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.)

The Imperfect University: 2013 collection

Because universities are still difficult, but still worth it

With the latest post, on Robbins, we are now up to a total of 18 pieces to date in the Imperfect University series. Covering a wide range of occasionally relevant issues I do hope there is something for everyone in here. And there is a question at the end.  Anyway, do let me know what you think – here are the posts from 2013:

The first chapter

A collection of the first series of Imperfect University posts from 2012

Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future

A piece based on a conference presentation looking at changes in higher education in the past 50 years and what the future might hold.

Rational admissions

On why it is time to look again at a move to post-qualification admissions or PQA.

Know your history

A piece about the value of a well-developed sense of institutional history.

The end of internationalisation?

Why MOOCs really aren’t going to end universities’ international activities.

Free information?

On the problems with and impact of freedom of information requests.

What do we know about leadership in higher education?

Not a great deal seems to be the answer.

Truly transnational

A look at the dimensions of a genuinely global higher education operation.

Finally, from the top - The Imperfect University provides the original introduction to the series

More to follow in the year ahead. In the meantime, here’s a question. Is it time for an Imperfect University book?

Whatever the answer, will keep the series going.

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.

The Imperfect University: rational admissions – it’s time for PQA

A brighter future for university admissions?

It will be some time before all of the results are in but it does look at this stage as if this year’s admissions round has been a little less turbulent than last year’s. The mood across many universities seems to be one of some relief after a period of significant uncertainty. More students have been admitted than at this point last year and for most institutions (and those students) this is going to be good news

The 2012 admissions round – which coincided with the move to £9k headline fees for most instutitions – heralded major changes to the system: after years of relative stability and constrained Home/EU undergraduate recruitment targets the cap was removed for students with AAB or better at A level. This caused some significant waves across the sector with everyone seeking to find their way through this uncharted territory.
image

Part of the reason for this change was, of course, ideological. The Government’s desire to create a ‘market’ in admissions at the top end of the qualifications ladder with universities competing for the ‘best’ students resulted, perhaps surprisingly, in some significant recruitment shortfalls in a number of Russell Group universities. There were fewer AAB+ students than expected and it seems likely that some universities were taken by surprise by the challenge of operating in the cut and thrust of the market place. This, combined with a dip overall in student numbers, caused problems for many.

Into the Wild West?

In this context I wrote earlier this year of concerns about this year’s admissions and my fear that the response to these challenges would lead to an ‘admissions Wild West’ with a complete free for all in terms of recruitment and an anything goes approach to securing the best qualified students:

Last year was difficult but I’m worried things are going to be a lot worse in 2013. Those universities making lower offers are sending a signal that perhaps A–level results aren’t that important, but ultimately they are at greater risk of undermining their own competitive position by reducing entry standards in what may turn out into a ‘race to the bottom’.

So where do we go from here? In the short term we all have to play by the UCAS rules (which should be made more explicit), restate our commitment to the SPA principles and aim to be fair and transparent to applicants. This is important not just so we do the right things by students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, but also to prevent a fundamental undermining of the UCAS system.

We are keen to ensure that students who want to come to the University of Nottingham and have the grades are able to come here. This is what the UCAS system is all about: students making informed choices and a system supporting the holistic assessment of applicants in a fair and transparent way. The huge risk now is that more shenanigans this year will undermine this system.

The ultimate consequence if everyone decides to ignore the rules and the SPA principles is a return to the admissions Wild West. This would be costly, unhelpful and hugely inefficient as well as being massively unfair to and stressful for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This surely cannot be in the interest of students or universities. Or indeed what Willetts wants. We need a bit more honesty and some genuine transparency in order to ensure fairness for all.

image

It looked at first that there were going to be some significant issues what with the University of Birmingham’s decision to make 1,000 unconditional offers to students in some subject areas and much talk in the press of fee waivers, bursaries, subsidised accommodation and free ipads as incentives to potential students. Fortunately though my concerns seem to have been largely unfounded and the number of ABB+ students (the cap having been shifted to exclude a larger cohort) was roughly as expected. However, this has nevertheless been a period of significant uncertainty and anxiety, for both applicants and admissions officers.

This significant turbulence in the past two admissions rounds is of questionable benefit for applicants although the Minister is presumably content that the creation of this market is ultimately in their interest as providers compete to offer better products and better deals to these consumers. I suspect therefore this is not going to go away, at least for the foreseeable future, and universities will be obliged to operate in this exciting market environment.

Fit for purpose

Given this I would argue that now is the time to ensure the core elements of the system are fit for purpose – to make certain that we have a stable admissions model which works in the interest of applicants and institutions whilst acknowledging that ministers will inevitably want to play at the margins. We do though need to limit the scope for unhelpful interference, address the core principles for fair admissions as set out by SPA (Supporting Professionalism in Admissions), ensure universities can’t subvert or game the system, seek to secure proper information advice and guidance for applicants and address widening participation needs. The route to achieving this would mean change for all parties but I would suggest such change will be in the long term interests of everyone.

image

Fundamental to this is moving away from admissions based on predicted grades to a system of admission on the basis of grades achieved, ie post-qualification admissions (PQA). This has been proposed previously and historically there have been many objections – especially around exam board marking arrangements and universities’ teaching timetables. Whilst solutions to these have become feasible they have been replaced by new concerns particularly around fairness to applicants, information, advice and guidance provision and ensuring wider participation.

Back in 2011 UCAS undertook a review of admissions processes which recommended a number of modest changes to procedures but backed away from endorsing the most significant change, a move to PQA:

There was a widely held view that, in principle, a post-results system would be desirable. Aspects of the proposal for application post-results were attractive to some, but it is clear there are too many systemic problems with the post-results proposals to support implementation.

Respondents felt that applying with results would not necessarily support applicants aspiring to the most competitive courses and concerns were raised about potential negative impacts on widening participation and less well-supported applicants. Loss of teaching time, the impact on standards of achievement, the potential for a more mechanistic approach to the assessment of applicants and the lack of time and resources to provide IAG at critical points were also major concerns.
In the review many detailed objections were raised to PQA but each of these can be overcome in practice if the will is there.

Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, commented on the latest position in the Times Higher:

…Ms Curnock Cook had a “word of warning” for universities cheered by the better figures.

“This year you’ve managed to get more [students] in at 18,” she said, but added that “you might pay for it” in 2014-15 because there would therefore be fewer 19-year-olds to recruit in that cycle.

Ms Curnock Cook also remarked that the clearing process was no longer used to recruit “the dregs” any more, and speculated that it could even remove the need for an admissions system based on students’ actual, rather than predicted, grades.

