The Imperfect University: First for the chop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Administrative staff – not unnecessary overheads

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

In order for the academic staff to deliver on their core responsibilities for teaching and research it is essential that all the services they and the university need are delivered efficiently and effectively. There is not much point in hiring a world-leading scholar if she has to do her all her own photocopying, spend a day a week on the ‘phone trying to sort out tax issues or cut the grass outside the office every month because there aren’t any other staff to do this work. These services are required and staff are needed to do this work to ensure academics are not unnecessarily distracted from their primary duties.

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

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

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

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

The Three World University League Tables of 2012/13

World University League Tables 2012/13

Following the publication of the THE world university rankings, we can put the three world league tables together, and in particular the UK placings, in a handy reference guide. They all offer their own unique take on world university placings.


Here they all are:


The Times Higher World University Rankings, including UK results.

QS World Rankings 2012 also with UK results.

Shanghai Jiao Tong World Rankings and UK placings too.

…all your world league table needs in one handy location.

One fascinating quirk of the world versus UK tables which demonstrates why caution is needed at all times when dealing with such data is that the University of Edinburgh appears higher in the world rankings in both the QS and Times Higher tables than it does in the recent domestic Sunday Times ranking (where it is 39th). Different indicators being used but it really does raise questions about the Sunday Times methodology.

THE World University Rankings 2013

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-13 are out

The final ranking of the season is now available from THE. The top 20 looks like this:

        1 California Institute of Technology (1)
        =2 Oxford University (4)
        =2 Stanford University (2=)
        
4 Harvard (2=)
        
5 MIT (7)
        6 Princeton (5)
        7 Cambridge (6)
        
8 Imperial College London (8)
        9 University of California, Berkeley (10)
        10 University of Chicago (9)
        
11 Yale University (11)
        12 ETH Zürich (15)
        
13 University of California, Los Angeles (13)
        14 Columbia University (12)
        
15 University of Pennsylvania (16)
        16 Johns Hopkins University (14)
        17 University College London (17)
        18 Cornell University (20)
        19 Northwestern (26)
        20 University of Michigan (18)

CalTech remains at number one for the second year in a row but not a great deal of movement generally in the top 20 and there are still four UK universities in there.


More details of the methodology and regional and subject variations are available on the THE World University Rankings site.

UK rankings

As the following shows, there are 10 UK institutions in the top 100 (two fewer than last year):

      2= University of Oxford
      
7 University of Cambridge
      
8 Imperial College London
      17 University College London
      32 University of Edinburgh
      

39 LSE
      

49 University of Manchester
      57 King’s College London
      

74 University of Bristol
      80 Durham University

And 21 more in the second 100:

      103 York
      108 University of St Andrews
      110= University of Sussex
      110= University of Sheffield
      119 Royal Holloway
      120 University of Nottingham
      124= Warwick
      130= Southampton
      139 University of Glasgow
      142= Leeds
      

145= Lancaster University
      145= Queen Mary
      153 Exeter
      158= Birmingham
      171= Liverpool
      176= Aberdeen
      176= Reading
      176= UEA
      180= Newcastle
      196= Leicester
      200 Birkbeck

The overall analysis includes the proposition that universities in the West are losing ground to those in Asia. It is argued that greater investment in the East is benefitting those universities at the expense of European and US institutions which have suffered from government funding cuts. Whilst the rankings do show some change it is perhaps premature to attribute such movement to Western government policies on the basis of one year’s figures and given the relative stability of most of the indicators used (see below).

Some of the other highlights noted by THE:

  • The highest-ranked institution outside of the US and UK is ETH Zürich, in Switzerland, in 12th place
  • Asia’s number one university is the University of Tokyo, in 27thplace
  • After the US and UK, the Netherlands is the next best represented nation in the top 200, with 12 institutions, but its highest-ranked institution, Leiden University, makes only 64th place
  • Of the so-called BRIC developing economies, Russia and India have no representatives in the top 200
  • All of the Netherlands’ 12 universities improved their positions in the rankings
  • Japan has five top 200 universities, more than any other Asian nation, but most of its representatives have slipped a little down the table while Asian rivals rise
  • Ireland has just two top 200 institutions – and neither make the top 100
  • Six countries have only one top 200 representative – Austria, Brazil, Finland, New Zealand, South Africa and Taiwan
  • Australia increased its representation by one, and now has eight institutions in the table. Six of the eight improved their rankings
  • The average top 200 US university fell 6.5 places, while the average UK institution fell 6.7 places
  • The South Korean institutions in the top 200 rose a startling 23.5 place on average, and the Hong Kong institutions rose an average of 8.5 places

