Sino-Foreign Unity

Inauguration of Sino-foreign Cooperative Universities Union

Sino-foreign universities are still small in number. Since the establishment of the first Sino-foreign institution, the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, a decade ago, the number has grown though and npw six have come together to establish the Sino-foreign Cooperative University Union and Presidents Forum.

The event was a chance for the leaders of the six joint venture universities from across China to come together with representatives of the local and national government to witness the formation of the Union and participate in the inaugural forum.

University of Nottingham Ningbo China

University of Nottingham Ningbo China

The six international collaborative universities are Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, New York University Shanghai, Duke Kunshan University, Wenzhou-Kean University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong Shenzhen.

The inaugural meeting of Sino-foreign Cooperative Universities Union was hosted by XJTLU and a press release provided more information on the event:

Speaking during the morning’s Presidential Forum, Professor Youmin Xi, Executive President of XJTLU, welcomed the distinguished guests and highlighted the importance of the Union of Sino-foreign Cooperative Universities not only for its members but also for Chinese higher education. “It is time for us [the Union] to redefine education,” explained President Xi, citing the competitive advantages of student centered learning, innovative administrative structure and lack of historical burdens as the reasons why universities such as XJTLU will become leaders of the next generation of international higher education institutes.

XJTLU, host of the event

XJTLU, host of the event

Throughout the morning, senior representatives from the Union followed President Xi in giving speeches and introductions about their institutions to the audience. Members were then encouraged to raise questions and share ideas with one another in order to enhance the understanding of the issues faced by Sino-foreign Universities in China today.Professor Weiqi Shen, Vice-President of University of Nottingham Ningbo China, further developed the principles which set Sino-foreign Cooperative Universities apart from others in China, highlighting “high quality, openness, ‘hybrid vigor’ and legitimacy” in particular.

In the afternoon the Forum was joined by a senior delegation from the national Ministry of Education MoE, who travelled from Beijing to participate in the event. The Presidents listened to a speech given by Mr. Jianjun Cen, Director of International Cooperation and Communion Department of MoE who spoke about the important of the Union and the positive effects they hoped it would have on wider education in China.

The Union of Sino-foreign Universities intends to continue to explore issues of common concern by sharing experiences and best practices, and to find feasible solutions to these issues. It is intended to enhance communication among members but also to enable members to influence higher education development in China. Although the members are at different stages of development, together they are in a distinctive and potentiallly influential position. It will be interesting to see how the new Union develops.

Capital spend spend spend

Changing patterns of capital spending in universities

 

HESA recently released details of HEIs’ capital spend in 2012-13 showing the total spend on buildings and equipment and the sources of the funds used:

HE capital

 

Times Higher Education has a brief piece on this and notes that, unsurprisingly, as external funding for capital expenditure has declined, universities have replaced this from their own funds:

The proportion of capital investment that universities financed using internal funds has leaped 20 per cent over the past four years, according to data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency

UK universities spent nearly £2 billion from internal sources for capital projects in 2012-13, up from £1.5 billion in 2008-09.

The Finances of Higher Education Institutions 2012-13 report states that during the past academic year, universities’ capital expenditure was nearly £3.1 billion, 64 per cent of which was provided by internal sources. This compares with a total of almost £3.5 billion four years ago, of which 43 per cent was funded by internal sources.

Expenditure funded by loans remained relatively stable, at £408 million in 2008-09 and £326 million in 2012-13, according to the data published earlier this month. Meanwhile, capital projects financed by funding body grants fell by about half over the four years, from £765 million to £359 million.

So, despite the decline in funding agency contributions the total spend on buildings and equipment has increased significantly. Will capital spend continue to grow despite reduced public funding? We can expect so given the greater competition between institutions, the “arms race” of student facilities development and the need to invest ever more to support leading edge research.

Students behaving badly

Crimes and misdemeanours at university

I was greatly taken by this list of fineable offences for 18th-century students at Harvard:

Offense #19, “Cutting off the lead,” seems to refer to the lead on the college building’s roof. Lead was once used for roofing material (especially for more expensively-constructed buildings), and such buildings suffered from the depradations of thieves who would steal the lead and sell it. It’s unclear, in this case, whether the students were cutting off lead for profit or for simple mischief.

 

Students have always behaved badly. Not all of them and not all of the time but universities have often felt the need to seek to constrain the worst excesses and this list from Harvard is typical although clearly very much of its time. (See also True Crime on Campus…)

A previous post here looked at regulations in Oxford and Uzbekistan, in the 16th Century and more recently.

In 1584 at Oxford University, statutes were approved to prevent disorder among the student body. These regulations also contain references to specific degree requirements including attendance at lectures on Aristotle and an instruction not to play football. (Sylvester, D (1970), Educational Documents, 800-1816, London: Methuen pp151-153.)

These days universities around the world tend to have more comprehensive requirements (but perhaps more supportive of sporting activity). See for example the University of Nottingham Code of Discipline for Students.

An interesting development of this has been reported by the Chronicle which noted that Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Higher and Secondary Education issued a ‘code of conduct’ for students, covering such matters as how they should shake hands with professors and the proper time to visit the toilet during classes.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (quoted by the Chronicle) described the code, “Ethical Rules for Higher Education Institutions,” as an attempt by an authoritarian government to keep its youth population in line:

The ministry is requiring that its pedantic “Ethical Rules for Higher Education Institutions” be signed by every university student and professor in the country.

“These rules are being introduced to form and retain, as well as defend, the ethical integrity of members of higher educational institutions,” the document says. It promises to “prevent the decay of students…and defend them from alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as the threats of religious extremism and mass culture.”

(It’s good to see that someone is still fighting that last battle, particularly after Rutgers University paid Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” $32,000 to lecture its students in March 2011. Snooki got $2,000 more than Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning author who for $30,000 delivered the keynote address at Rutgers’ commencement ceremony in May 2011.)

