“Good” degrees – but not for everyone

In a recent post I looked at the latest HESA data on the numbers of 1sts and 2(i)s awarded, noting the continued rise, and how these figures feed into the various league tables.

I suggested then that the HEIDI data could be used to see how students from different groups perform – in fact this is how the Equality Challenge Unit annual statistical reports are compiled.

Having looked at the information from the last two years, then we can see the attainment gap for BME students for 2012-13:

HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Classification of first degree
1st and 2(i)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Classification of first degree
1st and 2(i)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Classification of first degree
1st and 2(i)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Other (including mixed)
Classification of first degree
1st and 2(i)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Not Known
Classification of first degree
1st and 2(i)s
Sector Average 69% 45% 55% 62% 44%
Gap 24% 14% 7% 25%


In 2013-14 this changes to:

HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
% 1sts and 2(1)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Classification of first degree
% 1sts and 2(1)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Classification of first degree
%1sts and 2(1)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Other (including mixed)
Classification of first degree
% 1sts and 2(1)s
HE student qualifiers
Full-person equivalent
Ethnicity (detailed 6 way)
Not known
Classification of first degree
%1sts and 2(1)s
Sector Average 71% 48% 58% 65% 45%
Gap 23% 13% 5% 25%


So we can see that the attainment gap across the sector is beginning to close, but its still a work in progress. The data I’ve used to create these summary results does provide results for each institution, however I won’t be publishing that here, as all universities are tackling these matters in their own way, depending on their particular subject mix and student population.

At Staffordshire we’ll be doing some focused work in two particular schools (both of which I am currently seconded to), as these are our schools with the most diverse undergraduate populations. Conversations with our staff have already started to identify differing levels of engagement and attendance, and we are now looking at many of the topics raised by Winston Morgan, in his talk here last year, for instance the use of appropriate examples in teaching materials, the composition of the teaching team and the need to provide positive role models in an institution where the mix of people in power may not fully reflect the student body.

As well as considering ethnicity, we also need to look at how disability can affect student attainment. In general, disability has less of an impact on degree classification than ethnicity, however BME student with a disability are less likely again to gain a good degree, as shown in this data from the most recent ECU “Equality in higher education: statistical report 2013” :

ecu dis eth 1 ecu dis eth 2

None of this is going to be easy, but if we want to ensure success for all students then it’s an issue we need to tackle head on.

Essays on student fees, student engagement and student choice

“What do I Get” is the title of this collection of essays on student fees, student engagement and student choice, published by HEPI.

The title comes from a Buzzcocks song, which prompted a a flurry on Twitter of other possible HE report titles with song titles, which led to my first (and possibly only) reference in the Times Higher.


The book seeks to provide evidence of how institutions are faring in a world of £9000 fees, and how this can vary.

Some gems for me:

Edward Acton, former VC of UEA, explains how that institution developed and celebrated a career track that focused on teaching, which led to an improvement in student-staff ratios. In addition, Grove points out the need to take ownership of, and make real, a weekly study time of 40 hours. On this latter point, in the Faculty I currently work in, we will be doing a lot more work in the next year to make sure that we firstly identify all the student-centred learning that is part of a module, but then crucially, to make sure that this is communicated to our students, and is an integral pat of learning, not just “go and read chapter 2”.

Authors from University of Sheffield discuss how, in 2010, a project ran in the university to prepare for the new fee regime.. One of the outcomes from this was the definition of a Sheffield Graduate – that i,s a series of promises around the 5 themes of: course, personal development, support, community and future. An interesting new development for 2015 is the introduction of inter disciplinary projects for all undergraduates.

Richard Brabner of Hertfordshire considers embedding employability into the curriculum, noting that this is increasinglysomething that students expect from university, Again, a set of graduate attributes are described, but here they are linked to the university’s performance management and spending plans. Departments have to show how attributes are embedded and describe their plans for employability. Senior management can monitor activity, reward success and deal with under-performance.