“Every year I get asked: isn’t it now time to go for a post-qualifications applications [system]? My answer is that we already have PQA: it’s called clearing,” she said.

image

I disagree with this view. If we were designing a system from scratch we really would not start with the idea that students should apply to university with predicted rather than actual grades. The current set up, whilst historically understandable, is logically indefensible. Academic qualifications are the primary indicator of capability to pursue a course of study. It is logical, fair and sensible to put them at the centre of the admissions process and this should be the basis for our national application system, run by UCAS.

Time for change

The time has now come for change. The starting point should be to decide that we are going to introduce PQA from, say, 2019 entry, and the challenge then is to create the conditions within which this will happen.

Whilst I fear it is inevitable that ministers will introduce more changes – if we establish clearly now how admissions will operate in future this will bring lasting benefits and reduced the potential impact of future ministerial tinkering. Stability in the admissions system will be helpful to HEIs but will also work in the interests of applicants, ensure proper attention is paid to widening participation and be fairer.

So, let’s go for post-qualification admissions. Now is the time to decide to make the change to PQA.

The Imperfect University: Know Your History

Know your history.

For my 700th blog post here I thought I would reflect on university histories. Given their nature it’s often struck me as rather surprising that universities and their staff tend not to have a well developed sense of institutional history.

Research matters to universities but they tend not to prioritise maintaining their own records for future researchers. It’s possibly that universities are generally not brilliant at comprehensive record keeping because of their devolved nature and more recently because of the shift from paper to digital but nevertheless there are core records around, for example see Nottingham’s institutional collection. Plus there is enough oral history available from longer established staff to last a lifetime if you ask for it.

Anyway, my contention is that staff at every level of the University need to know more about their institution’s past.

Testing times

To make this point, a while ago I imposed a quiz on some of my colleagues about the University as it was 60 years previously. The questions included the following (and I’ve added the answers here to avoid any distress):

  • In 1950, on 11 July, we had “degree day”. How many ceremonies did we have in July this year in the UK? (Answer – 16 in the summer – but note there were more ceremonies at the Malaysia and China campuses as well as winter ceremonies)
  • How many Senate meetings were there in 1949-50? (There were seven. We now have three per annum.)
  • How many Council meetings? (There were nine. We now have six a year.)
  • In 1949-50, Council had how many members? (37. We now have 25.)
  • Senate membership? (A mere 35 members. We now have over 100.)
  • Fee for a full-time BA? (It was £31,10s, equivalent in 2013 would be £943.06.)
  • Resit fee? (10/6)

Not surprisingly they didn’t do terribly well. Even though these were the easy questions.

A new history

Recently, the University commissioned a new history primarily to cover last the 20 years or so of institutional activity and capture some of the most major changes at Nottingham, including in particular the establishment of the international campuses in Malaysia and China. We were also keen to ensure we recorded a lot of learning and information in a more comprehensive archive than would be publishable (also recognising that the pace of change and move from hard copy to electronic has made record keeping more problematic) but which would be a valuable resource for future historians.

The previous history (in two large volumes) by Dr B H Tolley covered mainly the period 1948, the year the institution received its Royal Charter, through to 1988, with plenty of material too from the earlier period of the operation of University College Nottingham since its inception in 1881.

The last history. Not very portable.

The last history. Not very portable.

Whilst Tolley’s magnum opus offered comprehensiveness it lacked a certain degree of readability. I believe there are still copies available through Amazon (although not at bargain prices).

Beyond this though there are other accounts of the University of Nottingham, its Vice-Chancellors and the estate. A previous post commented on the souvenir brochure from this event which included more details of the Trent Building design.

More books

More books

My favourite is the 1928 book (unnamed) which dates from the opening of Trent Building by King George V. A brief silent film records the event:

Nottingham’s New University

Jesse Boot, in his foreword to this 1928 publication, commented:

At the moment of the opening by His Majesty the King, when the stones of the coming University are still unweathered by time, it is difficult to appreciate the full significance of this educational development. Thousands of students yet unborn will pass along the corridors and learn in the lecture rooms, and wrest the secrets from nature in the laboratories. Their work will link still more closely industry with science, add to the honour of the City and help to increase the well-being of our nation.

The significance of this is that there is a common thread running from Boot’s original vision for the new University College through the Royal Charter to the current strategy of the University.

More landmarks

There are other important milestones in the University’s history. For example, knowing that Gandhi spoke to a packed Great Hall back in 1931 gives additional depth to our international strategy.

A good turnout

A good turnout

The visit of Einstein who, as this video recounts, delivered a spectacularly unsuccessful lecture to a mixed audience of Germanists who understood no physics and physicists who knew no German (but he did leave some interesting formulae on a blackboard):

Remembering that students campaigned very hard to secure Senate representation over a number of years in the late 1960s and that in 1968 John Dunford, President-elect of the Students’ Union (and recently awarded an Honorary Degree by the University), was the first student to address the Senate.

And of course the cultural landmark that was the first public performance by Paul McCartney and Wings back in 1972.

All of these provide context and a reminder that the success any institution enjoys today is built on the hard work, commitment and brilliance of previous generations of academics and professional services staff. It is clear from the 1928 book referring to the very early days of the University College that there were many challenges during its development:

It must not, however, be thought that the road was smooth, for the obstacles were many. Many of the prosperous bourgeois of the city were inclined to scorn the College because it appeared too democratic, while others openly scoffed at spending money on such subjects as Classics or Philosophy. But it met local needs, and students who were not confined to any special class came from the whole district.

…at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Treasury Inspectors, who had to visit the College to see whether it was entitled to a Government grant wrote that: “We think that the College exhibits the nearest approach of all Colleges which we have visited to a People’s University.”

Decisions taken by staff at all levels of our universities today are not context free. We can all learn from what went before so that we build on our history and are not trapped by it. But we do have to know it first.

Legacy

As importantly is the knowledge that part of all our jobs is about stewardship – about ensuring that the generations of students and staff who follow us are able to achieve even more by building on what we leave behind. As Alderman E Huntsman, Mayor of the City of Nottingham and Chair of the Council of Nottingham University College, noted (again in the 1928 book):

We of today owe more than we can express to our forefathers…The Council and Senate of the University College are not unmindful of their responsibilities, and assure all those into whose hands this book may pass, that they are resolved that the great ideals of Sir Jesse for a University with the complete right of self-government, and the power to shape its courses to meet the special needs of local industries and conditions, shall be accomplished to the full. The gifts recorded in this book and offered to the People’s University will assuredly bear fruit for all time.

Anyway, I’m now really excited by the prospect of the publication next year of a new history of the University of Nottingham. It’s being prepared by very wonderful and diligent Professor John Beckett of the School of Humanities and will bring things up to date as well covering some of the earlier history in outline. It will I hope also have the advantage of being highly readable, and including much more material about students and the student experience (largely neglected in previous publications) and, rather marvellously, will have pictures too.

