Review of the year – in blogs

An easy way for media outlets to fill space in the dog days running up to Christmas is to provide a review of the year. This blog is not going to shirk from that less than onerous task, as we look at what was reported, debunked, or analysed in these pages over the last year.

January 2015

The year started off with a look at the first league table out of the blocks – the People and Planet League Table. A bit of  a slide for us in this one, but as the Guardian reported at the time:

A number of universities seem to have become frustrated over time with the “green league”, which has also this year been renamed to remove the word “green” from the title. Concerns centred on the time involved in collating the information required, some criticisms of aspects of People & Planet’s methodology, and perceived goal-post changing

Also in January we looked at the UCAS data release for the previous year, which contained the surprising information that some universities have increased their number of applications, and that there is a gender divide between subjects.

February 2015

In February, we looked at a report which showed what MPs thought about universities – 3 months before an election, it seemed like a good idea:

“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)”

Also we looked at the numberr of good degrees begin awarded across the sector, new writing on BME success from the Runnymede Trust, the need to be CMA compliant and a report from HEPI, which led to my first quotation in the Times Higher and the following ideas:

  • 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?

March 2015

Not much happened on the blog in March, apart from an article “Let’s Talk About Race”.

It’s something we still need to be talking about.

April 2015

In April, we reported that StaffsUni had improved in the Times Higher Student Experience Survey 2015 and had risen  rises 2 further places in the Complete University Guide.

Most prominent this month though, was the steady march towards teh General Election, and this included   a review of the major parties’ manifestos. Somewhat presciently, the Lib Dems were considered in this article under “The Others” – a rare bit of foresight into their likely election performance.

May 2015

May brought us a General Election, so in advance of this I produced a reflective piece ion what universities are for, and post-election wrote a piece on the changes we were likely to see. Pleasingly, this was republished by the Guardian, so luckily there was nothing too controversial.

Late in the month, the Guardian University League Table came out, with another rise for StaffsUni. This was the most read of all articles through the year.

June 2015

Starting with an article referencing Supertramp (song titles do appear frequently if you want to go searching), this month we looked at the annual PA survey of Vice Chancellors, who felt 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

We also looked at the use of data – both in terms of the end to produce graduates who are numerate and data literate, but also to have university staff who can use data effectively.

July 2015

Graduation month for us here at StaffsUni, and another popular post for the year – a guide to staff on how to behave at graduation ceremonies, with such tips as:

  • “You may have heard the same speech several times for the last however many years. Remember to laugh at the joke. Not too heartily”


  • “If you can gatecrash the senior staff reception, then this is the place for the best snacks”

On a more serious note, we saw Jo Jhnson’s first major speech, as well as HEFCE launching its consultation into QA arrangements. HEFCE may have been premature, as Johnson announced the TEF, and hinted that QAA could be the ones to run it…..

August 2015

A quieter time of year, so another chance to look at the importance of numbers, and a review of The Metric Tide. This would come in handy later in the year when we saw the consultation on TEF, but more locally, I suggested that we should be getting good with data:

  • To make sure all colleagues are aware of how measurable outcomes affect us reputationally and reflect the results and experience of actual students
  • To provide a consistent reliable management information to act as a trigger
  • To raise the data understanding capability of all groups of staff.

September 2015

A new academic year, and in a speech to UUK, Jo Johnson said “there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system”. Based on no evidence whatsoever. However, this set out what we were about to learn in the Green Paper. My conclusions were:

  • A commitment to great teaching won’t be argued with – the mechanisms of assessing it will be.
  • The change in regulation for alternative providers might be seen as a threat to some institutions (probably only those in the bottom quartile of league tables, or current FE providers of HE)
  • The focus on widening participation should be welcomed – provided that funding and full data analysis is part of the deal.

Also in September we saw a rise in our position in the Good University Guide, and in final piece on good degrees, I wrote that:

“As we move into a potential quality regime that could be metrics based, together with a Teaching Excellence Framework, which will certainly use a variety of metrics (possibly including learning gain), then there will be plenty of work to be done in generating data and analysing it..

However, the focus also has to go beyond analysing data. How can we use it to understand our students both as individuals and as cohorts? How can we use data to support our staff better in teaching and assessing their students? Finally, how can we learn to change practices and behaviours based on evidence?”

October 2015

This month, we looked at the politics behind TEF, and suggested that: “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”.

The month ended with a detailed piece explaining the rationale behind our revised Learning and Teaching Strategy, that went out for final consultation.

