Why are universities important?

At the time when we wait with bated breath for the Chancellor to announce where cuts to the BIS budgets will come ,Universities UK has produced a timely publication “Why Invest in Universities” to add to the debate, and to reinforce the importance of universities not just to the economy, but more broadly.

As I often write, it’s important that we create a narrative about higher education, not just about the economic benefits to the individual , but just as importantly, the benefits which do not just accrue to the individual but also to wider society and the benefits that are not purely economic.

UUK suggests that the UK should invest in universities because:

• Universities transform people’s lives through education and through the wider impact of their research.
• Universities help students to develop the skills and knowledge employers need.
• UK university research is academically world leading and more cost effective than anywhere else in the world, providing the ideas and inventions on which future prosperity will be founded.
• University research benefits everyone – creating businesses and jobs, enriching society and stimulating culture.
• Universities help to ensure that the UK remains competitive in the global market by supporting greater business innovation and export-led, knowledge intensive growth.
• Universities’ international success helps secure the UK’s share of global growth and influence.
• Universities are anchor institutions in their regions – they are essential for vibrant local economies and are drivers of innovation and business development.
• Universities are major contributors to the UK economy, generating £73 billion of output in 2011 alone.
• Universities have transformed themselves in many ways over the past decade, including becoming more efficient and cost effective

Evidence is provided for each of these assertions, and it’s good to see yet again the commitment to showing the importance of international students to university income. The report suggests that 12% of university income nationally comes from international students, and identifies how this is importance in maintaining provision of certain STEM subjects. However, the report also acknowledges the growth in the market for international students in Australia, Canada and USA, who are expanding relative to the UK. Referring back to last week’s blog piece on the recent PA Consulting report on how well the UK sector can face global challenges, this seems to be one where external factors rather than internal issues are holding us back.

As we sit and wait for the changes to the BIS budget, this report helps identify the successes of UK higher education, identifying that universities want to:

1. Provide high quality education that meets the UK’s knowledge and skills needs
2. Provide opportunities for all people with the ability and motivation to study at university to be able to do so
3. Deliver world-class research and support innovation
4. Support the UK’s regions and provide opportunities for businesses to enhance their innovation capacity
5. Attract investment and talent from abroad, and maintain the UK’s international competitiveness in foreign markets

and specifically looking at the second of these, the report proposes that government should

“continue to invest, along with universities, in funding
to support social mobility; the allocation of this funding
should recognise the importance of attracting students
to university as well as supporting a diverse student
body while they are studying”

I think we are all waiting to see whetherr the funding for social mobility through the Student Opportunity Fund will continue – if it is reduced, this could have significant impact on those institutions who recruit large numbers of widening participation students, both in terms of their budgets, but more importantly in how they are able to continue to provide transformation learning.


Data, data everywhere

A welcome publication this week from the British Academy “Count us In” identifies the importance of the ability to understand and interpret data in the 21st Century.

The ubiquity of statistics makes it vital that citizens, scientists and policy makers are fluent with numbers. Data analysis is revolutionising both how we see the world and how we interact with it.

This new report from the British Academy offers a vision of how the UK can rise to the potentially transformational challenge of becoming a data-literate nation.

Within this are two clear messages for a university. Firstly how we make sure that the graduates that we produce are able to work and function in a data literate society, and secondly how we as an organisaton become more data literate.

Universities have traditionally been influenced by the liberal arts – and I will always defend the importance of developing high level critical thinking skills through a liberal education.. Howver, this in  turn has influenced how we might define what is to be a graduate, with a focus on communication, reflection and team working. However, few universities have developed their definition of graduate skills or more recently graduate attributes to explicitly explain how a graduate will be numerate, be able to handle data and be able to make decisions based on proper analysis. More surprising, is that this flies in the face of the skills that we know that employers value. We would have to ask why we have shied away from putting quantitative skills front and centre.

The report from the British Academy envisions:

 a generation of citizens, consumers, students and workers as comfortable with numbers as they are with words, confidently engaging with data in a future driven forward by technological development and a drive for international competitiveness.

and in doing so recognises the need for cultural change at all levels of the education system.