The final essay I’ll look at here was by Ian Dunn, PVC at Coventry and responsible for the development of Coventry University College. This subsidiary company of the university was set up to provide HE with a different learning, teaching and assessment strategy in order to widen access, and crucially at a lower price. Courses range from foundation years, through to honours degrees. The LTA strategy involve modules being taught intensively over 6 weeks each. For modules which fall below a quality threshold, then detailed action plans are implemented to bring them back on track.

Notable from the various essays are the following:

  • the increasing focus on employability – are we keeping pace with others in the sector on this?
  • the development of graduate attributes – how distinctive are these between individual universities?
  • the increase in use of  performance management tools – how do we ensure we have the right data, and use it for enhancement?
  • provision of foundation year programmes – is the CUC model one that others might choose to replicate?


Say CHEEse

Well, CHEE, anyway.

At a time when HEFCE are consulting on the future of future of quality assurance in the HE sector, and have invited views on a discussion document:

The discussion document contains questions on quality assessment that aim to stimulate wide-ranging discussion and debate on important high-level issues. Its purpose is to explore the deep, critical questions that need to be addressed before the more practical issues surrounding the design and implementation of any new quality assessment arrangements can be considered.

In the second consultation document we will set out clear options for the scope of future quality assessment activities. This will cover the way in which these are underpinned by the powers provided through the statutory and other duties of the funding bodies.

and large numbers of staff at my institution will be spending half a day grappling with the questions in the review, then Universities UK have published their own report calling for changes to HE regulation.

Key recommendations from the report include:

A new approach for protecting the student interest in the rare event of institutional or course closure
The establishment of a register of approved higher education providers, giving the current higher education register greater regulatory status
The establishment of a new Council for Higher Education for England, evolved from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which would lead and coordinate mechanisms to provide assurance of quality, equity and sustainability in higher education (in addition to its funding role)
The indication that necessary changes should be made to primary legislation in order to implement the proposals in this report

Some Cheese

Some Cheese

Pam Tatlow of Million+ has commented on the report, saying:

“There are serious doubts about whether any party will consider a higher education Bill to be a high priority early in the life of the next Parliament and much more likely that improvements in regulation or changes to the fee cap will be delivered by statutory instruments rather than primary legislation. However there are risks in arguing that the regulatory role of HEFCE should be expanded.

“HEFCE remains a significant funder in terms of research as well as providing some direct grant for teaching and its funding role could be increased if fees were reduced and direct grant restored. It would be highly unusual for a regulator to have a major role as a funder. Given there are so many unknowns, proposals to extend HEFCE’s regulatory role may be premature.

“It is also difficult to understand the rationale for subsuming the Office of Fair Access into HEFCE bearing in mind the primary legislation that underpins OFFA. An independent access regulator has been supported by all of the main parties and it is unlikely that any proposal to change this will find political favour after the election.”

UUK propose that the remit of CHEE should be

Funding teaching, research and knowledge transfer
Maintaining the register of higher education providers
Applying and monitoring conditions attached to registration (including continuation of responsibilities for ensuring provision is made for assessment of quality) and applying appropriate sanctions where appropriate and necessary

Leading the coordination of higher education regulation
Working in partnership with the sector to develop mechanisms for student protection

In particular on quality assurance, the report proposes that QA:

i. be premised on co-regulation and co-ownership
ii. be responsive to the new environment, particularly the needs of students, and adopt an approach that is risk based and equitable between different providers
iii. represent value for money for its funders and keep regulatory burden to a minimum
iv. continue to form part of a UK-wide system
v. have a clear focus on academic quality assurance rather than other aspects of the full student experience
vi. have effective and appropriate governance and transparency for students and other relevant stakeholders
vii. ensure quality assurance expectations at a European level can continue to be met and the significance of transnational education recognised.


Th report is strongly supportive of the autonomy of higher education institutions, and in particular the principles of co- and self-regulation. While these are defended, and it is noted that equality dies not necessarily mean equity, the sector does need to remain aware of the questions being asked of it by the Competition and Markets Authority and by consumer groups such as Which?.