The Trent Building

The Trent Building

But let’s leave the last word to Jesse Boot who in the 1928 book in commenting on the future history of University College Nottingham says that the final chapter is as yet unwritten but

will tell in due season how the University College won its Charter, and thus Nottingham became the seat of a great people’s University, which in each succeeding age will spread the light of learning and knowledge, and will bind science and industry in the unity that is so essential for the prosperity of the nation and the welfare of our fellow citizens.

Powerful stuff.

So, know your history.

The Imperfect University: The End of Internationalisation?

Is it the end for internationalization?

No. It’s not a bubble. It’s not bursting.

A recent Chronicle blog suggested that, in common with some other higher education activities, internationalization was a bubble and about to burst. It isn’t. International student recruitment patterns continue to evolve, some branch campuses are less successful than others and the global economic downturn is having an impact on everyone. This doesn’t mean international higher education is finished.

Unfortunately though it does seem that with all of the hype around MOOCs and the talk of the havoc that this disruptive innovation will wreak on higher education it is beginning to feel that internationalization is last year’s topic for university leaders. Leaving aside the fact that online learning, in whatever form, can largely be offered freely across national borders, the key issue here is the challenge presented by MOOCs to the traditional campus experience, especially when it is on an offshore campus.

The argument goes that if students can access university courses wherever they are why would they need to travel to a campus overseas (or a branch campus in their own country) to do so. At a stroke therefore transnational education and student mobility are eliminated and branch campuses, of which there are now in excess of 200 with at least another 37 on the way (according to the latest OBHE survey from January 2012), will inevitably wither and die.

First, I really don’t think all the MOOC hype sounds the death knell for internationalization of higher education. It remains a huge and growing market across the world with over 3.5m (in 2009) of the world’s higher education students studying in countries other than their own and growth rates in tertiary education and student mobility only expected to slow a little over the next period (according to the British Council’s Shape of Things to Come report).

Second, the campus offer remains a hugely attractive one. Whether it is a UK, US or Australian university or the Chinese, Malaysian or UAE campus of a western institution, the nature of the experience, the quality of delivery and the employment prospects offered by successful completion of a degree all still look like a pretty good option, wherever you are in the world.

University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

Third, in terms of promoting the home institution overseas, whilst a couple of snappy MOOCs might look like they have some decent enrolments, there really isn’t a substitute for a substantive in-country presence for raising profile.

Fourth, when western governments start getting sniffy about visas then the branch campus option nearer home (which is usually cheaper too) looks increasingly like a sensible option.

Fifth, universities are, of course, about much more than just content delivery. Developing a comprehensive branch campus offer doesn’t just mean offering courses, it’s also about engaging with students in a different cultural context, establishing new research and knowledge transfer activity (including bilateral investment opportunities) and playing an active part in a community in another country.

Sixth, as the OBHE report shows, branch campus numbers continue to grow as universities realize the long term benefits of establishing a physical presence overseas. And whilst NYU seems to have run into some difficulties at home in persuading its faculty of the merits of its international ambitions, more and more universities are following its lead and that of Nottingham in building overseas campuses.

Seventh, and this is the key reason that internationalisation will not disappear, it is an intrinsic part of higher education and it is fundamentally a long game. You don’t build a branch campus overnight and it is a huge long term commitment. Not quite the same as a 10 hour MOOC. Demonstrating commitment to a branch campus is hugely important to show that the university is there for the long term and not merely pursuing temporary opportunistic goals. This kind of genuine internationalization is serious, inevitably risky and extremely challenging. But it’s worth it.

Not over yet

Not over yet

So has disruptive innovation displaced internationalization? Will MOOCs kill branch campuses? No. Undoubtedly the challenges in maintaining the quality of campus delivery and the need to blend online and face-to-face will become more sharply focused but the future of higher education remains most firmly international.

The narrative around disruptive innovation is very short termist, its evangelists preach the language of overnight revolution, of avalanches and tsunami. Seductive as this hype might be from those who think that the physical campus is sure to die, they are profoundly mistaken. There will remain a fundamental place for the campus in the high quality higher education experience for many years to come. Steady long term pursuit of international development remains sound strategy. Investment, partnership, relationship building, putting down roots, long term commitment, shared learning, indeed all of the things that run counter to the disruptive innovation discourse, are at the heart of internationalization.

Internationalisation of higher education may have been displaced by MOOCs in the headlines but it is still very much at the heart of strategy of leading universities. It is therefore perhaps a bit early to be writing off internationalization of HE and branch campus developments.

The Imperfect University: Free Information?

Freedom of Information costs. But does anyone really benefit?

TIU

“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

These are the words Tony Blair addresses to himself in his memoirs while reflecting on his government’s introduction of the Freedom of Information Act as noted in this BBC report.

Last year Times Higher Education ran a story suggesting that the average cost of FoI compliance equals £121 per request:

A study into the costs of answering Freedom of Information enquiries suggests that less than £10 million was spent across the sector last year.

When the House of Commons Justice Committee called for evidence on the effectiveness of the FoI Act, 23 universities submitted evidence, of which 18 complained about the cost burden, among other concerns.

But Jisc, the UK’s expert body on information and digital technology in higher education, tracked 36 requests in seven institutions and found that the average cost, including staff time, of answering an FoI request was £121.

According to Universities UK, higher education institutions received on average 10.1 requests a month in 2011. This equates to an average annual cost of £14,665, which across the sector’s 155 institutions adds up to £2.3 million a year.

I have to say this looks to be something of an underestimate. I asked my colleague in the University’s Governance team which deals with FoI for data for the past couple of years. The data and some examples of requests is set out below. Before we get there though you might wish to refresh your memory with a glance at the ICO guidance – it is 10 page (yes, 10 pages) definition document of what is expected to be published by universities and colleges and covers everything from staff expenses to tender procedures to CCTV locations.

logoDuring the period from 1st January 2011 to December 2012, the University of Nottingham responded to 370 Freedom of Information requests. In 24% of cases, requests resulted in non-disclosure either because the University applied an exemption successfully, defended a position of ‘over the appropriate time limit’ or the information was not held. 27% of requests received a partial disclosure of information. 49% of requests resulted in the requester being entitled to all of the information requested. Whilst we remain ‘purpose blind’ it is self-evident that the majority of requesters continue to be looking for material for journalistic purposes.