 

This is the kind of thing which Harvard used to have to put up with

This is the kind of thing which Harvard used to have to put up with

Notwithstanding the lofty language of the prologue, many of the new guidelines read like a rather poor joke, the work of ministry officials with an acutely sardonic sense of humor. Article 3.8 stipulates that “members of a higher education institution, when moving, should take the right side. It is recommended to greet each other in the following way: students first greet professors; men first greet women; younger students first greet older students. Shaking hands is excluded from this rule, since elders should reach out to shake first.”

And as if that weren’t enough:

“It is prohibited to post on the Internet materials that are not in line with national values or related to the internal problems of higher educational institutions,” the rules say, before going on to note that they “categorically ban publishing, saving, or distribution via computers of different materials not related to a higher education institution.”

And just when you thought things could not get any worse: “Don’t walk around a university campus with no reason,” the rulebook advises.

So, it really does feel like a bit of a homage to Harvard. Unfortunately it is the Harvard of over 200 years ago rather than today.

It’s not about the money: real international impact

Genuinely international- Going Global 2014

Universities have had an international outlook since the beginning. Whilst some aspects of internationalisation have moved on since the middle ages some principles remain clear. Including the need to look beyond income generation as a motive. As part of Going Global 2014, the British Council’s international HE conference, I’m involved in a workshop session on “Internationalisation – practice and rationales”:

 

The workshop will start with an outline of the key trends in internationalisation and two reviews of international strategy at a university level. The primary activity during the workshop will be a Cafe Scientifique. Workshop attendees will participate in a range of deep-dive explorations around key themes in internationalisation bought to life though practitioner led discussion. Topics for roundtable discussion will be drawn from topics including: partnership development, joint initiatives, online learning, student recruitment, communication strategy, liaison offices, regional specialisation and diverse forms of transnational education.

42_going_global_2013_1981

Each of these discussions will begin with a description of an internationalisation practice at a university along with the strategic rationale for that activity. From this starting point, an interactive discussion can explore this practice in a broader context.

Participants in this workshop will learn about diverse approaches to internationalisation and the rationale for their use. Through interactive activities you will be able to explore options around your own international strategy. Furthermore, though dialogue with practitioners from the global South, North, East and West, you will gain insight into some of the social, cultural, geographic and economic drivers that shape internationalisation strategies the world over.

Whilst the workshop format is novel for me the issues are really pertinent as the University of Nottingham has been at the forefront of international activity for decades and has grown the activity to the point where we have over 9,000 international students at our campus in the UK, nearly 11,000 students studying at our campuses in Malaysia and China and over 20% of UK-based students engaged in some form of mobility.

We have many international staff, aspects of the curriculum are highly internationalized, we are members of international networks and have many international research and knowledge transfer partnerships as well as a range of focused international partnerships covering articulations and in country delivery as well as capacity development.

unnc 2

University of Nottingham Ningbo china

A genuinely internationalized university brings huge benefits for its home country as well as those in which it operates. It is essential to be clear about motivations and objectives though. Whilst some governments may see both economic and soft power benefits from exporting HE and others may welcome incoming universities’ contributions to growth and capacity building, the impact of universities’ international activities is complex and multi-faceted and the practicalities of delivery are hugely challenging.

Establishing an overseas campus is not straightforward. Challenges range from building the infrastructure to restructuring institutional and local governance. Legal issues, financial arrangements and developing local management can take time and significant effort, as can coming to terms with an entirely new academic, political and cultural framework.

We have built close relationships based on trust and taken the long-term view with our partners. Major new opportunities in teaching, student exchanges and research collaboration have hugely enriched Nottingham’s environment and ethos; our campuses in Asia confer great benefits in terms of the student experience, and this can be equally transformative for students from the UK who spend time studying in China and Malaysia.

University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

To leverage the full benefit of an international campus, though, an institution must have a strategy that goes beyond thinking about money. The management input required is high, and there are inevitably opportunity costs.

The investment is substantial, but it is worth it for a university committed to an international vision that goes beyond generating income from overseas student fees. Such a global footprint therefore has real impact for the institution, its students, staff and stakeholders as well as for the governments and society at home and in the countries with which it is deeply engaged. This real and comprehensive international impact though is therefore about much more than just the money.

As part of this session therefore I will be hoping to look at these issues of genuine internationalisation, the challenges faced and the real and lasting impact a committed and fully engaged internationally-focused university can have across all levels, from student to government.

If you are coming to Going Global I hope that isn’t too much of a spoiler. If you aren’t then I can only apologise for reminding you.

(#GoingGlobal2014 is the hashtag for all the excitement of conference attendance from afar)

The Imperfect University: Students and their Unions – Part II

TIU
Changed days indeed

(As with the previous offering I suspect I’m going to be challenged on much of what follows.)

Part I of these two pieces looked at the changes in the National Union of Students as it almost completely changed its campaign foci to concentrate much more directly on supporting students on local issues shifting from oppositionalism and international policy concerns, occasional leftist posturing to more direct positioning on student experience matters.

Changes in many students’ unions seem to have taken place in parallel to these developments and as universities across the country continue to adapt to the brave new fees-driven world, all are seeking to respond more to student demands as identified through, among other things, the National Student Survey and looking to NUS for support on such matters.

A recent piece in the Huffington Post suggested that at the same time as student activism had been supplanted by ‘lad culture’, students’ unions had failed too:

lad-culture-screen

The decay isn’t only down to students. Student Unions are now anything but ‘Unions’. They are failing to protect the interest of students, nurture a hot bed of intellectual activity or help co-ordinate any meaningful student activism. Today, student unions are just shopping malls designed to extract money from the ‘student market’ and political apathy has made student democracy nothing more than a beautified popularity contest.

