Universities gripped by puppy mania

 Puppies for relaxation

It’s exam time and I’ve written before here about the advent of the puppy room as a means of addressing exam stress. All parts of the media seem to have got rather excited about this and other stress-busting approaches as this  BBC News story demonstrates:

 

Can be used for other purposes too

Can be used for other purposes too

University students have ordered hundreds of metres of bubble wrap to burst as a way of relieving exam stress.

The University of Leicester students’ union is planning “bubble wrap stations” where students can relax by popping the packaging material.

Puppies will also be brought in to soothe stressed-out students.

Michael Rubin, president elect of the students’ union, said “mental well-being is a top priority” during exams.

The students claim that the instant gratification of popping bubble wrap is a better relaxant than meditation or yoga.

Petting zoos

There will also be a more traditional form of emergency support, with free tea on offer.

“We know how stressful exams can be,” says Mr Rubin.

Nia Phillips, a media and sociology student, says many students “may feel too ashamed to speak out about exam stress”.

And she says that public events aimed at reducing stress can help students “without having to announce to anyone how they’re feeling”.

Petting zoos have become a feature of stress-busting during university exams.

 

puppies

Whilst there is perhaps an element of faddishness about this there is certainly a lot to be said for the approach and it does seem popular with students. Be prepared for the backlash though. It’s likely that for every student looking to relax with a puppy there will be another one outside demonstrating against animal cruelty.

Still, it’s something for the media to focus on before it’s time for the traditional A level fuss.

For straightforward (animal free) exam advice there is plenty about such as this University of Nottingham page.

 

 

Timetabling can be fun

A Real Higher Ed Challenge

A really fascinating article by @Graham_Kendall on the maths behind an exam timetable. It’s one of those things that affects everyone at university – staff and students. And it’s hugely important both in terms of teaching and learning and resourcing. But timetabling exams is far from straightforward as this piece demonstrates:

There are hard constraints in timetable design: for example, students cannot sit two examinations at the same time, the size of the exam room must be big enough for the number of students, and some exams need certain facilities, such as computers.

Other constraints are a bit more flexible – so called “soft constraints”. These include spreading the exams out as much as possible to give each student more revision time, or scheduling larger examinations at the start of the exam period so that lecturers have more time to mark them.

 

Not as easy as it looks

Not as easy as it looks

So, the challenge is to create an examination timetable that is as fair to as many students as possible but, in the knowledge that you can’t please all the people all of the time.

An obvious question is why not simply generate every possible timetable, compare them against each other and choose the one that would satisfy most students?

Unfortunately, this is not possible. Assume that we can generate 1,000 examination timetables every second. For an institution the size of the University of Nottingham (which has about 33,000 students in the UK), it would take millions of years to generate every possible timetable, such is the number of possible options.

 

So, much as everyone wants to please all students it seems that this isn’t on. At least not for several million years.

A really interesting insight into an obscure but vital area of university management.

A New Student Services Role?

Does every University need a Course Concierge?

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had a piece about the development of the idea of the ‘Course Concierge’. The label seems to have been assigned to Paul Neill title who is director of the core curriculum at the University of Nevada at Reno, by the students there. He’s the one they contact when they can’t get into a class they need and sorts it out for them:

A few years ago, officials at the university decided that they had to do more to reduce the hassles of registering for courses. They imagined a kind of registration czar, someone who could communicate well with faculty members but who had the authority of an administrator. Mr. Neill, a faculty member who works in the provost’s office, fit the bill.

Someone else's student services centre

Some other institution’s student services centre

Soon Nevada was promoting Mr. Neill as the course concierge, the man advisers and students could turn to when stuck. Each semester, he helps 50 to 60 students solve their scheduling problems, working one on one with those who need a particular course to graduate, or who have trouble getting into classes they must take in a sequence. Often he creates a spot in a class that’s full, or steers students to suitable alternatives.

“In the past, it was often left up to the student and the professor to see who could get in where,” Mr. Neill says. “It was very informal.”

Even in times of plenty, students often learn a tough lesson when they register for courses: You can’t always get what you want. In this era of budget cuts, however, students on some campuses have scrambled to get not only the courses they would like but also those they need for their majors and to satisfy core requirements.

