On Meaningful University Collaboration

Collaboration Theory and Practice

There’s an exciting new HEFCE report out on the lessons learned from collaborations, alliances and mergers. It has also resulted in an exciting new acronym, CAM. In these austere times it’s good to know that we are still able to produce good acronyms. The report, available here, is also a consultation document which invites further comment and evidence from the sector:

Collaborations, alliances and mergers among universities and colleges have been an important feature of the higher education sector throughout its history, but relatively little information has been published on this activity. We have therefore published this study to help the sector learn from the experiences of others and improve the likelihood of success considering or implementing change. The information has been drawn from case studies in England and overseas, interviews, existing literature and other published information.

Sir Alan Langlands, HEFCE’s Chief Executive, said:

‘CAM activity might well continue to be part of the higher education sector’s response to change, and has the potential to provide opportunities for educational development, new research directions and greater effectiveness. However, any decision about change is a matter for institutions – there is no question of a top-down approach. HEFCE’s primary role is to safeguard the collective interests of current and prospective students and the wider public. In seeking to encourage the development of a more diverse and dynamic sector and supporting student choice, we will respect the autonomy of institutions and support them in any way we can.’

The CAM report coincides with the first anniversary of the University of Birmingham/University of Nottingham collaborative partnership, the marking of which was reported in the Times Higher Education:

Publication of the report came as David Eastwood, University of Birmingham vice-chancellor and former Hefce chief executive, gave his view on the sector’s future as the collaboration between his institution and the University of Nottingham marked its first anniversary.

Professor Eastwood told Times Higher Education that while Nottingham and Birmingham each had annual turnovers of around £500 million and were “financially strong”, there were universities with £30 million to £50 million turnovers “having to carry a lot of the same infrastructure costs that we do”.

“If we can see some issues from a combined operation of almost £1 billion, you would expect others to be in search – rather urgently – of those kinds of efficiencies.”

In their year of collaboration, Nottingham and Birmingham have jointly appointed an international officer to boost student recruitment in Brazil and established a £480,000 joint investment fund for research partnerships with institutions in Sao Paulo state. At home, they shared research equipment and won a share of £5 million to set up one of two national centres for ageing and pain research funded by the Medical Research Council and Arthritis Research UK.

Professor Eastwood said the collaboration had stimulated “a lot of interest both in the sector and in government. What we are doing will remain relatively rare, because it is relatively rare to have two big universities, financially strong, which over a period have built good relations. There will be other issues that move other institutions to alignments and mergers.”

Nottingham and Birmingham “have their own identities…and are not going to do anything that undermines that”, he added.

Nottingham vice-chancellor David Greenaway put the collaboration in the context of “diversifying research income streams – which is important to do in the current climate”, arguing that “there are resources out there, especially in the big emerging economies”.

Professor Greenaway said of the joint MRC funding: “I don’t think that would have happened without the collaboration. We probably would have ended up putting in competing bids – neither bid would have been big enough, strong enough, in its own right.”

He also highlighted the potential for the two universities to work together in pre-university education on “changing life opportunities in [the] two cities”.

(See also the University of Nottingham statement on the milestone.)

Another dimension of the collaboration, a research partnership in Brazil, was also reported recently on the Guardian Higher Education Network:

The ability to operate at scale has allowed us to develop 20 full-fee PhD scholarships annually for Brazilian students; a visiting fellows programme and a £480k joint research investment fund with the São Paulo Research Foundation. We have also planned a series of joint workshops in-country focused around energy (oil and gas, bioenergy), with further themes under discussion.

Alongside the benefits of scale are the traditional benefits of complementarity. Our collaboration enables each partner to bring its individual strengths to the table. We have found this could be research expertise or in areas such as student exchange and teaching links. An example of this is in the area of ultra-cold atoms and energy – Birmingham has expertise in optical lattices and nuclear energy and Nottingham in atom chips and bioenergy; both areas being of particular relevance in our links with Brazil.

Although it is still early, there is a real sense of purpose around what we are doing in Brazil. We hope what will follow will be additional academic collaborations, increased research income, and greater visibility. Overall, we need to be prepared to invest considerable time and energy working together and acknowledge that the effort may take a while to bear fruit.

These are just a couple of case studies of how the Birmingham/Nottingham collaboration is playing out. It still feels like early days but there are some striking examples of how working together is proving to be mutually beneficial. This is very much at the softer end of HEFCE’s CAM spectrum but it is extremely fruitful for both universities.

