Guardian University Guide 2016

The latest Guardian University Guide has just come out.. This is the league table that doesn’t have any reference to research impact or intensity in its metrics, and so is the one used by universities who focus on being teaching led institutions.

A lot of emphasis is given to student experience, through the outcomes of the National Student Survey, and entry grades are dealt with twice – firstly in the details of entry tariff, and secondly in the measure of “value added”, which is an assessment of good degrees, but related to the entry grades of individual students. It’s notable that in previous years, Oxford had the highest value added score, so it is more a measure of good degrees than an assessment of supporting widening participation.

The headlines from this year’s guide are:

Cambridge remains in the top spot, with Oxford second

Coventry rises to 15th, placing it above some Russell Group universities, and making it teh highest placed post 92 university. How do they do it?

John Latham, vice-chancellor of Coventry University, says the university’s success is down to its focus on students’ needs. “We’re a modern university, but not just in the sense that we haven’t been around for as long – we’re very modern in our approach. We’re challenging the system. We’re bringing in new forms of pedagogy and listening to students.”

The university has three objectives: “teaching students well, making sure that students are listened to, and making sure they get good jobs at the end of their course,” says Ian Dunn, deputy vice-chancellor for student experience at Coventry.

Other big winners – Hull go up 21 places, Liverpool John Moores 22 places, De Montfort 20 places, Roehampton 22 places, Leeds Trinity 27 places, Sussex 24 places, Falmouth 22 places.

Going the other way – Northampton drop 17 places, Derby 23 places, UWE 30 places, UCLAN 18 places, Plymouth 19 places, Glyndwr 39 places.

Staffordshire University rise 7 places to 83rd – a third year of steady rises through the table, with better SSR results, improved value added and satisfaction with teaching.



Guardian Survey of Academic Staff

On the Guardian website today are the results of their recent survey of attitudes of staff in UK universities.

In the accompanying article, Nick Hillman of HEPI has said the results need to be treated with caution, and that eh changes in funding post 2012 and subsequent higher fees do not seem to have reduced the pressure in the academy. Since the change in fees did not necessarily mean a change in university income (depending on subject costs and fees charged) then this may not be  altogether surprising. Even where income may have risen, significant amounts have been specter across the sector in recent years on capital projects.

In terms of what staff said then:

  • 37% are unhappy or very unhappy. But 40% are happy or very happy!
  • top three things a university should prioritise ; learning and teaching (52%), research (45%) and  along way back in third, student experience (28%)
  • 48% think teaching is valued,(44% in RG, 53% in post 92)
  • bu only 20% think teaching has become more valued in light of recent reforms
  • 52% think the student experience agenda has led to a fall in academic standards (rising to 56% in the post 92 sector)
  • and 52% of staff in post 92s have felt under pressure to bump up student grades
  • 50% of staff in post 92 s don’t think that universities should increase their student numbers further

Lessons from this?

An area for all of us to be aware of is the feeling that staff may feel pressurised to raise grades. We do a lot of work around raising student attainment, but the bottom line is that we award marks for what has been achieved, not to satisfy some arbitrary number of good degrees. The focus has to be on making sure that we give our students the best possible opportunities to be successful, as we know the usefulness of a higher degree classification when looking for graduate employment.

It’s interesting that staff put the areas for priority as learning and teaching, followed by research, with student experience a long way behind.  This may be explained by the survey result that the “student experience agenda” has led to a fall in academic standards.

I’m not sure I agree with this simplistic approach – just because we are student focused, and making sure that students have the best possible experience when with us (and that includes being challenged as well as supported, through their learning) does not mean a drop in standards. Being prepared to offer a great student experience is not the same as being prepared to give our degrees away.

No-one benefits from a drop in academic standards – the reason degrees are classified, or why their are systems such as GPA, is to provide some level of differentiation, so moving to a position of “all shall have prizes” doesn’t help individual universities, the sector, or most importantly our students.


A post-election blog

After an election result that surprised many, we have a single party in power with a majority instead of the expected coalition or minority government. How easy the size of the majority will make it for legislation to be passed is to be seen, but it is worth revisiting the Conservative Party manifesto to remind ourselves what their plans are that will affect Higher Education, and how we might respond to this.