Clearly as the HE landscape continues to evolve and become more diverse, and in advance of a possible change of government, then reviewing how we regulate and assure HE is critical. The hope must be that any changes to QA are such that they deliver a process that supports enhancement of teaching and learning as well as research, rather than generating a quality “industry” that generates paperwork, but does little to impact on the majority of participants in HE, either staff or students.





“Good” Degrees

We all know that gaining a good degree is important, perhaps more so now than ever. The increasingly consumerist approach by students might be enshrined in “what do I need to do to get a 2(i)?”, but in many cases this is also accompanied by a commitment to work that was perhaps less of a focus when I first studied. That might be also be attributable to the changing perceptions that students have of their higher education – seeing it as a transaction in which they engage to gain clearly defined outcomes, rather than the wider exploration that HE might have been considered to have been in some non-existent golden era.

A good degree is understood to be a benefit to the individual – it’s likely to help open doors in getting that first graduate job. It’s also beneficial for institutions for their students to be successful in this way: all university league tables include “good degrees” or some variant thereof in their analysis, and so the university that awards high numbers of good degrees can expect to reap the rewards in league table position. Of course there is also virtuous circle effect here – universities that are at the top of the tables may be the most selective, and able to recruit the students with the highest entry tariff scores in the anticipation that they will thrive. Other institutions will argue that they provide a greater amount of value added to students with lower entry grades.

In January, HESA published its first data release, which showed the range of degree classifications as follows:


72% of first degrees undertaken through full-time study in 2013/14 achieved first or upper second classifications compared to 54% of those undertaken through part-time study.

Now that more detailed data has become available through Hedi, then we can look to see how the different institutions perform on this measure – and whose outputs have changed significantly.

So here are the top 10 universities for awarding good degrees in 2013-14:

Institution 2013 % 1sts and 2(1)s 2014 % 1sts and 2(1)s difference
The University of Oxford 92% 92% 0%
Conservatoire for Dance and Drama 91% 91% 0%
Guildhall School of Music and Drama 87% 91% 4%
Central School of Speech and Drama 88% 88% 0%
The University of St Andrews 88% 88% 0%
The University of Cambridge 87% 88% 1%
University College London 87% 88% 1%
Royal Academy of Music 77% 88% 11%
Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine 88% 87% -1%
University of Durham 85% 87% 2%

And at the other end of the results….

Institution 2013 % 1sts and 2(1)s 2014 % 1sts and 2(1)s difference
London Metropolitan University 51% 55% 4%
University of Bedfordshire 48% 55% 7%
The University of East London 54% 54% 0%
Glynd?r University 54% 54% 0%
University College Birmingham 46% 54% 8%
University Campus Suffolk 56% 53% -3%
University of Wales Trinity Saint David 49% 51% 2%
SRUC 44% 51% 7%
The University of Buckingham 43% 51% 8%
The University of Sunderland 54% 50% -4%

For those of us who have an interest in league tables, then the interesting thing to look at will be those universities which have seen significant changes in the percentages of good degrees that they award. Hence we might look to see some league table gains (ceteris paribus) for the following:

Institution 2013 % 1sts and 2(1)s 2014 % 1sts and 2(1)s difference
Leeds Trinity University 56% 69% 13%
Royal Agricultural University 51% 63% 12%
Royal Academy of Music 77% 88% 11%
Bournemouth University 65% 76% 11%
Glasgow School of Art 59% 69% 10%
The University of Wolverhampton 50% 59% 9%

noting that Wolverhampton doesn’t engage in league tables.