For UK universities, the key messages in the report are:

  • the need for universities to send signals to school on the importance of quantitative skills
  • the need for it to be normal for science,social science and humanities students
    to have developed significant quantitative skills in school, so that universities can then strengthen their entry requirements.
  • the worry that we dilute the curriculum to reflect the current poor level of quantitative skills of students
  • the bigger worry that the changes in course design may reflect weaknesses in the quantitative and data skills of university teaching staff
  • students graduate with little confidence in these skills, which have a negative effect on the businesses they subsequently work for

In terms of moving forward, the proposals from the report include:

  • universities should review and if necessary redesign the content of social science and humanities degree programmes
  • universities need to signal with more clarity what level of quantitative skills is necessary for each course
  • an increasing need for collaboration between universities and employers to work with the  data now collected and generated by the private sector

As well as the need to develop courses that develop quantitative skills, a university must also be aware of their own workforce’s skills. All staff in university might reasonably be expected to be able to handle data to make decisions – for instance through measuring student engagement as a personal tutor, optimsing a timetabling system, predicting recruitment numbers and workforce planning, benchmarking organisational performance through extenral data sets and league tables. The list goes on.

From the BA report, many more people in the workplace need to be able to handle data fluently.However:

a substantial body of case study research suggests that many employees fail to understand fully the quantitative techniques they are using, and lack the ability to recognise obvious errors in their work.


The almost universal investment in technology by private, public and voluntary sector institutions does not negate the need for numerical understanding. Rather, it adds
to it, as people require skills of investigation and interpretation. Nor are quantitative skills deficits confined to less senior employees: it has been estimated that as many as 58 per cent of people in “higher managerial and professional occupations” do not have numeracy skills at GCSE A*–C and above

All of which is worrying, as the report clealry identifies the economic benefits to organisations of being able to use data well.

To improve the situation for companies, the report proposes internal staff development, and engagement by businesses with training providers including FE and HE and taking advantage of apprenticeships.

I hope that this report helps spark more conversation -maybe even a strategic discussion at a committee somewhere –  on the need to improve numeracy, quantitative skills and data analysis.

For a university there are two key main areas to debate:

Firstly, how do we explicitly improve the quantitative skills of all students, and how do we show this  to potential employers that this is the factor that differentiates our graduates?

Secondly, how do we raise the data handling skills of all of our staff – teaching and professional support – to be able to teach and use data in the most effective way for the organisation?

To make a small step forward on this, tomorrow I will be presenting at our “Leading Academics” course on how to use data with the following outcomes:

  • To recognise the importance of using performance data
  • To identify which parts of the performance data set might be a priority for action within own subject area
  • To understand the benefits but also limitations of metrics based approaches

It’s a start.






Willetts – on the benefits and funding of HE

Formerly the minister responsible for universities, David Willetts is now a visiting professor at King’s College, London and last week released a short report on “Issues and ideas on Higher education:Who benefits? Who pays?”.

From the King’s website, the report makes five key recommendations: More cash for students by increasing total maintenance support, whilst saving public spending with a shift from maintenance grants to loans


  • Ensuring any future fee increases, bringing more cash to universities, clearly demonstrates value to the public
  • Freezing the £21,000 threshold for graduates to repay the loan
  • Shifting to a more sensible discount rate for the RAB charge calculations
  • Establishing regular reviews, every five years, of the latest evidence on the costs and benefits of education to set the key figures for the graduate contribution scheme

A pleasing part of the report is the first section on the benefits of HE. At a time when we are always being asked to regard higher education as a private economic benefit, both from outside the academy, and within the institution with a reductive focus and simplistic view of employability above all else, David Willetts clealry articulates that the benefits of HE are both to the individual and society, and are both economic and non-economic. In this he references work from his previous government department of Business Innovation and Skills.