Are unions today really just shopping malls? Far from it. Whilst all unions have different characters, strongly conditioned by the local institutional context in which they operate, many have changed their approach in last decade or so from campaigning on external, national and international issues to being much more focused on the direct interests of students in their own institutions. Students’ unions have always had a slightly unusual relationship with their parent institutions as well – arguing and defending their independence fiercely while at the same time being inextricably intertwined with their host, which also provides the largest part of their funding.

A core role of unions is representing the student view to the university. Rather than revolution the consequences of student rebelliousness which ran from 1968 onwards resulted in much stronger representation on various university committees and this principle of representation has been sustained in all universities even across different governance models (within the UK).

However, representation in itself is insufficient. Having student members present at Senate and governing body meetings has arguably allowed universities to believe that this was the full extent of engagement with the union that was necessary. This can result in students’ unions being undervalued and having only superficial engagement with the university, largely confined to pitching up each year to argue for an incremental increase to the block grant. This is no longer adequate.

Another dimension of this lack of genuine engagement is the phenomenon of the naïve indulgence of the less productive examples of student behaviour, demonstrations, occupations and the like. This stems from a misguided and anachronistic 60s liberalism which views student campaigning activity as being just part of growing up (which of course it was for the overwhelmingly middle-class students of that time). However, this is really a failure to see the value and contemporary significance of the students’ union.
nus logo

A similar attitude is often seen in relation to union-run commercial activities, including bars, shops and catering outlets. This can all be happily ignored while such provision delivers good services to students and useful surpluses to the union. However, the last couple of decades have seen major changes in student social and drinking behaviour to which, by and large, students’ unions failed to respond until rather late in the day. The shift in student purchasing to off sales and decline in beer revenues meant that the cash cow, the traditional union bar, quickly turned into a dog and the failure to invest wisely during the good times left many unions exposed. Such services have to be run properly by professional staff. The idea that students should be permitted to “play” at managing services, catering, retail and bars as it is good training for them is just not sustainable, let alone in a time of austerity. Fortunately, many unions do now recognise this.

Beyond representation and some commercial activities, unions have to continue to deliver their other core functions of providing for the wide range of social, political, sporting and cultural student societies and offering necessary support to students on academic, disciplinary and accommodation issues (for example). Universities need to work much more closely with their unions to ensure a joined up, comprehensive, high quality student experience. The issue is not protection of traditional domains, it’s about collaborating to provide the services and facilities students expect. This is not just about shops and bars but covers broader issues including induction, student support, employability, student volunteering and fundraising to name but a few.

slide2

Things aren’t always as straightforward for students’ unions as running shops and bars though. Students’ union officers don’t always know what their members think or indeed choose to represent only a minority opinion as they pursue an overtly political agenda. In addition, they are usually only around for a year, making relationship building something of a challenge. This is where it is crucial to have a much deeper engagement between university staff and those at all levels of the union. A vibrant, democratically active union, with full involvement of students in all fora, from staff:student liaison committees to Senate, and with able and engaged staff working closely with university professional services is much more able to cope with the odd year with a difficult president.

At the same time as the student movement has been reorienting to focus on teaching and learning issues there has been a structural realignment in the governance of students’ unions. The changes arising from the Charities Act, which necessitated separate arrangements from those of the parent university, have legally pushed institutions and Students’ Unions further apart. This makes collaboration and partnership between unions and universities all the more urgent and vital to ensure we have a shared understanding of our contributions to a high quality student experience. Working together is in the mutual interest of unions and universities. It needs to happen at every level, it needs a range of structures to make it happen as well as formal underpinning through some form of meaningful memorandum of agreement. However, there has to be trust, mutual confidence and sharing of expertise too, including in the co-ordination of delivery of effective student services. In addition, clear open communication channels are critical, and not just at times of crisis.

Many students these days really only want to play quidditch

Many students these days really only want to play Quidditch

Too often it seems unions do have too strong a focus on catering for 18 year-old UK full-time undergraduates (there is some pandering to ‘lad culture’) and struggle to adapt to part-time, mature and international student groups. This is linked to the British youth drinking culture, the freshers’ week phenomenon (other countries seem to manage a transition period without an emphasis on alcohol) and sports club initiations (again often drink-fuelled). There are positive cultural features too including major fundraising efforts, lots of volunteering activity and a general commitment to promoting socially responsible behaviour by students. And whilst a student charter, setting out rights and responsibilities may look an appealing prospect in this consumerist age, without proper partnership between the university and the union it is never really going to get past fine words.

Unions and NUS do deserve credit for focusing more on the student experience, starting with this early report back in 2008 which covered everything from accommodation to quality of teaching and from personalization to student finance and employment. More recently NUS has worked with QAA to produce a series of research reports on different dimensions of the student experience. This has inevitably impacted on the approach students’ unions take to working with their members and universities.

The Union that likes to give you more

 

Students’ unions have changed significantly in response to the radically altered higher education environment. although some of these changes are pushing unions and universities apart I believe is essential that we seek to counter this with greater convergence where possible. This depends on universities engaging properly at every level with their unions and recognising how important their contribution is to campus life and the student experience. In return, unions have to continue to engage seriously and consistently and recognise that there is significant common ground here. Whilst there will always be disagreements these should not perturb serious partnership working which is in the interest of the union, students and the university. These relationships were central to the analysis and recommendations Universities and their Unions (ISBN: 0 902683 78 0, LFHE, University of Warwick, 2006 Tom Bell, Paul Greatrix and Claire Horton) which sought to offer a set of pointers, suggestions, observations and comments and help universities and students’ unions to work together a bit better.

Students’ unions are more important and relevant to universities than they have ever been before. This is not because of the passing fancy of government or QAA but because meaningful student engagement is important to vital lively university life and a first rate student learning experience.