The data used is taken from five main areas as follows:

Industry Income – innovation
1. Research income from industry / Academic staff
Teaching – the learning environment
2. Reputation survey – Teaching
3. Staff-to-student ratio
4. PhDs awarded / Undergraduate degrees awarded
5. PhDs awarded / Academic staff
6. Institutional income / Academic staff
Citations – research influence
7. Citation impact (normalised average citations per paper)
Research – volume, income and reputation
8. Reputation survey – Research
9. Research income / Academic staff
10. Scholarly papers / (Academic staff + Research staff)
International Outlook – staff, students and research
11. International students / Total students
12. International academic staff / Total academic staff
13. Scholarly papers with one or more international co-authors / Total scholarly papers

All interesting stuff in any case.

(All of the above data is from the Times Higher Education with data supplied by Thomson Reuters.)

Go compare – Which advice to take?

Which? University adds to the university information mix

Last week saw the launch of the new Which? university comparison website. Trailed in the White Paper n June 2011 it offers yet more information to prospective students in what is already a very crowded landscape.

The Which? University website enables comparisons of courses by students by price, A-level entry requirements and graduate starting salaries. There are also ranking lists, based on a poll of students, which rate universities for creativity, political action, nightlife and sportiness, among other things.

 

 

 

Times Higher Education reported on the launch:

Loughborough University is the top university for sports, while the universities of Northumbria and Newcastle, and the University of Liverpool, are judged to have the best nightlife, according to a poll of almost 10,000 students by market research firm YouthSight.

The School for Oriental and African Studies, University of London, ranks the highest for having the strongest political scene.

Students at the University of Oxford are the most happy, based on scores from the 2011 National Student Survey – though the ancient university was ranked equal in this respect with Neath Port Talbot College and Ruskin College, an adult education college in Oxford.

Graduates from the London School of Economics had the highest average starting salary, beginning on £28,968, the site says.

The site was launched at Westminster College by David Willetts, the universities and science minister and Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students.

“Choosing the right course and the right university is an important, and often daunting, decision,” said Mr Willetts.

“I want prospective students to have all relevant information at their disposal.”

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: “It’s worrying how many people are making one of the biggest decisions of their lives without proper guidance or advice.

“That’s why we’ve launched Which? University so that people have free access to impartial information and can more easily choose the right course and university for them.”

 

 

I’d agree with this point – there really isn’t enough proper guidance and advice available for prospective students. There is however more than enough information and data out there. Before Which? University arrived there was already a similar site doing a similar job (although it now seems to have been suspended) and bestcourse4me.com offering similar information. Beyond this we have all of the main UK league tables and universities’ own websites and prospectuses to draw on for comparative information. Not to mention the National Student Survey and the new Key Information Set (KIS).

There is no information deficit. As noted in a previous post about the KIS there is huge amount of information available for prospective students. The Minister and other partners in the Which? enterprise, including the National Union of Students, demonstrate a touching faith in the power of information and data and popularity polls to help students make the right decisions. But really we don’t need more course comparison sites. We don’t need more information. Students need high quality professional advice and guidance to make sense of this information and to make the right choices for them. That is the real deficit.

Which? University is not the silver bullet.

 

Just a bit of fun – it’s the table of tables

Table of Tables

Back in June Times Higher Education published its annual table of tables. Essentially it’s a bit of a cheat in that it simply uses the results of the three domestic league tables to derive a score (the Sunday Times table, which isn’t published until August or September, is ignored). As Peter Snow used to say when projecting general election results from one by-election, it’s just a bit of fun.

The University of Cambridge has secured the top spot ahead of the University of Oxford in Times Higher Education‘s fifth annual “Table of Tables”.

Based on the combined results of the UK’s university league tables, Cambridge kept its number one status after ousting its varsity rival from pole position for the first time last year.

Cambridge sealed its triumph over its old foe after it was judged the UK’s top university by The Complete University Guide and in rankings published by The Guardian. Oxford took first place in the Good University Guide, published by The Times.

Methodologically, it is exceptionally dubious. Averaging a bunch of already dodgy data combinations doesn’t eliminate their flaws. All good fun though, I’m sure you agree.