In looking at paying for higher education in England, Willetts reminds us that the current system of loans is not one of commercial loans, and might have been described as a graduate contribution scheme. However the rationale for sticking with slightly misleading terms was:

We did look at this in government but the language of fees and loans had already taken hold. It was how the structure we inherited was described. If we had tried to change it, we would have been in danger of having one official name for it and a separate colloquial description. I did not wish to go back to the days of the poll tax, which ministers were supposed to call the community charge: there was a ragged cheer every time a minister forgot and lapsed into talking about poll tax.

(We wouldn’t have wanted that embarrassment to happen….)

Willetts states that our system of  funding is differentiated from a commercial scheme  through income contingent repayment and universal access for full time students.

In addition to loans or tuition fees, the current system allow for loans for maintenance, and then there are three further items of expenditure.

  • Extra teaching costs for expensive subject, strategic or vulnerable subjects, and teaching disadvantaged students costs just under £2bn per year.
  • Direct funding to students with special needs, maintenance grants or to students who are parents is a further £2bn.
  • Capital funding of £200m per year.

The forth and final category of spending is the Resource Accounting and Budget charge, which probably only David Willetts and Andrew McGettigan fully understand. I suspect they don’t agree with each other though.

The RAB is a measure of the amount of debt that the government will eventually write off based on non-repayment. Willetts explains how it differs from other debt as follows:

However, the government does have to borrow money
now to make the loans to students. This is not regarded as
adding to net borrowing as it is matched by an obligation
to repay the loan – but it does add to net government debt
because the asset which the government acquires, the loan,
is not regarded as sufficiently liquid to count as a financial
asset according to rigorous financial rules. That is why
selling student loans reduces net government debt. If this
leaves you hungry for more detail, the July 2014 Office for
Budget Responsibility (OBR) Fiscal Sustainability Report
has a fuller discussion.

Ok, crystal clear?

The RAB charge s described as being very sensitive to lower growth in earnings, and this is one of the reasons for the rise from 28% to 46%. Willetts argues that the modelling of RAB is more accurate than the system used in other countries, and that to identify a suitable rate for a graduate tax (an alternative HE funding system) would be as difficult, and would also have provided a delay before money started flowing in.

In terms of what to do now, Willetts looks at various other proposals, while remaining with the current system:

What we need is a framework to explicitly adjust the parameters to keep it flexible and sustainable, whilst keeping the basic structure. Such a framework should also avoid endless ad hoc adjustments. Therefore, I suggest that at the start of each parliament the government should assess the latest evidence on the costs and benefits of education, and set the key figures for the graduate contribution scheme. This could be done within government or by an outside panel of experts and interested parties – or some combination. It is emphatically not a review of the whole system. It is not a Robbins or a Dearing or a Browne. Its purpose is not to change the structure of higher education funding. All three political parties, when in office, have recognised its strengths, and structural changes can distract us from uncomfortable tradeoffs. Instead, the aim is to calibrate the structure in the light of new evidence and any change in  political views on the right balance to strike.

The rationale for a 5 year review (linked to parliamentary terms) is given as:

  • matches the main public spending reviews.
  • similar to the system of setting national insurance contribution rates for five years
  • resembles the quinquennial review of the pension age
  • there are limits to how much change and complexity the Students Loan Company can handle,
  • Universities themselves used to be funded with a five year allocation of funding

All in all, a typically well argued defence of the current system for funding HE, together with a clear articulation of the wider benefits of a university education. Howver the emphasis throughout the paper on the need for graduates to pay for their education and not to cross subsidise others (as would be the case with a graduate tax) does maintain the focus on the private rather than societal benefit.

Worryingly though, the government still has to make significant savings from the budget for BIS this year of £450m, and so the existing expenditure on maintenance grants and on support for disadvantaged students starts to look vulnerable. While Willetts shows that not all higher education costs have been privatised, he suggests that “authoritative estimates of the scale of this public support would help tackle this misconception”.

Is it too late to make this plea – we understand the wider benefits of HE, we know that not all funding is yet privatised and the importance of this source of funding, but do we have the right  narrative to explain this, and the right speakers to say it?



Is UK HE lagging behind the global race?

This year’s annual survey of Vice-chancellors and report by PA Consulting has just been published – and for colleagues at Staffordshire, it’s always good to read the work of Mike Boxall, who presented his ideas on Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies at our Leadership Conference last year.

