2015 Complete University Guide League Table

It’s spring and it’s time for the first league table of the season.

Once again it’s the Complete University Guide which is first to publish this year. The top 25 is as follows:

1 (1) Cambridge
2 (2) Oxford
3 (3) London School of Economics
4 (6) St Andrews
5 (5) Durham
6 (4) Imperial College London
7 (8) Warwick
8 (9) Bathcug logo
9 (7) University College London
10 (10) Exeter
11 (11) Lancaster
12 (13) Surrey
13 (14) Loughborough
14 (12) York
15 (20) East Anglia
16 (21) Southampton
17 (17) Birmingham
18 (15) Bristol
19 (16) Leicester
20 (22) Newcastle
21 (18) Edinburgh
22 (28) Kent
23 (24) Nottingham
23 (36) Cardiff
23 (32)Leeds

The new Complete University Guide for 2015 has, unsurprisingly perhaps, Cambridge at the top of the heap. The top 10 is unchanged and there are a few moves in and out of the top 20 with Southampton and Newcastle replacing Edinburgh and King’s.

The Top Ten is unchanged compared with last year. The Universities of Southampton and Newcastle enter the Top 20, while Edinburgh (21th) and King’s (28th) drop out.

There is plenty of other analysis (including by subject, region and mission group)  and information on careers, fees etc. on the website.

The main table uses nine indicators: Student Satisfaction, Research Assessment, Entry Standards, Student:Staff Ratio; Spending on Academic Services; Spending on Student Facilities; Good Honours degrees achieved; Graduate Prospects and Completion. The Subject tables are based on four: Student Satisfaction, Research Assessment; Entry Standards and Graduate Prospects. The results tend to be fairly consistent year on year and there is not huge volatility in this table.

But, overall, there is not a whole lot to get excited about this year.

Guidance or directive?

Easy finance

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

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

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

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

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

Clear enough for you?

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

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

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

 

OFT gives English HE a 2i (just)

A decent result for HE in England?

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

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

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

There is a caveat though, and quite a big one

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

Some of these challenges include:

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

index

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2014 Grant letter: another epistolary triumph

And the wait was finally over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The length of Grant Letters to HEFCE down the years

The length of Grant Letters to HEFCE down the years

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

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

The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:

Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  1. The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
  2. The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  3. The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  4. David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  5. In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  6. January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  7. The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  8. December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  9. The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  10. January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  11. January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  12. January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  13. The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  14. June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).

So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 15 years of funding letters.

Save universities from more misguided regulation

Well-meaning but fundamentally wrong proposals for yet more regulation

hecommission-regulationreportcoversmaller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One final point caught my eye here:

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

“May be controversial”? What delightfully amusing understatement.

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

Reducing University Regulation in Australia

“Red tape strangling universities must be cut”

A recently released report in Australia following a review of higher education regulation has found that an “unnecessarily heavy reporting burden” had been imposed on higher education providers by the quality agency and government.

A report in University World News notes the irony in the fact that a paper aimed at reducing red tape is 99 pages long. The piece also observes that the report’s conclusions, that the higher education sector is over-regulated and that reducing the burden on universities is sorely needed, have been widely welcomed:

The report says the quality agency had been established in an “already crowded regulatory environment”, and it proposes a reduction in its functions and the number of its commissioners. It says the minister should issue a direction to the agency’s chief executive regarding allocation of resources so that the agency can accredit courses more quickly.

Red Tape 1

The report says there should also be a reduction in duplication across the various acts that govern university regulation and a better way of improving information sharing across agencies, to reduce the need for universities to report the same information multiple times to various bodies.

In addition, the report proposes the establishment of an overarching advisory council to consult with stakeholders and advise the minister, and calls for the speedy implementation of a single national higher education data collection system.

However, it may be some time before there is progress with this agenda. With major political change underway in Australia following the recent election it is possible that reducing higher education regulation may not to top of the new government’s priorities.