November 2015

The month started with “Who are You?” – questioning who our students are, what they want, how well we know them, and how well we understand the reasons behind a rise in consumerist behaviour.

In the second week, we got the big story of the year, and every wonk blog started churning out pieces on the Green Paper, in particular, on the Teaching Excellence Framework. This blog, never one to miss a trend, was no exception.

This was followed by a piece on student satisfaction, with another song title to start, which suggested that we needed to:

  • carry on listening to students, responding and being seen to respond to surveys
  • make sure we focus on all the measures that make up a league table
  • make sure that courses are well organised and running smoothly
  • don’t expect league table moves to immediately be reflected in increased applications
  • and remember – the student experience is what really matters, not the survey itself.

The research reported in this formed part of a talk given to our Academic Group Leaders that month, where we looked at a range of ways data could be used.

December 2015

The last month of the year saw a review of the most recent Equality Challenge Unit data. Still we see a gap in degree attainment for students who don’t come from a white background.

UUK published 2 major documents – firstly a look at trends in HE, showing an anticipated need for more people in the economy with master level qualifications, and a second piece on supply and demand for higher level skills, which provided useful business insight into the gaps between what universities are providing, vs what employers think that they want.


It’s been an interesting year in HE. The dominant narrative that a degree is primarily about enhancing employment outcomes (not employability) is being increasingly reinforced. The ideas around TEF mean a potentially bureaucratic behemoth will be created, which clever institutions will learn to turn to their advantage. Students increasingly behave as consumers, but within the sector we don’t always understand how we have contributed to this set of behaviours. Data, and using it well, is becoming increasingly important.

My blog stats showed that I’ve had over 11,000 hits on the site now, so I think I’ll carry on.

For the next year, I expect this blog will be covering:

  • changes post-Green Paper consultation
  • the need to use metrics appropriately
  • the use of technology in learning and teaching
  • league tables (again)

And of course, the use of 70’s song titles and references in articles.

Now as we look forward to the next years, this writer will leave the last word to Morrissey – Happy Christmas, everyone.


(from This Charming Charlie)













Skills and employability

This post looks at a couple of recent publications, which ask how many graduates do we need, what skills do graduates need, and where might the gaps be? As we are gong though the process of refining our strategic plan and operating model, and asking ourselves what kind of a university we will be, it’s important we understand what kind of people our graduates will be

A couple of months ago the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development suggested that  as many as 58.8% of UK graduates were in non-graduate jobs. This was based on a research process of self-reporting, and even if this figure seems overly high, then clearly a number of graduates are not matched well with the roles in which they find themselves, which is not good for the individual, or for the organisation.

CIPD suggested that the findings raised questions about the size of the HE sector in relation to our labour market needs. They conclude with;

Policy-makers need to scrutinise the range of courses offered by the HE sector and seriously consider the social and private returns to them. We conjecture that they will conclude that, in many cases, public funds could more usefully be deployed elsewhere in the education and training system. Our findings suggest that the presence of a large HE sector will not necessarily lead to the attainment of the knowledge economy so beloved by successive UK governments.

It is worth remembering that many of the social returns that come from engagement in higher education are indeed social, and affect wider society and are not purely economic. In a marketised HE system, then policy makers do not have jurisdiction over the range of courses that are provided – mainly because in the main public funding is no longer directed to the course, but to the individual in the form of a loan

CIPD  make good points about the need for wider opportunities for post 19 education, and also point out that in previous generations, many would have felt “under-employed” in their role.

Last week University UK produced  a new report “Supply and Demand for Higher Level Skills”  which provides a counterpoint to the CIPD position, and again asks if there are too many or too few graduates, and looks at the relationship between their subject choices and the future labour market as well as considering employability skills.

There are 6 key recommendations from the report, summarised as:

  1. There is currently an undersupply of graduates that will
    continue into the foreseeable future;…..There needs to be a better understanding of why certain graduates become mismatched, which skills could prevent this and where they can be best attained
  2. universities and employers need to talk about ‘employability skills……..Universities and employers should jointly develop a ‘skills translation’ exercise to help all parties understand how and where these ‘soft skill’ principles can be practically developed and applied.
  3. there will be demand for a greater number of workers with higher – but not necessarily degree-level – qualifications…….Young people should have the opportunity to develop higher-level skills through a system of integrated pathways between the two forms of provision, one that provides a theoretical underpinning to technical knowledge and offers the chance for upskilling in line with economic, operational and technological change
  4. the sector needs both a clearer and a more granular understanding of the size and content of provision across both further and higher
  5. in spite of a strong supply of STEM  students, there are continued shortages of highly-qualified workers in technical industries. Identifying – and mending – this obstruction in the talent pipeline is crucial
  6. there should be a heightened focus on skills utilisation. What sort of management and business practices best utilise higher-level skills and how can similar practices be adopted by firms of diverse sizes and sectors?.

