Latest Employment Performance Indicators

This week HESA released their latest data on performance indicators for UK institutions in terns of employment, essentially the outcome of the DLHE survey for those students who graduated in 2016.

Many will look at these with increasing interest – after all this is one of the indicators used in TEF, and so anyone who might be thinking or re-applying will look closely to see if changes here put them in a potentially better place.

Equally, this data will feed through onto next year’s league tables, so again university management teams will be calculating to see if this helps them climb the greasy pole of rankings.

From HESA’s page

The proportion of full-time first degree graduates in employment and/or further study continues to show a steady rise….This year has seen a slight fall in the proportion moving into employment only, with there being a rise in the percentage going into further study.

What is interesting is to see how institutions performed against their benchmark, and also to see who has changed significantly over the last year.

Looking at the tables, most institutions are close to their benchmark, and few are flagged as having a significant difference. However, there are those who are significantly below (indicated as -) and those significantly above (+) benchmark. Looking at the gap between indicator and benchmark, and also looking at performance in the previous year, we can try to see if these are institutions where employment is either always, good, always poor, or has changed significantly in the two survey years.

Playing with the data from HESA then for employment of full time students, we can see that some unis or colleges repeatedly miss their benchmark, for instance, UCB, Bolton.

Equally, Coventry, University of Arts Bournemouth, DMU, UWL and Wolverhampton repeatedly exceed their benchmark for employment, while Staffordshire shows a big jump, from being under benchmark last year, to being significantly above this year.

With the change to Graduate Outcomes instead of institutionally managed DLHE in future, one of the key variables – the localised interpretation of the survey methodology – will be removed, and we may see some realignment of data.

The continued rise of numbers going into employment and further study, overall is to be welcomed, but maybe with two caveats. This data does not show the numbers going into graduate roles. Secondly, we have to remember that employment is only one outcome of studying for a degree.






EdTech futures in the Connected University

Digital technology is bringing huge changes to all industries and sectors, not least higher education. It isn’t the future, it’s the present. This article summarises three recent publications, firstly the annual NMC Horizon report that I’ve previously blogged on here; a talk by Steve Wheeler, the keynote speaker at last years Learning’s and Teaching Conference, and finally a piece by Eric Stoller, who will be delivering a keynote at this year’s conference.

Firstly let’s look at this year’s NMC Horizon report. This is categorised into:

  • Key Trends Accelerating Higher Education Technology AdoptionNMC 2017-1
  • Significant Challenges Impeding Higher Education Technology AdoptionNMC2017-2
  • Important Developments in Technology for Higher EducationNMC2017-3

Usefully NMC have provided a summary of their predictions from previous years, and it’s worth noting that not all of their predictions come to pass; equally some remain on the radar for a number of years. Audrey Watters has previously provided a critique of NMC for those who’d like a different view.

Nonetheless, this is a useful starting point, and we can map our own activities against all of  the 18 trends/challenges/developments, but here I’ll focus on a few.

As we walk around this campus (and many others in the UK), we can see how learning spaces are being transformed to allow different ways of learning to take place.

We have a major focus on improving staff and student digital capabilities, recognising that this will help drive innovation, as well as improve employability prospects of our graduates.

The achievement gap is one I have blogged about previously – this continues to be a difficult multi faceted probelm. Technology will not provide all the answers, but may help level the playing field in some areas.

The possibility of a very different LMS in the future is tantalising. We know that current systems such as BlackBoard and Canvas are very good at managing learners and resources – making sure the right information is provided to the right people at the right time. Changes to the way in which staff and students collaborate through co-creation and sharing could render this form of LMS redundant in future.

Away from the NMC report, Steve Wheeler of Plymouth University presented on what’s hot and what’s not in learning technology. The video is well worth watching.

Steve identifies a huge range of technologies that will likely have an impact: voice controlled interfaces; gestural computing, the Internet of Things (pervasive computing); wearable technologies;artificial intelligence; touch surfaces for multitouch multiusers; wearable tech; virtual presence; immersive tech such as Oculus rift for VR and AR; 3D printers and maker spaces. The list goes on.