International Students

We will reform the student visa system with new measures to tackle abuse and reduce the numbers of students overstaying once their visas expire. Our action will include clamping down on the number of so-called ‘satellite campuses’ opened in London by universities located elsewhere in the UK, and reviewing the highly trusted sponsor system for student visas. And as the introduction of exit checks will allow us to place more responsibility on visa sponsors for migrants who overstay, we will introduce targeted sanctions for those colleges or businesses that fail to ensure that migrants comply with the terms of their visa.

It would appear that students are still likely to be included in net migration figures, which potentially damaging to university incomes. Equally concerning is the line above which is transferring the responsibility to visa sponsors (ie universities) for those who overstay. This is a significant change to the role of a sponsor – being responsible while a student is with us is understandable. Being liable for sanctions of what individuals choose to do post course is concerning, and the detail will be needed. I expect that UUK and the mission groups will continue to press the case that international students are a benefit to the universities in which they study, and bring economic benefits to the communities in which they live.


With a referendum on EU membership to take place in 2017, universities are already stepping up their campaign to show the importance of Europe for both research funding and students. UUK have already started their campaigning. Despite the incoming Prime Minister being pro-Europe, there are significant numbers of sceptics in his own party, and we shouldn’t dismiss the large numbers across the country who voted for UKIP, and who would vote to leave Europe. This is an area where we can expect to see individual universities, as well as their mission groups and representative bodies, lobbying hard.

Tuition Fees

The Coalition government raised the cap on tuition fees to £9000, with the outcome that nearly all universities in the public sector charge this, or very close to it.

From the manifesto we have:

Our reforms to university funding mean you do not have to pay anything towards tuition while studying, and only start paying back if you earn over £21,000 per year. We will ensure the continuing success and stability of these reforms, so that the interests of both students and taxpayers are fairly represented. We will also introduce a national postgraduate loan system for taught masters and PhD courses.

As part of electioneering, the Labour Party suggested that the Conservatives would raise the fee cap to £11,500. No-one has acknowledged this, however a rise in fees was not ruled out by William Hague.

The implication for individual universities might depend on where they sit in terms of league tables, and attractiveness to full time undergraduate students. There will be those who will be able to show that the market allows them to charge an increased amount. Others, however, might be challenged more on the value for money that they provide, and so we may see a wider range of fees being charged.  This was the intention when the £9k cap was introduced, so maybe a higher cap will encourage more marketisation.

It’s pleasing to see  a commitment to loan schemes for postgraduate study, bu these will lead to high marginal tax rates for those who take them, possibly limiting the attractiveness to just the debt-averse and likely high earners.

 Learning and Teaching

We will ensure that universities deliver the best possible value for money to students: we will introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality; encourage universities to offer more two-year courses;

Articles have already appeared in the press about the idea of a teaching REF”. It will be interesting to see how teaching quality is to be assessed. Current tools such as the NSS only provide a proxy, and I can’t imagine a return to the days of QAA visits with teaching observations, at least not if the universities’ remit remains in BIS.

We will encourage the development of online education as a tool for students, whether studying independently or in our universities.

David Willetts was very keen on MOOCs, and promoted the work of FutureLearn. An expansion of online education, more usefully described as technology enhanced or supported learning, is a no-brainer – technology will continue to play an increasing part in learning, as in so many other industries and services

Data for prospective students

….require more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates.

This is a concerning one – if you are a university whose students are highly employable, and who get the cream of the graduate jobs, then the data to prospective students which can be garnered from Student Loan Company records as well as tax receipts, will be a benefit. If, however, you are the kind of university whose mission is more focused on widening participation, on teaching students who have low social capital, then this development in data availability will provide no favours. I would expect million+ to be paying particular attention to this, as the reduction of university education to something that is measured as nothing more than an individual economic benefit is a diminution of what we actually do. The recent work by McGettigan is worth reading on this.

 And more generally

Through the Nurse Review of research councils, we will seek to ensure that the UK continues to support world-leading science, and invests public money in the best possible way.

There is always the question of how well the science and research budgets will be ring-fenced, particularly with the further cuts to come. It may be they will be protected in cash terms, if not against inflationary pressures.