Of the 182 (49%) of requests with full responses requests were themed as follows:

Statistics  88
Supplier and contract details  35
Financial figures  25
Policies 21
Communication 2; a total of 7 emails and 1
letter were disclosed
University structure 6
Role profiles 2
Recruitment timeline 1
Research grants 1
Vice-Chancellor’s external roles 1

Supplier and contract details
We receive a large number of requests asking for details of contract agreements in place. In the main these are from competitors. Whilst these requests are an inconvenience there is no applicable exemption to this information as the ICO have made it clear that they do not consider such information commercially sensitive. The data is readily to
hand therefore significant management time is not accrued.
Financial figures
The majority of requests under this category concern library fines, IT costs, legal fees and expenses. We have received individual requests on a small number of issues including costs of artwork, car parking fees, accommodation fees and funding. This information was not considered commercially sensitive and was therefore released to the requestors.
Applied Exemptions
The most common exemption applied, particularly under partially disclosed requests, is personal data. In the main these requests concerned statistics which were so detailed and/or sensitive that disclosing the information would risk unreasonable identification of individuals.

The following exemptions have been applied, either to whole requests or partially:

Commercial interests 10
Personal Data 62
Information already published 18
Information not held 13
Legal professional privilege 1
National security 4
Intended for future publication 2
Vexatious 4

Some of those specific requests over this two year period:

  • Statistics for disciplinary actions taken against students 2010 – present
  • Statistics for Welsh domicile students
  • Student parking fines
  • University investments
  • Server Hardware Maintenance and Software Licensing Contracts
  • the number of UG Taught and PG programmes 12/13 and 11/12 that did not enrol any students
  • Number of students employed in University catering and library departments
  • Amount paid out in hardship funds over last 3 years
  • University Employee Statistics
  • FOI

  • Statistics for research staff recruitment
  • Information and statistics on student bursaries
  • Information on Microscopes Tender
  • Internet traffic
  • Statistics on parking fines issued
  • Statistics for Physics applicants
  • Information and figures relating to Common Purpose
  • Payments from the Pharmaceutical Industry
  • Statistics on changing employment patterns in the public sector
  • Information on admissions cycle for A100 Medicine Course
  • Information on English classes, student figures and fee income
  • Information on research sabbaticals
  • Information on PhD qualifications of staff
  • Information relating to the University’s parking contract
  • Statistics for students failing first year exams
  • Statistics on student housing
  • Information and statistics on student bursaries
  • Information relating to clinical trials
  • Information on Mobile Phone Contracts

Is it worth it? I am dubious. Essentially we spend a great deal of time and effort and public money responding to this stuff and I struggle to see the benefit for anyone, including the requestors. This list also doesn’t include my personal favourite of all dumb FOI requests received (it was before 2011): a request for data on reported hauntings in university buildings. Not quite as bad as the Leicester City Council zombie attack readiness request but still pretty daft. And no matter how silly or pointless such requests may be we have to treat them all equally seriously.

Back to Blair. He claims that FoI is not used, for the most part, by “the people”, but by journalists. His view is that “For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet.” It sometimes feels a bit like that in universities too.

(With thanks to Sam Potter for providing the University of Nottingham material included here.)

Good discipline?

Universities’ disciplinary records under scrutiny.

Some entertaining reactions to a piece in the Guardian which reported that university students had paid over £0.5m in fines in a year:

Universities across the UK issued disciplinary and administrative fines totalling more than £550,000 to students last year.

Freedom of information requests from the Guardian have shown students were fined a total of £551,237.30 for offences such as smoking, drunkenness, and unauthorised parties in the last academic year. One institution said it used the money collected to fund the annual staff outing.

The results also revealed a number of peculiarities in the amounts fined for each offence. At Brunel University, while “assisting students with online tests for money” landed one student with a £250 fine, another was fined £50 for “hitting a member of staff”.

A student at Kent University was fined £50 for “insulting or violent behaviour including or involving racial, sexual or other abuse, harassment or threat of violence” – the same amount that many were charged for smoking offences.

Other offences that resulted in disciplinary action at universities included keeping chickens, leaving food on a window ledge, stealing loaves of bread and being prepared for a post-examination “trashing” of another student. Warwick University issued fines totalling £350 last year to students who were “drunk”, with no further reason given.

Some unusual offences here but perhaps nothing too remarkable for any readers of True Crime on Campus (apart perhaps from the keeping chickens offence, which is a new one to me).

Surprisingly unwelcome on campus

Surprisingly unwelcome on campus

Also, it’s perhaps a rather low sum given the large number of offences against regulations which will be committed by students every year. University do have rules and it is inevitable that many students will breach them at some point, often in halls of residence where they are learning for the first time about shared community responsibilities. The University of Nottingham’s Code of Discipline is outlined in its Ordinances and notes the reasons for the need for such legislation an students’ undertakings:

  1. Regulations on discipline are necessary because the University is a society in which good standards of communal life must be maintained, so that all its members may enjoy conditions enabling them to achieve their aims in joining it. Present students should also, in their behaviour, show proper concern for the reputation of the University and its effect on their contemporaries and their successors.

  2. The acceptance of an offer of admission by students is regarded as an undertaking to obey such University Ordinances and Regulations as are in force at any time during their period of study, and each student is required at registration to enter into such an undertaking.

So there can’t be any real room for misunderstandings there. Unless you decide to keep chickens of course.

The Imperfect University: what do we know about HE leadership?

What do we know about leadership in higher education?

 

Not a lot, seems to be the answer.

I’ve written a bit before in the Imperfect University series about leadership in universities. There is a new report out which seeks to sum up what we know about leadership in HE.

This report, written by Professor Jacky Lumby  and published by the Leadership Foundation, must have been difficult for the LFHE to come to terms with. I think they deserve credit for publishing it as it does rather suggest that we really haven’t learned an awful lot about leadership in HE despite all the research undertaken by, among others, the Leadership Foundation. It is a fascinating and refreshingly candid read.

F9AA402C809A43E5421B506E76C01028It considers the big questions about leadership in HE:

  • Does the HE context demand a distinctive approach?
  • Who are the leaders in higher education?
  • How do the leaders operate and how effectively?
  • How important is leadership?

And the findings are perhaps somewhat surprising.

Is HE really that different?

So is  leadership in HE really that different from other parts of the education sector or public services or even parts of the commercial world? No. The conclusion here is that HE really might not be as different as is sometimes claimed although nature of academics and their work can create a “distinctive environment.”

Who are the leaders?

Overall, LFHE’s research distinguishes institutional management from leadership, and sees the latter as widely and fluidly dispersed, including, but not limited to, those in formal leadership roles.

There is real dispute about who are the leaders with many of those ostensibly in leadership roles not being regarded as such by those they seek to lead. Moreover, for some the “resistance by determinedly autonomous staff is argued to negate leadership.” This makes the HE institution sound like a playground gang or even worse, a political party.