Steve identified three key elements for the future:

  • Very social
  • Very personal
  • Very mobile

and this needs to be underpinned with developing digital literacy, particularly when wading through alt-facts and fake news. Our students need to learn how to check the veracity and relevance of materials.

Steve postulates that until the development of the PC or web, everything was teacher centred. Technology allows us to become learner-centred, but have we adjusted enough to being learner led?

This should impact the way in which we assess- education and training must go from recursive to discursive, no longer repeating or regurgitating materials from the teacher, but through a  discursive approach developing problem solving skills etc.

  • The changes are
  • Analogue to digital
  • Closed to open
  • Tehthered to mobile
  • Standardised to personalised
  • Isolated to connected


Finally, a new blog post from Eric Stoller looks at “Student Success, Retention, and Employability – Getting Digital in a High Tech, High Touch Environment”.

Eric identifies that the more engaged a student is during their university experience, the more successful they will be. Digital offers us the opportunity to increase the channels through which we communicate with and engage with our students.

Eric (as well as Steve above, and the NMC report) highlights the importance of digital capability, particularly through the lens of employability. Students need to graduate with the digital skills they will use in the workplace, not just those that they use to complete a university course. Interestingly Eric also highlights the need to teach students about their digital presence and identity.

Finally he refers to the existence of a digital divide (again identified by NMC as digital equity) – “If your university is students first, that means all students”. This a a challenge that focusing on providing the right kit, but more importantly developing the right skills an behaviours means that we can get all staff and students to engage in a connected digital future.

Last year we enjoyed Steve Wheeler’s presentation at our Learning and Teaching Conference – I can’t wait to hear Eric Stoller later this year at the same event.




These are the days of miracle and wonder

This year’s New Media Consortium Horizon report for higher education has just been published. Put together by a range of experts from across the word, including our own Dave Parkes, the NMC report tries to indicate the rends in technology that will have an impact on learning and teaching in HE.

The graphic below summarises the contents:


Short-Term Impact Trends: Growing Focus on Measuring Learning

Learning analytics can use the data produced by VLE systems and other interactions, Together with the possible need ot be able to measure learning gain to satisfy potential TEF requirements (in England at Least) mean that we can expect to see greater use of data to inform how well students are learning.

At the same time, this is a cultural shift for the way in which we monitor learning in universities. This week on Spiked-Online, Jim Butcher suggests that:

Data collection feeds off and reinforces diminished trust. Students are not trusted to study, so they need to be watched and prompted. Lecturers are not trusted to teach, so they, too, are watched and judged on their ability to provide a good ‘student experience’.

The reality is somewhere between the technological solutionism that the boosters of various systems would propose, and this stance. The trick is to reognise, as the NMC report does, the need to develop the right ethical framework to deliver an analytics approach. In addition, we should be seeking to measure those things that matter – not just those that can be counted – and to use information that will reduce the burden of bureaucracy and provide genuinely useful information for staff and students

Short-Term Impact Trends:Increasing Use of Blended Learning Designs

The NMC report states that “Blended learning integrates both online and face-to-face modalities to create a cohesive learning experience, providing learners with flexibility and support. These hybrid approaches hold the potential to foster independent learning and collaboration, as well as provide more channels of communication among
students and instructors” and notes that advancing blended learning requires the promotion of scalable innovative course designs.

This one of those areas where blended learning or online learning develops in one of two ways in institutions. Either it is a top down strategic approach, or it is developed from the ground  up by enthusiasts, almost leading to a series of cottage industry approaches.

In both cases however, what we need to capture is are the learning designs that work. Here at Staffs we have developed some very clear models of e-learning and defined approaches to blended learning. We’ll be doign a lot more with these as we move through the implementation of digital capability as our quality enhancement theme.

