As last year the University of Nottingham does pretty well in three of these tables: top 30 in Clinical Medicine and Pharmacy, Top 75 in Agricultural and Life Sciences, and the world’s Top 75 universities in the Social Sciences.
(Arguably the dullest post ever to appear on this blog. And that’s saying something. I’ve been wanting to do this for ages but apologies in advance for any distress caused.)
The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:
Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.
This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.
The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.
Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:
The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).
So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 14 years of funding letters.
Thousands of university students still find their lecturers too remote despite pledges that standards of service would improve with the introduction of top-up fees of up to £3,225 a year. A national survey by the Higher Education Funding Council for England showing the level of student satisfaction with their courses reveals there has been no improvement in three years. Overall, 82 per cent are satisfied with their course – but the figure dips to 67 per cent when it comes to assessment of their work and the feedback they get from lecturers.
UK students’ satisfaction with their undergraduate courses has stalled, the National Student Survey has found. Overall, 82% of finalists at UK universities in 2010 were satisfied with the quality of their course, the same percentage as last year. Universities warn satisfaction ratings could deteriorate as funding cuts bite. The NSS, in which 252,000 students took part, is published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) to help maintain standards.
But really. OK, there remains plenty of scope for improvement, particularly in the area of feedback to students on their work but to deliver an overall satisfaction rating of more than 80% over such a large number of students is surely hugely positive? So why are universities getting a kicking for this? Presumably even an average satisfaction rating of 90% plus would be inadequate.
SJTU 2010 world university rankings have been published
Full table should be available at the SJTU site but it seems to be down at time of writing. Meantime, have the UK universities in top 100 courtesy of the Telegraph (where the story seems, slightly bizarrely, to argue that these results suggest UKHE doesn’t play well in China).
UK universities appear in the top 100 as follows (last year in brackets):
0128 Patrol Security Officers observed a vehicle being driven dangerously in Newark Hall car park. Officers stopped the vehicle and spoke to the driver who is a Student. Officers also spoke to the owner of the vehicle who is also a Student. The reason given for the dangerous driving was “letting off exam stress” – both Students will be reported to the Head of Security.
0830 Security unlocked a shared bathroom for a Student who had been locked out of his shared bathroom.
1015 Report of a male talking to a wall at the rear of the Biology Building. Security attended and spoke to the male. The male identified himself as a member of Staff – he stated that he was working through a Mathematical problem and would be returning to his office after his lunch.
1830 Report of a Robin in the Kitchens in Portland Building. Staff requested Pest Control – the Robin was encouraged to leave without the use of Pest Control Staff.
1430 Report that a hole had appeared in Cut Through Lane. Estates Staff aware and are dealing with the hole.
0850 A visitor in Cripps Hall requested a towel. Security attended and provided the visitor with a set of towels.
1840 Report of a suspicious package in Nottingham Medical School – Security attended and after checking the package removed it from the building. On examination, the package was found to contain a tin of gravy granules.
The Economist carries an interesting piece on the runaway inflation of job titles:
KIM JONG IL, the North Korean dictator, is not normally a trendsetter. But in one area he is clearly leading the pack: job-title inflation. Mr Kim has 1,200 official titles, including, roughly translated, guardian deity of the planet, ever-victorious general, lodestar of the 21st century, supreme commander at the forefront of the struggle against imperialism and the United States, eternal bosom of hot love and greatest man who ever lived.
When it comes to job titles, we live in an age of rampant inflation. Everybody you come across seems to be a chief or president of some variety. Title inflation is producing its own vocabulary: “uptitling” and “title-fluffing”. It is also producing technological aids. One website provides a simple formula: just take your job title, mix in a few grand words, such as “global”, “interface” and “customer”, and hey presto….Even so, chiefs are relatively rare compared with presidents and their various declensions (vice-, assistant-, etc). Almost everybody in banking from the receptionist upwards is a president of some sort. The number of members of LinkedIn, a professional network, with the title vice-president grew 426% faster than the membership of the site as a whole in 2005-09. The inflation rate for presidents was 312% and for chiefs a mere 275%.
