Presentation to Academic Group Leaders

We regularly hold a forum at Staffordshire University for our Academic Group Leaders – these are the senior academic staff who are responsible for line managing and leading groups of academic colleagues.

This week I led the forum, with a presentation on league tables and on some of the implications of the recent Green Paper “Fulfilling our Potential. Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice“.

The slides can be viewed here at Slideshare


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.






Is UK HE lagging behind the global race?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Essential to maintaining competitiveness were;

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

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

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

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

PA conclude their report with:

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

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

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



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.



Transaction or Transformation

As I wrote in last week’s blog, there is an increasingly loud neoliberal voice driving the future of universities.

As we move into the first year where student number controls are scrapped, and the effective protectionism that they afforded to universities lower down the league tables, then it’s important that we reflect on who we are, what we are trying to achieve and how.
However this is where my personal opinions may differ from organisational thinking, but a university is nothing if it is not a place where ideas are allowed to be expressed and challenged.

As Henry Giroux (author of “Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education”) has written in a piece entitled “Higher Education and the New Brutalism“:

“Viewed as a private investment rather than a public good, universities are now construed as spaces where students are valued as human capital, courses are determined by consumer demand and governance is based on the Walmart model of labor relations…….in particular, the ideal of the university as a vital public good no longer fits into a revamped discourse of progress, largely defined in terms of economic growth. Under the onslaught of a merciless and savage financialization of society that has spread since the 1980s, the concept of social progress has all but disappeared amid the ideological onslaught of a crude, market-driven fundamentalism that promises instant gratification, consumption and immediate financial gain.”

For us to be successful, we need to be able to express clearly why we exist as a university, and what benefits that the organisation brings. We are focussed on being modern, relevant and vocationally inspired, and the VC has provided his exposition of each of these descriptors. But in marketing ourselves to potential students, to the businesses and other organisations that we work with, and to ourselves, then we should be able to provide more critique debate how we can express and enact these ideals.
The university as a concept is seen as being under siege. We are increasingly driven by league table rankings and external metrics. I don’t have a huge issue with this – many of the measures that are used are those we should all be able to sign up to – student success, satisfaction and employment. At the same time however, an over-reliance on these metrics reduces the value of higher education to a transaction between a consumer paying fees, who expects to be treated as a paying customer, and for whom an undergraduate degree course has become a rite of passage to the expected 2(i) and a graduate job.

The first challenge then is for us to learn to work with students in such a way that we can satisfy the transactional nature of education, while ensuring that their exposure to an environment where challenge of conventional wisdom, where a democracy of ideas is still valuable, so that when they do gain that 2(i) and gain a job in a widget factory we will have done more for them than provide them with just a passport to work, but provided them with a truly transformational education.

The second challenge is for us to be clear about what a university exists for today. Stefan Collini in “What are Universities For” in providing a critique of the sacred cow of Newman’s view of a university says:

“The twenty first century university needs a literary voice of comparable power to iterate in the idiom of our time the idea of the untrammelled quest for understanding”.

So when we say we are modern, relevant and vocationally inspired, we should develop a full understanding what we mean by each of these terms, and how they can be articulated beyond the immediacy of the dominant neoliberal threat to the academy.

Modern. We expect all of our students to be learning at the forefront of knowledge so that they become discipline experts, and that all of our academic staff are themselves creating new knowledge and scholarship. This is not just about training for jobs – this is about providing our students with the opportunities to engage with and in scholarship and to learn that there are limits to knowledge and that they will need to learn how to solve unfamiliar problems and challenges based on incomplete information.

Relevant. The relevance of a degree at its most reductive could be seen as being relevant to specific industries or job roles. However, when it is expected that many of the jobs that will be available in 10 years have not even been invented yet, then we have to ask relevant to what? Our degrees will be relevant solving the problems to the society we want to live in. To be relevant our graduates will need to be able to provide critique and challenge to the status quo, and take their place as true global citizens.