Other universities have sought to emulate the success of the Nottingham/Birmingham partnership in the last year including Liverpool and Lancaster (although that does seem to have gone a little quiet of late). Most recently though Warwick and Queen Mary have announced a partnership. According to the Times Higher though they seem to be slightly at odds about some elements of the collaboration:

The University of Warwick and Queen Mary, University of London, could share lecturers as part of a new programme of research and outreach collaboration.

In a joint statement, the two institutions said “cross contributions to undergraduate teaching” by their scholars would “ensure that the universities’ students benefit from the partnership by having access to an even broader range of leading academics”.

Overall, the collaboration in teaching, research and widening participation “aims to ensure that both universities continue to thrive amidst the increasing uncertainty and pressures facing higher education institutions in England”.

A spokeswoman for Queen Mary added that the universities would share lecturers in third-year undergraduate history, English and computer science seminars, and look to expand to other subjects in the future.

However, a spokesman for Warwick stressed that no decisions had been taken, claiming that there were no specific plans to share lecturers.

This comes on the back of the international partnership recently announced between Warwick and Monash University in Australia which will be secured by, among other things, the appointment of a shared Pro-Vice-Chancellor.

So, everyone is at it and that HEFCE report is looking rather timely.

Europe as “one higher education space”

The President of Maastricht University argues in a piece for the Guardian Higher Education Network for greater European integration in higher education:

Not before time, the House of Lords in the UK has announced an inquiry into European Union support for universities and student mobility. By now, the vision of a single higher-education space across Europe was supposed to be a reality. But achieving that goal is taking longer than expected.

The idea was that by 2010 students and academic staff would be moving freely between European countries and institutions, secure in the knowledge that the qualifications they achieved would translate between EU member states.

Some significant progress has been made in the 12 years since all this was first envisaged in the Bologna protocol, drawn up by 29 countries across Europe, and in the five years since recognition of common European degree standards was agreed in Lisbon. More than 210,000 students now spend part of their degree abroad through the Erasmus exchange scheme alone, and the number of academics crossing national borders to teach is increasing year on year.

But no-one would argue that we are anywhere near reaching all the goals these two agreements set out. A report last month on the Erasmus scheme showed that one in five students was forced to retake courses and exams after failing to receive full credit for studies abroad, while the European Commission has just put forward new measures to support the aims of the higher education area, including profiling institutions and giving financial support to master’s students studying abroad.

Professor Paul is right to be critical of the slow pace of change. He suggests closer collaboration between a small group of universities with international outlooks from different member states as a pilot project to acheive a more meaningful model for a European education. This would then be the ‘blueprint’ for the new European University.

I’m not sure that we need a new blueprint – there are many excellent internationally-focused universities across Europe and I think it is unlikely that many of them will wish to change their approach because of such work. Greater convergence will happen where it is in the interests of universities to do so. Some change has happened, albeit slowly, towards the Bologna and Lisbon agreements but what all of this does highlight is the difficulty of imposing external standards or structures on autonomous universities where the benefits are not immediately obvious. It is far from clear that a standardised European view of international education is what is needed to deliver a “knowledge-based workforce” for Europe in a singke higher education space.

Students as consumers? Or not?

University isn’t just a business – and the student isn’t always right

In his review of higher education funding, Lord Browne made the student as consumer the centrepiece of his rationale for change. The Government’s White Paper last June also claimed it was putting students “at the heart of the system”. The Guardian Higher Education Network is running a live Q&A on students as consumers today:

Driven by the government’s HE reforms, the words ‘consumer’ and market’ are an increasingly central part of the British academic lexicon. Speaking at the HEFCE annual conference in April – ahead of the publication of the HE white paper – Vince Cable, the secretary of state said: “Making the higher education system more responsive to students, your consumers…is one of the central purposes of our reforms.” He later added: “The biggest mistake a university could make is to underestimate its consumers.”

And, as a helpful primer, they have reminded people of a piece I wrote for them on this topic some months ago:

Unfortunately things aren’t quite as straightforward as they first appear. Higher education is not just like any other business and there are real issues with the information available to assist prospective students. However, student behaviour is changing and there is some evidence that they are becoming rather more demanding.

We are all consumers. We are all customers. In every aspect of our lives we are treated more than ever before like this. In choosing schools for our children, in hospital selection and which bus company to use we are expected to behave as consumers. And these are public services. Not to mention the bewildering choice we face when making a more straightforward product choice, for example for a vacuum cleaner or a tin of beans.

