Chemical Reaction

Fire! Reflections on a major incident

In the evening of Friday September 12 I received a call from our Deputy Head of Security to alert me to a major fire at the University’s Jubilee Campus. The building ablaze was the unfinished GlaxoSmithKline Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry and, during the hours that followed, it was completely destroyed. Fortunately no-one was injured and, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the Nottinghamshire Fire Service, supported by their colleagues from Derbyshire, no other buildings were damaged.

What it would have looked like

What it would have looked like

From this point on we were in incident response mode and the first thing to work out was how this might affect our Open Day the following day when upwards of 12,000 visitors – prospective students and their parents – were due to visit the University. In discussion with colleagues in student recruitment we determined that the Open Day would go ahead and that if we did need to relocate activities from Jubilee Campus to University Park then we would find a way to do it:

Open day tweetTwitter proved to be just about the best way to get the message out and counter the erroneous ‘whole university burns down’ message from some overzealous commentators.

As it turned out, the only effect on the rest of Jubilee Campus beyond the loss of the building was the closure of Triumph Road, one of the routes into Jubilee and easily worked around.

A team of University staff met early the following morning to work on our approach. Without going into too much detail, we sought to ensure that we broadcast a message that we were grateful for all of the assistance we had received and to reassure everyone that it was business as usual, that we would rebuild and that outstanding green chemistry research would continue at the University of Nottingham. It was also important to stress that this would not affect teaching as it was largely intended as a research building.
The full statement issued later that day and subsequently amended a little:

The University of Nottingham’s Registrar Dr Paul Greatrix said: “We are terribly saddened by the major fire at our Jubilee Campus on the evening of Friday September 12, which completely destroyed our new GlaxoSmithKline Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry which was still under construction.
“We are incredibly grateful to our staff and students for their fantastic response in dealing with this major incident and would like to express our gratitude to both Notts Fire Service and Derbyshire Fire & Rescue Service. It was the quick action of their fire crews which prevented this incident from being much more serious. We have also been extremely touched by the messages and best wishes from our close neighbours out in the community.
“We would like to thank the wider higher education community across the UK for its support – we have had many offers of help from other universities around the country, for which we are extremely grateful.
“To put this loss into perspective, we need to remember that this was one building, that thankfully no one was injured and that the fire was prevented from spreading further on to campus.
“We want to stress that it is business as usual at The University of Nottingham. We were able to ensure that Open Day 2014, went ahead as planned and was unaffected by the incident — we welcomed thousands of prospective students and their families to our campuses to enjoy a packed programme of talks and activities demonstrating our high-quality teaching and facilities.
The new building wasn’t due to be opened until next year and, as such, our chemistry department, while understandably disappointed by this loss, won’t be affected either from a teaching or research perspective in the immediate future.
This is a setback for us but one from which we have no doubt we will recover. The University of Nottingham has an international reputation for scientific excellence, underpinned by the world-leading expertise of our academics. It is upon those strong foundations that we will rebuild and renew for the future.
The GlaxoSmithKline Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry is a landmark building which is the embodiment of the University’s commitment to sustainability in all its forms, particularly in the area of green chemistry and we will be working closely with our partners at GSK, and the contractors Morgan Sindall, to develop a positive plan of action for rebuilding.
At this stage, we have no idea what caused the fire and may not know for some time until the Fire Service has been able to fully investigate the incident. The building was designed to meet stringent fire regulation requirements.”

A whole bunch of media interviews followed throughout the day but not everyone was wholly convinced by our line:

Memo to self: NEVER read the comments under a Mail Online article. Glee would be to understate teh general response

Memo to self: NEVER read the comments under a Mail Online article. To suggest that there was widespread glee at the incident would be to understate the general tenor of responses.

On Monday, the media wanted to do it all over again (my family was mildly impressed) and the Vice-Chancellor published a blog post on his response to the fire. After that, things went pretty quiet and, given that we are still waiting to hear what caused the fire, I guess they will be for a while yet.

stream_imgA few other points of note:

The University’s Facebook post on the fire had a huge number of impressions, I think more than anything else we have ever posted and attracted hundreds of messages of support.

