Guidance or directive?

Easy finance

A new statement from HEFCE advises universities how to make financial information more visible to students. But is it advice, guidance, assistance or in fact a clear directive?

New guidance aims to help universities and colleges in England present information about income and expenditure on their web-sites in a way that is transparent and accessible to current students and the general public.

The guidance has been developed by the British Universities Finance Directors Group (BUFDG), GuildHE, HEFCE, NUS and Universities UK. It follows a request from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to HEFCE for universities and colleges to publish financial information more effectively.

It draws on findings from recent research, including a survey of 2,400 current students which found that there is interest in this type of information but that it was often difficult to find and understand.

The research identifies priorities for improving the presentation of financial information such as accessibility, clear signposting and ensuring technical language is clearly explained, as well as keeping information up to date.

Clear enough for you?

In summary, it seems that all this finance stuff is a bit difficult to find and understand and therefore needs to be provided in accessible and easily digestible form. In other words we need to ensure that this aspect of university management can be represented by infographic. Perhaps it would be better if every dimension of university life were to be represented in pictures?

This just adds, as previously posted, to the excess of information already made available to students. And, if it does turn out to be a requirement rather than just encouragement, then isn’t this yet another piece of unwelcome regulation to add to an already excessive burden?

Note that Hugh Jones has a slightly different take on this, favouring transparency and openness with students. He has a similar line on fancy pictures though…

 

The impact of universities on the UK economy

A big impact indeed

EconomicImpactOfHigherEducationInstitutionsLrg

This new Universities UK report on the impact of universities on the UK economy really is a very interesting piece of work which covers the sector’s increasing impact in terms of output, contribution to GDP, job creation, and overseas investment. It also looks at the knock-on effects of expenditure by universities, their staff, and international students. The report finds that in 2011–12, the UK higher education sector:

• generated over £73 billion of output – up 24% from £59 billion in 2009

• contributed 2.8% of UK GDP in 2011 – up from 2.3% in 2007

• generated 2.7% of all UK employment and 757,268 full-time-equivalent jobs

• generated £10.7 billion of export earnings for the UK

• received less than half its income from public sources

The report also compares HE’s contribution to GDP to that of other sectors:

Higher education’s contribution to GDP (O) is clearly significant. Further analysis was undertaken to assess the impact of universities on GDP compared with a number of other UK sectors. As Figure 11 shows, the higher education institutional contribution to GDP (O) in 2011–12 was comparable to that made by legal activities, greater than that of office administration and less than telecommunications. The industry figures were sourced from the ONS Use Tables for 2010 and hence should not be regarded as a direct like-with-like comparison as the higher education figures are for the year 2011–12. However, Figure 11 is broadly indicative and is helpful in illustrating the relative position of universities in terms of their contribution to GDP. This is an industry-to-industry comparison (ie the secondary GDP generated by the universities or their students is not included).

 

HE v other sectors

It’s a really impressive piece of work and reinforces the critical place of higher education in the UK economy. The report is also accompanied by a set of more detailed reports which examine the impact of universities on the economies of the English regions. All very helpful and interesting.

More means worse? (Data that is)

 Lots of information is not necessarily a good thing for prospective students

I’ve written before about concerns about too much data and the importance of quality rather than just quantity in the information provided to applicants to higher education.

Now a new HEFCE report on Improving information for prospective students has come to a similar conclusion.

keyboard
The report summarises existing research into decision-making behaviour and comes to some interesting conclusion:

 

Relevant research was identified across a wide range of disciplines, including information science, cognitive and behavioural psychology, behavioural economics and social theory. This research is likely to be relevant to how prospective students make their higher education choices.

The research draws attention to the need to examine fundamental assumptions about how people use information in decision-making.

Key findings in the report include:

  • The decision-making process is complex, personal and nuanced, involving different types of information, messengers and influences over a long time. This challenges the common assumption that people primarily make objective choices following a systematic analysis of all the information available to them at one time.
  • Greater amounts of information do not necessarily mean that people will be better informed or be able to make better decisions.

 

It’s a really detailed, serious and comprehensive report and sets out eight principles which it is proposed should govern future information provision for prospective HE students. Let’s hope it is taken seriously and that we now take a fresh look at this important issue. Mike Hamlyn has also commented on this report and is entertainingly sceptical on its findings.

Who are the real VIPs on campus?

Who would you say is the most important person on campus?