However, higher education is a slightly unusual kind of business and differs from other businesses in a number of ways.

Obviously that’s not all of it, just the opening. The full piece is available via the Guardian Higher Education Network.

So, students as consumers? Or not?

Honorary degree anyone?

More graduation fun

The Guardian invites us to consider this year’s honorary degree recipients:

It’s about this time of year that academics start digging out their robes and dusting off their mortar boards, as thousands of students prepare to receive their degrees at graduation ceremonies across the country. Accompanying them will be a hand-selected elite deemed worthy enough to obtain an honorary degree.

This year’s crop of honorary grads is a diverse group, from True Blood star Alexander Skarsgård, who receives his from Leeds Metropolitan University having studied there for six months before dropping out, Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson who’s picked up an honorary doctorate for his contribution to music from Queen Mary’s University in London and Jarvis Cocker, who picked one up from his Alma Mater Central Saint Martins. Even the bloke behind the meerkat adverts, Darren Walsh, got one from the University of the Creative Arts in Farnham.

As if that weren’t enough there are many others this year:

Jennifer Saunders – Edge Hill
Jeff Beck – Sussex
Kenny Dalglish – Ulster
Fiona Phillips – Cardiff
Lee Child – DMU
Patrick Stewart – UEA
Ray Clemence – Lincoln
Donald Sinden – Kent
John Barrowman – RSAMD
Armando Ianucci – Glasgow
Duffy – Bangor
Roger Black – Surrey
Jon Snow – Liverpool

For many of these celebs, this is their first experience of picking up an honorary. Bus as noted in an earlier post on this topic, some people have more than others. And Desmond Tutu, collecting an honorary degree from the University of Leicester this month, has around 50 of them.

Some other recent(ish) recipients of note:

Kim Cattrall – Liverpool JMU
James May – Lancaster
Omar Sharif – Hull
Orlando Bloom – Kent
Ken Dodd – Liverpool Hope
Jack Dee – Winchester
Alan Shearer – Newcastle
Pam St Clement – Plymouth

It’s a star-studded collection. Sadly no place for the Chuckle Brothers this year though.

Internationalisation’s mid-life crisis?

Or which way now for internationalisation?

In a recent opinion piece in THE, I argued that genuine internationalisation, including building campuses overseas, was challenging but achievable and required a sincere long term commitment. Others have been asking some hard questions about the whole idea of internationalisation. So, has it lost its way? Is it the end of internationalisation? Or is it just having a mid-life crisis?

Inside Higher Ed has a report on ‘The End of Internationalization?’, a session at the recent NAFSA conference in Vancouver:

Is the internationalization of higher education suffering from a midlife crisis? Jane Knight, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, posed that question during a standing-room only session provocatively titled “The End of Internationalization?” Thursday at the NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference.

“Or are we having an identity crisis? Or are we losing its true north? Are we losing some of the key values about what is behind and supporting and guiding internationalization?”

Knight proposed a deeper discussion about the values underlying internationalization of higher education, which she suggested have shifted over the years. These shifts, she said, have been from cooperation to competition, mutual benefit to self-interest, exchange and partnership to commercial trade and activity, and, as illustrated by the rise in influence of global rankings, from capacity-building to status- or prestige-building.

Peter Scott, writing in the Guardian, pursues a similar theme:

I prefer a simpler distinction – the good, the bad and the ugly. Internationalisation is a clumsy word used to describe a wide range of activities, some of which we should be very proud of, and others best left in the shadows. But first, we need to dispose of the rhetoric. The overwhelming majority of universities were established as national institutions – for example, the big civic universities here in Britain and the land-grant universities in the US. They were not spontaneously created somewhere in the international ether.


There is an urgent need to reset the compass of internationalisation, to steer towards the good and away from the ugly. Not only is this morally right, it is also probably in the best long-term interests of the sector.

Has internationalisation really lost its way? I think this is something of an over-simplification. It is about focusing on the right values, as suggested here by Jane Knight, but also about long term commitment. With the right approach internationalisation can be genuinely good rather than ugly.

New university ‘to rival Oxbridge’

Exciting news – it’s fantasy uni time

The Telegraph and Sunday Times both carry this most interesting of stories about the establishment of the ‘New College of the Humanities’. The Guardian also has the story but includes reactions from those expressing some consternation at the proposition as well as the key piece of information that the degrees will be awarded by the University of London.

