New Beginnings

Higher Education is currently entering a maelstrom of change – we are waiting with bated breath the publication of the Green Paper, and as suggested previously in this blog much of what is possibly going to change is intensley political and driven much by the treasury. More early hints appeared on the ConservativeHome website this week:

Johnson’s proposals begin with the student experience. Some University teaching is excellent; too much is “execrable”, to borrow a word sometimes used in the department. To help raise the standard, he wants Universities to be rewarded for better teaching. The metrics used will include lower drop-out rates, good graduate outcomes for disadvantaged students, and an improved national student survey. His friends claim that evidence shows students value better teaching above lower fees: there is an reflection here of Nick Hillman’s finding, over at the Higher Education Policy Institute, that they are “less motivated by student issues, like tuition fees, than has often been supposed”.

and as we know there will be changes to QA processes:

If the new inspection body is to be the stick, there will also be a carrot. As George Osborne announced in the Budget, Universities that teach better will be allowed to raise fees in line with inflation from next year. Permitting further rises later has not been ruled out. There will be no shortage of objections to all this. Some Universities don’t want to be challenged by new entrants. There will be questions of detail, such as whether the metrics will work. There will be those of principle, such as whether it is really government’s business to tell the Universities how to conduct theirs.

More locally, we have our own disruption, reflecting on ” Smarter Futures”, and looking at the kind of university we want to be in the future as we enter a period of strategic planning. As part of that we are embarking on updating the  Academic Strategy for the university. So far, this has been discussed in various management groups and committees and is about to be available for wider consultation.

The rest of this blog piece will focus on the changes to the learning and teaching section of that strategy. Smarter Futures asks us on: recruitment and retention: challenging and supporting our students; and finally making sure they can achieve and become employable.

Writing a distinctive strategy is never easy – the aims of all universities to an extent can tend to be the same, as has been reported in a blog article on the Times Higher website this week – where it is suggested that a lack of boldness leads to all strategies looking like a whiter shade of pale.

I know that in writing this, we were urged to make sure we strived for excellence.  At the risk of this becoming a race to mediocrity and an “all shall have prizes” mentality, we’ve tried to highlight the areas we we feel we will be excellent, and those key strategic themes that we need to address.

However, we mustn’t lose sight of what a university is supposed to be – we may be driven by various metrics, both internal and external, but there has to be an underpinning commitment to the ideas of scholarship, for both students and academics, if we are to  attract both groups to be part of our community.

We have to support the notion of higher education as a transformational experience, not just a  transactional marketised service. We should be aware that we are changing lives through what we do, and this should influence the way in which we teach. As Thomas Docherty writes in “For the University, Democracy and the Future of the Insitution“:

Facts are, of course, important in teaching; but, if teaching and learning are to be historical, if they are to be allowed to make a difference to people’s lives in such a way as to give those pupils the autonomy necessary for the assertion of their own authorities, then facts become subservient to experience. It used to be ‘a fact’, for example, that the world was flat; but the experience of circumnavigating the globe changes this ‘fact’, and the experience produces new facts that are themselves, in turn, subject to further modification. If learning is anything, it is a process of transformation and most certainly not of transmission or transfer. It is a process in which I can become something, and in which I can become something other than I am at present. Learning puts me in possession of new facts; and it does this not simply by a process of abstract rationalization, but primarily through historical experience.

Working in an environment where still there are confused manifestations of marketisation and consumer behaviour then we should use our learning and teaching strategy to reinforce the broad goals of HE and scholarship, as well as delivering the right outcomes for external metrics. As Joanna Williams concludes in her book “Consuming Higher Education, Why Learning Can’t be Bought”:

Students and lecturers need to be united in the common goal of developing and interacting with disciplinary knowledge. Too often lecturers and students are presented as being on opposite sides with mutually exclusive interests – lecturers perhaps seeking to protect research time, students to ensure a better service.Learning often depends on the relationships between lecturers and students, and such relationships are prevented from developing if opposition is assumed.