We all like to think we are indispensable. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. I sometimes worry the place will grind to a halt when I go on holiday. However, it does seem that things often progress just fine when I’m away (for a brief period, anyway). So perhaps I’m not completely indispensable. Which then invites the question are there key individuals within universities without whom things would just fall apart?

image vip

Obviously there are groups of people who are fundamental to the operation of the institution, starting with academics who teach and research and including grounds staff, catering teams and those who sort out the timetable and run school offices. But who are the absolutely critical individuals?

So who is the most important person in your university? The Vice-Chancellor? Chief Financial Officer? Registrar? Chief Information Officer? Or perhaps others?

You might think that one of the following is more important:

Dean of the Medical school? Head of Grounds? Press Officer? Head of Health and Safety? IT Network Manager? Head of Admissions? Students’ Union President? Head of Security?

Who would you rate as your campus VIP?

#campusvips

Trademarking the obvious in Higher Education

You might be sued for using some pretty common HE phrases

Slate has an amusing piece on universities and colleges which have trademarked seemingly everyday Higher Education phrases such as “student life” and “fast-track MBA”.

According to the piece various institutions have been granted federal trademark registrations on the phrases, presumably to stop other people from using them in any context remotely related to education. At least in the USA. The key terms to avoid:

  • first-year experience has been trademarked by the University of South Carolina

  • fast-track MBA has been trademarked by Eastern University

  • be the difference has been trademarked by Marquette University

  • cure violence has been trademarked by the University of Illinois

  • student life has been trademarked by Washington University in St. Louis

  • students with diabetes has been trademarked by the University of South Florida

  • one course at a time has been trademarked by Cornell College

  • touched by a nurse has been trademarked by the University of Colorado

  • we’re conquering cancer has been trademarked by the University of Texas

  • working toward a world without cancer has been trademarked by the University of Kansas Hospital

  • imagination beyond measure has been trademarked by the University of Virginia

  • tomorrow starts here has been trademarked by East Carolina University

Don't even think of copying this strapline

Don’t even think of copying this strapline

And it does seem that some are not afraid to go after those who use their trademarked property:

The University of Alabama has made legal threats against a cake shop; East Carolina University sued Cisco; West Virginia University sued a company selling blue-and-gold shirts (they said “Let’s Go Drink Some Beers!”—which WVU claimed was too close to their trademarked “Let’s Go Mountaineers!”).

Bizarre. Some of these are such everyday phrases it is difficult to imagine not using them on a regular basis. Although it is a struggle to imagine a context in which “touched by a nurse” might be deployed to positive effect. It couldn’t happen in the UK, could it? (It probably has.)

Money, Money, Money

HE Income and Expenditure 2012/13

Perhaps not the most exciting publication of the year to date but nevertheless some interesting information in the new Higher Education Statistics Agency report on Income and Expenditure of HE institutions.

HE Finance Plus 2012/13 shows that the total income of higher education institutions (HEIs) in 2012/13 was £29.1 billion. Funding bodies provided £7.0 billion of this income, while tuition fees and education contracts contributed £11.7 billion.

This handy chart shows the proportions of total income of UK higher education institutions by source in 2012/13:
PR201_Inc_721w

The total increase in income over 2011/12 was 4.5%.

And then there is also this helpful summary of total expenditure.
PR201_Exp_485w

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of spend (just over 55%) is on staff. Total spend has increased by 4.7% over 2011/12 and expenditure on staff has risen by 4.1%. It will be interesting to see how this global profile of total spend changes in subsequent years.

One thing is absolutely clear from this summary: with growth in spend outstripping income by 4.7% to 4.5% the position is unsustainable. And it’s only going to get worse in terms of teaching funding. So either institutions will have to find new ways to raise more money or reduce expenditure. The future doesn’t look very bright. It’s a rich university’s world.

OFT gives English HE a 2i (just)

A decent result for HE in England?

A previous post noted the launch of an OFT investigation into competition in the HE sector in England. After gathering much information the OFT has now published a report which, broadly (and perhaps grudgingly), says things are working well:

Overall, our analysis of the higher education sector in England highlights that it is, in many respects, performing to very high standards and enjoys an excellent reputation at the national and international level.

It is also clear that there is no evidence of collusion on fee-setting.

There is a caveat though, and quite a big one

However, we have identified a number of challenges that need to be addressed if the sector is to fulfill its potential to deliver to the benefit of students and the wider society, especially in light of the increased role of competition between higher education institutions (including internationally) and choice by students. In doing so, there is a role for the CMA to play, working with and through stakeholders to address these challenges in a timely and effective manner.