The Telegraph reports that the College will charge £18,000 a year and that for this princely sum students will enjoy a range of benefits:

”Our priorities at the College will be excellent teaching quality, excellent ratios of teachers to students, and a strongly supportive and responsive learning environment.

”Our students will be challenged to develop as skilled, informed and reflective thinkers, and will receive an education to match that aspiration.”

The college claims to offer a ”new model of higher education for the humanities in the UK” and will prepare undergraduates for degrees in Law, Economics and humanities subjects including History, Philosophy and English literature.

Students will also take three ”intellectual skills” modules in science literacy, logic and critical thinking and applied ethics.

Practical professional skills to prepare them for the world of work including financial literacy, teamwork, presentation and strategy will also be taught.

And the staff will largely be star academics (Grayling, Ferguson, Dawkins, Pinker to name just the back four), motivated it seems by the desire to bring more high quality education to the UK HE sector and to improve society.

College chiefs say students will receive a ”best in class education”, with one-to-one tutorials, more than 12 contact hours a week and a 10/1 student to teacher ratio.

Prof Grayling said that budget cuts and dwindling resources are likely to limit both quantity and quality of teaching in the UK, leaving the fabric of society poorer as a result.

But there are a few questions here:

  • Will anyone sign up at these prices?
  • Will students be eligible for any public financial support?
  • Who are the “College chiefs” quoted above?
  • What does the logo look like?
  • Will a ‘BA Hons (London) DNC’ award be embraced by employers?
  • Did they test out the model using Virtual-U (it really does exist) before launching?
  • And, most importantly, who is doing all the administration here? Or are they dividing it up amongst themselves?

Whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly a different approach to the challenges facing UK higher education. And it does create an entirely new game – fantasy uni league – where you too can put together your own team of top academics to deliver an Oxbridge-rivalling student experience (but perhaps best to do the dry run using Virtual-U beforehand).

Latest Guardian University League Table for 2012

New Guardian League Table for 2012

Top 20 of the full list (available here) is as follows (last year’s position in brackets):

1 (2) Cambridge
2 (1) Oxford
3 (4) St Andrews
4 (8) London School of Economics
5 (5) UCL
6 (3) Warwick
7 (6) Lancaster
8 (17) Durham
9 (9) Loughborough
10 (7) Imperial
11 (15) Sussex
11 (14) Exeter
13 (11) SOAS
14 (13) Bath
15 (9) York
16 (15) Edinburgh
17 (12) Leicester
18 (19) UEA
19 (21) Nottingham
19 (20) Surrey

The summary of the outcomes from the Guardian offers a few pointers to bigger changes within the overall table, particularly in the middle and bottom, but there really isn’t much movement at all inside the top 20 this year. Apart of course from the big news about the Oxbridge swap at the top, the only departure from the top 20 is Southampton with Nottingham slipping in at 19 to replace it. UEA remains following a dramatic climb last year, Lancaster is still in the top 10 and Durham rises to 8th place.

Other than that, as you were.

Criteria used

The Guardian is heavily focused on teaching-related indicators and in particular NSS outcomes. The full set of indicators they use are:

• Teaching quality, as rated by final-year students in the national student survey (NSS): percentage of students satisfied.

• Feedback and assessment, as rated by final-year students in the NSS: percentage of students satisfied.

• NSS results when final-year students were asked about the overall quality of their course.

• Spending per student – given as a banded score out of 10.

• Staff-student ratio: number of students per member of teaching staff.

• Career prospects: proportion of graduates who find graduate-level employment, or study full-time, within six months of graduation.

• Value added: comparing students’ individual degree results with their entry qualifications – given as a banded score out of 10. This helps to show the effectiveness of teaching at an institution – the extent to which a department helps students to exceed expectation.

• Entry qualifications (Ucas tariff score).

Pride and Prejudices: Problems with National and International League Tables

Presentation from AUA Conference 2011

Thank you to all who attended this session on 19 April 2011

As promised, here is the presentation:

New Guardian Higher Education Network

New online Guardian HE offering

The Guardian has just launched its new Guardian HE Network, which looks rather nice:

it’s an online space where higher education professionals can talk to one other, get advice and insight from peers and industry experts and grapple with the challenges that face the whole sector.