Regulation without legislation

Not a campaign slogan but the next steps in HE regulatory change from HEFCE

Something of a surprise announcement from HEFCE on new changes to HE regulation. The changes follow a written Ministerial statement from David Willetts. The changes cover a lot of ground:

The success of higher education in England is underpinned by the principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, and the new arrangements build on these strong foundations. The Government has asked HEFCE and the Regulatory Partnership Group (RPG) to implement them within existing legislation, while recognising that a new legislative framework will be required in the longer term.

The Operating Framework - part of the regulatory framework governing HE

The Operating Framework – part of the regulatory framework governing HE

Working in partnership with the RPG, HEFCE is asked to take on a regulatory oversight and coordination role. HEFCE is leading work on a number of strands of the new arrangements:

  • developing a register of higher education provision in England
  • consulting on proposed revisions to HEFCE’s Financial Memorandum
  • operating of a new system of specific-course designation for alternative providers
  • implementing further changes to student number controls, including extending them to alternative providers from 2014-15.

The Government has announced that it intends to delegate to HEFCE responsibility for the process of approving designation of HEFCE-funded universities and colleges, and for providing assurance that the agreed terms and conditions are met. Eligible courses at these institutions are and will continue to be designated automatically, allowing students to access student support. Institutions will not be required to undergo a separate designation process. This means that in practice there will be little change for existing institutions, and no additional administrative burden.

This last piece is a critical one. Whilst there are new requirements on alternative providers it is claimed there will be no extra burden on universities. To achieve this the changes to the Financial Memorandum will need to be modest. And it is not at all clear that any of these changes will leave us with a reduction in regulation. At some point the focus of higher regulation partnership working moved from seeking to reduce the burden on institutions to concentrating “on policy, strategic and operational issues arising from the development of the new funding and regulatory regime for higher education.” This is a matter of significant concern given the many competitive and regulatory pressures universities are under. So whatever happens in this latest iteration it is vital that the promise of no additional administrative burden is delivered. Then we can move to actually reducing the level of regulation.

Delivering better higher education data?

Another attempt to clean up HE data.

A previous post on the HE regulatory landscape noted the challenge of sorting out the massive range of data reporting required of universities – 550 different reporting requirements – which entailed a major programme of work. A year later things have moved on it seems and we now have the Higher Education Data & Information Improvement Programme. The rather infelicitously entitled HEDIIP is meant to address at least some of these issues:

The Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Programme (HEDIIP) is being established to enhance the arrangements for the collection, sharing and dissemination of data and information about the HE system.

This follows the challenges set out in paragraph 6.22 of the BIS White Paper Students at the Heart of the System which called for the HE information landscape to be redesigned “in order to arrive at a new system that meets the needs of a wider group of users; reduces the duplication that currently exists, and results in timelier and more relevant data.”

This work has been overseen by the Regulatory Partnership Group and HEDIIP is now being established to carry forward a programme of changes to build a more coherent, responsive and less burdensome information landscape.

There is a desperate need to sort out the regulatory landscape. Will this new initiative make a difference? Time will tell but there is really very little to go on here as yet and a solitary tweet in 10 weeks does not auger well either.

2014 Complete University Guide League Table

It’s spring and it’s time for the first league table of the season.

The Complete University Guide and league table for 2014 is now out. The details can be found on the Guide website together with lots of other analysis (including by subject, region and mission group)  and information on careers, fees etc.

The main table uses nine indicators: Student Satisfaction, Research Assessment, Entry Standards, Student:Staff Ratio; Spending on Academic Services; Spending on Student Facilities; Good Honours degrees achieved; Graduate Prospects and Completion. The Subject tables are based on four: Student Satisfaction, Research Assessment; Entry Standards and Graduate Prospects. The results tend to be fairly consistent year on year and there is not huge volatility in this table.

