputation for excellence.”

Clearly assuming they’ll get the contract, or at least pointing out what a good job they have done so far.

And our university mission groups chipped in, with somewhat inevitable responses.  The Russell Group said:

“Universities with a strong track record of success which have been delivering high quality education for a long time should be subject to considerably less inspection and bureaucracy than newer institutions.

“Our universities will not flourish if they are over-regulated. Resources should be focused where problems of quality are most likely to occur.”

While million+ came up with:

“Vice-Chancellors will clearly want to be involved in this review but HEFCE needs to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. While there have been concerns about the QAA’s modus operandi, the system is certainly not broken and has the advantage of being UK-wide in scope and internationally recognised.”

I think the two mission groups said exactly what we would expect them to. I do wonder who the Russell Group are thinking of as “newer institutions”. That wouldn’t be former polytechnics with a 100 years of HE history would it? Or does it mean the real new kids on the block, the private providers and FE providers of HE?

Quality assurance arrangements may seem arcane, but all of this does matter, and as David Kernohan identifies over on his blog, it matters to every academic. Quality assurance can be seen as an evil which is inflicted upon institutions, and by institutions onto their staff, but the basic principles outlined in the QAA code of practice are eminently reasonable.

The devil of course is in the details: firstly how individual universities choose to interpret the code and operationalise quality through a series of managerial interventions, and secondly how an review of a University’s “quality” can be anything more than a review of its QA processes.

Seeking a system that is “risk-based, proportionate, affordable, and low burden” might come as pleasant music to the ears of someone buried deep in generating a monitoring report that will be read by few, and followed up by fewer, but for the burden to be reduced internally within universities, then a clear steer will be needed on what processes can be simplified and reduced (or, dare I say it  – removed). If the assessment regime is to be risk based and proportionate, then maybe institutions need to look inside to their own processes and make sure that these too are risk based and proportionate.

It would mean developing criteria to assess and score risk – but with the development of data on award performances in terms of inputs and outcomes, student evaluations, coupled with a business risk analysis (with on-campus teaching low risk, compared to overseas in a language other than English), then this should not be ijnsurmountable.

It would mean a QA system where an approach of “one size fits all” would no longer apply, but it might allow some staff to spend less time on activities that can become mindless busywork, and focus more on the real work of a university – generating knowledge and helping students to succeed.

The Zombies are Back

Previously on this blog, I wrote about the work of Mike Boxall of PA Consulting, and his work which suggested that universities could be split into broad groups of Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies. In fact, Mike came to our Leadership Conference this year to talk about this very topic.


Last week on this blog I wrote about the idea of marginal gains, and this prompted discussion online and face to face with various people. One of the comments on  my blog was a reference to the work of Miles and Snow, who created a typology of the various strategic approaches that organisations can take. This prompted me to go away and read  a little about this, but also to have  a conversation where we could start to build a  linkage between ideas of Mile and Snow, and of Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies.

With that in mind, and recognising that the UK HE system or market is in a state of flux, it might be worth revisiting what Mike Boxall has been saying recently, and also to look at what is happening with a couple of universities who maybe don’t qualify as innovators or oligarchs.

Mike has revisited the PA report from the summer, which was the annual survey of VC’s attitudes and opinions:

“The responses showed most vice-chancellors to be deeply pessimistic about the outlook for student recruitment and research funding, and predicting widespread institutional failures and mergers. Yet they were almost universally bullish about the prospects for their own institutions’ ability to secure growth and profits from those same problematic sources”

“We have in effect moved from a closed, stable and largely harmonious HE ecosystem to a new open and disrupted market in which the relationships and interdependencies between the internal and external life of universities are being redrawn in real time. This is putting vice-chancellors under new pressures. Wearing their representational hats, they find themselves fighting rear-guard actions against government policies that actively damage the interests of their institutions, such as visa restrictions on overseas students. Meanwhile, wearing their managerial hats, they must persuade their academic communities to recognise that the market genie will not be put back in the bottle, and that they need to reinvent their business.

It is not surprising therefore that surveys such as PA’s reflect apparently contradictory messages from vice-chancellors. On the one hand, they are telling government ministers, who “seem not to be bothered”, that their policies are jeopardising the HE system as we have known it. At the same time, they are telling their institutional stakeholders that there is a bright future beyond Student Number Controls and Resource Allocation Budget charges, if only they can overcome their deep-seated aversion to change”

With this is mind, it’s salutatory to look at two universities in the news in the last week or so.