Rank 2012 Rank 2011 Institution Complete University Guide rank Guardian rank Times/ Good University Guide rank Total score
1 1 Cambridge 1 1 2 89
2 2 Oxford 3 2 1 87
3 3 London School of Economics 2 3 3 85
4 4 St Andrews =6 4 6 77
5 7 Durham 5 =7 5 76
6 8 Warwick =6 5 8 74
=7 =5 Imperial College London 4 13 4 72
=7 =5 University College London 8 6 7 72
=9 =10 Bath 10 9 9 65
=9 9 Lancaster 9 =7 12 65
11 =10 Exeter 13 10 10 60
12 16 Bristol 11 18 11 53
13 15 Loughborough 14 11 16 52
14 12 York 12 17 13 51
15 =13 Edinburgh 16 15 14 48
16 21 Glasgow 17 14 15 47
17 20 Southampton 15 =22 =18 38
18 19 Leicester 20 19 17 37
19 26 Surrey 22 12 26 33
20 17 Nottingham 19 26 20 28

Just a bit of fun.

Agent power and international student recruitment

Are agents too powerful?

A recent Times Higher Education story on the use of agents by UK universities in international student recruitment noted:

UK universities recruited more than 50,000 international students through commission payments to overseas agents last year, spending close to £60 million on the practice in 2010-11.

Using data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, THE found that 100 universities enrolled 51,027 students in 2011, or the nearest recorded period, via a process involving agents paid on a commission basis.

This is a lot of money but arguably a reasonable proportion of the income derived from international students and therefore could be seen as a sensible investment. However, the role of agents is not always entirely transparent and there is a danger that, given the high stakes here for UK universities and the money to be made by agents, things could become a bit murky.

My colleague Vincenzo Raimo, Director of the University of Nottingham’s International Office, has recently written a piece for the Professionals in International Education blog on the power of agents in the recruitment process. He has some concerns:

“In an ever more competitive international student recruitment market, UK universities are increasingly relying on the use of student recruitment agents to meet targets. Not only are universities failing to appreciate the full costs of international student recruitment but some are also in danger of failing to meet ethical standards in their work overseas.

Valuable visa

Despite the significant increase in international students coming to the UK in recent years I am concerned that as a result of increasing competition and the more difficult environment resulting from the UK government’s changes to visa requirements, recruitment agents have become too powerful and the balance of power between universities and agents has shifted increasingly towards agents.

One would have expected that with the volume increases our institutions have experienced the margin on international students would also have increased. I think the opposite is the case. One of the reasons for this is that in our competitive fervour we’ve let agents become too powerful.

So, agents really are a challenge. There are those who believe we should dispense with them altogether and there are a few universities in the UK and many in the US which refuse to have anything to do with agents. I do think that agents, provided that there are sufficient controls over their behaviour (and fees), can play a valuable role in international student recruitment. But they do require better management and, as Raimo says, we need to shift the balance of power back to the universities.

On the real bottom line

Transnational initiatives pay dividends far greater than a share of the overseas student market

Times Higher Education carries this piece (by me) on the real value of international activity:

The British Council has predicted that most universities in the West – with the exception of some in Australia – will recruit markedly fewer international students in the years ahead than they have done in the past decade.

Its recent report, The Shape of Things to Come, recommends that universities set up more overseas branch campuses and institutional partnerships rather than relying on attracting students to the UK.

The University of Nottingham has many years of experience in this area. We set up international campuses in Malaysia in 2000, and then in 2004 became the first institution to establish a Sino-foreign university in China.

In May, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, invited universities and banks to a round-table meeting to talk about establishing international branch campuses. This was seen, by some at least, to be a response to the impact of visa controls on international student recruitment to the UK. It was also suggested, rather cynically, that it was a good way for cash-strapped universities to make money in the wake of overseas student recruitment problems arising from the government’s immigration policy

 

The piece is linked to this year’s International Leadership Conference: Managing Global Universities taking place from 29 October – 1 November 2012 at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China.

Campus at University of Nottingham Ningbo China


The conference, which takes place annually, has previously welcomed delegates from the UK, Denmark, China, Colombia, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, the US and Belgium. The event is designed for senior leaders to discuss and share best practice on important topics around the internationalisation of higher education. Including the real value of international higher education activity. Do come – we would really like to see you there.

Offshoring opportunities – a real alternative?