 Rank 2014  Rank 2013
1 (1) Cambridge
2 (3) Oxford
3 (2) LSE
4 (4) Imperial
5 (5) Durham
6 (6) St Andrews
7 (8) UCL
8 (6) Warwick
9 (10) Bath
10 (13) Exeter
11 (9) Lancaster
12 (12) York
13 (22) Surrey
14 (14) Loughborough
15 (11) Bristol
16 (20) Leicester
17 (23) Birmingham
18 (16) Edinburgh
19 (18) King’s
20 (27) UEA
20 (15) Southampton

So, little movement in the top 10 apart from the slight rejig to ensure Oxbridge dominance in the first two places. Glasgow and Nottingham slip out of the top 20 to be replaced by UEA, Birmingham and this year’s start performer at 13, the University of Surrey.

Broadcasting university performance

Very public reports on institutional performance.

Accessible university performance data.

 

Rather impressed by this Performance Tracker which is concerned with reporting in a very accessible way on the progress of Michigan’s public universities:

scorecard

The achievement of Michigan’s public universities is a critical factor as we look to participate in the knowledge economy of tomorrow. A well-educated, skilled talent base will help our state develop and attract new business opportunities. Universities also drive research and development, bring thousands of new faces into our state, and build lasting partnerships that advance our communities.

These goals matter to all of us, and so does the performance of Michigan’s higher education system. This website offers an overview of Michigan’s higher education achievement nationally, and shows how our universities are acting as incubators of future economic growth and change.

There is a great deal of very interesting data in here from graduation rates to tuition fees and SSRs to salary costs. Sensibly, the bench marking is against peer institutions. Will we see others adopting a similar approach? And might it catch on in the UK?

Higher education funding letters: another bundle of joy

On government HE funding letters

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has written to HEFCE with the Department’s annual message on funding and helpful bag of instructions.

The letter

sets out Government funding and priorities for HEFCE and for higher education for the second year of the new financial arrangements for higher education in England. The Government’s vision for higher education, outlined in the higher education white paper ‘Students at the heart of the system’, remains, and HEFCE is asked to continue to support learning and teaching activity, quality assurance, widening participation and an enhanced student experience. HEFCE will also continue our support for postgraduate provision.

Super. More instructions.

Not only does it offer even more directions to HEFCE, at 36 paragraphs and eight pages it is the second longest of the four to date issued by the Secretary of State and the Minister and confirms a return to the sterling epistolary efforts made by the previous government.

Last January’s effort really set the standard though – although it contained 35 paragraphs was in fact nine pages long. The December 2010 was somewhat shorter at only 28 paragraphs and can be seen as the BIS duo just getting into their stride.

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

The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:

Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  1. The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
  2. The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  3. The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  4. David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  5. In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  6. January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  7. The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  8. December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  9. The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  10. January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  11. January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  12. January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  13. The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  14. June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).

So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 14 years of funding letters.

Scottish Universities Challenged

Improving governance or constraining autonomy?

An earlier post covered the outcomes of a review of governance in Scottish universities and reported a number of concerns about what looked like far-reaching and extremely interventionist proposals.

Following this review the Scottish government has now indicated its response and, according to the Scotsman, it looks set to adopt many of the recommendations:

THE Scottish Government has unveiled a radical shake-up of the country’s universities and colleges.

• Education secretary Mike Russell unveils plans for a shakeup of pay and quotas

• Labour’s education spokesman Hugh Henry likened the plans to a ‘power grab’

• Scotland’s colleges currently undergoing mergers following earlier plans to save money and prevent duplication of courses

Education secretary Mike Russell said he had accepted “virtually all” the recommendations of a review of university governance, which called for elected chairs, quotas for female board members and curbs on the pay of high-earning principals.


Universities Scotland has sought to respond in a measured fashion to this development. The Scotsman carries the piece by Alastair Sim:

The von Prondynski review set out a range of affirmations and challenges for the sector. Some of these are matters of public policy or of legislation, and it’s important that universities and government keep talking to find ways forward which will genuinely improve the effective and responsive governance of Scottish universities. We welcome the recognition in the minister’s statement that this will be an evolutionary process which may include adaptation of the original proposals. Let’s use the time between now and proposed legislation to make sure we are getting things right.