This year’s report, “Lagging behind: are UK universities falling behind in the global innovation race”  takes a different approach – and looks at innovation in HE, and which developments in teaching and learning are seen as important.


So, our VCs think that the UK is lagging behind in every major area of innovation, and propose the following as the reasons for this:

  1. deep seated conservatism of university cultures
  2. constraints of inflexible organisational structures
  3. fragmented and tentative nature of change initiatives
  4. perceived lack of incentives for innovation
  5. improved confidence in resilience of sector
  6. widely held views that current models of HE provision and participation will remain the same for years to come

Even before reading the conclusions of the report – this seems worrying. Senior university leaders think that UK HE is lagging behind global competitors, in an increasingly globalised market, and propose a series of reasons that could explain this. Maybe I misread the memo, but remind me, who is able to lead changes to culture, organisational structures and change initiatives?

The report identifies the paradox between a residing belief that the main university experience in 15 years time will still be the full time 3 year undergraduate degree. Arranged against this are the promoters of “disruption”, led by Clay Christenson and his various acolytes (Sir Michael Barber, Sebastien Thrun et al who believe that “education is broken”).

Somewhere between these two extremes however is where change will actually happen. PA identify 7 themes that they believe will transform HE globally (for more on technology changes, its worth looking at the work of Educause and the NMC Horizon Report).


From the survey, the three themes identified as essential to survival were :

  • technology to transform learning
  • integration with working practice
  • student data analytics

Essential to maintaining competitiveness were;

  • student data analytics
  • integration with working practice
  • curriculum reforms

Technology to transform learning is a given. All of our students arrive at the university with a high level of digital capability.. First year 18 year olds do not remember a life without fast internet, with Google and Wikipedia on hand to provide information. Other students who come from employers will already be used to technology as a key part of their lives. We need to get better at recognising and uderstanding the digital skills of our students, how they differ from our own, and which digital capabilities we need to develop in both staff and students. Walking around with an iPad does not make you a digital native or resident, but realising how you can use it to create, curate and communicate learning is a start.

Data analytics is seem to be crucial for both survival as well as competiveness, which is interesting since use of student data analytics is still limited within the sector, with 2/3 of VCs surveyed saying they had made little or no progress in this area. So far we might have developed plenty of data on students who apply to us through UCAS and universities have developed plenty of market intelligence to drive recruitment, but analytics will mean more information on the performance, attendance and engagement of students. This nascent “big data” approach will potentially provide really useful information to all levels of staff in the organisation, and there are plenty of companies wanting to sell these technologies to the HE sector. Time to beware the snake oil salesmen.

Working with employers and accreditation of work experience are approaches that will be readily recognised in the sector by newer universities, although maybe more of  a challenge to understand by the more established residents in the marketplace. An increase in working like this will inevitably mean a greater shift from the traditional three year degree though – which does conflict with the view that this will remain the dominant form of HE.

PA conclude their report with:

The challenge for UK universities is not a failure to recognise the needs and opportunities for innovation, nor is it a lack of evidence for successful innovations elsewhere. Rather it stems from the profound difficulty of innovating in inherently conservative organisations that are still doing reasonably well from their old ways of working. Most universities can point to examples of innovative initiatives in their curriculum, pedagogies and student experiences, but these are almost all localised within the organisation and tentative in their scale and commitment. Meanwhile the core ‘business-as-usual’ of most institutions remains much
as it has been for many years, with diminishing relevance and value to changing student needs and expectations.

In summary, for me this report presents a distillation of key trends, but also a range of frustrations – if we can recognise what the limits are to innovation, then we need to find ways of fixing them and removing the barriers to development.

Technology is  going to be key to future developments, in learning, in analytics and in measuring the performance of an organisation, which reinforces the need for an increase in digital capability at all levels in a university organisation, as well as having a clear technology vision and strand to any operating plan.



2015 Student Academic Experience Survey

This year’s survey on Student Academic Experience has just been published by HEPI and HEA.