Minister proposes overseas campuses as alternative to international student recruitment

Times Higher Education reports that David Willetts seems to be pushing overseas campus expansion – with private finance support – to compensate for reduced international student recruitment resulting from government immigration policies. The idea features, not for the first time, in a speech on international higher education he delivered at the Goldman Sachs-Stanford University Global Education Conference on 20 June:

His call for universities to seek alternative financing for expansion overseas comes amid a drive for every government department to identify sources of economic growth.

The minister is also seeking ways for UK universities to maximise the number of overseas students they teach abroad. The government’s tougher immigration controls threaten to cut the number of students able to enter the UK for study at universities.

Mr Willetts said: “Our universities are internationally recognised: they are a great British brand. We can do more to take advantage of our position. Our universities are well financed for what they do but underfinanced for big expansion. I want to see investors from Britain and abroad helping our universities access these big overseas markets. I know that companies like Goldman Sachs who have organised this conference…are keen to investigate this possibility.”

The minister hopes that Goldman Sachs will be able to identify private investors willing to finance developments such as overseas branch campuses and distance-learning operations.

A previous post reported on an earlier speech by Mr Willetts on the issue of internationalisation. He is undoubtedly serious about the proposition. And he is right to point to the success of the University of Nottingham and others in establishing campuses overseas. However, there are several fundamental problems with this notion:

  1. The income generated by overseas campuses will do very little to offset losses from underrecruitment of international students in the UK. Even where it may be possible and appropriate to repatriate surpluses, the sums involved will not get anywhere near the level of international student income currently received by UK universities.
  2. The de-diversification of UK campuses resulting from the decline in international students will harm the learning experience for all.
  3. Building, growing and sustaining an overseas campus is a long game. Even if every UK university had one it would take a very long time to get to a point where they were capable of providing the scale of export benefit the UK currently enjoys.
  4. If the primary aim of building an overseas campus is to make money then it is unlikely to provide a good basis for a productive relationship with a host country.

So, even with the backing of Goldman Sachs it is not clear that the overseas campus option is going to come close to compensating for the anticipated impact of immigration policies on international student numbers in the UK. The other angle discussed by the Minister, distance learning, may offer possibilities but again is unlikely to deliver on the scale required. Better perhaps to review those immigration policies instead.

Exciting new league table: 30 under six!

The 30 Universities making their names count

Following the outstanding success of the ‘100 under 50′ ranking in the Times Higher Education (a ranking which acknowledged that some universities didn’t enjoy all the advantages that hanging around for a couple of centuries or more bestowed in terms of league table performance) it seemed that it was about time there was recognition for those institutions which have done jolly well despite having really short names. So, a new ranking has been developed for those universities with very few letters to their name.

Using the core criteria from THE World Rankings mixed in with some unique UK indicators we get a fabulous result for British universities with no fewer than one third of the universities in the top 30 being from this country. Let’s have a look at those who are top in the short name stakes:

  1. Ulm
  2. Yale
  3. Duke
  4. Rice
  5. Lund
  6. Utah
  7. York
  8. Iowa
  9. Oslo
  10. Bath
  11. City
  12. Kent
  13. Hull
  14. Tokyo
  15. Brown
  16. Kyoto
  17. Emory
  18. Tufts
  19. Ghent
  20. Basel
  21. Osaka
  22. Leeds
  23. Seoul
  24. Essex
  25. Fudan
  26. Milan
  27. Padua
  28. Aston
  29. Keele
  30. Derby

The number one slot then is, perhaps unsuprisingly, taken by Ulm University. Located in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, Ulm University was founded in 1966. It chose its name wisely. Terrific results too for Hull, City, Bath, Essex, Aston, Keele and Derby Universities all of which have done well with four or five letter monikers.

Note that whilst complaints have been received about the methodology for this league table, from those who argued that it should be syllables rather than letter counts which matter to those who battled passionately for their acronyms to be regarded as their names (especially MIT, UCL, NUS, NYU, ANU and UEA) and also the legal team at Sciences Po, these have been set aside in order to maintain the essential arbitrariness of the core criteria.

I’m sure we can look forward to some more creative rankings.