The biggest drops are for:

Institution 2013 % 1sts and 2(1)s 2014 % 1sts and 2(1)s difference
University Campus Suffolk 56% 53% -3%
Writtle College 52% 49% -3%
Heythrop College 83% 79% -4%
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland 79% 75% -4%
The University of Sunderland 54% 50% -4%
The Royal Veterinary College 75% 66% -9%
University of the Highlands and Islands 71% 58% -13%

As well as looking at the percentages of good degrees, with a little bit of Heidi magic we can look to see how various student characteristics have an impact on outcomes. A particular interest of mine is attainment of students from a BME background, and in considering how any attainment gap can be reduced. This will form the subject of a later post.

Emerging Technology Trends in HE

This year’s NMC Horizon report on higher education has just been published. This is a collaboration between The New Media Consortium  and The Educause
Learning Initiative. Our own Dave Parkes is a contributor.

Trends that affect technology adoption in HE are identified, along with challenges to adoption and important developments. the developments are identified with suggested times to adoption.


Important Developments in Educational Technology for Higher Education
Time-to-Adoption Horizon: One Year or Less

> Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)
> Flipped Classroom

These two are worth commenting on  – as we are developing new specifications for classrooms across the institution, then clearly we recognise that our students will increasingly be bringing their own technology to class. And when they get there, then they will be expecting to be putting that technology to good use in constructing their learning, not in passively listening to lectures. For that they’ll bring their own technology too, but mainly as a distraction and to engage in other parts of their life.

As the report states, proponent of BYOD cite:

personal mobile device use as a way for students to engage with learning material more effectively; they have instant access to more resources to gain a better understanding of the subjects at hand.202 The BYOD movement is enabling students to learn using the technology with which they are already familiar


However the downside is the danger of reinforcing a “digital divide” and so institutions need to be aware of ensuring all students are able to engage with learning.

Flipping the classroom has been talked abut for many years, and in some subjects, such as design, engineering, computer programming and games design, then this approach has been used for a long time. The support fro the flipped approach is documented as:

Beyond watching recorded video lectures, other technologies such as e-books with collaborative annotation and discussion software enable instructors to be more in tune with their students’ learning patterns. By reviewing the comments and questions that students pose online, instructors can better prepare for class and address particularly challenging ideas. The learning environment transforms into a dynamic and more social space where students can participate in critiques or work through problems in teams

The two trends expected to have an impact in the next year are particularly relevant to SU, as we roll out our new Problem and Practice Based Learning approaches in one of our faculties, at the same time as we are reviewing our technology enhanced learning offer, our teaching room specification and our information provision.

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Two to Three Years

> Makerspaces
> Wearable Technology

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Four to Five Years

> Adaptive Learning Technologies
> The Internet of Things

Significant Challenges Impeding Technology Adoption in Higher Education

Of as much interest as the potential technologies that will be used, are the challenges to adoption. Some of these remain the same from previous years of the report.

Solvable Challenges: Those that we understand and know how to solve
> Blending Formal and Informal Learning
> Improving Digital Literacy

Difficult Challenges: Those we understand but for which solutions are elusive
> Personalizing Learning
> Teaching Complex Thinking

Wicked Challenges: Those that are complex to even define, much less address
> Competing Models of Education
> Rewarding Teaching

Inevitably people will focus on the problems that are solvable – and the two cited can be linked. The blend of formal and informal learning arises when social media is used effectively, and when we learn to recognise and accredit learning that takes places outside of the usual recognised formal systems. Our approach to volunteering and recognition of work based learning support this. While improving digital literacy is cited as a problem we know how to solve. I’m not quite so sanguine – while staff and students are willing to use technology for many aspects of their lives, and to do so with no instruction, when it comes to using it for education, then sometimes it all seems too difficult. As well as ensuring that we provide opportunities for staff and students to develop digital literacy or fluency, we also need to make sure that our systems are as easy to use as products we use in everyday life.

A final comment on the wicked challenges.  Rewarding teaching is in there again. In a year when the UK has just had the results of the Research Excellence Framework, ,when promotion to professorships are based on research (in fact if not in policy), then we still have some way to goo to provide reward and recognition for anything that is not research based.