With so many changes and challenges facing the sector and its workforce, we feel this is the perfect time to create a place where HE professionals can share their experiences, ideas and even horror stories. We’ve started the ball rolling here with an anonymous blog exposing the less glamorous aspects of international officer’s role – the first in our series of ‘confessions of a…’

There’s lots of really good stuff in here and hope it will develop. I’m not just saying that because they happen to have carried a piece by me on students as consumers (or not). OK, that does have a bearing but there is I think a gap to be filled here. Will be interesting to see if it works out.

Universities ‘must be vigilant’ on campus extremism

Promoting academic freedom and tackling extremism

A new report from UUK is concerned with issues around freedom of speech, academic freedom and extreme views on campus. It’s a good report (but I was on the working group so perhaps biased) and received some straightforward coverage from the BBC News:

The updated guidance from Universities UK sets out the legal duties universities have to protect freedom of speech and also to promote equality and security.

Professor Malcolm Grant, chairman of the review panel, said: “The survey findings confirm how seriously universities take their responsibilities in relation to the safety and security of their staff and students, alongside their obligations to protect and promote free speech and academic freedom.

“Universities are open institutions where academic freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental to their functioning.

“Views expressed within universities, whether by staff, students or visitors, may sometimes appear to be extreme or even offensive. However, unless views can be expressed they cannot also be challenged.

“But all freedoms have limits imposed by law and these considerations are vital to ensure the safety and well being of students, staff and the wider community.

“Universities must continue to ensure that potentially aberrant behaviour is challenged and communicated to the police where appropriate.”

But he added that it was not the job of universities to impede the freedom of speech “through additional censorship, surveillance or invasion of privacy”.

The coverage of the report, which can be downloaded as a PDF, is broad:

The report starts by examining the meaning of academic freedom and freedom of speech: concepts which are often invoked but rarely defined. It then explores the contemporary context in which universities are operating, both in terms of the diversity of current student populations, and the wider national environment. It summarises the relevant law, and describes the Government’s security strategy and other security initiatives and structures. It then reviews the various ways in which universities from across the UK have addressed these challenges and sought to reconcile differing priorities, drawing on an on-line survey conducted by Universities UK of all its members in 2010.

But the Guardian carries a somewhat critical view from Lord Carlile:

The government’s counterterrorism watchdog believes Britain’s universities are reluctant to deal with radicalisation on campus and says a report by vice-chancellors that rejects demands to ban controversial speakers is “weak”.

Lord Carlile, who is in charge of overseeing the government’s counterterrorism strategy, Prevent, urges ministers to develop a “new narrative” for combating extremism, supporting moderate Muslim theologians against al-Qaida. “You have to meet like with like,” he says.

He is scathing about the conclusion reached by Universities UK, representing 133 universities – and says their report contains a “glaring omission”. He told the Guardian: “[There] is a total failure to deal with how to identify and handle individuals who might be suspected of radicalising or being radicalised whilst within the university.”

But this is not a “weak” report and universities are far from complacent on this issue – institutions take their responsibilities in relation to the safety and security of their staff and students extremely seriously, alongside their obligations to protect and promote free speech and academic freedom. We can do with a bit less of the “new narrative” and a bit more support of the good work that is undertaken.

More on ‘groundbreaking’ partnership

“Midlands mutuality breaks new ground”

Excellent article in Times Higher Education about the new collaborative agreement between the University of Nottingham and the University of Birmingham

Two competing Russell Group universities are launching a groundbreaking partnership that will feature joint academic appointments, research, degrees and overseas ventures.

The universities of Birmingham and Nottingham, which collectively have about 67,000 students and 14,000 staff, announced their “framework for collaboration” on 3 February, unveiling a model that they believe could be adopted by other institutions.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, David Eastwood and David Greenaway, the vice-chancellors of Birmingham and Nottingham respectively, said they hoped the partnership – a first for UK higher education – would be driven by academic collaboration.

They said the universities would also work together on entering new international markets and did not rule out the prospect of partnering on developments such as overseas campuses – an area in which Nottingham, with branches in China and Malaysia, has long led the pack.

This received a goodly amount of press coverage including in The Guardian and the BBC. All very gratifying. But this is I think an important and interesting development.

Six areas have been identified for initial collaboration, with the potential for further areas to be considered as the partnership evolves. There isn’t a huge amount of detail in the press reports so the following supporting information may be of interest to some:

1. Joint academic appointments

Creative approaches to developing intellectual capital are at the heart of the partnership and attracting the best international minds to the UK in general and Midlands in particular is key.  Where appropriate, the Universities will seek opportunities to appoint staff jointly in order to better support collaborative ventures.