Medium-Term Impact Trends:Redesigning Learning Spaces

Technology disruption is abougt more than just computers and internet access. If we start to change the way in which we want people to learn, then we also need to change the physical resource too. The NMC report points to examples of changing teaching rooms, with  “acoustic panels and ceiling microphones for the capturing of audio without disruption, and mobile furniture for flexible arrangements” as well as descriptions of the changes to library facilities which move away from stacks containing books and periodical to new kinds of spaces that offer more collaborative and individual study areas.

Like many other universities, we are already working in this area – our two new exemplar classrooms in the Brindley building showcase some cutting edge classroom technology, coupled with flexible furniture arrangements, while our libraries have been reconfigured to provide significantly more space for BYOD working and group or collaborative approaches, while not losing the areas needed for silent private study.

Medium-Term Impact Trends:Shift to Deeper Learning Approaches

From the NMC report –  “A primary goal of higher education is to equip students with the skills they need to be successful in the workforce and to make an impact on the world”. This aligns with our own objectives and the report proposes that to achieve this, there should be a greater move towards project-based learning, challenge based learning, inquiry-based learning, and similar methods to foster more active learning experiences, both inside and outside the classroom.

Again,  we would argue that in many of our disciplines we already do this – Games Design, Engineering, Media Production and Computing, amongst others, all use approaches that rely on project based activities. Within one of our faculties, there is a major push to transform all modules by using a practice/problem based learning approach.

Long-Term Impact Trends:Advancing Cultures of Innovation

To achieve some of the necessary changes, NMC propose changes in the way that institutions themselves work, and for the first impact trend look at how the ways of thinking used by a startup company could be used in an HEI context:

Like startups, institutions are becoming structured in ways that allow them to constantly evolve, reflecting and pushing the boundaries of the global marketplace. This includes deviating from hierarchical decision-making processes to promote collaborative strategies and incorporate student voices.

The contemporary workforce calls for employees that are agile, adaptable, and inventive and universities and colleges are increasingly revamping their existing programs and creating new ones to nurture these key skills. In the US alone, the number of formal
entrepreneurial courses in higher education has grown exponentially over the past two decades with nearly 25% of today’s college students aspiring to be entrepreneurs.

This why we focus on enterprise-led thinking and entrepreneurship in our own Staffordhsire Graduate definitions, and more importantly, why we will be revising these as part of our redeveloped Learning and Teaching Strategy.

Long-Term Impact Trends:Rethinking How Institutions Work

Inevitably, technology will change the way in which institutions themselves operate. Examples given in the NMC report include the following wide range of possible changes:

  • the need to make students more work-savvy
  • curricula that encourage students to work with peers from different
    disciplinary backgrounds on innovative solutions to complex problems.
  • new paradigms centered on online learning
  • exploring alternate methods of delivery and credentialing
  • adopting the “Education-as-a- Service” (EaaS) model, a delivery system that unbundles the components of higher education, giving students the option to pay for only the courses they want and need (this last one is not that dissimilar from the idea of the Amazon University in another recent blog piece

Without trying to guess what the future for any given institution might be – and it will change depending on mission, existing or planned student base etc – the message should be that any university that might want to move away from a traditional 3 year degree model will need to look closely at how it might deliver  courses differently, as well as how it would need to design itself internally and the way in which it operates to allow this to happen.

Wicked Challenges

As well as the key trends, NMC identity a series of problems, ranging from easily solved to wicked. They can be see in the diagram above. Previously, a wicked challenge identified was the recognition and reward  of teaching and learning. This is now replaced by balancing connected and unconnected lives, and keeping education relevant.

Balancing connected and unconnected lives means that we must make any connections between staff and students relevant and transformative – there is little point in using technology if it does not deliver a further transformation.