Some of these challenges include:

  • students not being given some key information, such as their teaching staff’s experience or long-term employment prospects, to enable them to choose the most appropriate course and institution
  • some policies and practices by universities, such as changes to elements of the course and/or fees, or not providing all the relevant information about their course, that could put students at a disadvantage and might, in some cases, breach consumer protection legislation
  • while the complaints process has improved, it could be quicker and more accessible

index

Fair enough, we can look at all that. But perhaps the biggest issue in the report is this:

the sector’s regulatory regime is overly complex and does not reflect the increased role of student choice and the wider range of higher education institutions. In particular, there are concerns about the existence of a ‘level playing field’, the role of self-regulation, and the lack of arrangements should a university or course close.

On the basis of these findings, the OFT recommends that its successor body, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), undertakes further work to assess the extent to which the practices identified may affect students, clarifies the responsibilities of universities under consumer protection law and identifies the best way to address these issues.

It also advises that the CMA should work with, and through, stakeholders to inform the design of a regulatory regime which can better contribute to maximising the potential benefits of choice and competition.

In other words the new CMA, OFY’s successor, is being lined up to play a part in helping address regulation in HE. Just splendid. Our ‘level playing field’, which is far from level nor a playing field nor with pitch markings accepted by most participants in the regulatory game is already more of a mud bath and the arrival of the CMA is, I fear, unlikely to assist.

However, that moan aside, this is on the whole an outcome which could have been much worse and confirms that, as many of us would have said at the beginning of the process, there’s nothing to see here.

Surviving an avalanche

The avalanche came. And went?

avalanche cover

It’s just about a year since the publication of the IPPR report  ‘An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead‘. It really was a stirring waning to the future:

‘Our belief is that deep, radical and urgent transformation is required in higher education as much as it is in school systems. Our fear is that, perhaps as a result of complacency, caution or anxiety, or a combination of all three, the pace of change is too slow and the nature of change too incremental.’

‘Should we fail to radically change our approach to education, the same cohort we’re attempting to “protect” could find that their entire future is scuttled by our timidity.’ David Puttnam, MIT, 2012

It was supported by a really cool video which was as insightful as it was comprehensive:

Anyway, this cataclysmic offering aimed “to provoke creative dialogue and challenge complacency in our traditional higher education institutions”.

‘Just as globalisation and technology have transformed other huge sectors of the economy in the past 20 years, in the next 20 years universities face transformation.’

With a massive diversification in the range of providers, methods and technologies delivering tertiary education worldwide, the assumptions underlying the traditional relationship between universities, students and local and national economies are increasingly under great pressure – a revolution is coming.

In summary, the case seemed to be that the future was not great for those institutions which did not adapt to the new thinking.

Private Frazer scenario

To save you the trouble, the piece really does not bear re-reading. Rather you might prefer to revisit the coruscating WonkHE piece from the time by David Kernohan which helpfully demolishes most of the arguments in the Avalanche paper as the following extract nicely demonstrates:

The education ‘revolution’ that Barber, Donnelly and Rizvi are such keen advocates of is a comfortably fed one. This is not a cry from the barricades – not a populist movement of grass roots activists. The hand-wringing citation of unemployment statistics and rising student fees comes not from the unemployed and poor, but from the new education industry that wants to find a way into the marketplace.

And this is the underlying impression one takes from this report. The citations are shoddy, the proofreading abysmal – it reads like a bad blog post. Or a good Ted talk. It’s a serving of handsome slices of invective which would leave anyone sick to the stomach. Falling graduate wages. The lack of good “quality measures” for universities. A neatly formatted table of annual academic publication rates – in 50 year slices from 1726 onwards – labelled “The Growth of Information over 300 years”. (but “citizens of the world now cry out for synthesis”!!)

Again and again we, as citizens of the world, are encouraged to rail and protest about the broken system that somehow seems to have educated world leaders, scientists, lawyers, engineers and senior staff at academic publishers with pretensions at “thought leadership”. A system which anyone would admit has problems; problems caused by the imposition of a wearying and inapplicable market.