Leadership to what end?

Leadership-foundationLFHE’s research and the wider literature embodies a yawning divergence in leaders’ espoused values and beliefs about who and what universities are for.

This is an outstanding conclusion. This divergence would suggest that universities could never succeed. But they do, despite all their inherent contradictions (including those of their leaders, whoever they are).

What do leaders do?

It seems that most people report that leaders do things relating to vision:

While there is a frequently reported desire for vision, there is little evidence of
 its practical creation or impact. Summaries of actions other than vision tend to the general and positive, and are in many cases ambiguous. This may be in part a result of self-reported methods and also of generalising across varied roles in different contexts. We know little about the detail of practice.

I just love this. It suggests that this visioning is (as per Rozyscki) no more than ‘happy talk’ and that the research  is unable to conclude whether this is because the vision isn’t good enough or because the whole vision thing is just ritualistic and illusory.

Effectiveness

We seem to be clutching at straws in trying to establish whether there is any evidence for leadership benefiting universities in terms of their core activities:

Evidence of the impact of leadership on the extent and quality of research, learning and enterprise is rather slim.

Moreover, university staff inevitably have contrasting views on what effectiveness means, what its characteristics are and indeed whether individuals can even be described in this way:

What works in one context will not necessarily work 
in another, and equally may be judged as effective
 and ineffective in the same context. As in the wider literature, the research generates lists of characteristics 
of effective leaders that are somewhat idealised and apolitical. Oppositional narratives underpin estimates of effectiveness; a rational narrative stresses data-driven, command and control, while an alternative prizes an open- ended and fluid creation of space in which autonomy can flourish. Effectiveness is currently related to individuals, but might be more usefully applied to units.

Does it matter?

Many clearly believe that leadership matters but the research is not conclusive:

Despite the widespread assertion that leadership is vital, in the absence of convincing evidence of the impact of leadership on higher education’s core activities there is only evidence of the degree to which people believe leadership to be discernible and important or otherwise. The evidence base is unsatisfactory but still suggests that leadership is often, although not always, important.

A reassuring message for HE leaders everywhere.

Conclusion

As if that all weren’t enough to be worrying about the report concludes:

A good deal has been achieved in depicting the richness of players and their approaches to leadership. LFHE’s commissioned research avoids reductive over-simplification and provides certainty that there is no certainty about how to act, no rules about what works. Its research on leadership provides stimulation and material for praxis rather than definitive models. What it offers is a contribution to understanding the ecology of the leadership of higher education, so that actions and interventions may be located within a better knowledge base.

So, to offer a reductive and over-simplified summary, we don’t know much and nothing is certain but there is loads of interesting stuff to think about. A really nice report and well worth a read. All the relevant research (although I was surprised not to see Amanda Goodall’s Socrates in the Boardroom there) is contained in a handy bibliography too.

I love HE.

The Imperfect University: Truly Transnational

There is something close to a genuinely international university
TIU

Last year Andrew Stewart Coats, commenting on his appointment and the interesting plans for the new partnership between Warwick and Monash Universities, asserted that in higher education:

there has been little or no globalization in how we organize ourselves; no global entity runs viable universities in multiple countries and no truly transnational offering for students and academics exists

He also noted what he described as the “outposts” of universities in China, South East Asia and the Middle East and questioned whether this could “in itself create a truly global university?”

As a member of a global university, with three truly international campuses, I have to disagree. I drafted this piece late last year at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia Campus (UNMC), home to some 4,500 students and over 450 staff, located at the edge of Kuala Lumpur in a breathtakingly beautiful setting. After meetings with a range of senior staff and bumping into our UK-based Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Internationalisation who was visiting the campus prior to taking over as Provost I then headed off to the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) campus (5,000 students, over 400 staff). As anyone who has visited either campus will attest, these are no outposts. Both campuses are larger than a good number of UK HE institutions and are already, despite their relative youth (UNMC became the first overseas campus of any UK university some 12 years ago and UNNC was founded in 2004), they are already punching significantly above their weight in both research and teaching in their host countries.

Campus at University of Nottingham Ningbo China

Campus at University of Nottingham Ningbo China

OBHE, in its most recent report, identifies some 200 or so branch campuses around the world with another 37 at least in the pipeline.

However, very few of these are of the scale, breadth or depth of the Nottingham developments and many are the outposts Coats describes with teaching delivered in rented office accommodation by staff who fly in for a few weeks before flying back home again.

Nottingham actually has three international campuses at present; as well as those in China and Malaysia there is the original campus in the UK which is also strikingly international with over 9,000 international students from 150+ countries. The international ethos is embraced in all that we do and is strongly articulated in the University’s mission:

At the University of Nottingham we are committed to providing a truly international education, inspiring our students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around our campuses in the UK, China and Malaysia. Our purpose is to improve life for individuals and societies worldwide. By bold innovation and excellence in all that we do, we make both knowledge and discoveries matter.

Our academic staff on all campuses are international in composition (25% are international) and outlook too. One in five of our undergraduates undertakes international mobility. 17% of published research outputs are internationally co-authored and 37% of our research funding is obtained internationally. We have strategic partnerships with other leading universities in over 25 countries and one of the largest scholarship programmes for students from the developing world.

University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus


When universities make claims about their global outlook and deep internationalization there is a tendency for the rhetoric significantly to oustrip the reality. Nottingham is, I think, a bit different. The evidence for the range and depth of the internationalization is pretty much everywhere and is now part of the fabric, culture and practice across the University.

Internationalisation both drives and supports our teaching and research mission, provides wider benefits for staff and students as well as facilitating access to a broad international talent pool. Internationalisation at Nottingham has many facets: it means an extraordinarily diverse staff and student body, outstanding campuses, significant staff and student mobility, a distinctive curriculum, unique international research activity (including, for example, field scale tropical crop trials as part of the Crops for the Future initiative which would simply impossible in the UK) and partnerships as well as the new collaborative Knowledge Without Borders Network which seeks to learn from and build upon all of these developments.

Can Nottingham claim to be a genuinely international institution? I think so. At the very least we are, as the Sunday Times observed, “the closest Britain has to a truly global university”. It is not enough simply to have outstandingly successful and growing international campuses or to host visits from the British and Malaysian Prime Ministers or the then Chinese Premier (as happened at UNMC and UNNC respectively last year) it has to permeate the institution from top to bottom. In short, it is all about delivery and Nottingham has delivered and continues to deliver real international higher education. This is the experience at our global institution. It’s not perfect and there is still a long way to go to develop fully the potential of all three of our international campuses in Malaysia, China and the UK but I think it is real, meaningful, deep and sustained internationalisation. I wish Warwick and Monash well in their collaboration; I am sure we would be delighted to welcome Professor Coats to any of our campuses to see our truly transnational offering and experience a real global University.