Vocationally inspired. Are we in danger of reducing higher education to the role of training students for the world of work? The evidence about the improved life chances of people who engage in HE shows that the gains are much broader than getting a job. We need to ensure that our students are employable, but that doesn’t just happen through awards that are vocationally inspired. If it did, then hardly anyone with a humanities degree would find work, But they do. Employers recognise that these students are able to study and engage in critical debate at a high level and have spent a number of years working with others who are clever and engaged – just the kind of people that employers want. We need to avoid dangerously reinforcing to the outside world that we are just a part of the process of producing workers for employers. As an institutional do we want to subscribe to the idea that the degree has become a transaction – you pay us £9000 a year, and you’ll get a better job because of it? We know that HE is transformational and not just a simple transaction.

The vandals seem to be at the gates, and perhaps understandably so after a long economic depression where utility has become the most sought after prize, but this is the time that we need to reiterate what we stand for. We are, and always will be, modern, relevant and vocationally inspired – we need to explore the full range of what these things mean, and looking at our definitions of gradate attributes we can see how we can start to create a broader definition for success as one of our graduates.
(note – this is acting as a working draft of a paper on Transaction vs Transformation)

The rationale for equality and diversity

A new publication out this week, from the Equality Challenge Unit is “The rationale for equality and diversity: How vice-chancellors and principals are leading change”.

As someone who has blogged in the past on BME student success issues, and has done a small amount of work in my own institution on this, I though it would be useful to see how leadership might influence how universities are tackling the various diversity and equality agenda.

In his blog, David Ruebain, chief executive of ECU, writes:

“Achieving equality and diversity through changing your institution’s culture and practices takes time. Meaningful change requires strong leadership and an understanding that equality is an integral part of a university’s mission.”


“..we wanted to look at why some universities and some senior leaders are more successful in advancing equality and diversity than others. Our summit partners were keen to explore what made these institutions stand out from the crowd: what drives these leaders to become proactive and public champions of equality and diversity?”

The report then covers the research aims and methodology; the institutional drivers for equality and diversity; personal drivers for vice-chancellors and principals, and evidence of benefits and impact including overall performance, globalisation, modernising learning, minority ethnic staff and students, widening participation and women in senior academic roles. case studies from 12 universities are presented to back up the research findings.”

Looking at the institutional drivers: ecu1

It is perhaps telling that that respondents considered that creating an inclusive environment for students was the most important, and seeking external recognition was the least important.

Interestingly, the personal drivers of VCs were considered and “this translated into a concern to increase attainment levels and reduce any gaps between different types of students (for instance, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, or from minority ethnic backgrounds).”

Certainly my own passionate belief that in this institution we need to work more to understand why students with a BME background do not achieve in the same way as their white counterparts is driven by my own views of social justice and family history. Even this week I have been shocked by comments about how or why different groups perform and how important or unimportant this might be as an issue.

A number of universities had revisited their teaching and learning strategies, to ensure that they were inclusive, and had seen benefits that were experienced by all students. When Winston Morgan spoke to our Learning and Teaching Conference earlier this year, he highlighted that many of the action we may take to reduce the attainment gap between white and BME students will often improve the quality of education for all, and actually maintain the gap.

The recommendations from the report are primarily for VCs and leaders – how to use personal leadership, how to involve governing bodies and how to hold leaders to account against progress, recommending the need to “walk the talk”.

Looking at the individual case studies, then a few highlights for me on BME student attainment are as follows:

Wolverhampton University: a student-related objective is to increase the proportion  of BME students awarded 2:1 degrees. Attainment champions have been appointed in a number of schools. There are also objectives to close employability gaps for BME and  disabled students.

Kingston University: To send a strong message about commitment to equality, Bonnie Greer was appointed as Chancellor. With BME students accounting for more than half of the undergraduate population, their higher attrition rate and  attainment gap is a significant challenge that the 2012-2016  strategy seeks to address. An objective has been set to increase the proportion of BME undergraduate students achieving a first or 2:1 degree to 54.9%. Other measures include an increase in retention and progression rates for BME students. Energy is also being put into improving employability by setting
up an employability advisory panel and developing strong relationships with major employers.