Professor Martyn Poliakoff of our School of Chemistry and Periodic Videos fame posted a video commentary on the fire:

On the day of the fire I and other colleagues who are involved in incident responses (and who were all gathered round the table on the day after the fire) spent the day in a simulation exercise to rehearse how we would deal with a major incident. The scenario chosen by our external facilitator was a fire on campus…

Overall, the fire was a desperately sad situation but the response of everyone from the Emergency Services to University staff and students and from the local community to colleagues around the sector was just amazing. Despite the loss I am left with an enormous sense of optimism about the future of Sustainable Chemistry at the University of Nottingham and confident that before long there will be a world-leading carbon neutral laboratory on our campus. And we also learned a lot about our incident response plans. (It will be some time before we agree to do another simulation.)

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.

What are academic bloggers up to?

What are academic bloggers blogging about? And why?

A great article for the Guardian Higher Education Network by Pat Thomson ( @ThomsonPat )  and Inger Mewburn ( @thesiswhisperer ) on bloggers in higher education. The piece is a summary of an article in a special edition of Studies in Higher Education and the longer one is well worth reading too.

Both of the authors are academic bloggers (Pat Thompson’s blog can be found here) who wanted to work out what other academics were blogging about and why. This was clearly not an unchallenging exercise and even deciding what counted as an academic blog was far from straightforward:

keyboard

We opted for the blogger who stated an institutional affiliation, had some kind of academic purpose and was connected to other academic blogs. We called the bloggers who weren’t professors, lecturers or fellows ‘para-academics’. We couldn’t get a representative sample as there is no handy index of blogs, the numbers change all the time, and frankly, there were just too many. And because we speak English, our choices had to be blogs we could actually read.

By using various online listings of academic blogs, we eventually compiled a list of 100 we could use as a sample set. Of these, 49 were from the UK and 40 from the US, five from Canada and six from Australia. 80 were by teaching and researching academics, 14 from para-academics and six from doctoral researchers.

By analysing and categorising the content of these blogs, we determined that 41% largely focused on what we call academic cultural critique: comments and reflections on funding, higher education policy, office politics and academic life. Another 40% largely focused on communication and commentary about research. The remainder covered a diverse range, from academic practice, information and self-help advice to technical, teaching and career advice.

The vast majority of blogs studies used informal essay formats and straightforward reporting styles of writing, but a significant proportion (40%) also used a formal essay style, not dissimilar to academic journal articles but with less intrusive referencing. Interestingly, given the rhetoric around blogging, 73% of the content we analysed was geared for other academics, while 38% was designed for interested professional readers.

We conclude that, in this sample at least, most academics are blogging for professional peers, rather than for the public in any general sense. Our results do not coincide with what the loudest advocates of academic blogging suggest we should do. But we think what we saw in our 100 blogs is understandable.

So, academic blogging is perhaps less about public impact than many have thought and much more about building new online communities and the sharing of ideas with peers in new and interesting ways.

A really worthwhile and absolutely fascinating study.

Dark Arts: Gothic Studies

There’s a Centre for Gothic Studies. Scary.

A couple of years ago I noted the launch of an MA in Horror and Transgression at the University of Derby. This followed on from posts on some other rather niche offers including  a zombie course at the University of Baltimore and a course covering Lady Gaga. Now this has all been taken to a new level by the establishment of a Centre for Gothic Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University.

The Department of English at MMU has a longstanding interest in the Gothic, which informs both undergraduate and postgraduate curricula. It is home to three Gothic scholars with international reputations, Dr Anna Powell, Dr Linnie Blake and Prof Sue Zlosnik, and their work is supplemented by a number of colleagues who have gothicist interests across the field. These include Victorian Gothic (Dr Angelica Michelis), Female Gothic (Dr Emma Liggins), American Gothic (Dr Liz Nolan and Dr Sarah Maclachlan), vampire and zombie texts (Dr Sorcha Ní Fhlainn) and contemporary gothic film and literature (Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes). On top of this, the university has a dedicated Gothic Research cluster that brings together colleagues in other disciplines with strong interests in the Gothic, such as Prof Joanna Verran (Microbiology), Dr Julian Holloway (Geography and Environmental Management), or Dr Emily Brick and Dr Joan Ormrod (Film and Media Studies), among others.

The Centre’s mission is to promote the study of the Gothic both nationally and internationally and to work across age ranges and levels of study – from sixth form to PhD and beyond. To do this we run Sixth Form Gothic Study Days, creative writing workshops and Continuing Professional Development courses that are of particular interest to those who teach the Gothic or, simply, want to take a university-level course for pleasure. From 2014 we will be running a biennial Gothic conference – specifically aimed at postgraduate students and early career academics – and will inaugurate a new online journal, the peer-reviewed Dark Arts: An Online Journal of Gothic Studies.