The UUK report summarises a number of surveys looking at skills that employers look for in graduates, and the extent to which graduates do, or do not, have these. While recognising the difficulty of identifying relationships between the various surveys, the authors note that “there is consistency in that most surveys point to graduates’ lack of work experience and some combination of ‘necessary’ or job specific skills.”

UUK suggest that universities have two things to tackle in this regard – making sure that students gain the necessary employability skills at the same time as gaining subject level knowledge which will provide skills in critical thinking, analysis and creative thinking.

Crucially UUK identify that when universities talk about employability skills, for instance teamwork, communication, they don’t necessarily understand this from the perspective of an employer. Hence the recommendation for a skills translation exercise, to make sure that all parties understand what is meant, and what is needed.

UUK also looked at how graduates of different disciplines self-reported  their levels of skills, which provided the following:


There are some clear message heres, then, for different subject areas to consider in terms of where the focus is needed in developing non-subject skills.

Another report published this week by HEPI was “Employability – degrees of value“, written by Johnny Rich, in which the emphasis is on understanding employability, not just employment, and Rich argues for a new framework of employability embracing knowledge, skills and social capital. A novel part of this report, and one that is rarely mentioned is the importance that social capital plays in securing employment, and in being able to develop employability.

Similar in part to the conclusions of UUK, Rich proposes a generic set of skills, the level of which might vary by subject This same set of skills can be mapped by employment role, and so mismatches can be seen. A consistent framework for employability is proposed, designed to reduce the burden on academics, and which would allow students to personalise their course and their skills profile according to their needs and ambitions. This is not that dissimilar to our own Staffordshire Graduate Employability Programme in theory, if not in delivery.

In drawing these three strands together we can see that as  a university we need to be mindful of what our students want and need, especially in how we can make sure they are best prepared for when they leave us: not just to be “job-ready” but to have the embedded deep employability skills that they will need for their whole careers. Some of the sections of our new Learning and Teaching strategy already refer to reviewing and updating our Graduate Attribute statements and referring directly to social capital needs.

As we move into the next phase of our strategy delivery, then with our increased focus on employability we can be working now to ensure that our Staffordshire Graduate statements remain meaningful, not just for us but for students and potential employers, and that we have a common understanding of what we mean when we talk about transferable skills.

When we work with ministry panels or advisory boards, or use external expertise in curriculum development, we need to make sure that we are asking questions not just about subject and technical needs of employers, but also gaining that deeper shared understanding of what transferable skills are needed, and how we can help to develop them.

We need to make sure that graduates from all disciplines have the right mix of skills, to make sure that they are not mismatched to employer requirements, and finally, we must ensure that our graduates gain in social capital while they study with us, to make sure that they can compete with, and indeed be better than, everyone else.


Patterns and Trends in UK HE 2015

An annual report from Universities UK looks at trends in the UK HE sector based primarily on statistics from HESA, and looking over a 10 year period.

This is a period that has seen significant change, and when we look at the proposals in the recent Green Paper, there is little to suggest that the pace of change will be slowing.

A quick review of the report then gives us some business insight in to the sector generically, from which we can extrapolate for our own institution.

The three chapters consider: students, staff and finances. This blog piece will focus on students

Under students we can see the changes in make-up of the student population – full time numbers, both postgraduate and undergraduate, show an increase, while part time study clearly has declined.


The contiued and drastic decline in PTUG is explained by

the removal in 2008–09 of funding for students taking qualifications equivalent to or lower than ones which they already had, and by reforms to undergraduate funding in 2012–13, including an increase in fees following cuts to teaching grants and issues around eligibility for tuition fee loans. At the same time the economic downturn has also caused a reduction in the number of students able to self-fund part-time study, and a reduction in the number of employers willing to support employees through part-time study.

The suggestion in eh recent Green Paper on removing ELQ restrictions for thise wishing to study STEM subejcts may help slightly in this area, but the contiued decline in part time numebrs alsoe reduces the chances of universties being able to tackle issues of social mobility, again a key part of the Green Paper.