 

(Once again huge thanks to Aaron Porter for his extremely helpful comments on a draft of this piece.)

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.

The Imperfect University: Students and their Unions

TIU

Part I: How much power in the union?

(I suspect I’m going to be challenged on just about every aspect of what follows.)

Students’ unions and the National Union of Students, which recently celebrated its 90th birthday, have a long and distinctive history in UK higher and further education. There have been major shifts in recent years though, in both FE and HE. This piece will focus very much on higher education which is not to say FE isn’t hugely important – it is, and is reflected in the election of the first ever NUS President from FE – but rather is a topic for another day. The character of HE unions has changed significantly in the past decade in particular – whilst always concerned with the representational, support and extra-curricular aspects of student life they are now much more directly interested in and increasingly involved with the core issues of teaching and learning. A clear indication of this is that the National Student Survey (NSS) now includes a specific question on students’ unions. Whilst I think the NSS question itself is not terribly valuable it is symbolically important, signalling the value placed on the students’ union in the context of student satisfaction.

nus logo

I am a big fan of students’ unions and the student movement (as it is sometimes, perhaps rather inaccurately, known). Whilst they can often be challenging and make life difficult for university leaders, they nevertheless have huge amount to contribute to campus life. As an undergraduate at a disaffiliated university back in the 80s I was massively disappointed not to be a member of NUS but nevertheless greatly enjoyed local student unionism. NUS has a fascinating history, one which was largely non-political until the late 1960s when it dropped its non-political stance, and since then has leaned left to a greater or lesser extent. During most of the past 45 years or so though the political dimension of the Union has appeared to be its defining characteristic.

However, that has all changed in the past few years. NUS appears, quite remarkably, to have transformed itself from an organisation where the default activity was a demo and one where national conference and standing orders dictated activity to something which would be almost unrecognisable to those activists from previous decades. Now NUS is seen as a rather effective lobbying body and an organisation which is a sought after partner of government and national HE agencies rather than purely a voice of opposition. A recent piece in the Guardian, which previews a new piece of research by the Leadership Foundation, notes the much closer alignment which now exists between student leaders and university managers.

How did this come about? I honestly don’t know but I suspect that an awful lot is down to a succession of talented presidents and some excellent staff working together to deliver a strategic transformation born out of a realisation that after major defeats on fees a different approach was required in order to secure the union’s future existence. A major review of governance in NUS, which concluded in 2007, although it does not look on the face of it to be a huge departure from previous positions may in fact have been key here.

The mission and vision is perhaps not that surprising although the environmental concern is undoubtedly relatively new and demands for a “quality learning experience” has not appeared on many placards down the years:

 

Our mission

Our mission is to promote, defend and extend the rights of students and to develop and champion strong students’ unions.

Our vision

Our vision is of NUS as a pioneering, innovative and powerful campaigning organisation: the national voice of students.

We will fight barriers to education, empower students to shape both a quality learning experience and the world around them, supporting influential, democratic and well-resourced students’ unions.

Our ethics

NUS and students feel passionately about the environment.

Ethical and Environmental principles are core to our culture. These values underpin all of our work and have done for over 30 years.

 

The Union that keeps on giving

The Union that keeps on giving

In the year I graduated, when Vicky Phillps was President, some of the key issues for NUS were Apartheid, Israel/Palestine (that’s not changed), welfare reform and equality issues.

NUS could not have been further from influencing government on any of these (although this is not to say that contribution to Anti-Apartheid was not significant, it was) but look at where we are now. NUS seems to be a keen supporter of the following:

  • The Key Information Set – a key element of the marketisation of higher education
  • Unistats
  • The Office of the Independent Adjudicator
  • Which? University
  • The new Student Engagement unit
  • The HEFCE-funded Student Green Fund
  • QAA involvement with students as active members of review teams
  • And, perhaps most significantly, the National Student Survey, now with an extra question about Students’ Unions thanks to NUS lobbying.

This support for a government-inspired survey of students would seem on the face of it to be a bit of a surprise but speaking to the Telegraph back in September 2012, Liam Burns, then NUS President said:

We have supported and worked with the NSS since it began in 2005 as a tool for securing improvement to student experience. Although in that time progress has not been as rapid as we would have liked, particularly in areas such as assessment and feedback, results have continued to improve year on year and they must continue to do so.

In addition, NUS is keenly supporting the Office of Fair Trading which has recently undertaken an investigation into alleged unfair terms imposed by universities on students and wider examination of the operation of the market in undergraduate student recruitment.

In all of these cases, it would not be unfair to suggest that the NUS view is closer to that of the current Government than to that of many university vice-chancellors (although they are a diverse bunch). Indeed at times it is indistinguishable and NUS officers these days often look like they are best mates with the Universities Minister and appear to have easy access to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

BFF?

BFF?

This coziness is reinforced by the section of NUS website modestly entitled ‘Our impact on history’:

NUS sits on the boards of HEFCE, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OFFA) and UCAS.

Where there is an advisory board, strategic committee or working group, there is NUS, working alongside the sector to present the views of students and ensure their interests are taken into account.

Students are now intimately engaged in every aspect of quality: students act as peer reviewers for institutional review, and students’ unions are invited to submit a student-written submission as part of evidence submitted on the quality of an institution’s provision.

The Quality Assurance Agency has a student sounding board, and is currently funding projects based within NUS to enhance student engagement in quality enhancement at course level.

The Higher Education Academy has worked with NUS for the last two years, undertaking a major project on student engagement – exploring how students can act to shape their educational environment through provision of feedback and representation.

NUS is also working with HEA to deliver student-led teaching awards at institutions around the UK, helping students to recognise excellence in teaching.

NUS is developing its relationship with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Fearful of the impact on students of the new fees and student support regime, NUS successfully worked with OFFA to ensure students’ unions would be consulted in the creation of institutional access agreements.