It’s clearly fertile territory for academic study. And the notion of a “Gothic Research Cluster” involving microbiologists and geographers is a thoroughly fascinating concept. Nothing to be scared of here.

Getting off my bike…

A rather challenging ride for a very good cause

As previously noted here I faced a major cycling challenge on Sunday as part of Life Cycle 3:

During the last two summers a team from the University of Nottingham led by our Vice-Chancellor cycled ridiculously long distances to raise money for good causes. The team did not include me and they have sensibly overlooked me again as they cycle round the capital cities of the British Isles, starting and ending up in Nottingham. However, I am joining them on September 1st for the last leg of the journey, from Nevill Holt in Leicestershire back to the University, a mere 55 miles.

MoreaboutLC2-Cropped-714x355

The Life Cycle 3 website has full details of the latest adventure which this year is raising money for stroke rehabilitation research. Stroke is the commonest cause of death after cancer and heart disease. Around 130,000 people suffer a stroke every year. A third will die; a third will make a full recovery; a third will suffer serious disability. No age group is immune – an average of six children under 16 suffer a stroke each week. Experts from The University of Nottingham are leading the way in stroke rehabilitation research. The work addresses the often neglected needs of stroke survivors following hospital care, and the need for stroke specialist provision of rehabilitation at home.

Anyway, I made it. I think it turned out to be a bit more than 56 miles and the headwind was pretty strong for much of the way. And there were some pretty tough (for me at least) hills.

It was great to join with 150 other leg riders on the route and to offer support to the Life Cycle team led by the Vice-Chancellor. I realise mine was a pretty modest effort but do please consider supporting me and donating via this Just Giving site. My pedalling came to an end for a while at least last weekend but do please join the others who have been kind enough to sponsor me and support this very worthwhile cause.

And for those who are interested here is part of the playlist I enjoyed en route.

With many thanks

Paul

20130904-075924.jpg

Getting on my bike…

A shortish ride for a very good cause

During the last two summers a team from the University of Nottingham led by our Vice-Chancellor cycled ridiculously long distances to raise money for good causes. The team did not include me and they have sensibly overlooked me again as they cycle round the capital cities of the British Isles, starting and ending up in Nottingham. However, I am joining them on September 1st for the last leg of the journey, from Nevill Holt in Leicestershire back to the University, a mere 55 miles.

MoreaboutLC2-Cropped-714x355

The Life Cycle 3 website has full details of the latest adventure which this year is raising money for stroke rehabilitation research. Stroke is the commonest cause of death after cancer and heart disease. Around 130,000 people suffer a stroke every year. A third will die; a third will make a full recovery; a third will suffer serious disability. No age group is immune – an average of six children under 16 suffer a stroke each week. Experts from The University of Nottingham are leading the way in stroke rehabilitation research. The work addresses the often neglected needs of stroke survivors following hospital care, and the need for stroke specialist provision of rehabilitation at home.

I realise mine is a pretty modest effort but do please consider supporting me and donating via this Just Giving site. My pedalling won’t be nearly as impressive as the team cycling for the best part of a fortnight but it will be hard work nevertheless.

With many thanks

Paul

The Imperfect University: Know Your History

Know your history.

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

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

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

Testing times

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

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

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

A new history

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

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

The last history. Not very portable.

The last history. Not very portable.

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

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

More books

More books

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

Nottingham’s New University

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

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

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

More landmarks

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

A good turnout

A good turnout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legacy

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

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

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

The Trent Building

The Trent Building

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

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

Powerful stuff.

So, know your history.

More Data – Open Data

Data for all.

Data.ac.uk has launched. It’s a great idea for a site which is intended to provide access to lots of open data but also tools and somewhere to share ideas and approaches:

This is a landmark site for academia providing a single point of contact for linked open data development. It not only provides access to the know-how and tools to discuss and create linked data and data aggregation sites, but also enables access to, and the creation of, large aggregated data sets providing powerful and flexible collections of information.

Here at Data.ac.uk we’re working to inform national standards and assist in the development of national data aggregation subdomains.

 

coloured

 

We are all part of the constantly evolving open data agenda and its emerging culture. Data.ac.uk aims to bring together the higher education community and the wealth of data it has access to, and encourage that community to share, utilise, update, grow and generate demand for open data.
The data being aggregated via this site can be used in all sorts of ways including:

  • Improving transparency
  • Increasing participation
  • Increased knowledge
  • Identifying trends
  • Improving products and services
  • Innovating
  • Improving efficiency

It’s still early days but it does look like a very promising development indeed.