 

Whilst in many ways it seems like a solution to a problem more likely to be encountered on US campuses, the idea of providing additional assistance to students in this way is an interesting one. A contact of last resort on course matters might be a really valuable addition to student services offerings.

Really not sure about the title though.

Better Grades for More Ticket Sales

Novel assessment method or student exploitation?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story about marketing students at the Metropolitan State University of Denver who, it says, are graded on the basis of the number of ticket sales to professional sports games they make. Academic staff are now reviewing some of these courses which apparently generate a great deal of income for the business school:

The requirement has angered some professors who worry that students are being exploited.

The university acknowledges that three marketing courses in the School of Business require students to sell tickets to Colorado Avalanche hockey games and Denver Nuggets basketball games. The selling assignment determines 15 percent of each student’s grade in the courses.

cash pile

That will be a B+

Selling more tickets translates into a better grade, with “additional rewards” available to students who achieve “exceptional sales volume,” according to the spring 2013 syllabus for one of the courses, “Personal Selling,” offered by Scott G. Sherwood, a sales professional in residence in the department of marketing. Students are given 10 tickets for each of two games; each ticket accounts for 10 percent of the ticket-sales grade.

Whilst it is possible to imagine that students do learn something about sales from the assessment, it is difficult not to see this as at best, a slightly dubious methodology, albeit a fairly creative one. Not sure it will catch on though.

A stimulating new degree course

A Degree in Coffee?

Inside Higher Ed has an entertaining piece on the advent of a new degree in the critical area of coffee:

 

A_small_cup_of_coffee

Many students and faculty members consider coffee to be essential to their daily existence. The University of California at Davis could be moving toward offering a major in coffee, The Sacramento Bee reported. The university, already known for its research and teaching on wine, has created the Coffee Center. Faculty members will conduct research on such topics as as the genetics of coffee and sensory perception of coffee drinkers. A long-term goal is establishing a major in coffee.

 

About time too.

Earlier posts have covered similar educational innovations, including the following degrees:

  • Viticulture & Enology: Grape Growing and Winemaking
  • Packaging
  • Puppeteering
  • Comic Art
  • Bowling Industry Management and Technology
  • Bagpipes

A previous post on the provision of bonkers degrees and earlier items covered similar ground including a zombie course at the University of Baltimore and a course covering Lady Gaga together with a study of Beyonce. Also we previously looked here at the launch of an MA in Beatles Studies and the offer of a degree in Northern Studies as well as offering a podcast on “bonkers or niche” degrees and an MA in horror and transgression at Derby.

But this coffee development seems particularly well-timed.

Free Education in Rwanda?

edX and Facebook say they are offering free education in Rwanda

rwanda

A previous post on a ‘university in a box‘ noted a report on a project to bring higher education to Rwanda in a novel way. Others are now following.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a report on another initiative in Rwanda, this time involving edX and Facebook.

edX will apparently work with Facebook and two other companies to provide “free, localized education to students in Rwanda on “affordable” smart phones”. It all sounds really positive:

edX, a provider of massive open online courses that was founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will help create a mobile teaching app that is integrated with Facebook and “optimized for a low-bandwidth environment.” As part of the program, called SocialEDU, edX will also work with the Rwandan government to adapt materials for a pilot course.1196px-Facebook_like_thumb

Anant Agarwal, edX’s president, said in a written statement: “Improving global access to high-quality education has been a key edX goal from Day 1. Nearly half of our two million students come from developing countries, with 10 percent from Africa. In partnering with Facebook on this innovative pilot, we hope to learn how we can take this concept to the world.”

Also participating in the program are Nokia, the device manufacturer, and the service provider Airtel, which “will provide free education data for everyone in Rwanda who participates in the program for one year.”

keyboard

The limited duration of the free data offer does rather suggest that some of the partners in the enterprise may not be entirely driven by altruism. However, this kind of initiative, in addition to the others mentioned in the earlier post, does claim to have an appropriate ethos. This really should be one of the great outcomes of current technological advances in higher education. Let’s hope it does deliver on the promise and does not stall for the want of free data packages or Facebook advertising revenue.

Surviving an avalanche

The avalanche came. And went?

avalanche cover

It’s just about a year since the publication of the IPPR report  ‘An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead‘. It really was a stirring waning to the future:

‘Our belief is that deep, radical and urgent transformation is required in higher education as much as it is in school systems. Our fear is that, perhaps as a result of complacency, caution or anxiety, or a combination of all three, the pace of change is too slow and the nature of change too incremental.’