Section 6 of the report, “The Competition is heating up”, retreads familiar grounds concerning the all-conquering world of the MOOC – that well known reheating of early 00s internet education hype flavoured with a rich source of venture capital. But this is situated within a wider spectrum of globalised private for-profit providers – the lot of whom (poor reputation! high drop-out rates! difficulty in gaining degree awarding powers!) is bewailed at some length.

It is a thorough and quite devastating critique. Yes, there has been change in the past year and of course institutions have had to adapt. MOOCs will continue to have an impact in the longer term. But this is not a revolution. Or an avalanche.

Too Many Administrators?

Here we go again

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting piece on administrative staff numbers which suggests that a 28% growth in Higher Education work force numbers is primarily due to additional administrative staff.

As report says

Other industries have found ways to outsource services that are not central to what they do, but higher education has invested more and more—as part of a strategy, he contended. Just as a cable company bundles channels together and makes you pay for them all, whether or not you watch them, colleges have bundled counseling, athletics, campus activities, and other services with the instructional side to justify charging more.

“All of those things they are bundling are adding to the price of attendance,” he said.

So, not a terribly helpful view.

And, naturally, people working in student services see things rather differently:

Patricia L. Leonard, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said that growth in student services might reflect colleges’ response to increased regulation and pressure from parents and policy makers.

Faculty members typically don\’t deal with legal disputes, government regulations, athletics compliance, or intervention in mental-health, sexual-assault, or disabilities issues—that’s the professional staff’s job, she said.

“When you put that all together, there may be increased staff, but it’s because campuses are trying to meet the need,” she said. “Any one case is extremely time-consuming.”

People have come to expect that education extends to activities outside the classroom, she said. Many of her staff members not only coordinate with instructors, but also teach classes.

“It’s an integrated approach,” she said, “and I don’t think that would happen if it were outsourced.”

We’ve been here before. A previous post on this subject made my position pretty clear on this issue I think:

In order for the academic staff to deliver on their core responsibilities for teaching and research it is essential that all the services they and the university need are delivered efficiently and effectively. There is not much point in hiring a world-leading scholar if she has to do her all her own photocopying, spend a day a week on the ‘phone trying to sort out tax issues or cut the grass outside the office every month because there aren’t any other staff to do this work. These services are required and staff are needed to do this work to ensure academics are not unnecessarily distracted from their primary duties.

So, there is a lot more to be done to support the student experience, a great deal more regulation to deal with and ever more support required to help academics do the best job they can. There will undoubtedly be scope for efficiencies too and the situation in the UK is nowhere near as dramatic as shown by this US data but still this does not point to immediate outsourcing as the solution to all of these concerns.

Dealer deals

A fair deal for students?

PA Consulting have produced an interesting report on ‘The Student Deal’:

The Student Deal: designing genuinely student-centred higher education incorporates our latest thinking on current issues and challenges in higher education. Reflecting the changing dynamics of the higher education system, The Student Deal challenges the limitations of the current thinking about students-as-customers, and the related emphasis on student satisfaction and student journeys.

We believe these approaches encourage a limited, transactional view of the relationship between students and providers and do not adequately address the lifetime benefits students should expect from their personal investment in higher education, nor the collaborative relationship between students and learning providers that best fosters those benefits.

A bum deal?

A bum deal?

It’s an intelligent pitch. The full report, available here, offers the following opening:

“The language of students-as-customers neglects the essential mutual commitment between students and learning providers.”

“Students are not simply consumers of a bundle of educational and related services, even when their fees pay for those services.”

This is very well put. Students are much more than just customers and this is certainly true in critical learning-related interactions. However, there is a subset of activities (which do impact on their lives) where they are in a customer relationship with the University. These are important transactions too and can have a negative impact on all of the other aspects of the ‘deal’ set out here.

The paper is right to challenge the rather simplistic ‘student experience’ discourse. In particular the characterisation of the NSS as the TripAdvisor of higher education is an excellent observation. The ‘Student Deal’ does recognize the multi-dimensional nature of the relationships here between student and different parts of the university:

“The primary outcomes sought by students are built around four core essentials:

• grasping a body of discipline-based knowledge

• acquiring expertise in applying and mastering that knowledge

growth as individuals through personal, societal and professional development, and

• enhancing their career and life opportunities.”

This is a reasonable representation but the ‘Graduate Attributes’ notion has been around for at least 20 years (the development of the ‘Graduate Attributes Profile’ was, I think, an HEQC project in the mid-1990s) and, although I do think it is a preferable conceptualisation to that of the ‘T-shaped person’, I’m still not sure it is quite up to the job here. The elements within the core outcomes are all reasonable propositions but there is a huge difference in weighting in terms of effort, duration, impact and importance which is not really addressed in the model.