Oxford Brookes: the university is taking a data-driven approach and has
undertaken in-house research into BME student attainment in order to drive the work on enhancing the student experience.

In conclusion – a useful addition to the canon of material on how to tackle equality and diversity issues, with a strong message that leadership can make a significant difference.

In terms of BME student attainment, then linking the importance of leadership and the need for data driven approaches, to the very clear recommendations from the research of Winston Morgan (around entry tariffs, assessment types, how well the academic staff and leadership reflect the demographic of the student population etc) would mean that a university would be able to identify the steps it needs to take to work towards reducing the attainment gap.


The Zombies are Back

Previously on this blog, I wrote about the work of Mike Boxall of PA Consulting, and his work which suggested that universities could be split into broad groups of Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies. In fact, Mike came to our Leadership Conference this year to talk about this very topic.


Last week on this blog I wrote about the idea of marginal gains, and this prompted discussion online and face to face with various people. One of the comments on  my blog was a reference to the work of Miles and Snow, who created a typology of the various strategic approaches that organisations can take. This prompted me to go away and read  a little about this, but also to have  a conversation where we could start to build a  linkage between ideas of Mile and Snow, and of Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies.

With that in mind, and recognising that the UK HE system or market is in a state of flux, it might be worth revisiting what Mike Boxall has been saying recently, and also to look at what is happening with a couple of universities who maybe don’t qualify as innovators or oligarchs.

Mike has revisited the PA report from the summer, which was the annual survey of VC’s attitudes and opinions:

“The responses showed most vice-chancellors to be deeply pessimistic about the outlook for student recruitment and research funding, and predicting widespread institutional failures and mergers. Yet they were almost universally bullish about the prospects for their own institutions’ ability to secure growth and profits from those same problematic sources”

“We have in effect moved from a closed, stable and largely harmonious HE ecosystem to a new open and disrupted market in which the relationships and interdependencies between the internal and external life of universities are being redrawn in real time. This is putting vice-chancellors under new pressures. Wearing their representational hats, they find themselves fighting rear-guard actions against government policies that actively damage the interests of their institutions, such as visa restrictions on overseas students. Meanwhile, wearing their managerial hats, they must persuade their academic communities to recognise that the market genie will not be put back in the bottle, and that they need to reinvent their business.

It is not surprising therefore that surveys such as PA’s reflect apparently contradictory messages from vice-chancellors. On the one hand, they are telling government ministers, who “seem not to be bothered”, that their policies are jeopardising the HE system as we have known it. At the same time, they are telling their institutional stakeholders that there is a bright future beyond Student Number Controls and Resource Allocation Budget charges, if only they can overcome their deep-seated aversion to change”

With this is mind, it’s salutatory to look at two universities in the news in the last week or so.

Firstly, Glyndwr. This week the Times Higher ran a piece suggesting that there were possible merger talks between Glyndwr and Bangor. No evidence was provided, but it was an opportunity for the press to reiterate the problems at that institution – the vote of no confidence in the VC, the poor financial situation and the loss of Highly Trusted Status from UKVI. A zombie maybe?

Contrast this with London Metropolitan. Rarely out of the news last year, London Met has a new VC, formerly of Oxford Brookes, who has taken on the job that some have described as the toughest in HE. Alternatively, it could be viewed as one of the most exciting. As a welcome gift, UKVI reinstated Highly Trusted Status. As reported in the Times Higher, John Raftery has identified a clear strategy for the institution that includes: improving student experience so that a rise in NSS will have a positive effect in league tables; paying st dent mentors to support those in the year below them; embedding work placements in all awards, and also questioning if the entry tariff should be raised (something else that would improve elague table position. Not rocket science, but clear and focused.

So we can see that futures aren’t fixed – zombies might not necessarily always be zombies, and a clearly focused strategy can help with that.

In terms of Miles and Snow, with their typology of defenders, analysers, prospectors and reactors, then London Met seems to be moving firmly into the position of analyser (work, which in truth was already happening with their previous portfolio review work).