The Imperfect University: the first chapter

Because universities are difficult, but worth it

This year there have been a dozen posts in the Imperfect University series. Covering leadership, staff mobility, regulation, governance in Scotland and Virginia, not so revolutionary online provision, the CDBU and more regulation, there was I hope something of interest for many in here somewhere.

The Imperfect University

An introduction to the series

Who should lead universities?

What kind of people do universities need as leaders – is appointing a top academic enough?

More and more regulation

Despite the rhetoric we always seem to end up with additional rather than reduced regulation in higher education.

Reviewing higher education in Scotland

Comments on a recent review of university governance in Scotland.

Do we need a level playing field?

Some discussion on this frequently used argument.

Massive Open Online Confusion?

On why Massive Open Online Courses aren’t perhaps as revolutionary as is claimed by some.

Governance Challenges at the University of Virginia

On the removal of the President at the University of Virginia. Messy.

The Cult of Efficiency

A look at a book from 1962, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, which offers a salutary warning about the hazards of imposing inappropriate models in education.

Graduation – a bit London 2012?

London 2012 crowd

London 2012 crowd


A comparison between graduation events and the feel good Olympics. With other observations about graduation.

Mobility Matters

Developing and moving professional services staff.

First for the chop

Why there really aren’t too many administrators in universities. Honest.

How not to defend higher education

Commentary on the launch of the Council for the Defence of British Universities.

More to follow in 2013.

The Imperfect University: How not to defend higher education

Simple: ignore administrators (or worse)
TIU
The recent launch of the “Council for the Defence of British Universities” (or CDBU) offered some fascinating insights into a particular corner of British society. Like a strongly worded round robin letter to the Times made flesh it attracted some big names  from Sir David Attenborough to Baroness Deech. A rather wry report of the event was published over at WonkHE:

At the root of many contributions appears to be a reaction against the suggestion that academics ought to justify their own existence or the funding they receive. If Plato’s philosopher kings were not expected to appear before the Audit and Accountability Scrutiny Committee of Ancient Greece, why on earth should The Great and the Good of the British Universities?

It doesn’t end here. We hear praise for the University Grants Commission Lloyd George created in 1919 and “lasted us well” for 70 years before its untimely abolition, and later, Francis Bacon’s 17th century “partition of the sciences”. The message is clear – time to go back to the future and the further the better.

Back to the future, Doc

Universities really do need to go back to the future it seems

In addition  a piece in THE on the launch of the CDBU noted that:

The council’s initial 65-strong membership includes 16 peers from the House of Lords plus a number of prominent figures from outside the academy, including the broadcaster Lord Bragg of Wigton and Alan Bennett. Its manifesto calls for universities to be free to pursue research “without regard to its immediate economic benefit” and stresses “the principle of institutional autonomy”. It adds that the “function of managerial and administrative staff is to facilitate teaching and research”.

This is exactly what university administrations are like

This is exactly what university administrations are like

This rather dismissive comment from the launch manifesto about administrators has been reinforced by the comments by Professor Thomas Docherty (someone for whom I have high regard) who has penned a provocative piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the new body. In this article he observes that there are, apparently, two remarkable things about this council. First, it has a membership of very distinguished academics (always a good start for a campaigning organisation that). But there is more:

The second notable thing is the council’s unique mission: It is the only group that exists to put university education back into the hands of universities, and to do so with the determination to reinstate the primacy of academic values. The council has issued a Statement of Aims that should form the basis for how the nation approaches the management of universities, their financing, and their social, cultural, and economic importance. Central to the aims is university autonomy and respect for the independent demands and exigencies of scholarly work.

Corporate management might conceivably be good for some businesses, but it has no place in the university sector. Our administrators need to serve the primary academic functions, but increasingly—and in this they simply replicate a more general social malaise—administrations exist to perpetuate themselves, like some kind of carcinogenic cell that threatens the academic body.

The council hopes to exert influence in Britain, but the common good it wishes to serve goes beyond our borders. I hope American scholars also find that the moment is ripe for the reassertion of academic values and join us in our work. We’ve already received suggestions about the formation of sister councils outside Britain, and we’d certainly welcome an American counterpart. As is clear, the threats to academic values are not just local to Britain: They are global.

Now as has been noted here before, there are rather a lot of administrators in universities. No doubt some in the CDBU would say too many. Are all of these people actively organizing against the fundamental interests of higher education? Are they essentially concerned with protecting themselves and bureaucracies at the expense of academics? Are they unable to support or even understand academic values? Are they simply stooges of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills? Are all administrators merely unwitting dupes in thrall to a neo-liberal marketisation agenda? I don’t think so.

In most institutions, the primary concern of the professional administrator is to support and encourage the best academics to do what they do best, to minimise the distractions and to reduce the unwelcome and bureaucratic incursions of the state into academic life. Administrators are concerned more than anything with protecting academic staff (often with some difficulty) from the worst excesses of the increasingly challenging and turbulent world in which universities operate.

In order for academic staff to deliver as best they can on their core responsibilities for teaching and research it is vital that all the services they and the university need are delivered efficiently and effectively. Universities do not seek to hire and retain world-leading scholars in order to get them to maintain IT systems, organise data returns to statutory agencies or look for good deals on electron microscopes. These services are required and professional administrative staff are needed to do this work to ensure academics are not unnecessarily distracted from their primary duties.

So, in some ways I agree with the CDBU proposition that the “function of managerial and administrative staff is to facilitate teaching and research”. However, it is the tone and place of this within the opening statements which originally troubled me and now causes even more alarm following Professor Docherty’s rather unfortunate comments.

Protect and survive

Protect and survive

Put simply, it looks to me as if, for the very great and extremely good of the CDBU, administrators are, at best, an afterthought. That would be the most benign interpretation one could put on the statements from the initial meeting and more recently from Professor Docherty. Because really it does seem that administrators are to be neither seen nor heard (check out that initial list of members again) and have no place in doing anything as important as defending higher education. Despite the critical role we play in the operation of HE, it seems we are really to be seen as humble functionaries with no part to play in the grand drama of university defence.

If a university prefers to see administrators merely as a servant class or indeed decides that many can be dispensed with through radical surgery to ensure that academics retain the whip hand then it might find it will struggle before too long. Whilst the nostalgia-infused senior common room debates and the delightfully sweet taste of golden age governance will undoubtedly sustain many of the leading participants of the CDBU it won’t be too long in their universities before the infrastructure and professional staffing required to maintain a 21st century institution atrophies and dies. So, the cancer-causing administrators may be excised but it will turn out that this is rather dangerous medicine that the Council has decided to prescribe. Indeed it looks a bit like retreating to 19th Century quackery when modern health care is available. All in all I fear it is a recipe for decay and decline and, you have to say, really isn’t a very good way to go about seeking to build a coalition in defence of universities.