The final big question is where the remit universities will sit. BIS is going to be asked to make major savings, and it could be that universities move to the Department for Education. Those observations of teaching and an Ofsted style regime might be more likely if this is the case.

Savings will have to be made, and one area that is vulnerable is the money for widening participation, or the Student Opportunity Fund. This will disproportionately affect million+ universities, although the justification for its removal will no doubt point to research that shows that raising fees has not reduced the numbers applying from WP households, although from the BBC website:

“It is incontrovertible that growth in participation in higher education by disadvantaged young people is disproportionately to lower tariff providers and through using BTECs,” says the Ucas admission service’s analysis of the 2014 intake.

What do universities do?

If I knew the answer to that, I’d be doing a different job! But these are my starters:

  • Market research to identify fees that could be borne by the market
  • Internal benchmarking of employability and graduate salaries (where possible) to pre-empt new data sets
  • Impact assessment of increasing fees vs possible reducing numbers
  • Impact assessment of removal of SOF, and what fee level would be needed to replace the income
  • A better understanding of student entry characteristics, including entry tariff and type, leading to learning and teaching approaches that are tailored to enable these students to succeed
  • Developing a strong narrative about the benefits of being in Europe for the HE sector
  • Developing a strong narrative about the benefits of international students to the HE sector – and making friends will all MPs who have a university in their constituency to make sure they are fully aware.
  • Identify internal mechanisms to demonstrate teaching quality – better for the sector to develop this itself.

What is still not clear is how universities might be regulated, how quality mechanisms will operate in future, and how the regulatory and quality regime will be changed to encompass the more diverse range of providers.

All in all, there’s going to be a lot of change – but we already knew that, didn’t we?



It’s all about the money, money, money

This week HESA have published the latest details on expenditure by universities, with details of this for 2013-14. As an institution we have just gone through our own internal budget meetings and so it’s interesting to see how the money is spent across the sector.

hesa13-14 expenditure


Firstly, lets just consider the size of expenditure. For 2013-14, this was £29.4bn against income of £30.7bn, up from £25.8bn against income of £26.8bn in 2009-10.

As we go into election week, this is a reminder of the size of the sector and its growing importance to the economy, as well as the non-financial benefits of higher education that accrue to both the individual and to society.

The Times Higher reports on the data, identifying that the average surplus has gone up in the last year, and that the surpluses “support the view that the sector as a whole is financially sound”.

From that article, Phil McNaull, director of finance at the University of Edinburgh and deputy chair of the British Universities Finance Directors Group says

that surpluses should not lead people to think that things were now rosy.

“People look at organisations making a surplus and they think ‘profit’; they think you’re OK,” he says. “They don’t understand that you need to make surpluses to fund the future.”

And the future does hold challenges for the sector. Chief among them is the demand for capital spending, which is already evident on a walk around most university campuses: the growth in the number of shiny new buildings reflects how improving the student experience has become a priority amid an increasingly competitive recruitment environment.

I think we are all well aware of this, and that’s why the proposed new developments for our Stoke on Trent campus, on top of the work already carried out mean that we will be able to offer a great student experience in a city centre campus.


What will universities be for?

There’s nothing like a Bank Holiday weekend to make a start on a blog article on a subject that plenty of others have written on in the past, more eloquently and better researched no doubt. I’m thinking of Cardinal Newman, and more recently Stefan Collini.

Newman said that the purpose of a University is:

“An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit. This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching. This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students.”

More recently, Stefan Collini has tried to reinforce the need to answer the question “What Afe Universities For”, by looking beyond a

“public perception of universities (that) focuses too much on their teaching role”


“they have become an important medium for conserving understanding extending and handing on intellectual scientific and artistic heritage.”


“This wider perspective may help us become more aware of the limitations of treating economic growth as the overriding test of value”

However much of this post is prompted by recent publications by two other writers, Joanna Williams, of University of Kent, and Andrew McGettigan, author of The Great University Gamble.

At a time when we are preparing ourselves for an HE future that will be shaped by the outcome of this year’s General Election, when so many universities are focussing on their finances, their ability to provide the necessary “student experience”, their contribution to improving student employability, then these writers challenge us to think again about what higher education is about.