One final point – Stephen Downes has taken a look at the report – he criticises the NMC methodology:

We can observe the following trends:

Last-minute predictions of things that already happened open content, ebooks, mobile

Fad-hopping: MOOCs, makerspace, flipped class

One major successful prediction: notably, learning analytics

Failed prediction: gamification, augmented reality, gesture-based

So what does it tell us about the methodology? Mostly, that it sways in the breeze. It’s strongly influenced by the popular press and marketing campaigns. It’s not based on a deep knowledge significant technology developments, but rather focuses on surface-level chatter and opinion. And that is why I think NMC should be obligated to re-examine its methodology.

All valid – but I think one benefit of the NMC report is that provides a starting point for discussions in institutions on how we might prepare for educational futures.

Doing what it says on the tin.

A new publication from Which? came out last week, following on from their last HE report “Degrees of Value”.

This time, the consumer group are focusing their attention on the information that is provided to students regarding course changes and fee changes in “Higher education: a review of providers’ rights to change courses”. In turn this is linked to the guidance provided by the Competition and Markets Authority.

The report is based on FOI requests to universities, and according to the Times Higher:

Of these universities, one in five uses terms that Which? deems to be unlawful and in breach of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations set out by the Competition and Markets Authority. Almost a third (31 per cent) use terms that the consumer-rights charity considers to be bad practice and likely to be unlawful.

The report itself goes on to list universities in various categories: best practice; good practice; needs improvement; bad practice; unlawful practice, and inadequate information.

Leaving aside the idea that institutions can be judged, and indeed named, to have engaged in unlawful practice without any process of law, then there are some important points to take away from this piece of work.

As students increasingly behave in a consumerist way towards higher education, then institutions do need to ensure that they provide accurate information that does not mislead.

However, as I have written before, it is not helpful to consider higher education as a consumerist paradigm, since the “market” does not work in the same way as that for the purchase of other goods or services. Students need to be engaged partners in the learning process, not just passive recipients of knowledge transmission.

Universities are required to map all their processes regarding provision of information to the QAA Quality Code Part C but to cite QAA processes on this matter would be the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Higher education is a dynamic and ever changing area, and so courses do inevitably change with time. There is an opportunity here for institutions to be much clearer about how they manage those changes, and in particular how the student voice is part of that decision. Indeed, students should be part of that co-creation process.

In order to avoid complaints, then as well as providing clear and lawful terms and conditions, universities need to be able to demonstrate clearly to students and others exactly how changes might be made to the range of option modules, the change to a syllabus etc. Although the Which? report highlights negative experiences of students, we have to also recognise that courses change all the time, with the intention that those changes will improve the student experience and outcomes

So, universities do need to be mindful of CMA rules on the information that they provide and  work to the QAA code, but more usefully we should also engage openly with our students on how and why we can work in  partnership to make necessary changes .


Aiming Higher: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy

A new publication out this week from the Runnymede Trust, “Aiming Higher: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy” looks at race equality in UK universities.

As David Lammy MP writes in the foreword:

Given lower admissions rates, degree attainment and employability, BME people will increasingly ask whether or not they are getting equal value for the £9,000 in tuition fees now charged for many courses. While higher education institutions cannot achieve equality by themselves, they must do more to pull down barriers and promote equality of opportunity

This fits with the comment we have made at SU regarding this as a business risk as well as an issue of equality.

A number of authors have contributed to the report, which is presented as a series of essays

To pick out a couple of highlights, Andrew Pilkington of Northampton University writes on “The Declining Salience of Race Equality in Higher Education Policy” and reflects on the efficacy of institutional policies on equality, suggesting that “writing documents and having good policies becomes a substitute for action.”