Under the headlines outlined by Nick Hillman of HEPI:

‘Course quality depends on more than contact hours and class size, but students do care deeply about these issues. They are notably less satisfied when they have fewer than 10 contact hours and classes of over 50 students. They also care more about whether their lecturers are trained to teach and have professional expertise than whether they are active researchers.

‘The most striking new finding is that a whopping three-quarters of undergraduates want more information about where their fees go. Providing this is coming to look like an inevitable consequence of relying so heavily on student loans. If it doesn’t happen soon, it could be forced on universities by policymakers.

‘The survey also provides the best available evidence on student wellbeing. Students are less likely to regard their lives as worthwhile and are less happy than others. This suggests good support services, including counselling, should be a priority despite the impending cuts.’

Looking at the results in more detail, there are interesting variations in the responses that students make depending on discipline, and on the type of university that they attend, as well as some useful lessons for us to learn, so I’ve picked out some highights

Overall Academic Experience

The key reasons cited for experience not being as expected were around not putting in enough effort, poor organisation and lack of contact hours


From an institutional perspective we can tackle this by being really clear abou how much work we expect our students to do outside of scheduled classes. Module handbooks and guides need to provide explicit detail on a weekly basis of what work should be undertaken, both to match expectation, but also to explain to students that learning is not an act of passive consumption, but one of active participation

Information, reflections on course choice and value for money

34% of students from England think they have received poor, or very poor value for money, although students with more contact hours and who do more independent study are more satisfied with value for money. As above, we need to make sure we are making it really clear to our students what we expect from them, and what we provide them with.

Interestingly,the students who were the least satisfied about value for money were also those who were least aware of how their tuition fees were spent


Maybe the message is two fold – firstly institutions need to be transparent on how fees are spent, and why they need to cover more than just tuition, and secondly we should be using course level talks and handbooks to reinforce the message to our students on where, how and why we spend our money, and how they benefit.

Workload and Class Sizes

The variations in workload by subject area are not in themselves surprising, with the highest loads in medicine, creative arts and the sciences


What does jump out though is the total number of hours some students are studying.

For instance, if  a student is studying 4 modules of 15 credits each  across 12 weeks, plus 3 weeks for assessment, there would be 600 learning hours in total. This should equate to 40 hours per week. Again, the message for us might be about how to we set that expectaiton?

Quality of Learning and Teaching

In the survey students were asked to comment on three characteristics of teaching staff:

  • whether they have received training in how to teach;
  • whether they are currently active researchers;
  • expertise in their professional or industrial field.

In the press articles that accompanied this publication, much was made of students stating that academic staff should have qualifications in teaching – overall 39% of students ranked this as the most important characteristic.

However, when we look at the different types of universities, this varies substantially:


For a million+ university such as us, then the most important characteristic that students are looking for is relevant industrial or professional experience, which might be expected with the vocational focus of this type of university. While the current government hasn’t proposed regulation of teaching in HE, it did commit to a “framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality”. For us though, we need to focus on making sure our teaching staff have the opportunity to develop and maintain their professional expertise, as much as, if not more so, than gaining teaching recognition.

Finally on this – how would a student know if a member of teaching staff had a teaching qualification?

Students’ views on policy options

Students were asked how universities could save money. The answers are revealing:


Overwhelmingly students would prefer us to make savings on expenditure  on buildings and sports and social facilities, whereas they would not want to see cuts to teaching hours and to student support facilities. This might conflict with what we need to do to recruit students in the first pace – the scale of building and refurbishment in the sector has been huge since the 2012 increase in fee.  This might attract “customers” in the first place, however, it may not be what they really want in the longer term.


As always, this is an interesting addition to the canon of work on student experience. As we are in the process of analysing the results of our own internal Student Viewfinder Survey as well as looking at better ways of getting student evaluations, this may provide an indication of some of the questions we should be answering.

However, for me the key takeaways are:

  • the need to communicate expectations of how we expect students to learn independently
  • the linked need to make sure we explain how they will learn independently and take them to the point that they can do so successfully
  • the need to provide good transparent information on where we spend money
  • the need to support profession practice and for teaching staff to bring this into their teaching
  • the need to make sure we fund what students really need.