A higher education report to remember?

Or not much of an impact?

It’s a month or so now since the publication of the IPPR report on securing the future of higher education in England.

ippr_large_logo

It was a big report based on a considerable amount of work by a group headed by Nigel Thrift. But, despite an initial flurry, it doesn’t seem to have had much an impact. 23 recommendations covered a number of funding issues but also postgraduate matters, teaching, admissions, regulation, R&D and student visas.

The one recommendation which seems to have gathered more interest than any others (at least in the mainstream press) is the proposal to allow large FE colleges which already have degree awarding powers to apply to use the the title ‘Polytechnic’. According to BBC News the report wanted to ‘bring back polytechnics’ with the title representing a “mark of vocational excellence”:

Nigel Thrift, chairman of the commission and Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University said the revival of polytechnics “would signal that the university title and the university route are not the only form of high status in our system”.

The first 30 polytechnics opened in the 1960s “in an attempt to ensure working-class communities benefited” from the expansion of higher education, say the authors.

Unlike universities “polytechnics tended to serve their local communities and offered more vocational-oriented qualifications, accredited by professional bodies”.

But by the early 1990s changes to the labour market meant academic qualifications were seen as the best route to a good job, says the study.

So in 1992 the government turned the polytechnics into ‘new universities’. Now almost half of school leavers go to university. The downside, according to the report, was that a “distinctive role for higher vocational learning was arguably lost”.

The authors say reviving polytechnic status would give vocational learning a much needed boost in an economy which suffers from “significant shortages” of technical skills.

It’s an intriguing and rather striking proposal. But it is not clear that it is really offering anything meaningful in terms of vocational education. Rather it looks like a perpetuation of inflationary designations in higher education following the decision last year to allow very small HEIs to become universities.

On the plus side it is effectively a cost-free recommendation.

But the chances of this or indeed many of the other recommendations in the report having much impact look slight. So it doesn’t exactly have the feel of a Robbins or a Dearing. But perhaps it is a bit too early to tell

Everything’s gone green

Some positive work on sustainable futures at the University of Nottingham.

In 2012 the University of Nottingham won the Times Higher Education Award for Outstanding Contribution to Sustainable Development. In the citation for the award the judges noted Nottingham was a “trailblazer” for environmental best practice.

David Walliams applies to join the Estates Office team

David Walliams applies to join the Estates Office team

Now I must admit that I used to be rather skeptical of the idea of ‘greening’ different aspects of university activity. Partly this was down to concern about the additional cost, substantial in many cases, but also doubt that it would have any meaningful impact on sustainability or that prospective students would really be interested in a university’s green credentials.

I got it wrong. This is all for real and it does matter. At the University of Nottingham our sustainability policy has the following aims:

  • Improve the environmental performance of our buildings and the University’s physical infrastructure
  • Ensure all operations and procurements are sustainable
  • Harness the University’s research and teaching strength to improve its environmental performance and advance the environmental agenda
  • Contribute broadly to efforts to protect the environment and ensure those efforts get the recognition they deserve.
Lincoln Hall solar panels

Lincoln Hall solar panels

OK, grand ambitions, but how do these translate into practice? The University has done rather a lot. In terms of travel there has been significant pedestrianisation and cycle lane installation, Ucycle Nottingham and ride-to-work schemes and more public transport and inter-site buses. Moreover, one of the new city tram lines under construction will pass through University park and a parking charging scheme (not universally popular, it has to be said) has been introduced, resulting in a drop in car use.

The grounds management  plan has sustainability and increasing biodiversity of campuses as key requirements. The University has won 10 consecutive Green Flag awards and a Green Gown award for sustainability and, in partnership with the Woodland Trust, planted a ‘Diamond Wood’ in Sutton Bonington in 2012. On waste and re-cycling there have been significant improvements in recycling rates, from 4% in 04/05 to 29% in 08/09, and 87% in 10/11.

In terms of carbon management, the University’s Carbon Management Plan (CMP) was approved in 2010 and includes targets for reductions in emissions of CO2 from energy usage. It identifies the principal areas of energy use and investment programmes required to improve energy efficiency, reduce usage and generate energy from renewable energy sources. In its second year the CMP developed 55 projects requiring a total investment of £1.48 million. The overall benefits identified equate to 2,028 tonnes of CO2 and £350k per annum. In 2010/11 there was a 1.7 % decrease in CO2 and this trend continued in 2011/12 with a 2.3% reduction from 67,454 to 65,901 tonnes CO2 a saving of 1,553 tonnes.