Pilkington refers to  an ethnographic investigation he carried out of one university in the decade following the publication of the MacPherson report, which considered how “Midshire University” performed against a definition of institutional racism. The original study is available as “Institutional Racism in the Academy: A Case Study” (or you can borrow my copy). On reviewing the state of universities today, Pilkington concludes:

that individuals from minority ethnic communities disproportionately experience adverse outcomes in higher education.And yet universities are extraordinarily complacent.They see themselves as liberal and believe existing policies ensure fairness and in the process ignore adverse outcomes and do not see combating racial/ethnic inequalities as a priority.

Pam Tattlow of Million+ looks at “Participation of BME Students in UK Higher Education”, identifying that “Twenty five per cent of all BME students study at 30
universities compared to an institutional average in the
UK of 16 per cent”. Tatlow goes on to consider the type of universities that have this disproportionate population mix and provides a number of recommendations for the sector:

  • more respect for the university choices made by BME students and the universities at which they study should be acknowledged, valued and promoted
  • government needs to scrap the measure of social mobility introduced by the former Education Secretary
  • whole sector challenge to address the gap in degree outcomes
  • impact of research funding distribution on BME students and staff needs to be addressed
  • too much complacency and too little research about the impact on BME students of the 2012 fee reforms and the reforms in further education

The last essay I’ll highlight is by Gary Loke of the Equality Challenge Unit on “Breaking the Race Inequality Cycle in Higher Education: A Change of Focus is Needed to Break the Statistical Groundhog Day”. as someone who has repeatedly looked at the differences in degree attainment between different groups of students at my own institution, then the idea of Groundhog Day appeals. Loke also refers to the idea of risk, but approaches it from a different angle. He proposes that reputational risk is seen as an excuse for inaction, and alternatively proposes that “we believe that institutions that have the courage to be transparent and openly discuss the challenges of addressing race inequality can enhance their reputation.”. Loke refers to a deficit model, where the focus is on changing the individual, whereas a more effective approach is a change to institutional culture,

However, instigating long-lasting, meaningful culture change is complex. There is no quick fix; to create an inclusive culture the whole institution needs to be involved, with strong commitment from senior leaders, signalling that they are prioritising the equality agenda and will be investing time and resource in pushing forward change.

Overall, a welcome addition to the writing on equality issues in the academy, and should provide plenty to think about, to anyone working in one of our diverse and exciting universities.



What do MPs think about universities?

A new survey has been carried out by ComRes, asking current and possible future MPs about their views on higher education.

Politicians were asked what they wanted to hear about from universities, and also how the rated the performance of universities.

From the ComRes website:

MPs are most likely to say that they would be most interested in hearing from UK universities about their engagement with business and enterprise (43%) followed by the employability of graduates (42%).

Future MPs are most likely to say that they would be most interested in hearing from UK universities about their activities relating to widening participation and improving social mobility, and about the employability of graduates (48% for both).

Of the statements tested, MPs and Future MPs are most likely to say that they are interested in the external work of UK universities, rather than teaching and learning. Just 14% of MPs and 16% of Future MPs say that they would be interested in hearing about the teaching and learning at universities.

When asked about how well universities perform, then while 78% though universities did well at world leading research and 71% though they did well at competing internationally with other HE sectors, only 56% thought universities did well at producing highly skilled and employable graduates and 48% thought they did well at contributing to local employment and the local economy in their areas. More worryingly only 38% thought universities did well at using their funding efficiently (funding from their assets, students, the government and others).

There were also large variations in opinion depending on the political party, so for instance when considering how well universities are perceived on issues that my university might be concerned with, then the results are:

producing highly employable graduates Using their funding efficiently Widening participation
Conservative 46%


33% 47%
Labour 62%


48% 29%

(Other minority parties not shown in results)








So why does this matter?

With an election now 3 months away, then universities need to recognise that with only 24% of MPs thinking that universities perform well on engaging with MPs and other stakeholders, that there is work to be done on making it clear what our contribution is to local and national economies and to show how we create highly employable graduates.

Also, we need to be aware that the two main parties have different preconceptions about what it is that we do well, or otherwise, meaning we might need to tailor our messaging. We might also need to find out what the other, currently minority, parties think.