Keeping education relevant is key from an employability perspective – we know very well that employers note a lack of skills in graduates, but also that the skills gap itself not well defined. However in this blog, I have frequently argued that a degree is not just training for employment but should provide a broader transformative experience. NMC identity that the wicked problem is in reconciling the multiple demand of higher education, both as the transformative experience and in the provision of skills:

“In this climate, national and institutional leaders are challenged to devise new systems that combine the best of both worlds, offering learners a collegiate experience that prepares them for a meaningful life of work, production,and thoughtful inquiry.”

Technology Trends

Finally NMC identify 6 technology trends that they believe will have impact:

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: One Year or Less

  • Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)
  • Learning Analytics and Adaptive Learning

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Two to Three Year

  • Augmented and Virtual Reality
  • Makerspaces

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Four to Five Years

  • Affective Computing
  • Robotics

Since we have a Leaning and Teaching Conference this summer which will be focused on Digital Capability, I’m looking forward to hearing from our own colleagues (as well as two external speakers) how we are already engaging with some of these new technologies in our learning and teaching.

In conclusion, the NMC report provides a great starting point for thinking about how we want to use technology in a University. Crucially they don’t eulogise just about the tech, but ask us to focus on what the actual trends are, and what the challenges are, and how hard they are to solve. Any digital transformation has to take this into account, and not just focus on the shiny baubles of new technology. The real gains will come from when we understand how to use technology as well as changing our organisational thinking,  to then transform the way in which we work and the way in which our students learn.






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.


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.






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


What do MPs think about universities?

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

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

From the ComRes website:

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

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

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

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

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

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


33% 47%
Labour 62%


48% 29%

(Other minority parties not shown in results)








So why does this matter?

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

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

Student Engagement and Experiences

Two new publications from the Higher Education Academy which are timely.

The first is on the UK Engagement Survey 2014. 32 institutions took part in the survey which looked at how students engaged with various aspects of their studies.

From the HEA website:

Among the key findings are pronounced variations between the engagement reported by students in different disciplines. Predictably large differences were found between disciplines regarding the development of skills in numerical analysis (64% of students in European languages reported very little development compared to 3% of Engineering). Other disciplinary differences mirrored the results from 2013: 26% of students in Maths and Computer Sciences, and 20% of students in Physical Sciences, felt there was very little emphasis in the course on the evaluation of points of view and information sources, compared to 2% of History and Philosophy students and 3% of Social Studies students.

Rather than just accept these outcomes as they are, and dismiss the results by expecting a lack of numeracy amongst social scientist and a lack of critical thinking amongst engineers (nothing like a good stereotype), then maybe we can reconsider how we could use our Graduate Attributes programmes to identify these gaps in our curricula, since we know that employers do look for numeracy and critical thinking amongst other skills.

At Staffordshire University we will be running our own version of an engagement survey this year for final year students on those awards that are part of our Paul Hamlyn/HEA “What Works” retention project.

The second new publication from HEA is on “Managing the student experience in a shifting higher education landscape“, where a comparative study has been made of different types of institutions and how they have responded through management of student experience after the introduction of higher tuition fees.

From the HEA website:

“It found that the two research-intensive universities seemed to be responding to the changed environment in different ways to the other four institutions who were, in general, responding by centralising services, standardising procedures and strengthening management controls. For example, the research showed a removal of the responsibility for recruitment and admissions from academic departments, and a central determination of contact hours. Organisational change in the research-intensive examples, meanwhile, usually took the form of changing the reporting lines of student-related services to create more coherent functional groupings, rather than comprehensive reorganisations, the authors report.
Other key findings:
the case study institutions have all placed greater emphasis on enhancing the quality of teaching and learning, a process usually begun before 2012, but given added emphasis since then. The report shows that the research-intensive institutions have become more prescriptive about teaching and learning matters, usually by issuing guidelines.
there was an increased emphasis on employability across all institutional types, but with variations in emphasis. This new emphasis includes employment-related curriculum changes and enhanced support for advice and placements.
higher tuition fees were affecting the character of students’ interactions with their universities everywhere, but the tendency to treat students as customers seemed to be more pronounced with managers at the less research-intensive universities.”