The Imperfect University: the year to date

Because universities are difficult, but worth it

With the latest post, on why administrators really do matter in universities,  we are now up to a total of 11 pieces to date in the Imperfect University series. Covering leadership, staff mobility, regulation, governance in Scotland and Virginia, not so revolutionary online provision, the cult of efficiency and more regulation I hope there is something for everyone in here. Anyway, do let me know what you think – here are all of the posts for reference:

The Imperfect University

An introduction to the series

Who should lead universities?

What kind of people do universities need as leaders – is appointing a top academic enough?

More and more regulation

Despite the rhetoric we always seem to end up with additional rather than reduced regulation in higher education.

Reviewing higher education in Scotland

Comments on a recent review of university governance in Scotland.

Do we need a level playing field?

Some discussion on this frequently used argument.

Massive Open Online Confusion?

On why Massive Open Online Courses aren’t perhaps as revolutionary as is claimed by some.

Governance Challenges at the University of Virginia

On the removal of the President at the University of Virginia. Messy.

The Cult of Efficiency

A look at a book from 1962, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, which offers a salutary warning about the hazards of imposing inappropriate models in education.

Graduation – a bit London 2012?

A comparison between graduation events and the feel good Olympics. With other observations about graduation.

Mobility Matters

Developing and moving professional services staff.

First for the chop

Why there really aren’t too many administrators in universities. Honest

More to follow in due course.

The Imperfect University: First for the chop

The Imperfect University: Some people really don’t think much of administrators

Last year I wrote a piece for Times Higher Education on the problem with the term “back office” and the often casual, unthinking use of it in order to identify a large group of staff who play a key role in the effective running of universities but who are the first to be identified for removal or outsourcing in financially challenging times. But what do we mean by the back office?

In a university context, it is generally taken to mean those staff who are neither engaged in teaching or research nor involved in face-to-face delivery of services to students. So they might be, for example, working in IT, human resources, finance or student records. Or they might be the people who maintain the grounds, administer research grants or edit the website.
Too often, their somewhat anonymous roles mean that they are treated as third-class citizens in the university context. Because they are out of sight and largely out of mind, most people really don’t know what they do; as a consequence, it becomes much easier for others to write them off and offer them up as the first to be sacrificed when cuts have to be made. Back-office staff do not have an obvious income line and can easily be regarded as expendable. The attitude is resonant of the Victorian view of those “below stairs”. This perception (or lack of perception) is unhelpful, and not terribly good for morale – particularly among those who are so casually dismissed as being “just back office”.

Two recent reports offer a striking example of this. The first is an Ernst & Young report on the “University of the Future” which has found that the current public university model in Australia will prove unviable “in all but a few cases”.

A story in The Australian quotes the report’s author:

“There’s not a single Australian university that can survive to 2025 with its current business model,” says report author Justin Bokor, executive director in Ernst & Young’s education division.

“We’ve seen fundamental structural changes to industries including media, retail and entertainment in recent years – higher education is next.”

The study compared ratios of support staff to academic staff across a selection of 15 institutions and found that 14 out of 15 had more support staff than academic staff. Four of the 15 universities have 50 per cent or more support staff than academic staff, and more than half have at least 20 per cent more support staff.

The report warned that this ratio “will have to change”.

The report, which can be found here, doesn’t give any details on the definition of “support staff”. However, I would guess that it is a sum of all staff who are not academics (the definition of academics can often be unclear too). I must admit though that I’m not surprised that there are more support staff than academics in most institutions simply because of the sheer scale of university operations. I suspect that the variations are largely down to how staff are counted and categorized and differences in physical and organizational structures.

Despite this definitional imprecision, the report’s author is confident in asserting that universities need to cut:

Organisations in other knowledge-based industries, such as professional services firms, typically operate with ratios of support staff to front-line staff of 0.3 to 0.5. That is, 2-3 times as many front-line staff as support staff. Universities may not reach these ratios in 10-15 years, but given the ‘hot breath’ of market forces and declining government funding, education institutions are unlikely to survive with ratios of 1.3, 1.4, 1.5 and beyond.

Leaving aside the fact that many professional staff, for example those involved in student recruitment, careers work, counseling, financial advice, academic support, security and library operations are unequivocally front-line, the idea that the other staff who help the institution function and who support academic staff in their teaching and research are merely unnecessary overheads, ripe for cutting back, is just not credible.

Then from the US we have another report, quoted in the Chronicle. This report, produced by a pair of economists, has identified the ideal ratio of academic staff to administrators needed for universities to run most effectively. It is 3:1 and therefore makes the Ernst and Young proposition look decidedly half-hearted. However, as the article acknowledges, the definitional problems are far from insignificant:

The numbers are fuzzy and inconsistent because universities report their own data. Different institutions categorize jobs differently, and the ways they choose to count positions that blend teaching and administrative duties further complicate the data. When researchers talk about “administrators,” they can never be sure exactly which employees they are including. Sometimes colleges count librarians, for example, as administrators, and sometimes they do not.

“Look! If I just cross all these people out then we can employ an extra professor!”

Even in the UK, where there is fairly robust collection of staff data by HESA, definitional problems remain. As this earlier post noted there is significant scope for misinterpreting staff data and overstating the growth of the number of managers versus the number of academics working in universities.

These matters are exacerbated in the US for the reasons above and the comments below the piece give an indication of some of the major holes in the economists’ proposition. Nevertheless, the Chronicle finds some willing to support the proposal for an ideal ratio:

Some advocates of increasing the proportion of faculty at universities say they support the researchers’ goal of setting a three-to-one ratio of faculty to administrators.
Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University and author of The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011), has argued that universities would be better off with fewer administrators, people he calls “deanlets.”
The three-to-one ratio “makes a lot of sense,” Mr. Ginsberg said, because it would shift the staff balance in universities. “If an administrator disappeared, no one would notice for a year or two,” he said. “They would assume they were all on retreat, whereas a missing professor is noticed right away.”
Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and a professor of economics at Ohio University, said shifting the balance back toward faculty is key to keeping universities’ missions focused on teaching, as opposed to becoming too focused on other activities, like business development or sustainability efforts.
“We need to get back to basics,” said Mr. Vedder. The basics are “teaching and research,” he said, “and we need to incentivize leaders of the universities to get rid of anything that’s outside of that.”