In terms of comparison with Mike Boxall’s work, then the place that no-one wants to be is that of reactor (or zombie). An interesting challenge in the last year was the change in SNC announced in the Autumn Statement – no-one forecast it, no-one had a strategy readily in place to deal with it, and so all universities had to react to a significant change in the external environment. What will be interesting in a year’s time when this change has had an impact, is to see who just reacted, and who carried out the analysis to develop a strategy to respond successfully. (My thoughts on this were on my blog).

As always, we need to be in position where we are at least analysers, and ideally developing into either a prospector or innovator.No-one wants to be a reactor or zombie.

Blog supplemental

My colleague, Peter Jones (Head of Psychology Sport and Exercise) has also blogged today about strategy inc Miles and Snow.

Westminster Forum – Higher Education Data Landscape

I recently attended this event in London, which provide some great speakers, and useful networking opportunities, as well as showing what others are doing with HE data, and where we might want to do more. These notes taken at the event provide an insight for colleagues; I also have the slides from the presentations for those who want to look in more detail.

The event was opened by Sir Tim Wilson, former VC of University of Hertfordshire, who referenced the 2011 white paper which had asked to lessen the burden on information provision, but noted the level of complexity and diversity due to different providers in a more heterogeneous sector

Paul Greatrix (Registrar at University of Nottingham)

Paul introduced the ideas behind redesigning information landscape. He raised his concern about regulatory landscape also and government requirements. He identified that provision of more information does not necessarily mean better decision making

Scale of challenge for HEIs was the need to respond to 550 different external reporting requirements in addition to any internal reporting

In reference to league table providers, Dr Greatrix identified plenty if objections, but HEIs care because they have  impact on potential students and the wider public, even though league table results can lead to perverse behaviours such as VCs and senior managers focusing on the wrong things.

In conclusion, he identified an uncertain future but with grounds for optimism. The fundamental issues were around regulation and the need for proper data, organised in the right way. It was not that there is not too little information re HE but that it needs to be underpinned with proper IAG for those with no previous family HE participation.

Malcolm Scott ( BIS Digital economy directorate)

Everyone is talking about data but there is nothing new about big data.  The reason we a etalking about if now is due to the actual volume of data, massive increase in volume, growth of technology to sort data and bring it together, and the ability to get value out of it. Data can provide value to existing and new industries.


Government t has designated big data as one of 8 great technologies and has Looked at skills, infrastructure and hygiene factors that must be right to be able to exploit data. Major investments have already been made such as the Turing Institute and large km array telescope

Importantly he raised this issue: How do we get managers to realise data can make org better?

This can be alternatively expressed as the organisation will lose advantage of it doesn’t use data properly.

He suggested that on the supply side there is shortage of big data skills, expecting 13-23% rise in demand for big data staff in UK by 2017, noting that the people needed are not just computer scientists

Johnny Rich (

Johnny pointed out that the information landscape for students is confusing and that Students don’t know what they need to know, Eg what’s it really like to study x at y?
As students go through jungle they will latch on to things that they recognise, eg league tables, names of courses. These may not actually be the useful things, as they will only spend a maximum of 1/3 of their time studying

He proposed that many information requirements are an unnecessary burden but a necessary evil. Sometimes data or information provided can be a part of marketing, but not what we want to know about- eg traffic light health guidelines on a sandwich wrapper. Regulation and the manufacturer might want this, but the customer isn’t likely to make a purchase decision on this. Is KIS is like this?

He proposed that KIS…

  • ignores the information needs of the disenfranchised
  • only tells them what they think they want to know
  • is better than nothing

and thta the NSS was about:

  • Satisfaction is not quality
  • Enhancement not choice

The NSS  however indirectly affects choice as it feeds into league tables.

He proposed a Marketing 101 approach – find your point of difference eg shampoo adverts, and start from there.

Graeme Wise (NUS assistant director policy)

Graeme introduced the policy context in which HE data is used and alignment of interests between data provides, collectors and users.