I don’t think that we can be surprised by any of the results, and can reflect that as a less research intensive university that our focus has been on employability through the Staffordshire Graduate programme and with a focus on centralised student services.

The point I would take issue with is this tendency to treat students as customers. While I fully recognise that the fees being paid by students means that they expect a certain level of service, I still believe that treating students simply as customers is a detrimental move. As I have written before, higher education should be transformational, and not just a transaction. It should involve students working as partners in their learning together with the academic and other staff. When we allow students to see themselves as customers, then we see a range of negative comments on Facebook that accompany things the university does in the way a supermarket might be criticised, rather than seeing comments of support for an institution in which they have a shared investment.

Reflecting on the changed education landscape, and changing behaviours, the authors of the report say:

“These changes add up to create a higher education landscape which is both fluid and unpredictable, with major challenges for institutional leaderships and managements and their academic and professional staffs.”

The future is an interesting place.



The Future Politics of Higher Education

We’re now only 7 months from a General Election, and HE is somehow not quite on party radars yet, even after million+ and NUS ran fringe events at recent conferences. Lib Dems may be reticent after their previous pledge not to increase tuition fees (which disappeared after entering coalition), Labour have hinted at £6k cap on fees, but have yet to announce much. The conservatives have said little and UKIP are happy to remove students from the net migration figures (there’s a surprise, and puts them out of line with the Conservatives).

Clearly the financing and regulation of HE (recognising a changed environment, increased marketisation and entry of new providers) will be critical to the success of the sector and the individuals who work and study within it.

Into a vacuum though, something will always flow, and this week sees two sets of neoliberal views being promulgated.

Firstly an article in this week’s Times Higher. I’d like to describe it as muddle-headed, but t’s not that good.

Written by James Martin, a former adviser to Michael Gove, specious claims are made with little evidence, such as:

  • our universities’ failures on academic rigour and widening participation
  • too many higher education courses are of poor quality
  • with the number of firsts doubling in a decade, we need an honest debate about grade inflation and the culture of low lecture attendance and light workloads it supports
  • too many providers are weak imitations of the ancient universities.

No evidence is provided of failures of rigour (unless all degree courses have to be PPE). Poor quality is defined, based on the failure to pay back loans. The comments on grade inflation again are related to small earnings premiums

As a solution the following is proposed:

The first step in a prioritisation of education is to move universities into an enlarged Department for Education after the general election. The Secretary of State should immediately commission a genuinely independent review to determine which degrees are a sound investment or of strategic importance. Only these would be eligible for three-year student loans. Some shorter loans might encourage more efficient courses. Those who will brand this “philistinism” could not be more wrong: it is the traditional academic subjects that are valued by employers (philosophy at the University of Oxford is a better investment than many business courses). I am not arguing for fewer people to go to university. We need more students from poorer backgrounds taking the best degrees.


So this the heart of the proposal – move HE away from BIS, and to the Ofsted and target-obsessed regime of the DfE. Secondly, relate the funding of HE to graduate employment, since it is assumed that quality of education is all about the amount you earn afterwards.

grad cartoon

 “© Schwadron,”

In other news, the Institute for Economic Affairs ( a right of centre thinktank) has produced a discussion paper, “UNIVERSITIES CHALLENGED: Funding Higher Education through a Free-Market ‘Graduate Tax”

This report recognises that the graduate premium varies between courses and individuals. Instead of the existing loan scheme, or a graduate tax however, the IEA proposes that:

Universities should individually or collectively offer contracts to their students, who would agree to pay to the university they attended a given percentage of their earnings. That percentage could vary by course and institution, though some agreement between universities could be helpful to achieve standardisation. Essentially, the university would be taking an equity interest in the graduate premium earned by the student, although any student who chose to do so could, alternatively, pay the full fees up-front prior to beginning their studies.

·      If universities needed additional cash to finance their current expenditures, they could sell their rights to the graduate equity income stream through a securitisation mechanism. With or without securitisation, the risk of obtaining a low graduate premium will be reduced for students and be minimal for universities as their exposure will be diversified across many students.