Let’s hope they do keep talking. The review recommendations do, on the face of it, seem to represent significant challenges to institutional autonomy in Scotland and offer not insubstantial increases in the bureaucratic burden on universities. Serious consideration needs to be given to whether these proposals will really improve governance and institutional success or, as many fear, will in fact limit the ability of Scottish universities to deliver their missions.

Blots on the information landscape

Exciting new report on redesigning the higher education data and information landscape

A previous post commented on regulatory issues and the work being undertaken on the “information landscape”. A report on part of this work, the imaginatively entitled “Project B” has recently been agreed by the Interim Regulatory Partnership Group. The report sets out a new way forward for the governance of HE data:

The project report was presented to the Interim Regulatory Partnership Group (IRPG) at its meeting on 15 June. The report envisages a new, collective approach to the governance of the data and information landscape in HE, which could be achieved in the medium term.

IRPG accepted the recommendations of the report and agreed that this work should be scoped as a part of the broader programme of activities being taken forward by the Group.

Part of the evidence considered by the Group was a survey which aimed to establish the totality of external reporting undertaken by HEIs in the UK. The survey identified 550 (550!) separate external reporting requirements and grouped them into seven main categories as follows:

The main recommendation contained in the report is that the key players should get together and agree what data and information is required:

To achieve this IRPG should task some of the key stakeholders in information flows (e.g. HESA, QAA, SLC, UCAS, AoC, Guild HE and UUK) to develop and propose the structure, resourcing and operation of a governance model for the data and information landscape.

This would enable a programme of work, using shared expertise, to create a more coherent set of arrangements for the collection, sharing and dissemination of data. These arrangements would include the identification, development and adoption of data and information standards and the review and scrutiny of data requests.

In order to fulfil this role there would need to be a series of enabling projects, including:

  • Develop a calendar and inventory of data collections across the year as a first step towards streamlining collections and improving the timeliness of information
  • Develop a data model, lexicon and thesaurus for the sector – this would be a purely administrative/reporting model that does not seek to impinge on academic practice or to impact the way business processes are carried out. It may be that this would be a series of linked models using a consistent approach and a common data language.The establishment of this collective oversight of the information landscape would require each of the organisations involved to make a real commitment to work collaboratively and openly on issues involving data and information.

Whilst these steps will be important they do seem relatively modest aims in the light of the sheer scale of the regulatory burden identified by the group. It remains to be seen how much benefit will result from the establishment of a “coherent set of arrangements” in the medium term. Let’s hope it leads to some real reductions in the data information demands placed on universities.

The Imperfect University: Governance challenges at the University of Virginia

University of Virginia: considerable turbulance at the top

A rather topical post for the latest in the Imperfect University series. There have been some extraordinary goings on at the University of Virginia. To the surprise of just about everyone the University’s Board of Visitors (its governing body) decided two weeks ago to remove the President, Teresa Sullivan, after only two years at the helm.  Full details of all official statements are available on the University’s website together with links to some of the major news reports on this. It’s a really messy business and must be hugely destabilising for the University.


So why has the Board decided to take this extreme step? According to the statement by the Rector on June 10:

the Board feels strongly and overwhelmingly that we need bold and proactive leadership on tackling the difficult issues that we face. The pace of change in higher education and in health care has accelerated greatly in the last two years.  We have calls internally for resolution of tough financial issues that require hard decisions on resource allocation. The compensation of our valued faculty and staff has continued to decline in real terms, and we acknowledge the tremendous task ahead of making star hires to fill the many spots that will be vacated over the next few years as our eminent faculty members retire in great numbers. These challenges are truly an existential threat to the greatness of UVA.

We see no bright lights on the financial horizon as we face limits on tuition increases, an environment of declining federal support, state support that will be flat at best, and pressures on health care payors.  This means that as an institution, we have to be able to prioritize and reallocate the resources we do have, and that our best avenue for increasing resources will be through passionate articulation of a vision and effective development efforts to support it. We also believe that higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions.