Less positively, planning applications for a three turbine wind farm alongside the Grove Farm sports ground appear to have been stymied for the present by some disappointing decisions by Broxtowe Borough and Nottingham City Councils whose green rhetoric has, unfortunately, not been matched by their actions.

The University currently has 14 BREEAM schemes within the system, the highest within the HE sector: seven ‘BREEAM Excellent’ completed buildings, six buildings where BREEAM Excellent is being targeted during the development process and one ‘BREEAM Outstanding’ for the first carbon neutral laboratory to be built in the UK. The building will achieve BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ and LEED ‘Platinum’ and carbon neutral status after 25 years.

On teaching, there is an expectation that sustainability will be built into all curricula and some good progress has been made here, including through the Nottingham Advantage Award.

 Sutton Bonington

Sutton Bonington


The University has a strong research portfolio looking at the fields of environment and sustainability, both in the UK and at our campuses in Asia including for example, the Creative Energy Dwellings, Energy Technologies Research Institute, Green Chemistry, Food Security and Bioenergy. Most recently the announcement of the new GSK laboratory has confirmed Nottingham’s continued commitment to cutting edge research in this area.

The establishment of an Environmental Champions Network, which aims to bring together people from a broad spectrum of Schools and Central Professional Services to share ideas and act as champions to reduce environmental impacts, has been particularly successful in communicating and raising awareness of environmental matters.

There is, of course, a league table which offers ratings of universities’ sustainability efforts. The UI GreenMetric World Universities Ranking has sought to provide a system which allows universities in both the developed and developing world to compare their efforts towards campus sustainability and environmentally friendly university management. Nottingham was ranked second in this table in 2010 and again in 2012, coming first in this world league table in 2011. Note that I am deliberately ignoring the ‘People and Planet’ ranking here because of their extremely dubious and constantly changing methodology and because Nottingham rarely scores well in their table. Sadly, the much loved University Duck Density League , which ranks institutions by the number of waterfowl on campus must be ignored too given the absence of updated data.

So, overall it is a really positive picture here. There is still a long way to go but the public praise is welcome. Going back then to that THE award citation:

in both the innovative approach to estate development and the determination to embed best sustainability practice across the university, Nottingham has again shown the way.

Launch of the nice university league table

New league table: nearly there.

A previous post noted the imminent arrival of the all new European non-ranking ranking. Well now it seems to be nearly complete with only a year to wait until the first ranking is produced. The public launch of the ‘multi-dimensional’ ranking, which is intended to cover a wider range of indicators than the existing main league tables. Whilst research is one of the factors, the ranking will also cover quality of teaching and learning, international orientation, success in knowledge transfer and contribution to regional growth. The core proposition it seems is that this table will somehow not be a ranking and will therefore be nicer than all those other nasty league tables which put institutions in order.

 

 

The press release from the launch noted:

Speaking ahead of the launch, Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth said: “Universities are one of Europe’s most successful inventions, but we cannot rest on our laurels. We need to think and act more strategically to realise the full potential of our universities. To do that, we need better information about what they offer and how well they perform. Existing rankings tend to highlight research achievements above all, but U-Multirank will give students and institutions a clear picture of their performance across a range of important areas. This knowledge will help students to choose the university or college that is best for them. It will also contribute to the modernisation and quality of higher education by enabling universities to identify their strengths or weaknesses and learn from each other’s experience; finally, it will give policy makers a more complete view of their higher education systems so that they can strengthen their country’s performance as a whole.”

A lot of work has gone into the new ranking:
multi

An independent consortium will compile the ranking, led by the Centre for Higher Education (CHE) in Germany and the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) in the Netherlands. Partners include the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University (CWTS), information professionals Elsevier, the Bertelsmann Foundation and software firm Folge 3. The consortium will also work with national ranking partners and stakeholder organisations representing students, universities and business to ensure completeness and accuracy.

The ambition is there and the EU investment backs this up. Will it take off? Will the leading universities, who do so well in the current world rankings, want to join in? Will anyone really think it’s a nicer ranking? Time will tell.

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

What do we know about leadership in higher education?

 

Not a lot, seems to be the answer.

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

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

F9AA402C809A43E5421B506E76C01028It considers the big questions about leadership in HE:

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

And the findings are perhaps somewhat surprising.

Is HE really that different?

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

Who are the leaders?

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

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

Leadership to what end?

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

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

What do leaders do?

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

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

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

Effectiveness

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

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

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

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

Does it matter?