Administrative staff – not unnecessary overheads

This is just ridiculous rhetoric and really we should just discount it. However, such views are, unfortunately, not that uncommon and do have to be challenged.

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.

Although provision of such services is not in itself sufficient for institutional success, it is hugely important for creating and sustaining an environment where the best-quality teaching and research can be delivered. If a university chooses to dispense with the professional staff who deliver these services in order to pursue a mythical ratio then it might find it’s rather hard to hold on to those outstanding academics for very long.

Most recently there is a piece in THE reporting on the launch of the “Council for the Defence of British Universities” which notes that

The council’s initial 65-strong membership includes 16 peers from the House of Lords plus a number of prominent figures from outside the academy, including the broadcaster Lord Bragg of Wigton and Alan Bennett. Its manifesto calls for universities to be free to pursue research “without regard to its immediate economic benefit” and stresses “the principle of institutional autonomy”. It adds that the “function of managerial and administrative staff is to facilitate teaching and research”.

Now whilst I do of course agree that this is a fundamental part of administrators’ roles and it is splendid that the great and the good do accept that administrators exist, there is something here in the tone of this comment that makes me think that some might take this to be that we should be “seen and not heard”. I do hope not.

The Imperfect University: Mobility Matters

The Imperfect University: Staff getting on their bikes

One of the things professional services colleagues sometimes complain about is that whereas  academic staff can be promoted in post – and indeed can progress all the way from lecturer to professor in the same academic department – they can’t. Instead to advance their careers administrators have to move – either elsewhere in the institution or to another university. This is often presented as a problem whereas I have to say I think it is much more of a positive position. Whilst there is something to be said for having people in post in administrative roles in central or academic departments who know their jobs inside out, who carry a sense of the institutional history and provide the continuity between rotating professors as heads of department, there is also a difficulty in such longevity in one particular role. Essentially the challenge is this – many intelligent, creative and able administrators, no matter how committed to a particular department or institution, can, unless they are given new challenges and fresh stimulus in their job, sometimes become dull, stale and bored. They may, no matter how able, become less productive over time as tedium and routine replaces challenge and excitement. I should stress that this is not always the case and is challenged as a proposition by some of my colleagues.

In my view the way to address this issue is not to argue for the opportunity for professional services staff to be promoted in role (although if their job does change radically then the regarding opportunity will exist) – this is the wrong way of approaching the matter. Rather there should be the possibility of moving staff regularly to new roles in different parts of the university to provide them with new challenge and stimulus. Ultimately this not only gives people more satisfaction in their work and makes them more productive but, because it broadens their experience too they become more employable in other roles and stand a better chance of securing a more senior role in their current or another institution.

Times Higher Education recently carried a piece on the development of university leaders and noted the success of the University of Warwick in this regard. One of those things for which the administration at Warwick under Mike Shattock and subsequently was famed was the propensity for moving staff around to ensure they gained new experiences and enjoyed exposure to new ideas and new work opportunities to keep them interested, stimulated and challenged. This was my experience at the University (I had seven different jobs in just under nine years at Warwick) and I found the experience hugely beneficial.

This is hard to do though. Given the structures in universities which often involve significant devolution to academic units and therefore means that administrative staff can be located in dispersed teams at Department, School or Faculty level the managed redeployment or rotation of staff can be extremely difficult to organise. Professional specialisms – in HR, Finance, IT, and Estates – make such rotation even harder although I would suggest that the previous decline of the generalist administrator has been reversed and it is perfectly possible for specialists to transfer into and succeed at more generalist roles (although rarely vice versa).

The Higher Education sector in the UK employs over 380,000 staff of whom 200,000 work in non-academic roles and professional services (HESA 2010/11 data). Whilst the career route is well defined and understood for academic staff (albeit an extremely tough profession to enter), entry to HE administration is less well defined. There is a national pay spine but grades for administrative staff vary across the sector. The entry level for graduates is generally understood but no common graduate scheme exists, unlike in the NHS which has had a well-developed national scheme for prospective NHS managers operating successfully for many years. A small number of institutions have operated local graduate trainee programmes down the years but they have not really taken off in any significant way.

In the absence of any national graduate entry programme and the challenges with managed rotation one alternative approach is to introduce a variety of work opportunities at the beginning of administrators’ careers. As well as providing a clear opportunity for entry to a career in higher education administration this was part of our motivation at the University of Nottingham for introducing our own local Graduate Trainee Programme in 2008.

An extract from the last advertisement for the programme gives a flavour of the opportunity:

This Graduate Trainee Programme offers an invaluable opportunity to prepare talented, hard-working and enthusiastic Nottingham graduates for a management role within this stimulating setting.

The programme is aimed exclusively at University of Nottingham graduates interested in developing a career in university administration. It offers an invaluable insight into this dynamic management activity whilst developing an understanding of:

  • markets
  • income streams
  • resource allocation processes
  • client bases including students, funding bodies, commercial partners and employers.

The programme offers four trainees the opportunity to experience key components of university operation and build an understanding of the institution’s strategy.

Over 12 months the trainees undertake a planned rotation of placements in different areas of the University, reporting to senior staff. Placements will be across Professional Services and Schools, and trainees may have the opportunity to work at one of the University’s international campuses in Malaysia or China.

Placement areas may include:

  • Academic Services
  • Business Engagement and Innovation Services
  • Research and Graduate Services
  • Human Resources
  • Finance and Business Services
  • Student Operations
  • Governance
  • Marketing
  • Admissions

Successful trainees will gain the transferable skills necessary to move on to positions within the University with a clear understanding of how a large university operates. Outstanding performance on the programme may facilitate a longer term opportunity at Nottingham.

This kind of programme gives trainees a wide range of experiences early, sets them up well, gives them a rounded view of university operations both from departmental and central perspectives. It also makes them extremely employable and almost all of the graduates of the Nottingham GTP have gone onto subsequent employment within the University or at other HE institutions.

Having run successfully for four years at Nottingham this model has now been adapted and adopted as a pilot for a national scheme, initially involving eight universities (including Nottingham) and co-ordinated by AHUA (the national association for Registrars and other heads of university administration). Further details of this year’s recruitment can be found here.

The UK higher education sector really does need such a scheme and this programme will develop a cadre of senior managers for the future who have not only undertaken a variety of roles in their home institution but have also had a range of experiences in another university too. In addition, they will benefit from a structured professional development programme under the AUA CPD framework.

Excellent universities need outstanding managers who have broad experience and are able to take an institutional view where necessary. Mobility and dynamism of staff is key to achieving this and is in interest of both professional staff and their institutions. The nascent national Graduate Trainee Programme which is developing under the auspices of AHUA offers the prospect of achieving this in a widespread and sustainable way which can only be beneficial for universities in the UK.