‘Should we fail to radically change our approach to education, the same cohort we’re attempting to “protect” could find that their entire future is scuttled by our timidity.’ David Puttnam, MIT, 2012

It was supported by a really cool video which was as insightful as it was comprehensive:

Anyway, this cataclysmic offering aimed “to provoke creative dialogue and challenge complacency in our traditional higher education institutions”.

‘Just as globalisation and technology have transformed other huge sectors of the economy in the past 20 years, in the next 20 years universities face transformation.’

With a massive diversification in the range of providers, methods and technologies delivering tertiary education worldwide, the assumptions underlying the traditional relationship between universities, students and local and national economies are increasingly under great pressure – a revolution is coming.

In summary, the case seemed to be that the future was not great for those institutions which did not adapt to the new thinking.

Private Frazer scenario

To save you the trouble, the piece really does not bear re-reading. Rather you might prefer to revisit the coruscating WonkHE piece from the time by David Kernohan which helpfully demolishes most of the arguments in the Avalanche paper as the following extract nicely demonstrates:

The education ‘revolution’ that Barber, Donnelly and Rizvi are such keen advocates of is a comfortably fed one. This is not a cry from the barricades – not a populist movement of grass roots activists. The hand-wringing citation of unemployment statistics and rising student fees comes not from the unemployed and poor, but from the new education industry that wants to find a way into the marketplace.

And this is the underlying impression one takes from this report. The citations are shoddy, the proofreading abysmal – it reads like a bad blog post. Or a good Ted talk. It’s a serving of handsome slices of invective which would leave anyone sick to the stomach. Falling graduate wages. The lack of good “quality measures” for universities. A neatly formatted table of annual academic publication rates – in 50 year slices from 1726 onwards – labelled “The Growth of Information over 300 years”. (but “citizens of the world now cry out for synthesis”!!)

Again and again we, as citizens of the world, are encouraged to rail and protest about the broken system that somehow seems to have educated world leaders, scientists, lawyers, engineers and senior staff at academic publishers with pretensions at “thought leadership”. A system which anyone would admit has problems; problems caused by the imposition of a wearying and inapplicable market.

Section 6 of the report, “The Competition is heating up”, retreads familiar grounds concerning the all-conquering world of the MOOC – that well known reheating of early 00s internet education hype flavoured with a rich source of venture capital. But this is situated within a wider spectrum of globalised private for-profit providers – the lot of whom (poor reputation! high drop-out rates! difficulty in gaining degree awarding powers!) is bewailed at some length.

It is a thorough and quite devastating critique. Yes, there has been change in the past year and of course institutions have had to adapt. MOOCs will continue to have an impact in the longer term. But this is not a revolution. Or an avalanche.

Dealer deals

A fair deal for students?

PA Consulting have produced an interesting report on ‘The Student Deal’:

The Student Deal: designing genuinely student-centred higher education incorporates our latest thinking on current issues and challenges in higher education. Reflecting the changing dynamics of the higher education system, The Student Deal challenges the limitations of the current thinking about students-as-customers, and the related emphasis on student satisfaction and student journeys.

We believe these approaches encourage a limited, transactional view of the relationship between students and providers and do not adequately address the lifetime benefits students should expect from their personal investment in higher education, nor the collaborative relationship between students and learning providers that best fosters those benefits.

A bum deal?

A bum deal?

It’s an intelligent pitch. The full report, available here, offers the following opening:

“The language of students-as-customers neglects the essential mutual commitment between students and learning providers.”

“Students are not simply consumers of a bundle of educational and related services, even when their fees pay for those services.”

This is very well put. Students are much more than just customers and this is certainly true in critical learning-related interactions. However, there is a subset of activities (which do impact on their lives) where they are in a customer relationship with the University. These are important transactions too and can have a negative impact on all of the other aspects of the ‘deal’ set out here.

The paper is right to challenge the rather simplistic ‘student experience’ discourse. In particular the characterisation of the NSS as the TripAdvisor of higher education is an excellent observation. The ‘Student Deal’ does recognize the multi-dimensional nature of the relationships here between student and different parts of the university:

“The primary outcomes sought by students are built around four core essentials:

• grasping a body of discipline-based knowledge

• acquiring expertise in applying and mastering that knowledge

growth as individuals through personal, societal and professional development, and

• enhancing their career and life opportunities.”