Higher education, according to all of the recent major party manifestos is expressed in terms of the financial benefit to the individual (and hence to society through increased tax revenues, and repayment of tuition fee loans). However, previous work from the the Department of Business, Industry and Science – who have been responsible for universities – has shown in “The Benefits of Higher Education Participation for Individuals and Society” that people who attend university are less likely to commit crime, drink heavily or smoke, and  are also more likely to vote, volunteer, have higher levels of tolerance and educate their children better than non-graduates”. The BIS report identifies a range of market and non-market benefits and whether they relate to the individual or society.

Joanna Williams captures the rationale for celebrating higher education in a short piece for Palgrave where she says:

“The idea of the ‘student as consumer’ is derided by academics and commentators alike but it can seem as if there are few intellectually inspiring visions of higher education on offer to young people today. To celebrate higher education we need to move beyond mundane ‘skills for employability’ and to stop drawing a trivial financial equivalence between tuition fees and posh cups of coffee. Rather than focusing upon student satisfaction and the customer experience, universities need to promote the knowledge, ideas and understanding that only they can provide.”

Andrew McGettigan takes a focused look at the treasury view of HE in a new paper for PERC at Goldsmiths where he states:

The focus of policy has been the transformation of higher education into the private good of training and the positional good of opportunity, where the returns on both are higher earnings. Initiation  into the production and dissemination of public knowledge? It does not appear to be a concern of current policy.

He highlights that the Treasury view of higher education is based on the concept of human capital investment, where ultimately the information on salaries earned by graduates from individual subjects at universities, based on tax receipts and levels of payment of student loans will become a factor provided to allow decision to be made about where to study. Recent legislation has provided a series of measures to enable this that:

will also help to create an incentive and reward structure at universities by distinguishing the universities that are delivering the strongest enterprise ethos and labour market outcomes for their students.

This will provide data on the repayment rates for different subjects at different institutions, as well as the promotion of “value added” as being based purely on graduate earnings. No doubt this will then provide a new series of value judgments about universities based on metrics rooted in monetarist theory.

McGettigan questions how academics might challenge this new orthodoxy;

The risk is that academics seeking to resist this further privatisation of knowledge will be cast as vested interests seeking to protect an old, inadequate system lacking in transparency. We will end up on the wrong side of the argument. The difficulty: How to articulate what is threatened? How to defend forms of knowledge which are not subordinate to private returns? Academic freedom and autonomy now face a more pressing, insidious, financialised threat than the traditional bugbear of direct political interference. But all this may prove too abstract for effective resistance.

McGettingan cleary states that he does not have a “glib solution”, but that maybe academics (and indeed universities) could challenge the key definition of institutions as providers of

undergraduate study as a stratified, unequal, positional good dominating future opportunities and outcomes. What might find broader public support is a vision of higher education institutions that are civic and open to lifelong participation, instead of places beholden to the three-year, full-time degree leveraged on loans and aiming to cream off ‘talent’.

Although universities need to be managed and governed in such a way that they use public and private monies responsibly, from an academic perspective we need to ensure that in the drive to satisfy our neo-liberal paymasters that we don’t lose the other non-financial benefits of HE and the ability of, and indeed need for, education to be transformational, not just in terms of employability, and for the broadest range of students.

At my own institution, as we move from our new statement of strategic intent, to the development of a new University plan, we have  already said that we will challenge and support our students through “the obligation to provide programmes that stretch our students, delivered by critical thinking, pedagogically advanced, scholarship- and research-active academics”

We need to create a narrative that shows how we can transform all of our students into fully engaged members of society who are able to engage with their subjects to the level of challenging established truths, as well as being able to engage with  the broader hopes of the academy. We need to look closely at what we mean by employability, and make sure that we give our students the opportunities to develop the social capital that they need over and above subject expertise and “transferable skills”. A university that is able to stay true to the principles originally expressed by Newman, reinforced by Collini, and recognises the dangers posed by the current limited thinking driven purely by economics will be the university that enables its students to fully engage with their subjects, to be able to challenge and help create new truths and possibly even be more employable.


Stefan Collini: What are Universities for? Publisher: Penguin (2012) ISBN-13: 978-1846144820


Andrew McGettigan “The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment”

Joanna Williams: Celebrate Higher Education