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

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

A reassuring message for HE leaders everywhere.

Conclusion

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

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

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

I love HE.

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.

African Universities and the Global Rankings

Should African universities be concerned with the global league tables?

Inside Higher Ed has a really good piece on African universities and the impact of the international rankings. Essentially the challenge for Africa is that the global league tables use metrics which simply don’t favour the continent’s institutions:

Any observer of higher education in Africa would immediately realize that African universities, with the exception of a handful, stand no chance of appearing under the THE Rankings; or for that matter under other global university rankings such that the Shanghai Jiao Tong Ranking or the QS World University Rankings, which equally use criteria with a heavy bias on research, publications in international refereed journals and citations. African universities have to cope with huge student enrolment with limited financial and physical resources. They are short of academic staff, a large proportion of whom do not have a PhD. Not surprisingly, their research output and performance in postgraduate education are poor. It is clear that in the rankings race, they are playing on a non-level field.

But the more pertinent question is: should African universities attempt to be globally ranked? I believe not. It would be not only a waste of resources but also inappropriate. The priority for African universities at the moment should be to provide the skilled manpower required for their country’s development; to undertake research to solve the myriad problems facing Africa and to communicate their findings to the stakeholders in the most appropriate form, not necessarily through publications in international journals; and to engage with their community to meet the Millennium Development Goals and the Education For All targets. These do not fit the criteria for global rankings. They do, however, need assistance to improve the quality of their teaching provision, their research output and their service to the community. Their aim, and that of their government, should be that they be quality assured, not globally ranked.

Notwithstanding the recent success in the THE rankings of the University of Cape Town’s Medical Faculty (as reported in Business Day Live), this advice seems to me to be eminently sensible. Rather than chasing the rankings, where they will always be at a disadvantage, African universities should focus on delivering their regional and national missions in teaching, research and knowledge transfer. Improvements will happen over time and, hopefully, with support from universities in other parts of the world which will ultimately mean that institutions in Africa will be able to compete on the global stage. But chasing the rankings is not the way to go.

The Value of International University Networks

There are more than you might think…

The July edition of the International Unit newsletter (which can be downloaded as a PDF here) has an interesting article on the value and power of international university networks. It identifies the following consortia as the main players:

Academic Consortium 21

Association of Commonwealth Universities

Coimbra Group

Santander Universities

Universitas 21

Worldwide Universities Network

It is suggested that these networks have become powerful players which are often integral to institutions’ internationalisation strategies:

The University of Bristol’s internationalisation strategy, for example, describes the Worldwide Universities Network as ‘successful, productive and well-established’, and refers to membership as ‘a key focus of international collaboration’. Similarly, the University of Kent presents its membership of the Santander Universities network as integral to its profound and longstanding European engagement.

U21 Presidents

The University of Nottingham is part of Universitas 21 which was founded in 1997 and now has 24 members from across the world:

Universitas 21 is the leading global network of research-intensive universities, working together to foster global citizenship and institutional innovation through research-inspired teaching and learning, student mobility, connecting our students and staff, and wider advocacy for internationalisation.

Collectively, its 24 members enrol over 830,000 students, employ over 145,000 staff and have approaching 2.5 million alumni. Their collective budgets amount to over US$25bn and they have an annual research grant income of over US$4bn. The network’s purpose is to facilitate collaboration and co-operation between the member universities and to create opportunities for them on a scale that none of them would be able to achieve operating independently or through traditional bilateral alliances.

All Universitas 21 member institutions are research-led, comprehensive universities providing a strong quality assurance framework to the network’s activities.

U21 has a range of key programmes:

  • Teaching and learning – including conferences, a network and a Global Issues Programme
  • Student Experience – embraces student mobility, summer schools, service learning and volunteering
  • Researcher engagement – for early career researchers, joint PhD arrangements and a network of Deans of Graduate Schools
  • Leadership and management – bringing together Presidents, Heads of Administration and other senior managers.

There is also a set of collaborative activities across the consortium including, for example, Water Futures for Sustainable Cities, projects in Health Sciences and work in Education. Beyond this, U21 has taken a distinctive lead by publishing an International Ranking of Higher Education Systems – a development covered in an earlier blog post.

The University of Nottingham gets a lot out of this, particularly student and staff mobility, scholarship opportunities, joint PhDs and benchmarking and sharing good practice as well as the programmes listed above.

So, international networks can offer a lot to members but the challenge for institutions is to exploit fully the benefits which are on offer.