This is a reasonable representation but the ‘Graduate Attributes’ notion has been around for at least 20 years (the development of the ‘Graduate Attributes Profile’ was, I think, an HEQC project in the mid-1990s) and, although I do think it is a preferable conceptualisation to that of the ‘T-shaped person’, I’m still not sure it is quite up to the job here. The elements within the core outcomes are all reasonable propositions but there is a huge difference in weighting in terms of effort, duration, impact and importance which is not really addressed in the model.

The Student Deal (a bit like a flower)

The Student Deal (a bit like a flower)

It is though right to observe that one size can’t fit all: “Universities need to tailor the Student Deals they offer to the diversity of learners and markets.”

This is the real challenge for institutions – deciding what the offer is and then looking to do the deals. (Unfortunate though with the choice of UEA’s London Campus as an example given the recent announcement that it is to close in September.) It is though a far from straightforward decision.

“Learners at every level and mode of study are, in effect, entering a ‘Student Deal’ with their chosen provider.”

“The Student Deal is forged at the meeting of individuals’ ambitions and talents with the experiences, resources and personalised support available through their chosen provider.”

I’m really not sure about the ‘student as investor’ line in here or indeed how personal this ultimately can be – are we talking a personalized contract? Haven’t we been there before too?

“The Student Deal, unlike the student experience, is essentially a two-way commitment between providers and learners, which demands as much from the student/investor as from the provider.”

Yes, but it is perhaps unrealistic to expect this to be anything other than an asymmetric relationship. At the end of the day the dealer deals.

Overall though an interesting and stimulating paper.

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.

More Problems for MOOCs

More gloomy news for MOOC enthusiasts

MIT Technology Review has a striking report on how some data mining has exposed a few embarrassing problems for MOOCs. The research confirms earlier reports about low continuation and completion rates and, perhaps surprisingly, notes that teacher involvement really doesn’t help:

But this new golden age of education has rapidly lost its lustre. Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported that the online classes it offered had failed miserably. Only about half of the students who registered ever viewed a lecture and only 4 percent completed a course.binary

That’s prompted some soul-searching among those who have championed this brave new world of education. The questions that urgently need answering are: what’s gone wrong and how can it be fixed?

Today, Christopher Brinton at Princeton University and a few pals offer their view. These guys have studied the behaviour in online discussion forums of over 100,000 students taking massive open online courses (or MOOCs).

And they have depressing news. They say that participation falls precipitously and continuously throughout a course and that almost half of registered students never post more than twice to the forums. What’s more, the participation of a teacher doesn’t improve matters. Indeed, they say there is some evidence that a teacher’s participation in an online discussion actually increases the rate of decline.

Filtering out the small talk from discussions is identified as one way forward but whether that will improve things remains to be seen. And there will still be some way to go to raise those completion rates. But there is plenty of scope for improvement.

(with thanks to Gerry Webber for alerting me to this piece)

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

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

Rewriting Robbins? The very thought

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

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

Apologies in advance

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

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

Going for growth

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

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

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

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

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

Robbins cover

In short the growth would include:

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

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

CATS and non-CATS

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

images copy

Cats

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

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

Not Cats

Not Cats

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

Beyond Robbins: things really have moved on

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

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

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

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

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

Number of universities

Number of universities

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

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

What does the future hold?

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

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

The Wild West

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

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

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

Private Frazer

Private Frazer scenario

Private Frazer scenario

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

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

Regulated mediocrity

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

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

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

All too credible I fear.

Wildflower meadow

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

This is the future (we hope)

This is the future (we hope)

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

Into uncharted territory

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

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

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

Wise words?

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

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

France invents the “Pop-Up Campus”

A bold assertion.

An interesting claim this – France Info says that France has invented the ‘Pop Up Campus':

On connaissait les cours par correspondance, les MOOC (Massive open online course) des cours universitaires disponibles en ligne sur internet et bien là débarquent les “Pop Up Campus”. Une approche inédite qui a pour objectif de former des étudiants dans les pays émergents ou en voie de développement.

C’est une véritable innovation, révolution pour l’enseignement supérieur à la française à l’étranger.