 

Beyond these big current policy agenda NUS seems to offer much more in the way of activities in support of students’ unions, their core operations and the training and development of students’ union officers. Moreover its professional staff seems to be much more concerned with developing policies, practice and services which will directly help students rather than any broader political activity.

Not so long ago all of this would have been seen by many NUS members as a betrayal of the organisation and its principles (and no doubt sparked some kind of demonstration or occupation of somewhere). So is student activism dead as a recent piece in the Huffington Post proposed?

Student activism was once a force to be reckoned with. It changed the world, visibly and profoundly. It was the catalysts that lead to the end of the Vietnam War, it pressured governments to finally stop supporting apartheid and it forced the world to start addressing institutionalized racism. But today, in the face of genuine and widely felt grievances, students are impotent and apathetic. Universities are businesses, education is job training and a degree is a holiday.

Not everyone loves NUS

Not everyone loves NUS

Has student political activity been replaced by “lad culture” as this author suggests? No, but there has nevertheless been quite an extraordinary change in the student political arena in a relatively short period of time. (This is not to say that “lad culture” is not an issue nor that it is not being taken seriously as this NUS campaign and recent summit demonstrate.)

Fundamentally it seems to me to be down to a recognition that NUS is there to serve all of its members and represent their interests rather than simply campaign for or against matters determined by a highly politicised executive. A more cynical observer though may suggest that NUS appears to have been at least partially co-opted into successive governments’ higher education agenda and to have been seduced by the BIS “students at the heart of the system” line. Even if this were true though it is undoubtedly a profound shift which has taken place.

Changes in students’ unions seem to have taken place in parallel to these developments and we will look at these in the second part of this piece.

(Enormous thanks to Aaron Porter for his extremely helpful comments on a draft of this piece.)

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.

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.

Universities unable to regulate guns on campus

More crimes about guns

A post here a couple of years ago noted the challenges US universities were facing in trying to address guns on campus. More recently there was news in a survey on US students’ views on carrying concealed weapons which highlighted what seemed to be quite a large proportion of students who did not object to concealed carry.

Now Inside Higher Ed reports that a Florida appeals court has rejected the right of public universities to regulate guns on campus.

Someone who posted a pic on Facebook to offer a nuanced view on this topic

The court has determined that universities, except in limited circumstances, lack the legal right to regulate gun possession on campus:

The ruling came in a case involving a rule at the University of North Florida banning students from keeping guns in their cars. But the appeals court went beyond that rule (which it rejected) to speak more generally to the right of public colleges and universities to limit gun possession on campus, as local news media indicated they do. Under Florida’s Constitution, the appeals court found, only the Legislature can make such restrictions, so most rules imposed by public colleges and universities would be invalid.

Sadly they're talking about real ones

sadly they’re talking about real ones

The university had argued that a specific exemption in Florida law giving school districts the right to regulate guns in their facilities applied to public universities as well. The appeals court rejected that argument, saying that lawmakers specify different types of educational institutions in their regulations, so that references to school districts cannot be assumed to go beyond elementary and secondary education.

As noted in the report this leaves universities “powerless” to deal with guns on campus and the decision “defies common sense.” This puts it mildly. In order to maintain a safe and secure environment for students, staff and the public, surely they have to have the power to govern the presence of weapons on campus.

The Imperfect University: Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future

All change please! Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future

Rewriting Robbins? The very thought

I recently agreed to give a presentation on this theme at an event entitled “Rewriting Robbins” by those lovely people at SGP Martineau.

You can find the full details of the event here  and my rather fetching but nevertheless superficial parade of pictures here:

Apologies in advance

Having agreed to deliver such a presentation I quickly realized the mistake I’d made but by then it was too late. It was of course ridiculously presumptuous to undertake such an exercise and even to contemplate commenting on Robbins with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight seemed like an outrageous impertinence. So, apologies in advance for any offence caused.

There was recently a very good piece in the Times Higher on Robbins. Among the many interesting points was a recollection from one of his committee members, Claus Moser, that Robbins wrote nothing down during the many sessions of the Committee, preferring to commit data to his phenomenal memory. He then went off and wrote the whole report pretty much by himself. Another key factor was that is was intended to be thoroughly evidence-based. And you can see in the rigour of the investigations and the detail of the appendices that this was carried through. Robbins didn’t want to make recommendations which weren’t properly grounded.

Going for growth

A fundamental principle was the need to expand in order to meet the future needs of the country and the demand from a post-war population boom. He anticipated an increase in the APR from 8% in 1963 to 17% by 1980 meaning 216k students in 1962-3 rising to 560k by 1980-81.

And in facilitating this expansion the most famous Robbins Principle was invoked:

courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.

Part of the growth could be met by the new universities already under development or planned but there would still be a need for more places so Robbins proposed a range of additional institutions:

It may be that most of the university places that are required in the next ten years can be provided by such developments. But if no further steps are taken, the situation will thereafter be irretrievable, for universities take long to establish. We therefore recommend the immediate foundation of six new universities, of which at least one should be in Scotland. Another would be the new Special Institution for Scientific and Technological Education and Research. Such new foundations might provide 30,000 places by 1980. The remaining places should be provided by the advancement to university status of some ten Regional Colleges and Colleges of Education. If the scale of these recommendations should seem over-ambitious, we would remind the sceptics that demographic projections beyond 1980 suggest no lessening of the rate at which the demand for places will grow.