The Student Deal (a bit like a flower)

The Student Deal (a bit like a flower)

It is though right to observe that one size can’t fit all: “Universities need to tailor the Student Deals they offer to the diversity of learners and markets.”

This is the real challenge for institutions – deciding what the offer is and then looking to do the deals. (Unfortunate though with the choice of UEA’s London Campus as an example given the recent announcement that it is to close in September.) It is though a far from straightforward decision.

“Learners at every level and mode of study are, in effect, entering a ‘Student Deal’ with their chosen provider.”

“The Student Deal is forged at the meeting of individuals’ ambitions and talents with the experiences, resources and personalised support available through their chosen provider.”

I’m really not sure about the ‘student as investor’ line in here or indeed how personal this ultimately can be – are we talking a personalized contract? Haven’t we been there before too?

“The Student Deal, unlike the student experience, is essentially a two-way commitment between providers and learners, which demands as much from the student/investor as from the provider.”

Yes, but it is perhaps unrealistic to expect this to be anything other than an asymmetric relationship. At the end of the day the dealer deals.

Overall though an interesting and stimulating paper.

24 hour study people

Food: all day and all of the night

It’s perhaps not that novel but Inside Higher Ed has a story about a small US college, Lynn University, which has introduced all-night dining to help, among other things, with more flexible class scheduling:

Lynn made the adjustment in dining hours for a pretty simple and obvious reason: administrators worried that students weren’t eating when they needed to. Athletes, working students and international students, many of whom tend to eat later, would regularly miss meals when the kitchen was only open for a few three-hour periods throughout the day.

A typical cafeteria at some other university

A typical cafeteria at some other university


Sure enough, with all-day access, students started coming in to eat later, sometimes using the cafeteria to study or socialize for hours at a time. But officials hadn’t exactly planned on what happened next: Instead of scheduling classes around when students can and can’t eat, they thought, why not get flexible?

So a two-hour 5 p.m. class that would have been unthinkable before is suddenly an option. And a popular one, at that. As the college experiments with course offerings throughout the day, it has quickly become clear that students much prefer that evening option to the early morning one.

This seems like a good idea to me and one which recognises that students may have many different preferences about when they study and eat. I suspect that more universities will offer this kind of provision, at least at exam time. However, rescheduling classes to accommodate the preferences of some for evening teaching rather than morning may not suit everyone and I suspect that not all academic staff would be wildly enthusiastic about such timetabling.

The 2014 Grant letter: another epistolary triumph

And the wait was finally over

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has written to HEFCE with the Department’s annual message on funding and helpful bag of instructions. As excitement in the sector reached near fever pitch, the contents were being live-tweeted by @TimesHigherEd while everyone else waited to get hold of a copy.

The much-delayed letter does not contain much of what you might describe as good news although there is some modest improvement on the capital front. Additional student places and the removal of student number controls altogether from 2015-16 are confirmed:

The settlement will mean reductions in funding for higher education institutions in 2014-15 and again in 2015-16 beyond those accounted for by the switch to publicly funded tuition fees. The Government has asked HEFCE to deliver the reductions in ways which protect as far as possible high-cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation (which is funded via the HEFCE Student Opportunity allocation), and small and specialist institutions.

HEFCE is asked to continue its work with the Research Councils and others to support internationally excellent research and the delivery of the impact agenda through the dual-support framework. The ring-fenced settlement for science and research means that recurrent funding is maintained at £1,573 million, the same cash levels as 2013-14.

Overall, the amount of capital funding for teaching and research will increase in 2014-15 to £440 million.

The grant letter confirms the Government’s provision of a maximum of 30,000 additional student places in academic year 2014-15 for HEFCE-funded institutions. The student number control will be removed entirely from 2015-16, and the Government has asked HEFCE to ensure that higher education institutions maintain the quality of the student experience in these circumstances.

Bur enough of the content, what about the important stuff like length? At 22 paragraphs, excluding the covering letter, or 26 if you include the substantive comments in the letter, it is shorter than any of its three predecessors from the BIS duo which have come in at 36, 35 and 28 paragraphs long. It is pleasing though that the Secretary of State’s signature remains as cheerful as ever (see below).