Crisis, what crisis?

A fellow blogger and former colleague recently wrote a piece in his Imperfect University series, entitled Apocalypse Now, where he reflected on various recent writings on the future (or not) of the university.

Like Paul, I disagree with the hubristic statements of Sir Michael Barber and Sebastien Thrun and see them as no more than attention grabbing headlines to draw the press to their visions of education that is “broken” and can be “fixed” with technology.

However, even when we ignore the clarion call of MOOC boosters, the academy, in the UK at least, is under threat primarily by changes to funding and the resultant impact on behaviours.

With cuts to the budget of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills of £450m announced it is clear that there will be even less money available from government in future for universities.

After Michael Barber’s paper on “An Avalanche is Coming“, Prof Steve Smith proposed that the true avalanche coming was actually finance.

His words were prescient – the changes to undergraduate student finance and the current loans scheme has made those universities that are heavily reliant on undergraduate income to try to behave in a neoliberal marketised way.

Further, the forthcoming cuts at BIS are almost certainly going to target the student opportunity fund, even at a time when OFFA has written to show the benefits of access agreements on improving access to university.

This week OFFA provided their annual monitoring of access agreements that showed:

  • universities and colleges have met, or are on course to meet in the planned time, 90 per cent of the targets that they set themselves in their 2013-14 access agreements
  • one in three targets has been met three years ahead of deadline
  • 87 per cent of targets relating to disabled students, 87 per cent of targets related to gender and 79 per cent of targets related to ethnicity have been met, or are on course to be achieved in the planned time

Those universities who are the most committed to widening participation, evidenced through their student opportunity fund allocations, are likely to see a large percentage fall in their income. These are also the universities who might be less able to recruit on a national scale, and have missions focused on delivering higher education to their local communities.

Finally, in a recent publication for HEPI on “The Accounting and Budgeting of Student Loans” Andrew McGettigan shows how the financing of student loans is now driving HE policy. Under the options presented to show what BIS must provide to the Treasury, McGettigan suggest the cap on fees could remain to be frozen at £9000 which would not be popular with some if not all, universities, that the repayment threshold could be at a lower salary than £21000, which would be unpopular with graduates. Interest rates, repayment rates and write off rates could all be changed without need for legislation.

In sum, the Treasury appears to have imposed a settlement which requires BIS to improve repayment rates or risk seeing its other spending cut year-on-year. The accounting is pushing policymakers towards certain solutions, which may not be in the general interest of universities and colleges or students. At the very least, they need proper debate because higher education needs public goodwill, not just public money

The financing of higher education continues to create difficulty within the academy and within government. However, as Paul wrote on his blog:

Universities have to look to the long term and have to continue to invest. If we accept the most negative of these prospectuses we would all just give up now. But they aren’t true and we can’t let them be so. Our universities are not collapsing. The Humanities are not dying. There is and will continue to be huge demand for higher education in this country and across the globe.

It is of course much easier to call crisis, to identify failings and to attack, cry betrayal and criticise leaders. Sometimes this is justified. but when it becomes the dominant narrative then we are really not doing ourselves any favours in higher education.

This might apply to the sector as a whole, but within individual institutions we need to be aware of the dangers that marketisation and changes to financing will have on how we plan our futures, how we make sure that universities don’t collapse.

I am not as sanguine as my fellow blogger. I still believe in the need for a university such as the one I work in. I also believe that the current narrative is not favourable to us and we need to be ready to defend ourselves and explain why we are important, beyond the simple “chose a degree, chose a job, choose to pay tax, choose life” narrative. There is a continuous attack on the academy (other than on the “top” universities), on the humanities, on anything that cannot be simply monetised. This will become the intellectual  crime of the century – just pick up a Daily Mail to “read all about their schemes and adventurings”. As we define what we want our universities to be, we mustn’t become complicit:

Who are these men of lust, greed, and glory?
Rip off the masks and let’s see.
But that’s no right – oh no, what’s the story?
There’s you and there’s me
That can’t be right

(lyrics by Supertramp)