La France séduit et attire pour ses grandes écoles, ses cursus universitaires. Mais tout le monde n’a pas la chance de pouvoir pousser les portes de ses grandes institutions. C’est pour cette raison que la “Kedge Business School”, une école privée en management lance le concept de “Pop Up Campus”… Des campus éphémères en Chine, en Afrique ainsi qu’en Amérique Latine. Avec au programme: des cours en ligne, des coachs virtuels et des rencontres en entreprise. Une nouvelle approche de l’enseignement qui s’adapte aux besoins dans les pays émergents nous explique Bernard Belletante, directeur général de la “Kedge Business School”.

One day all universities will be like this

One day all universities will be like this

(More details about Kedge Business School can be found on its website.)

So did France invent the pop-up campus? I don’t think so. There are many other variants on this theme including a company called Pop Up Campus who specialise in “community based professional development”.

pop up campus logo

The University of Hull offered pop up campuses in several UK cities in August as part of its clearing recruitment activity. More recently, the Times Higher has reported that City University’s Cass Business School has been offering a pop-up university in London’s “tech city”, located, perhaps dangerously, close to “silicon roundabout”.

A 2008 post from Global Higher Ed on mobile learning spaces noted an innovative idea for a mobile art gallery although looking at the images you’d have to say it looks a bit unlikely that it will be popping up anywhere in a hurry.

Still, regardless of who can lay claim to the invention, the idea of the pop-up university is a fascinating one and, given the growth in free online provision, offers the prospect of lower cost blended learning. Perhaps it might also address the need for higher education in some of the most challenging parts of the world, as envisaged by this “university in a box” concept being delivered in Rwanda.

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.

Britain’s lowest price degree course?

Asda is launching an undergraduate degree – will it be Asda price?

Some time ago I posted on a story about Asda’s parent company Wal-Mart and its partnership with a for-profit online education provider in the US. More recently we learned that Morrisons was to offer a degree course to some of its staff. Now Asda in the UK is joining in according to this story in the Independent:

Asda-Superstore_Cape_Hill

30 employees at the supermarket chain, which currently has over 500 stores across the UK, will be able to take a degree in distribution or retail operations at Middlesex University. The employees will keep their jobs at the store, and study alongside work.

The scheme is being formally launched today, after a successful pilot programme last year. It will be open to all employees who have worked for Asda for at least six months.

Asda’s Executive People Director Hayley Tatum said: “The current economic climate – coupled with the spiralling costs of higher education – means that many of our colleagues have missed out on university degrees.”

The degrees will be entirely funded by Asda, who are hoping to create a pool of ‘home grown talent’ as future leaders of Asda. Employees will take 12 days of classroom workshops, online study, peer networking and work-based assessment.

It’s a modest development but an interesting one nevertheless and, as we have seen, other supermarkets (and Harrods) have already gone down this route. So soon we will have every major retailer offering degrees to their staff. That’s Asda price!

A ‘University in a Box’ in Rwanda

More educational innovation in Africa.

Earlier this year I posted about the initiative by Kenyatta University to establish a campus in Dadaab, a huge refugee camp filled with Somali refugees. A fantastic initiative, also supported by some Canadian universities, which I am still hoping will be followed by UK universities.

More recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on a programme in Rwanda which is aiming to offer a ‘University in a Box’. The programme, called Kepler, has been established in Kigali by Generation Rwanda, a non-profit organisation:

Free for students, Kepler threads together open-source, online content from Western universities, on-site classroom instruction, and an associate degree from Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based program, College for America.

The goal is to build a low-cost, high-quality blended-learning model that can be replicated anywhere, says Generation Rwanda’s executive director, Jamie Hodari. Kepler’s first four years are being financed by a corporate foundation that insists, at least for now, on keeping its name and the size of its contribution secret. The 10-year plan includes scaling up from the inaugural class of 50—Ms. Musanabera among them—to 100,000 students at replica programs around the world.

This is a great idea it seems to me – a really positive way of exploiting the best free online material in a way which could make a real difference in supporting cost-effective higher education development in emerging nations. The programme wants others to copy it too as its director says:

“We want people to steal everything and anything we create. Our intention is to create a university in a box, a kit, down to every lesson plan.”

Let’s hope others do take him up on this.