It is far from the shortest on record though which is the initial 10 paragraph punt from back at the start of the Coalition journey. As this utterly pointless graph (now in need of an update) shows, the long term trend is reduced grant letter length.

The length of Grant Letters to HEFCE down the years

The length of Grant Letters to HEFCE down the years

So much for this year then, what of the past?

The earlier post on this topic back in August 2010 noted:

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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?
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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 15 years of funding letters.

Netflix for University Selection?

An algorithm to help with university choice

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting report on a Netflix-like algorithm which is designed to help with selecting a university. A former admissions counsellor and now PhD student, Daniel Jarratt has been working on a tool which would help students find the right institution for them by focusing on the similarities in the choices they have already made and using this to highlight other possibilities.

College Admission Assistance | Find the Right College. Get in. Get aid. | PossibilityU

Mr. Jarratt … created an algorithm that could take several colleges and figure out how similar they are to one another and—more important—in what ways they are similar. Do they have a lower-than-average graduation rate? More than the average number of students living on the campus? Do a higher-than-average number of students study art or engineering?

Using that algorithm, he could explain what the students could not: what was it that a collection of colleges had in common. From there, Mr. Jarratt could highlight other institutions that shared some of the same attributes.

Mr. Jarratt’s algorithm is now an integral part of PossibilityU, a website that helps high-school students find the right college.

PossibilityU’s data-driven approach to college matching isn’t new, but Mr. Jarratt’s recommendation algorithm is unique. Rather than starting with a list of questions about what students are looking for, PossibilityU asks users to enter up to three colleges that they are interested in. It then spits out a list of 10 other, similar colleges to consider. A premium paid subscription allows students to compare an unlimited number of colleges and provides application deadlines and other advice.

It’s kind of like Netflix’s movie suggestions, says Mr. Jarratt, who studies recommender systems like those used by the movie service and by Amazon.

Do you like Valparaiso and the University of Minnesota? You might also like Marquette University and the University of Iowa, according to PossibilityU.

It all looks moderately interesting. Would a similar model work in the UK? Perhaps, although the range of choices is rather narrower than in the US. Nevertheless, there is certainly more than enough data out there to help this kind of approach.

Yet More Information

The US seems to be following the UK’s lead

I’ve previously written about the excess of information available for prospective students in UK HE and the fact that it really isn’t a substitute for proper advice and guidance. Now The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on plans for extra information to be provided in the US and why it may not make much difference to students’ choice of institution:

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Going to college generally pays off. But not all colleges are the same, and not all students end up at places where they’re likely to fare well.

Dropping out or overborrowing—or both—are widely recognized problems. To try to prevent them, the federal government has unveiled a bunch of new tools to give prospective students more information. College Navigator offers a trove of searchable data. The College Scorecard features comparative performance measures. The Shopping Sheet is a standardized financial-aid award format.

In August, President Obama announced plans to develop a college-ratings system. Yes, more consumer information. But it could go further, if Congress, as the administration hopes, ties the ratings to financial aid.

The plan has proved unpopular with college leaders, who seem more comfortable with information itself, sans value judgment. As one president wrote in The New York Times, “The administration should make many types of data easily available and let people rate schools for themselves.”

Several existing tools, the ratings plan, and the do-it-yourself counterproposal all boil down to disclosure. But is more consumer information enough to steer students toward better choices?

The context is a little different here though. It’s seen by some as a something of a cheap policy option and perhaps less burdensome than other forms of regulation. And as the piece says it is perhaps easier to tell people about the shortcomings of institutions than it is to fix the problems. However, the overall conclusion is, rightly, that what is really needed is not another website or additional data but more and better guidance for prospective students.

Restricting Free Speech?

Is there really a freedom of speech problem in US universities?

 

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Inside Higher Ed has a report on a new publication on free speech on US campuses.

Nearly 59 percent of campuses have policies that “clearly and substantially” restrict students’ protected speech, according to an annual report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and another 36 percent have policies that “overregulate” speech on campus. Private colleges, which are not legally bound by the First Amendment, fare slightly worse in the report; about 62 percent of those campuses substantially restrict student speech, compared to 58 percent of public campuses. However, the percentage of campuses seriously restricting speech is down 17 percent from six years ago, the report says.

Obviously the legislative framework governing free speech in US universities is very different from the UK but this does seem to be an extremely pessimistic picture. You do suspect there is something of a political agenda here though. Indeed anything at all which limits total freedom of speech is characterised as a problem.