America’s International Association of Administrative Professionals—formerly the National Secretaries Association—reports that it has more than 500 job-titles under its umbrella, ranging from front-office co-ordinator to electronic-document specialist. Paper boys are “media distribution officers”. Binmen are “recycling officers”. Lavatory cleaners are “sanitation consultants”. Sandwich-makers at Subway have the phrase “sandwich artist” emblazoned on their lapels. Even the normally linguistically pure French have got in on the act: cleaning ladies are becoming “techniciennes de surface” (surface technicians).
The same has happened in UK higher education over the years. Many universities now use the titles such as Assistant Professor and Associate Professor in place of Lecturer and Senior Lecturer. And in the administration whereas most titles used to be Administrative Assistant, Assistant Registrar, Senior Assistant Registrar or similar, these have now been replaced by a plethora of Officers and Executives and we seem to have more Directors than Hollywood. And many Registrars have now been retitled Chief Operating Officers. Where will it end?
According to a piece in the Telegraph private universities represent ‘a huge threat to academic standards’. This follows the award of the University College title to BPP College and the line comes from UCU:
More than nine in ten professors believe encouraging more private companies to become universities would be a mistake, the University and College Union (UCU) said. In a survey of 504 professors, the union found that 96.2 per cent opposed plans to make it easier for private companies to become universities. A call by David Willetts, the Universities Minister, to increase the role of the private sector in higher education represents “a huge threat to academic freedom and standards,” it said.
The UCU expressed concerns that private companies are not subjected to the same scrutiny as universities, and have no “tradition of academic freedom.”
All of us who want the maintenance of appropriate academic standards and a robust student learning experience in British higher education must welcome the news that the BPP College of Professional Studies has been designated as a “university college” – the first wholly privately funded university institution to be established in the UK since the establishment of Buckingham University College – now the University of Buckingham – in 1976.
Given that Alderman is employed by the University of Buckingham his views are perhaps unsurprising. But what is the issue here? Are private universities really a threat to academic standards? The question is, of course, a ludicrous one. The arrival of new privately funded institutions will not, in itself, have any bearing on the academic standards set at existing institutions. Nor will standards set by such private universities necessarily be lower than those of other universities, just different. What will be interesting to see though is the broader impact private providers will have on publicly funded universities. The government clearly believes that the introduction of this kind of competition for students into the HE marketplace will force everyone to raise their game and lead to better quality of provision at lower cost. This is theoretically possible but what about reality?
Buckingham and BPP do seem able successfully to recruit students (although given the huge demand for limited university places this is not a surprise) and the former has enjoyed some success in national league tables but the standing of their graduates in the jobs market will be a key determinant of their success in the longer term. So, private universities may not have a direct impact on academic standards but if they succeed in recruiting good staff, well-qualified students and produce highly employable graduates then they will begin to offer real competition for publicly funded institutions. Will everyone else then begin to copy the private providers? We’ll see.
Drawing on the Amazon approach, Ben Wildavsky suggests a different way of approaching university league tables:
For many years now, the worldwide explosion of college rankings that took off in the 1980s has prompted sharp debates about whether, and how, universities ought to be measured against one another. Some critics ask whether a university-to-university match up, either within a single nation or globally, is really the best frame of reference when a more appropriate comparison might be between academic departments within the same field. Others fear that their own nations’ institutions of higher learning will never be given a fair shake in league tables marred by the methodological biases of foreigners – hence the rise of alternative metrics such as those that occasioned the memorable headline “French Do Well in French World Rankings.”
There is a different approach though, which draws on the Amazon model of sub-categorisation:
Memories came back to me of my old job as editor of the U.S. News & World Report college guides. Beyond the contentious national rankings, U.S. News creates separate lists for small liberal arts colleges, nonselective comprehensive universities, and so forth. In a little-recognized bit of genius, all are sliced and diced by geography as well. So an unremarkable institution ranked in the bottom quartile overall could boast that it was the top liberal arts college in the Upper Michigan Peninsula. Carve the data thin enough and everyone’s a winner.
It’s something that works well in the US and could, conceivably, work with international tables too. But in the UK, the arguments about which institutions would be allocated to which categories would be bloody. Worth a go though. And then everyone could be a winner here too.