We want UVA to remain in that top echelon of universities well into the 21st century and beyond. We want this to be a place that lives up to Mr. Jefferson’s founding vision of excellence. We want it to be a place that attracts the best and the brightest in scholarship, teaching, patient care, and community service.

To achieve these aspirations, the Board feels the need for a bold leader who can help develop, articulate, and implement a concrete and achievable strategic plan to re-elevate the University to its highest potential.  We need a leader with a great willingness to adapt the way we deliver our teaching, research, and patient care to the realities of the external environment.  We need a leader who is able to passionately convey a vision to our community, and effectively obtain gifts and buy-in towards our collective goals.

The Board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation. We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change.  The world is simply moving too fast.

This would suggest that the Board’s fundamental concern is that change in the University is insufficient both in scale and pace in order to meet the challenges it faces. And that the President therefore has to be replaced with a bolder leader in order to ensure such change happens. It really is a quite remarkable statement. Whilst such events are not rare in other sectors it does seem like extreme step in a higher education context.

Meanwhile, back to the action - The Washington Post reported on a demonstration in support of the ousted President:

Sullivan was forced out after a closed-door meeting of the board. The June 10 announcement that she would resign blindsided Sullivan and ignited a furor at Virginia’s flagship university, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. More than 2,000 people gathered outside the Rotunda on Monday to show their support for Sullivan, who gained wide popularity since taking the job in 2010.

U.Va.’s Faculty Senate and other groups had called for Kington and Rector Helen Dragas to step down as they severely criticized the board’s handling of Sullivan’s removal. Dragas and Kington joined in the behind-the-scenes effort to call for her resignation, and no board members have publicly discussed specific reasons behind the decision.

There is still a long way for this story to go and the New York Times has reported on some other changes on the Board:

In the continuing turmoil after the abrupt ouster of University of Virginia’s president, Teresa Sullivan, on June 10, the university’s vice rector, Mark Kington, and a prominent computer science professor have resigned — and some faculty members say there may soon be enough turnover on the 16-member Board of Visitors that Dr. Sullivan could be reinstated.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, who appoints the board, could fill as many as six seats on the university’s governing body on July 1. In addition to Mr. Kington’s replacement, he has the ability to replace the rector, Helen E. Dragas, whose term is ending. Another member is up for reappointment, two will rotate off the board and an appointment is needed to fill a seat created this year.

On Tuesday, when the board voted 12 to 1 to name Carl P. Zeithaml as interim president, there were two abstentions and one absence, so a shift of six would put the outcome of future votes in question. Furthermore, one member who voted for Mr. Zeithaml’s appointment has said he hopes to undo Dr. Sullivan’s resignation.

There does seem to be a view, at least among Dr Sullivan’s supporters, that these imminent changes to the Board membership could somehow lead to her reinstatement. These appointments though appear to be in the hands of the State Governor and it is not at all clear what he will choose to do nor what effect it will have. But the bigger question the Board will ultimately have to answer is how this radical change can be shown to be in the long term interests of the University. HE institutions are fundamentally concerned with delivering change in the long run and effective stewardship and a concern for real sustainability has to be at the heart of any governing body’s actions. It is simply not clear at this stage how this dramatic step will help UVa deliver its ultimate ambitions.

In considering the fall out from this affair Chronicle also carries an extensive piece and follows up on the specfic issue of appointing a leader who will deliver the kind of “strategic dynamism” which the UVa Board seems to think is lacking:

So what is “strategic dynamism,” and who are its practitioners? Quite the opposite of the methodical, long-term visions found in most universities’ strategic plans, strategic dynamism implies a near-constant “stirring of the pot” within an organization, explains Donald C. Hambrick, a professor of management at Pennsylvania State University’s main campus.

That could mean wild changes in asset allocation within a company’s investment portfolio or a radical alteration of a business’s marketing approach. Proponents of strategic dynamism value the potential rewards of substantial, fast-paced change more than the stability of a gradual strategic evolution, Mr. Hambrick says.