Robbins cover

In short the growth would include:

  • Six new universities should be established at once so that they can provide about 30,000 places by 1980/1.
  • Teacher training institutions should become proper Colleges of Education and aligned with universities
  • Three special Institutions for Scientific and Technological Education and Research should be created.
  • Two postgraduate business schools, providing courses in management, should be developed, each in association with a university or a Special Institution and close to a large business centre.
  • Scottish Central institutions – the most advanced should become universities
  • A further 20,000 university places should be provided by giving university status to some ten Regional Colleges, Central Institutions and Colleges of Education.
  • And in addition he proposed that the CATS, the Colleges of Advanced Technology should all become universities, each with 3-5000 students

(All of this is set out in Chapter X of the report although I must be honest that I found some of the institutional types difficult to disentangle on occasion.)

CATS and non-CATS

And sure enough in1966, the CATS became universities. Some of these are obvious, others less so:

images copy

Cats

  • Birmingham CAT became Aston University (the first designated College of Advanced Technology (or CAT))
  • Loughborough CAT became Loughborough University
  • Northampton CAT (London) became City University
  • Chelsea CAT became Chelsea College of Science and Technology as part of the University of London then later was subsumed into King’s College London
  • Battersea CAT became the University of Surrey
  • Brunel CAT became Brunel University
  • Bristol CAT became the University of Bath
  • Cardiff CAT became part of the University of Wales, then Cardiff University
  • Salford CAT (the Royal College of Advanced Technology) became the University of Salford
  • Bradford Institute of Technology became University of Bradford

And just to complete the picture, the other universities founded in the 1960s:

Not Cats

Not Cats

1961   Sussex
1962   Keele
1962   Swansea
1963   East Anglia
1963   Newcastle
1963   York
1964   Lancaster
1964   Strathclyde
1965   Essex
1965   Kent
1965   Warwick
1966   Heriot-Watt
1967   Dundee
1967   Stirling
1969   Open
1969   Cranfield

Beyond Robbins: things really have moved on

Although the changes set in train by the report were substantial and far-reaching, since Robbins there has been a transformation in both the scale and reach of institutions (as well as total student numbers and the composition of the student body, which I didn’t cover here as they were addressed by others at the conference).

In looking for growth in existing institutions Robbins was anticipating universities of up to 10,000 students not the level of 30,000 which he associated with the big federal systems in the US. 10,000 students was big though:

In modern conditions it is desirable that universities should be large enough to have an adequate division of labour within departments and to make economical use of buildings and equipment.

But if we look at the sector in the UK now we have over 100 institutions with more than 10,000 students. More than half of these have over 20,000 students enrolled and leaving aside the Open University around a dozen have more than 30,000 students. A completely different scale.

What is also fascinating is to look at the growth in institutional numbers too. We have a huge growth during Robbins’ time but then a period of some stability before renewed and continuing expansion as this crude chart of UK university numbers demonstrates:

Number of universities

Number of universities

Beyond scale there are of course many other differences these days – from the pace of change to the volume of regulation and from the interconnectedness of institutions and activity to the sheer complexity of operations. In addition there is the international dimension: whilst the Committee accumulated plenty of learning from other countries it really didn’t anticipate our internationalized institutions or scale of global activity. The fact that there are now more than 435,000 students from overseas studying at UK universities and not a greatly smaller number studying for UK HE qualifications in other countries is a most remarkable transformation.

Moreover, whilst we might in the UK fret about mergers and takeovers and whether or not to establish campuses overseas in the meantime dozens of institutions from other parts of the world are establishing outposts and branches in the UK (mainly in London). Higher education is very much a global activity now.

What does the future hold?

So that was then and now, but what of the future? Predicting the future in higher education is of course a mug’s game. You can never win. However, it is difficult to resist the opportunity to take part.

So in a completely flawed and unscientific attempt to set out what might happen I offer four possible versions of the future:

The Wild West

Version 1 is the Wild West. It starts with the OFT smashing its way through our cozy higher education set up and leads to takeovers, merger mania and chaos with lots of institutions being allowed to go to the wall and many more private for-profit institutions springing up all over the place (every supermarket has one).

Government removes all attempts to manage the system and there is no meaningful  regulation. The QAA is abolished, no need for any funding councils and there are no more committees of the great and good to pontificate on higher education. Anyone can set up and call themselves a university but in this environment only the richest, strongest and nastiest survive.

It’s the ultimate free market. In other words, higher education anarchy.

Private Frazer

Private Frazer scenario

Private Frazer scenario

Version 2 means that, unfortunately, we’re all doomed (which was Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer’s famous but rarely deployed catch phrase). The MOOC providers will win and kill most traditional universities. As Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, predicted a few years ago there will be only 10 universities left in the world in 50 years’ time. Of course universities only have themselves to blame having nurtured, supported and then allowed the MOOC providers to disrupt the system. So if there are only going to be 10 around the world how many will be left in the UK? Oxford? Cambridge? The Open University?

(Fortunately this scenario is looking quite unlikely, Thrun is rapidly recanting and it could be that the MOOC bubble is already bursting.)

Regulated mediocrity

Version 3 represents something of a straightjacket with a levelling down to leave us with lots of rather similar universities, all beset and overwhelmed with ludicrously excessive bureaucracy designed to keep every stakeholder happy. We have ever more regulation overseen by a host of super-regulators, meta-regulators and regional regulators. It feels a bit like every aspect of university life is directly governed by the QAA.

Moreover, immigration regulations mean there are next to no international students and there are rigid targets for everything from widening participation to detailed specification of class contact hours, SSRs, assessment turnaround times, exam duration, graduation ticket fees and academic dress.

Students have more information available to them than has previously been written in all of human history and spend substantially more time filling in surveys on their experiences than undertaking any learning.

All too credible I fear.

Wildflower meadow

The final version is something a bit closer to a higher education ideal (relative to all of the others that is). It offers a lightly regulated and managed environment, well-tended, all collegial and harmonious. Many different flowers bloom and institutions co-exist in a state of delightful equilibrium. There is a perfect balance between teaching and research, the widening participation job is done and there is an optimal balance of different kinds of institution with different missions.