He was anticipating research on financial outcomes of HE from different institutions, using combined data from SLC, ,tax records as these linked data sets will provide model of earnings and outcomes from different unis and subjects which would be a driver for further marketisation
Looking at other public policy agenda- public sector data and fashion for analytics- he proposed the provocative thought of industries moving from production to service (eg software was previously a product, now a subscription service, eg Microsoft, media industries) and will education become that kind of industry, with a move from students as consumers to students as producers.
He looked at the ecology of data collection that spans student life cycle with the consolidation of data at output end, whereas an area for most attention is on the daily experience of students.
Fashion for analytics is not a passing fad and this is a challenge to sector – it is possible to get itvery wrongly not being there, or by doing it badly..
He proposed that in ideal world, everything collected for external purposes should be available for internal purposes, and need people with insight and experience as well as analysis skills to apply to real world student experience issues, eg retention, learning space utilisation, curricula. He suggested we involve student representatives to legitimise and shape the work


Phil Richards (JISC)

Phil had 2 main messages – Overcoming barriers to sharing, and making data a priority for senior management

The barriers to sharing were proposed under three headings: Co opetiton, Compulsion and Coherence.

Making data a priority for senior management came under 4 Rs:

  • Reputation– league tables, Unistats, research metrics, Which? Guide,
  • Recruitment and retention-this is an area for  investment decision for software- for example the ability to identify at risk students either before they arrive or how they behave when on campus
  • Risk mitigation – in a new HE paradigm we need detailed scenario planning (however who had considered removal of SNC in last year’s planning?)

Andy Youell (Director HEDIIP)

Andy started by considering the future of data and information, noting that many organisations were not designed to keep up with technology meaning that ad hoc solutions emerge, frequently in silos, which provide a sort term result only.

He asked- What is “here” like? There are Over 500 data collections which lead to duplication, inconsistency, lack of data sharing, lack of comparability across collection eg in sometjign simple such as the definitional difference between a course and a programme

Also highlighted were data management and governance issues,,eg security, quality, accessibility. There is often low awareness of where data is held in institution, low awareness of where is being supplied from and to whom.

The HEDIIP vision was one of new systems that reduce burden for data providers and improve quality, timeliness and accessibility of data and info about HE

The benefits are to: reduce the cost of data (duplication, inefficiencies); increase value of data (analytical capability, quality and timelines linking using standard identifiers), and improve information (clarity).

John Gledhill (Tribal – supplier of SITS)

John pointed out that we tend to sum up 3-4 yrs of education in snapshot data and that student data collection is low resolution and low frame rate currently. In future we might need to capture data that we think might be worthless, for instance working in areas of unstructured data eg Facebook, Twitter, RSS, as well as structured databases and file systems.

Steve Egan (HEFCE)

Steve talked of the need for accurate data definitions to protect those who want to play the game properly, but questioned how we can produce timely data, eg HESA? For example, for widening participation, the  data is 2 years out of date, and this has implication for funding.

Since students make decisions on range of information some of which is influenced by data, then they need to be able to trust the data, for example claims for employability, noting the weaknesses of DLHE data.

Government also needs good data to be able to identify what is happening with part time students, SIV subjects and accountability. Better and more timely information will lead to better decision making

Summary by Sir Tim Wilson

Are we using external data internally?
Is data collection and analysis a cost or an investment?
Have to change because if we don’t it won’t get better. Some people enjoy being victims and complaining. Has to change to make things better for students and all stakeholders
Willingness to move to a common good, which is not the same as uniformity.
We have the power and knowledge to do data analysis which needs transformational leadership, vision and innovation.

StaffFest 2014 Leadership Conference

This year our first keynote speaker was Mike Boxall of PA Consulting (and author of “Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies” amongst others).

Mike started by looking at Levitt’s definition of marketing myopia, proposing that universities don’t know what business they are in, and that the biggest threat is that they might be an irrelevance in a changed world.


After introducing a “new normal” for higher education, Mike took a look at a number of the prophets of doom, including Clay Christensen (who I’ll be referencing in my Faculty L&T talks next week) and Sir Michael Barber of “An Avalanche is Coming” infamy, Mike proposed 4 different groups of universities: the oligarchs, the not-yetis, the zombies and the innovators, where each group was classified on the relationship between their balance of strengths and weaknesses and their strategic focus.