2. Teaching, learning and student experience

Both Universities are major innovators in teaching and learning and the student experience.  They will work together to share ideas for enhancing undergraduate and graduate opportunities at both institutions.  Ideas include the development of jointly awarded degree programmes, the sharing of facilities, widening participation initiatives and other means of improving the student experience.

3. Research Initiatives

Sustaining world-class research is fundamental to both Universities’ missions. Through working together, the institutions can deliver more and more impactful research in areas of mutual strength.  Ideas here include bringing together potential collaborators from both institutions, submitting joint research grant applications and sharing of research equipment. The Midlands Ultracold Atom Research Centre is one example of an existing UoB/UoN collaboration that operates this model.  Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to the tune of £6million, the research centre is investigating the interface between cold atoms, condensed matter, and optical physics.

4. International Opportunities

Birmingham and Nottingham are world-class universities, each with strong international vision and a significant global footprint. The Universities believe in particular in the value of international experience for students as part of their programmes and in preparation for sustained employability in the global marketplace.  Ideas include greater opportunities for student mobility and exchange, including through the Universitas 21 network and to the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus and the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China for years, semesters and summer schools. In fact, places have been specifically set aside for UoB students wishing to study at the two Nottingham overseas campuses.

Opportunities will be explored for working together in new markets with an initial geographical focus on South America – a joint mission to South America is already being planned for summer.

Collaborative international research opportunities arising as a result of the framework will be encouraged and supported.  International collaborative research ideas are currently being developed in the fields of energy, innovative manufacturing, water, neuro-imaging, genetics, and urban resilience.

5.     Business Engagement and Knowledge Transfer

The Universities, both individually and collaboratively, are major partners with business, regionally, nationally and internationally.  Developing further effective engagement with businesses, commerce and industry is a key component of both institutions’ strategic plans and will be further enhanced through collaboration.  The Manufacturing Technology Centre, currently being built at Ansty Park in Coventry to which both institutions are key partners, is a prime example of how experts from academia and industry will work together to push the boundaries of global manufacturing research and translation to innovation.

6.     Management and administration

Both Universities have a strong track record in delivering effective management and administration and building financial resilience.  The institutions will explore novel approaches to collaboration in management and administration to enhance our mutual capacity to respond to the new realities.  Ideas include shared IT solutions, joint approaches to procurement, sharing best practice in management of common problems and collaboration on professional development for staff.

So, these are early days yet but there is huge potential here.

Morrisons to pay students’ tuition fees

The shape of things to come?

A story from the Guardian from back in October noted that the supermarket chain said it will pay for students’ university fees if they enrol on a degree course it is sponsoring. Morrisons is to fund 20 undergraduates a year on a three-year degree course in business and management.

The supermarket admits the course will leave little time for the recreational side of university life. Students will not take university holidays, but will have an annual leave allowance. They will receive £15,000 a year and will not have to pay their tuition fees of £3,290 a year. The students are also guaranteed a job once they graduate and must work for Morrisons for at least three years. Teenagers apply through Morrisons rather than Ucas, the centralised system for all university applications in the UK.

Morrisons is not quite the first retailer to offer a degree: in June Harrods announced it was to offer two-year degrees in sales with Anglia Ruskin University. A week ago GlaxoSmithKline announced it would sponsor a module on University of Nottingham chemistry degrees – the first collaboration of its kind between a pharmaceutical company and a university. Tesco sponsors a pre-degree foundation course in retail with Manchester Metropolitan University and University of the Arts London.

An earlier post commented on the Harrods development along with a Wal-Mart programme in the USA. Following the Browne review outcomes we can expect more of this.

More visa uncertainty

Position on visas still not clear

The Guardian has a story on the latest government position on changes to the visa regime.

Whilst on the face of it there does seem to be some movement in response to the concerns expressed by universities, there are still significant uncertainties:

But young scientists applying for visas may face serious difficulties because their incomes are often so low. Previously an MBA or a £150,000 salary guaranteed enough points to secure a visa, but a PhD scientist on a typical academic salary fell short. Scientists are concerned that the government will fail to address this disparity under the new scheme. A further problem is that scientists are awarded three-year visas for posts that can last much longer, forcing institutes to use two consecutive visas for each researcher.