This is the future (we hope)

This is the future (we hope)

Some universities come and go, some last, some spread their wings but overall there is a perfect balance between market and regulation. It really is higher education nirvana.

Into uncharted territory

It is though very unclear what the future holds. Monsters, in the form of as yet unknown Ministers for Universities, and wild uncharted lands await. But we could do worse than note some more words of wisdom from half a century ago from Robbins:

The fundamental question that we have to answer is whether a system of higher education in the sense in which we have used the word ‘system’ is desirable. As we have said, it is misleading to speak as if there were already a system in this sense. Higher education has not been planned as a whole or developed within a framework consciously devised to promote harmonious evolution. What system there is has come about as the result of a series of particular initiatives, concerned with particular needs and particular situations, and there is no way of dealing conveniently with all the problems common to higher education as a whole.

Our point is that the central decisions that have to be made should be coherent and take account of the interests of all sectors of higher education, and that decentralised initiative – and we hope there will always be much of this – should be inspired by common principles.

Wise words?

Unfortunately, we couldn’t just leave it there. The whole series of Robbins quotes offered during this event (and bandied around more widely) led me to speculate on the possibility of a new parlour game which tested whether one was reading a real Robbins quote or a made up one.  If you can bear it then do see the earlier post on this great new game the whole faculty can play: Robbins or Bobbins?

With the most profound apologies to Lord Robbins and all of his great works.

Show and Tell: The Office of Fair Trading is Looking at Universities (again)

And they are looking for a lot of information.

Back in October 2013 the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) issued a call for information on the undergraduate part of the higher education sector in England.

This follows the earlier look (outcome awaited) at terms and conditions in relation to student debts and universities’ practices in relation to withholding conferment of degrees. So what is it they want to know? Quite a lot it seems:

Universities play a crucial role in the UK economy. They contribute directly to economic growth, employment and local economic activity, delivering skilled workers into the wider economy, and contributing to export earnings. In many respects, UK universities are world leaders in research and teaching.

In launching this project, the OFT wants to understand whether universities are able to compete effectively and respond to students’ increased expectations, and whether students are able to make well-informed choices, which would help drive competition.

index

The OFT is particularly interested in receiving information about how universities compete, the impact regulation has on universities, and the student experience of the current system.

We will be engaging with higher education providers, students, employers, government and regulatory organisations and others with an interest in the higher education sector over the next 10 weeks by issuing information requests, arranging roundtable discussions and holding bilateral meetings. We will also be inviting comments from any other interested parties.

Once information has been gathered and submissions have been received, we will analyse the evidence we have collected in order to determine whether there is any evidence of  competition or consumer problems and whether any further action is warranted.

The focus on competition for undergraduate recruitment is an interesting one given the fee cap. But it will also be fascinating to see how they address the continuing growth in the regulatory burden on universities in this context. And we can only speculate what further action they may wish to take in the light of the findings…

More information on the call for information is in the OFT launch document.

Developing the UK’s international education strategy

But the report strikes a few wrong notes.

Back in July 2013 the Department for Business Innovation and Skills published its International education strategy: global growth and prosperity. For some reason it passed me by, despite its ambition:

This strategy sets out how the government and the whole education sector will work together to take advantage of new opportunities around the globe. It aims to build on our strengths in higher and further education, in our schools overseas, in our educational technology and products and services, and in delivering English language training. The strategy covers:

  • our warm welcome for international students: explaining that there is no cap on the number of international students who can come to the UK, and supporting students when things go wrong in their home country
  • supporting transnational education: supporting British schools and colleges operating overseas, developing ‘end-to-end’ English language training, and strengthening quality assurance
  • leading the world in education technology: actively encouraging development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and launching a design call, through the Technology Strategy Board, on commercialising education technology
  • a new relationship with emerging powers: prioritising UK engagement with key partners, doubling investment in development higher education partnerships and expanding the number of Chevening scholarships for study in the UK
  • building the UK brand and seizing opportunities: developing a new ‘Education is GREAT Britain’ campaign, and the Education UK Unit will help build consortia to take up high value opportunities overseas

This will ensure we grow both our economy and our wider links with partners around the world.

All worthy stuff. But it doesn’t seem to have had a huge impact since its publication.

BIS intl doc cover

The following passage in the report though was recently drawn to my attention by Gayle Ditchburn of Pinsent Masons:

UK education institutions have a noble history, rooted in the charitable impulses of past generations. To this day, many schools, universities and colleges have charitable status. They consider that this is an important part of their identity, and they discharge their obligations willingly and diligently. Although this model has many strengths, it does not lend itself to rapid growth. The governance structures and obligations of charities, or of bodies of similarly ancient pedigree established by Royal Charter or equivalent instruments, were not designed to grow rapidly, or to run a network across the world.

Consequently, many higher education institutions are conservative in their approach to risk, in both the size and type of funding, viewing equity finance as a last rather than optimal resort.

2.13 It is for institutions themselves to decide their own structures. Some have found ingenious ways to combine profit-making and non profit-making arms. Others, such as the recently created University of Law, have amended their governance structures, establishing models that could be of interest to others. In some circumstances the current structures could mean that international opportunities are taken by other organisations with fewer constraints.

2.14 The challenge will be to ensure that decisions are not taken by default. A positive strategic commitment to remain at a certain size is one thing. A reluctant ossification and decline, caused by an inability to see how to change a structure that is thought to have outlived its usefulness, would be quite another.

It’s a damning assessment of UK universities and also quite unfair. Also, using the newly created University of Law as a prime example of change seems somewhat inappropriate. The reality is that where UK universities do want to take international opportunities they have been able to do so. Recent press reports suggest that some of these overseas adventures may have proved rather too risky but the case of the University of Nottingham, as just one example, shows how international success can be achieved without being constrained by traditional governance structures.