Mike then explored 4 possible HE futures: university rules; co-opetition; learning lives, and wiki learning, all as shown in the photos below.



Finally we were presented with the question of where did we want to play?


On Monday, PA Consulting will publish their annual survey of the opinions of UK Vice Chancellors. Mie made a few references to this at the beginning of his talk, and I’ll be providing my own take on the report once it’s available.

The University Steve Jobs would have built?

I’m shamelessly ripping off the title, from a piece on by Carmine Gallo, author of “The Apple Experience, secrets to building insanely great customer loyalty”.

apple exp



Gallo writes in his short article about work he did with Walnut Hill Medical Centre in Dallas, and this was what grabbed my attention:

“Enhancing the patient experience has now become an increasingly important goal for virtually all the hospitals in the country. They are all waking up to the fact that the quality of their customer experience will impact their bottom line,” according to Dr. Rich Guerra at Walnut Hill.

Replace patient with student, and hospital with university, then this applies to us too. This is not to say that universities also have to worry about other relationships, such as with research collaborators, funding councils, central and local government and other stakeholders, but for a teaching led institution like ours, then we know that student experience (and importantly success) is critical to us.

Gallo has three parts to his book: inspiring your internal customer; serving your external customer and setting the stage. There’s something in all of these that could be of value to a university embarking on significant change and campus developments.

In the article, Gallo refers to 7 principles from the “Steve Jobs playbook”:

  • Look outside your industry for inspiration.
  • Start with the right vision.
  • Hire people with an aptitude for service.
  • Greet customers with a warm welcome.
  • Train every employee to deliver steps of service every time.
  • Design spaces to make people feel better.
  • Leverage mobile technology.

Would it really be that difficult to apply this to a university setting? After all hospitals and universities have many similarities – we transform lives; we employ a lot of clever people; we employ large numbers of service and back office staff to make the place work; we want our clients (I’m not going to write customers) to succeed and have a good experience.

Look outside your industry for inspiration

So often universities look to each other to decide what to do next, hence a set of research , learning and teaching and student experience strategies that are interchangeable between institutions. Could we identify better examples of managing student experience in the tourism industry or healthcare sector?

Start with the right vision

This must be a no-brainer, but having a simple vision that everyone can sign up to is the starting point of getting your staff, your internal customer, onto the right page. Our VC’s blog last week, talking about importance of league tables, is an example of this.

Hire people with an aptitude for service

We know we need to employ staff with these skills in our services, but do we consider it enough when recruiting academic staff? As well as wanting to recruit great academics, we need to make sure that they are able to deliver the right educational experience to students.

Greet customers with a warm welcome

Yes, I know this is right out of the Apple Store manual, but again, why wouldn’t we do this? I have to say that at Open Days and at moving in weekend, we are actually really good at this.

Train every employee to deliver steps of service every time

Again, a bit retail orientated, but if we are recruiting to offer good service to create a good student experience, are we doing enough to make sure everyone knows what it is they need to do?

Design spaces to make people feel better.

Ok,  for us it won;t be “feel better”, but it will be “learn better”. As we enter a period of deciding what our campus should look like mean there is an opportunity for a discussion on building the kind of spaces that support learning.And my view is that this does not mean more lecture theatres. The open space in Brindley seems to have a lot of learning going on whenever I am in there, and we need to learn, again from other industries, what might be the best way of shaping and using our space.

Leverage Mobile Technology

I’ve written before, in my blog post about digifest14, on how the future of digital is going to be huge, and that it’s about more than having an iPad.Linking to the point above about spaces through, we need to consider how we will use technology, and importantly be able to react and use new technologies, to support learning. This isn’t about minor changes such as having BlackBoard Mobile, this is about all of us being able to use technology to deliver education in a different way

So, some initial thoughts, based on one article and a quick skim through Gallo’s book. There is a danger of being sucked into the Apple fanboy view of the world, worshipping at the altar of Jobs, but there are soem good ideas in this that I will return to in my next installment of “We can be better than this”.