While undergraduate numbers overall have increased, this increase is due to the numbers studying for a first degree. At the same time, the numbers enroling into other undergraduate courses has dropped significantly:


Which would seem to have some pretty strong messages abut the worth of developing a number of courses!

On international student numbers, despite growth in the numbers of students who travel to study, there has bee a decline in the UK of international students, as we lose out to other markets such as USA and Australia.


We may be seeing the impact of the UK view of students being part of the net migration target and the removal of PSW visas. As UUK highlight:

the decline in students from India are fuelling concern about the UK’s ability to attract international students, which could damage the higher education sector.
International student fee income accounted for 13% of sector income in 2013–14, and demand from international students can support the provision of certain strategically important subjects in the UK (eg engineering, technology and computer science, particularly at postgraduate level where around half of all students are from outside the EU). Higher education is important to the wider UK economy, with non-EU students contributing £7.2 billion to the UK economy and supporting around 137,000 jobs through their tuition fees, accommodation and off-campus expenditure in 2011–12.

Looking at subject of study over the 10 year period shows some clear trends, much of which is backed up by our own detailed analysis of UCAS data.


The most surprising part of this is perhaps the overall drop in computer science, at the same time as students with god computer science skills are desperately needed by employers. The huge drop in subjects described as “combined” should not come as a shock – maybe students are looking for courses that they believe gofer a clear route to employability? Interesting, Keele, our nearest geographical competitor, is now developing courses in Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, which initially might seem to fly in the face of this trend.

The report notes the number of people in the workforce who now have tertiary level skills, but recognises that the UK lags behind other countries in this regard. Also, looking to the future, a clear need is identified for an increased number of people with undergraduate and postgraduate skills for the needs of the international workforce of the future.


This rise in demand for those with postgraduate qualifications ins a clear opportunity, and the recent Green Paper proposals for plans to make loans available to students wishing to enter PG study provides a clear opportunity.

The paper ends by summarising changes in student numbers, income and staffing:uuk6

and concludes:

Despite the challenges of a dynamic and sometimes uncertain operating environment, the UK higher education sector can point to a number of successes over the period……In this increasingly competitive international environment and with a referendum on remaining in the EU taking place before the end of 2017, the UK higher education sector will continue to work hard to maintain its position and attract the staff, students, funding and partnerships that are central to its success.



Equality Unit Statistical Report 2015

This year’s Statistical Report from the Equality Challenge Unit has just been published, and provides a wealth of detail on students and staff in the academic year 2013-14.

A main pat of my work has been looking at student attainment, and others in the University are working on addressing the attainment gap between white students, and those from BAME backgrounds.

Looking at the national data then, for 2013-14, we can see that:

“the ethnicity degree attainment gap in the UK was 15.2 percentage points. 75.6% of white qualifiers received a first/2:1 compared with 60.4% of BME qualifiers”.


“The ethnicity degree attainment gap has decreased from a peak of 18.8 percentage points in 2005/06 to 15.2 percentage points in 2013/14 – the lowest it has been in the last ten years.”

However, BME students cannot be considered as one continuous group, and variations exist between those of different ethnicities, as the graph below shows:


The attainment gap exists for all groups, but has closed the most for Asian students. We can now benchmark our own degree outcomes for 2013-14 against this data, and also our 2014-15 outcomes to see how we are progressing compared with the sector overall.

The report also looks at the impact of subject on attainment and ethnicity and states: “In every subject, a higher proportion of white qualifiers received a first/2:1 than BME qualifiers.”

Considering students with a disability, then the attainment gap is nowhere near as pronounced as it with with students from a BME background.


Finally the report considers the impact of  gender, and shows that female students were more likely than male students to gain a 1st or 2(i) and this was the case in all subject areas except social studies.

The report goes on to look at the intersections between the main groupings of data. One factor that is not considered is Widening Participation status. Although this is not a factor that is considered from an equality perspective, it is one that is raised as a possible factor whenever we talk about the attainment gap for BME students.

Ideally we need to be able to build models that allow us to visualise the outcomes of students, and to easily filter based on multiple characteristics. I’ve been doign abit of work on this very thing this week, and using some old data have built  Excel models that allow a visualisation of degree outcomes for combinations of ethnicity, WP status, disability and subject. It’s a great way of getting an insight into how different groups perform in different subject areas.


Overall however, as a sector we still have a huge challenge to face in tackling the BME attainment gap. I’ve been writing about it for a number of years on this blog. I really look forward to the day I don’t need to write about this subject.