Williams ends with questioning the funding for HE but reiterates the need for “the purpose of education (to be) placed at the heart of the university rather than job training or social inclusion”

As a university committed to success of all of our students, we’ve included sections on employability and inclusion but in the context of offering transformational education.

So here are our six themes, and what we mean by them.  We have tried to identify what we want to do, without reducing ourselves to something less than the ideals of higher education.

1.Developing confident and capable learners

Our learning and teaching has to be able to support all students once they arrive with us, and show them how to become lifelong learners.This is the key which will allow the fullest benefits of higher education to be attained. This is where we tall about students engaging with discipline knowledge as well as wider attributes

2.Providing challenging and supportive learning and teaching

We want to create amazing learning environments – both physical and virtual. Lots of work is already going on to change campus, and we need to keep looking at what others are doing. This week for example I visited the new Diamond building at Sheffield University – an incredible space, open 24/7 for student learning and teaching, including laboratories, workshops, study areas and a lecture theatre. We will be making sure all our new rooms, as aprt of Campus Transformation are designed to allow learning to flourish.

Online we need to transform the way we support learners. We have a  generation of first year undergraduates who  went through secondary school, with BBC iPlayer and a smartphone in their pocket that could access the web no matter where they were. Putting PowerPoint slides (that we read out earlier) into BlackBoard won’t cut it any more. I’ll be writing another short piece this week about how we will be embracing digital in future

3.Raising attainment and achievement.

This has been raised many times before in this blog – we want our students to achieve to their maximum potential. We’ve got lots of work already ongoing this year as part of the Raising Attainment Roadmap, but this remains a key strategic focus. Higher education is meant to be challenging, so we want our students to be challenged and then supported to be able to achieve.

4.Developing Employability

This blog has long argued that higher education is a transformational process, not a simple instrument to lead students into jobs. Nonetheless, improved employabiliity is a key outcome of HE, and it could be argued that many of the other benefits of HE that accrue come about partly through enhanced employment opportunities. As well as all the work already ongoing in employability, the new strategy picks up on three key issues: social and cultural capital; numeracy and data handling, and digital fluency or capability, The first will help students get through the door in the first instance, and the second two will provide enhanced skills in two areas that all graduates need today, based on the demands we see from major employers.

5.Delivering innovative learning and teaching

No L&T strategy would be complete without this – for us this means further development of enquiry and practice based learning, more use of alumni and employers in designing authentic learning tasks and an embedding of all the staff development and sharing opportunities that we have, to make sure we all move forwards.

6. Supporting a diverse population of students

As a modern university, we have a more diverse undergraduate body than many. We also have significant numbers of international students, of part time learners, of mature students. We know that we have one of the highest percentages of WP students in the country. In order to make sure that all of our students are able to attain, we will get better at mining our data to be able to identify trends in differential attainment, and build inclusive practice into all that we do, so that all student groups have an equal chance of success.

As well as these 6 themes, our strategy also talks about what it means to be an academic at Staffordshire University, as well as what it means to be a student.  I hope you’ll read and feedback on the detail once it goes out for consultation.


Politics and the TEF

Prior to the general election, I wrote a blog post reviewing the various parties’ views on HE. Following the conservative majority I wrote another piece which concluded with “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”

Following the various party conferences we now enter a period when we await, with bated breath, the green paper on higher education. For an insight into the Conservative conference, then I recommend “Welcome to the Northern Powerhouse of Cards” by Martin McQuillan of Kingston University

There’s little point in looking at the other parties right now – there is not likely to be an election till 2020, and Labour haven’t identified their position on fees, let alone how they will carry out the role of opposition to the green paper.

The Conservatives are in an interesting situation. Cameron as leader, who has acted as a CEO has already indicated his intention to step down. Hence for everyone else it “eyes on the prize”. As deputy CEO, Osborne has been calling the shots on HE policy, since the Treasury is dictating policy more clearly than any other department. May is setting out her stall, and showing clear opposition to overseas students which will win her no friends in universities. Boris is harrumphing around the margins, and looking more widely Hunt is exerting everyone to work harder.Meanwhile, Javid is happy to drive through large cuts at BIS, and we can expect that many of the organisations that currently work in the HE sector may cease to exist.