“The average postdoc here lasts four or five years, so each consumes two slots and that is crazy. There are people here who are very nervous about whether they will be allowed to stay and finish their work,” Rigby said. “It is bound to be a disincentive for bright young things to come to this country.”
Catherine Marston, policy adviser at the Universities and Colleges Union, echoed Rigby’s concerns. “It causes difficulties for people who are already here in the UK. If their visa runs out, they will use up one of your allocation if you decide to support them. If you don’t decide to support them they will have to leave the country.”

Professor Rigby said the government must revise its “one size fits all” approach to immigration. He said the rules should be changed to accommodate scientists by giving PhDs more points and awarding visas for the full duration of an academic post.

The uncertainty doesn’t help. It sends out the signal that UK HE is not open for business. The proposed changes to student visas are likely to exacerbate this. Hard times indeed.

NB, Catherine Marston is the most excellent policy advisor at Universities UK, not UCU as stated in the report.

The Work Foundation: interesting acquisition

Work Foundation thinktank declared insolvent and sold

Unfortunate situation for the Work Foundation. However, things do seem to have turned out reaonably well according to the Guardian.

The Work Foundation, which bills itself as “the leading independent authority on work and its future”, announced today that it had been acquired by Lancaster University. The move came after a winding up petition, citing a £26.9m pension deficit, was filed at the high court yesterday.

The university claims the purchase minimises losses to creditors, including pension fund members, and safeguards 43 jobs, including that of the foundation’s executive vice-chair, Will Hutton. Hutton is a former editor of the Observer, a member of the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian, and an adviser to the government on public sector pay.

The foundation, which aims to equip “leaders, policymakers and opinion-formers with evidence, advice, new thinking and networks”, will remain at its Westminster base as a separate entity. The alliance…would help the foundation consolidate its reputation for analysis and its ability to advise policymakers.

Private Eye has a slightly less positive slant on the situation in its most recent edition:

How Will Hutton turned the Industrial Society with an annual income of £20m, into an insolvent disaster that can’t pay its former staff’s pensions – and all on a salary of just £180,000

However, it is probably a good thing that the Work Foundation will continue in existence. I really didn’t realise it was as big as that (although clearly a lot smaller than it used to be). It also will be interesting to see the impact on Lancaster’s REF submission. And what they do with the pension deficit.

Are private universities ‘a huge threat to academic standards’?

Problems with privates

According to a piece in the Telegraph private universities represent ‘a huge threat to academic standards’. This follows the award of the University College title to BPP College and the line comes from UCU:

More than nine in ten professors believe encouraging more private companies to become universities would be a mistake, the University and College Union (UCU) said. In a survey of 504 professors, the union found that 96.2 per cent opposed plans to make it easier for private companies to become universities. A call by David Willetts, the Universities Minister, to increase the role of the private sector in higher education represents “a huge threat to academic freedom and standards,” it said.

The UCU expressed concerns that private companies are not subjected to the same scrutiny as universities, and have no “tradition of academic freedom.”

An entirely contrary view is offered by via Geoffrey Alderman in the Guardian. Alderman argues that private universities are no threat to academic standards:

All of us who want the maintenance of appropriate academic standards and a robust student learning experience in British higher education must welcome the news that the BPP College of Professional Studies has been designated as a “university college” – the first wholly privately funded university institution to be established in the UK since the establishment of Buckingham University College – now the University of Buckingham – in 1976.

Given that Alderman is employed by the University of Buckingham his views are perhaps unsurprising. But what is the issue here? Are private universities really a threat to academic standards? The question is, of course, a ludicrous one. The arrival of new privately funded institutions will not, in itself, have any bearing on the academic standards set at existing institutions. Nor will standards set by such private universities necessarily be lower than those of other universities, just different. What will be interesting to see though is the broader impact private providers will have on publicly funded universities. The government clearly believes that the introduction of this kind of competition for students into the HE marketplace will force everyone to raise their game and lead to better quality of provision at lower cost. This is theoretically possible but what about reality?

Buckingham and BPP do seem able successfully to recruit students (although given the huge demand for limited university places this is not a surprise) and the former has enjoyed some success in national league tables but the standing of their graduates in the jobs market will be a key determinant of their success in the longer term. So, private universities may not have a direct impact on academic standards but if they succeed in recruiting good staff, well-qualified students and produce highly employable graduates then they will begin to offer real competition for publicly funded institutions. Will everyone else then begin to copy the private providers? We’ll see.