·      This approach will ensure that universities have a much stronger interest in the employability of their graduates. That interest will continue after graduation. As such, universities will have an incentive to invest in careers advice and related services and in continuing to provide such services after graduation.

Wow. free marketisation, red in tooth and claw.The IEA goes on the propose that since universities will no longer depend on the state to provide loans, then they would also no longer need to be regulated for undergraduate awards. Indeed they would be free to innovate and engage in competition leading to a race to the top “because universities would have a direct economic interest in the success of their students”.

Both of these reports focus on higher education as a passport to a graduate job, improved employability and increased earning potential. Higher education is more than that, but the sometimes necessary obsession with league tables and other comparative metrics means that ideas such as these become seductively attractive to those who see education purely as a financial transaction, rather than a transformational impact on all aspects of an individual’s life and life chances.

We can expect more of this over the next few months. Within the sector and within our institutions do we need ask and answer questions of ourselves about what we are here for?

We should develop a strong argument for the mixed economy that our HE sector currently comprises, the wide range of benefits that obtain from HE and the need for open debate about how we fund and properly support our universities in the future.

Graduate Employability -ideas from Kaplan

A recent White Paper from Kaplan looks at the results of a survey of 198 employers who were asked about graduate recruitment and considers the implications and offers
practical advice and opinion around three key areas: recruitment, competency and learning and development.

Considering recruitment, 76% of employers continue to look for graduates and: “Employers also look to their graduate intake to provide future leaders,  and 60% of those surveyed believe that one in every two graduates  will go on to become just that.” Also, the report notes that: ” The Kaplan survey identified that 75% of employers found it  either moderately or very difficult to find the right graduates”.

The report also indicates an increasing level of interest in apprenticeships, noting that ” the reason employers are exploring non-graduate recruitment  is diversity. Employers want to ensure they recruit a wide range of  individuals and not just graduates. A diverse workforce provides some  degree of flexibility and can help with customer/client relationships.”

Apprenticeships are also seen as being a way of solving the problem of competence.

Employers were surveyed on the competences they expect from graduates, and the results make interesting reading.


Numeracy is second! I’ve highlighted this – numeracy is the second most important competence that employers want.

The bottom 5 competences were: Decisive, Leadership, Assertiveness, Critical Thinker and Technical Expertise.

The core skills that are valued at recruitment, an 2 years later are summarised below;


Once again analytical skills are reported highly.

The report goes on to talk about employability, and how universities might support development of employability skills, noting that ” a recent YouGov survey (2013) of 613 employers (including 419 directly responsible for recruiting graduates) found
that just under one in five businesses believes graduates are ready for work. It also revealed that more than half of employers said all or almost all graduate recruits started work without vital attributes, such as team-work, communication, punctuality and the ability to cope under pressure.”

Recognising that employability is key for employers (and it should be key for those universities that focus on such things) then Kaplan suggest: “Perhaps the answer is an employability qualification. Students enrol on a separate course that offers, on completion, a formally recognised qualification. But who should offer this? Whether it’s the employer,
universities or schools is a question requiring wider debate.”


A useful addition to the plethora of information available about graduate employability.

I think 2 things really stand out, and are areas that universities have in their power to address.

Firstly, numeracy and analytical skills : how many universities have developed statements on graduate attributes or on graduate skills which do not include this? I would guess most of them! In previous blog posts I’ve referred to the need for students to be numerate in their degrees, and the need for people to be able to understand and manipulate data. This could be an opportunity for an institution to really differentiate itself.

Secondly, a stand-alone qualification is potentially desirable, provided that it is actually meaningful, and not just a tick box exercise. Students would need to understand why a separate qualification was necessary. Alternatively, providers would need to create much clearer signposting for all students on how transferable employability skills are being developed throughout the degree course (the use of Mozilla open badges might be useful here).