It’s into this environment, with his boss supporting 40% cuts to BIS, that Johnson will need to produce  a green paper and ultimately drive legislation through parliament

All of a sudden,this looks threatening to HEFCE. The HEFCE consultation on QA is in tune with government and seems to promote a move to a deregulatory ideology and imply the demise of QAA. More recently though, with questions being asked about whether the remaining amounts of funding could be administered from elsewhere, and the need for a body to run TEF, then HEFCE themselves look more vulnerable.

The Teaching Excellence Framework will clearly be a big part of the green paper. It was a commitment from Osborne (that Treasury driver again) and is detailed in the government’s productivity plan “Fixing the foundations:Creating a more prosperous nation”

Excellence in teaching
4.7 The government will introduce a new Teaching Excellence Framework to sharpen incentives for institutions to provide excellent teaching, as currently exist for research. This will improve the value for money and return on investment for both students and the government, and will contribute to aligning graduate skills and expectations with the needs of employers. The government will consult later this year on how a Teaching Excellence Framework can be developed, including outcome-focussed criteria and metrics. The Teaching Excellence Framework will inform student decision-making, continue to support a high average wage premium for graduates and ensure that students’ hard-won qualifications keep their value over time.
4.8 To support teaching excellence, the government will allow institutions offering high quality teaching to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-18, and will consult on the mechanisms to do this. This will reward excellent institutions with higher fee income, while ensuring students get good value from the tuition loans that the government underwrites.

Johnson now needs to steer this through parliament, at the same time as BIS is facing large cuts, and he needs to produce something that will work, both as a fix in the short term, and as a longer term evaluation of teaching.

To be able to have variable fees from 2017-18 will mean measures in place during the current academic year. Inevitably this will be based on existing measures – NSS, Hesa returns, DLHE initially.

Longer term though, then a new set of measures will come in which will provide challenges to the sector, and to individual institutions. From the Times Higher Johnson has made it clear how he would like the metrics to be set up:

Widening participation and access will be intimately linked to the TEF. One of the core metrics we envisage using in the TEF will be the progress and the value add [for] students from disadvantaged backgrounds, measuring it for example in terms of their retention and completion rates. And their [universities’] success in moving students on to either further study or graduate work.

On having an impact on further marketisation, then Johnson says:

the system should “not only have the capacity for more rapid market entry, but we [should] have the capacity for more rapid market share shifts between universities than we have hitherto seen in the sector”.

and  that

he wanted a system where “market share can shift towards where teaching quality really resides. Our teaching excellence framework will be an important signal to students of where quality resides, discipline by discipline, institution by institution.”

He’s asking an awful lot from a set of metrics that are not yet defined, and that will have numerous questions raised by many in the sector.

In the meantime, what can individuals and institutions do?

Firstly there is the opportunity to respond to the government’s inquiry into assessing the quality of HE, which asks specific questions such as:

  • .What should be the objectives of a Teaching Excellence Framework (‘TEF’)?
  • What are the institutional behaviours a TEF should drive? How can a system be designed to avoid unintended consequences?
  • What should be the relationship between the TEF and fee level?

Secondly we can  start looking at the various measures of value added or learning gain for different groups of students. HEFCE are already supporting a range of projects involving over 70 institutions to look at learning gain.

One of the unintended consequences that TEF might bring about is a gaming of the system. I’m not suggesting that data returns that feed into league tables are inaccurate, but one part of a successful league table result is a set of carefully constructed data returns. It’s equally likely that it will be possible to do something similar with any TEF submission, so all institutions will learn very quickly how to report data in the best possible way

Finally, recognising that TEF will be used to drive rapid shifts in market share (a euphemism?) then we will all need to get very good, not only at supporting the widest range of students, but also at understanding how the metrics apply to us, and how we can build internal systems to replicate them.