Current structures and governance arrangements are therefore no impediment and there are also many examples of universities seeking creative approaches to securing additional finance. So it really is an unfair criticism of universities and a rather unhelpful one in a document intended to promote international activity in the national interest.

Developing higher education in Kurdistan

Vital developments in an emerging nation.

Back in 2009 one of the University of Nottingham’s senior academics took on an unusual new role. Professor Dlawer Ala’Aldeen was appointed as Higher Education Minister and began to draw up plans to improve the quality of and to internationalise higher education in Kurdistan.

The post-Saddam university system he was taking on was described by Professor Ala’Aldeen as “grossly outdated” and designed for a closed, centralised country.

The BBC News report on his reforms tells how he had tomatoes, stones and apples thrown at him in response to his attempts at changing Kurdistan’s universities. However, he did make progress:

Within a week of being appointed, Prof Ala’Aldeen had written up a radical vision document and it was quickly endorsed by the cabinet.

Higher education in Kurdistan was suffering a major crisis of quality, capacity and infrastructure.

There was a consensus in support of reform and it helped that Prof Ala’Aldeen had been very critical of the government in the past.

Flag-map of Iraqi Kurdistan

The reforms, which planned to improve the quality and accreditation of university teachers, brought considerable opposition from student and teacher organisations as well as businesses linked with the burgeoning market in private universities.

Several new private universities were threatened with closure, much to the anger of their staff and prospective students who had paid fees for their courses.

“Many teachers had been licensed prematurely. There were 11 private universities when I started with 18 more waiting to be opened. These mushrooming private colleges were relying on the same pool of resources as the public universities which lacked staff and facilities,” Prof Ala’Aldeen says.

The problem of staffing was particularly acute in medicine, pharmacy and dentistry and in postgraduate studies.

But Prof Ala’Aldeen faced protests and opposition.

He was accused of trying to transplant the UK system onto Kurdistan, something he vehemently denies since he was educated and worked in his home region, before coming to study in the UK.

There was opposition but he did make some major changes to higher education in Kurdistan. It really is a great story.

Save universities from more misguided regulation

Well-meaning but fundamentally wrong proposals for yet more regulation

hecommission-regulationreportcoversmaller

Just when you thought things couldn’t get much worse in terms of higher education regulation, another group comes along and proposes a whole load more. Brilliant. (I’ve posted before here on this issue.)

I’ve not seen the report yet (it is due to be published today) but the Guardian has and has commented at some length on its contents under the title “What universities need: regulation, regulation, regulation” which gives us a bit of a steer on the conclusions. It is suggested that there is massive risk here which only what looks like a shed load (technical term for a unit of unnecessary bureaucracy) of additional regulation can mitigate:

They warn that without proper regulation, there is little to protect students from disreputable or fly-by-night institutions. “We are concerned that there is a growing unregulated sector of higher education that may be offering insufficient provision to students,” the report states. “This has the potential to damage England’s reputation as a leading provider of higher education.” It also threatens students’ confidence that the thousands of pounds they pay in fees will secure them a top-quality education, at an institution that will not go bust.Paper_tape_table_dispenser-01

The authors argue that there is also a commercial case for better regulation: it encourages businesses to invest in the sector and banks to lend institutions money. “We believe that the current regulatory environment in higher education, and the changes that are in-train, are insufficient to achieve this,” the report says.

It is far from clear what this “unregulated sector” is. Is it the alternative private providers which have been ushered into higher education by this government? Perhaps, but whilst they are arguably under-regulated they are not exactly “fly-by-night” outfits. So where are these shady backstreet higher education providers which are necessitating all this extra red tape? Perhaps they are listed in the report but it is far from clear from this who we are talking about.

Until now, regulation of higher education institutions has been piecemeal, dictated partly by rules, such as health and safety, that govern any large organisation, partly by institutional committees responsible for setting and monitoring standards on research and course programmes, and partly by academic senates, boards of governors and sector-owned bodies, such as the Higher Education Statistics Agency, supporting effective management. Hefce and the Office for Fair Access also act as independent external regulators, monitoring respectively institutions’ financial health and efforts to be socially inclusive, while Hefce contracts the Quality Assurance Agency to monitor teaching quality.

In his review, published in 2010, which recommended lifting the cap on tuition fees, Lord Browne suggested merging all the regulatory bodies into a single, independent Higher Education Council. Earlier this year, the Institute for Public Policy Research came up with a similar proposal. The government has never acted on the idea.

Now, the commission recommends a “lead” regulator, the Council for Higher Education, incorporating Offa, the Office for Student Loans (formerly the Student Loans Company) and a new, lightly staffed Office for Competition and Institutional Diversity, each retaining individual structures and purposes. Other regulatory bodies, including QAA and Office for the Independent Adjudicator, would be linked but independent.

Whilst it is right to identify that there is a messy patchwork of legislation and regulation affecting higher education, the ideas which have been floated to tidy this up seem to have been motivated by views of a need for tidiness and convenience for those involved in regulating than what is actually in the interest of students, universities, the sector or the country/countries concerned. The government has not acted on these ideas for the very good reason that they don’t make sense. Moreover, it looks from this piece as if the report is seeking to combine UK-wide and English agencies without regard to the positions of the devolved nations.

One final point caught my eye here:

The report also proposes an insurance scheme, paid into by every institution, to safeguard students should an institution or course fail, and based on a scheme run by the Civil Aviation Authority. This may be controversial, with traditional institutions reluctant to pay into a scheme designed to bail out new, riskier operations that fail.

“May be controversial”? What delightfully amusing understatement.

To summarise. We need less regulation, not more. Higher education is already over-regulated and this impacts negatively on institutions’ ability to deliver their missions. This kind of report I fear offers only a recipe for further bureaucracy and waste in higher education and will not benefit students or the sector. So, thanks but no thanks.