There’s another thing about executives who embrace strategic dynamism: They’re totally in love with themselves, Mr. Hambrick says. In 2007, Mr. Hambrick co-authored a study that found a strong correlation between a chief executive’s level of narcissism and his or her penchant for making frequent changes consistent with strategic dynamism.

The study used five indicators to measure a chief executive’s narcissism, including the prominence of the executive’s photographs in a company’s annual report, the frequency of the executive’s name in company news releases, the disparity between the chief executive’s compensation and that of the company’s second in command, and the frequency with which the chief executive uses first-person-singular pronouns in interviews.

“Having a narcissist for your CEO and engaging in strategic dynamism carries risk,” he continues. “It’s almost axiomatic that if you engage in strategic dynamism and take a big risk, you’re going to have extreme outcomes.”

There is no shortage of criticism that higher education moves too slowly, and there are plenty of trustees and pundits who would say a dose of strategic dynamism is just the kick in the pants the industry needs.

A previous post discussed the issue of who should lead universities and the UVa case gives us a different angle on this. Dr Sullivan is, by all accounts, an outstanding academic with significant experience including four years as provost at the University of Michigan and as executive vice chancellor of the University of Texas system. It seems though that the UVa Board has determined that it needs someone other than an academic. Or perhaps just a different kind of academic.

Will Dr Sullivan be reinstated? Will the University Board appoint a narcissist to replace her? Who knows. However, the turmoil this change has caused will continue to impact on the University for some time to come. It is difficult to predict what the long term consequences will be but in the short term at the very least it is a huge distraction for staff and things aren’t going to get any easier until this matter is resolved.

One footnote to all of this. US press reports on this issue commonly refer to the “ouster” of the President. I find this usage bizarre and for some days thought there was a specific individual being identified as the person who did the ousting rather than the ouster being the event itself.

A higher level of ranking?

A new higher education ranking – this time of countries

U21 has published some new work on national education systems that gives the first ranking of countries which are the ‘best’ at providing higher education:

The Universitas 21 ranking of national higher education systems has been developed to highlight the importance of creating a strong environment for higher education institutions to contribute to economic and cultural development, provide a high-quality experience for students and help institutions compete for overseas applicants.

Research authors at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne, looked at the most recent data from 48 countries and territories across 20 different measures. The measures are grouped under four headings: resources (investment by government and private sector), output (research and its impact, as well as the production of an educated workforce which meets labour market needs), connectivity (international networks and collaboration which protects a system against insularity) and environment (government policy and regulation, diversity and participation opportunities). It also takes population size into account and produces some interesting results.

The top 20 nations according to this ranking are as follows. No surprises about which country is in first place but some of the other nations at the top of the table are perhaps a little surprising.

1 United States
2 Sweden
3 Canada
4 Finland
5 Denmark
6 Switzerland
7 Norway
8 Australia
9 Netherlands
10 United Kingdom
11 Singapore
12 Austria
13 Belgium
14 New Zealand
15 France
16 Ireland
17 Germany
18 Hong Kong
19 Israel
20 Japan

Looking a little more closely at the detail of the measures used:

The measures are grouped under four main headings: Resources, Environment, Connectivity and Output.

The resource measures we use relate to government expenditure, total expenditure, and R&D expenditure in tertiary institutions. The environment variable comprises the gender balance in students and academic staff, a data quality variable and a quantitative index of the policy and regulatory environment based on survey results. We surveyed the following attributes of national systems of higher education: degree of monitoring (and its transparency), freedom of employment conditions and in the choice of the CEO, and diversity of funding. Our survey results are combined with those from the World Economic Forum. Data limitations restrict the connectivity variables to numbers of international students and articles written jointly with international collaborators.

Nine output measures are included and cover research output and its impact, the presence of world- class universities, participation rates and the qualifications of the workforce. The appropriateness of training is measured by relative unemployment rates. The measures are constructed for 48 countries at various stages of development.

And the US is not top in every category. It’s an interesting and different approach deliverng a ranking which presumably will not change very much over time. I wonder though if national governments will react to it.

The full report, U21 Rankings of National Higher Education Systems 2012, is available here.