Firstly, Glyndwr. This week the Times Higher ran a piece suggesting that there were possible merger talks between Glyndwr and Bangor. No evidence was provided, but it was an opportunity for the press to reiterate the problems at that institution – the vote of no confidence in the VC, the poor financial situation and the loss of Highly Trusted Status from UKVI. A zombie maybe?

Contrast this with London Metropolitan. Rarely out of the news last year, London Met has a new VC, formerly of Oxford Brookes, who has taken on the job that some have described as the toughest in HE. Alternatively, it could be viewed as one of the most exciting. As a welcome gift, UKVI reinstated Highly Trusted Status. As reported in the Times Higher, John Raftery has identified a clear strategy for the institution that includes: improving student experience so that a rise in NSS will have a positive effect in league tables; paying st dent mentors to support those in the year below them; embedding work placements in all awards, and also questioning if the entry tariff should be raised (something else that would improve elague table position. Not rocket science, but clear and focused.

So we can see that futures aren’t fixed – zombies might not necessarily always be zombies, and a clearly focused strategy can help with that.

In terms of Miles and Snow, with their typology of defenders, analysers, prospectors and reactors, then London Met seems to be moving firmly into the position of analyser (work, which in truth was already happening with their previous portfolio review work).

In terms of comparison with Mike Boxall’s work, then the place that no-one wants to be is that of reactor (or zombie). An interesting challenge in the last year was the change in SNC announced in the Autumn Statement – no-one forecast it, no-one had a strategy readily in place to deal with it, and so all universities had to react to a significant change in the external environment. What will be interesting in a year’s time when this change has had an impact, is to see who just reacted, and who carried out the analysis to develop a strategy to respond successfully. (My thoughts on this were on my blog).

As always, we need to be in position where we are at least analysers, and ideally developing into either a prospector or innovator.No-one wants to be a reactor or zombie.

Blog supplemental

My colleague, Peter Jones (Head of Psychology Sport and Exercise) has also blogged today about strategy inc Miles and Snow.

Lots of data about HE in England!

This one is for the wonks.

HEFCE has published a set of interactive charts on its website on Higher Education Provision in England.

According to the HEFCE site, Professor Madeleine Atkins, HEFCE Chief Executive, said:

‘As the Government seeks to ensure that economic recovery and growth is more evenly shared across different localities and industry sectors, universities and colleges continue to play a critical role in supplying a highly educated and skilled workforce, providing opportunities for individuals while meeting the needs of the economy and society.

‘The data shows us that the issues associated with HE cold spots can often be complex. Higher education providers, working collaboratively with their local enterprise partnerships, will be able to use this powerful new toolkit to establish a detailed picture of HE in their localities, enabling them to identify any gaps in provision, participation and the supply of graduates. This provides a strong evidence base to explore potential solutions for delivering local economic recovery and growth.

‘Universities and colleges play a key role as economic and social ‘anchors’ in their local and wider communities. Working with local partners in this way to reach a joint understanding of the issues that affect them collectively, they can make an important contribution to the ongoing development of Strategic Economic Plans, and also, of course, to decisions about where and when to invest different forms of funding.’

The maps show that there appear to be HE “cold spots” in: border areas between England and Wales; along the Cumbrian coast; Humberside and North Yorkshire; from Kent to the Wash, and the south-west.

Looking at the interactive maps in detail we can see that for the West Midlands students traveled an average of 41 miles from home to their institution, and 30 miles from home to graduate employment. Only students in London traveled less from home to work.

71% of graduates whose home was the West Midlands ended up working in this region (only the North East and North West have a higher number of graduates returning to work in their home region. However, when looking at where graduates who studied in the West Midlands ended up working, then only 57% were retained in the region.

Looking at subject level data, it’s notable that in terms of student numbers, Staffordshire punches above its weight in terms of the numbers of STEM students (I’ve excluded Birkbeck from this sheet just so I could get a screengrab), but there are few unis above us in terms of numbers enrolled.hefceparticipation1


We’re also pretty big in terms of new entrants to technology awards too.


So, in summary, here’s a resource from HEFCE that brings together data that is available elsewhere, for instance HEIDI and  DLHE,  but possibly less easy to visualise. Using the website and the downloadable app for graphing means that some quick comparisons can be created to show how, for instance, relative strengths of subject areas.