International students: not an immigration issue

Students really aren’t immigrants

Excellent piece in a recent edition of Times Higher Education by Edward Acton. The essence of his argument is that international students make a massive contribution to the UK economy and most of them leave the UK after graduating. In other words, they really should not be considered as part of the immigration debate. Unfortunately, for entirely political reasons, they are:

Students, in so far as they are regarded as immigrants at all, cause least concern. The vast majority leave after completing their studies. A Home Office study of the cohort entering in 2004 found that after five years, only 3 per cent had settled. Concern only rises if there is doubt that students are visa-compliant and duly exit when their visas expire. But it is acknowledged by all sides and underlined by the Home Office’s own detailed analysis that those with visas sponsored by universities have excellent standards of compliance.

No queuing here

…one clear solution is to lift university-sponsored students out of the net migration calculation. The case for doing so is overwhelming. These “migrants” are distinct. They are, as public policy in other countries recognises, temporary. They are known to have excellent standards of visa compliance. And, in spite of the Home Office, the government as a whole commits considerable resources to encouraging them to come to the UK.

The data needed to separate them is readily available. The Higher Education Statistics Agency collects from its members meticulous detail on each non-EU student joining and completing a higher education course. Every university records student visa start- and end-dates, as well as passport numbers. From this it is possible to derive and publish annual estimates of both the inflow and the outflow of non-EU students who come to the UK for university study.

While influential figures in both governing parties are supportive of the proposal, the Home Office is nervous. A spokeswoman has talked of the need to avoid “fiddling the statistics”. No doubt this reflects ministerial fear that any change to the net migration calculation might arouse public distrust. The fear is misplaced. It underrates the scope for raising the level of public debate. The pressure group MigrationWatch UK, often taken to be the fiercest immigration guard dog, repeatedly emphasises that legitimate international students are not an immigration problem.

As Acton concludes, students have to taken out of the migration stats. We should be focusing on other migrant categories and not students and then, it is to be hoped, it will be possible to undo the damage done internationally to the UK’s reputation.

The PIE news reports on a wave of media attention for UK student visa cap following an IPPR report which suggests that the government has included international students in the net migration count as a way of “gaming” the figures:

IPPR points out that the UK’s main competitors in the overseas student market – the USA, Canada and Australia – do not include temporary or “non-immigrant” admissions in immigration figures, and says only the 15% of overseas students who stay on to work permanently in Britain should be counted within the net migration figures.

More worryingly, it says the government’s plans – which include issuing 250,000 fewer student visas by 2015 – threaten to wipe £4bn to £6bn a year off the UK economy.

The major media response to the report will be welcomed by the education sector, and put pressure on the government as it prepares to announce the latest immigration statistics on May 24.

Higher education is one of the UK’s biggest and most successful export earners and one sector in which we enjoy a real competitive advantage. Now more than ever we need to support it.

European Union university ranking plan: the sector holds its breath

Latest news on the most eagerly awaited league table

A post just over a year ago noted the development of a new EU ranking method. Now University World News carries a piece about the European Union defying criticism of its university ranking plan. Speaking at a rankings event in April Jordi Curell, director of lifelong learning, higher education and international affairs, did accept that not everyone was wildly enthisastic about the U-Multirank non-league table. But he did attempt to defend the idea:

“Rankings which are carefully thought out are the only transparency tools which can give a comparative picture of higher education institutions at a national, European and global level,” he told the symposium.

In March the UK House of Lords’ European Union committee called the initiative a waste of money. Its report argued that U-Multirank brought nothing new to a market already crowded by other international ranking systems, such as those developed by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Times Higher Education magazine and QS.

But Brussels plans to plough ahead regardless.

Earlier this year the Commission announced that it would spend €4 million (US$5.2 million) testing its new ranking method and invited HEIs to tender for the work with the results due at the end of next year.

Curell told the symposium that generally, a reluctance to support rankings had evolved. But while they might not reflect the full diversity of reality, rankings shape the perception of that reality.

He advised representatives of higher education institutions present at the event to try to influence how rankings develop rather than opposing the trend.

This final point is a good one: universities do have to engage with the rankings. Although you don’t have to express support for them in order to do so. However, I’m still not clear why U-Multirank, a league table which will not be a league table, is necessary. We’ll have to wait and see.

Pride & Prejudices: Problems with National & International League Tables

Presentation from AUA Conference 2012

Thank you to all who attended this session on 3 April 2012

As promised, here is the presentation:

 

 

As mentioned at the presentation, this will be the last time I deliver this session at AUA conference. I’ve done it too many times but the main reason is that my co-presenter, Tony Rich, is no longer able to join me. Tony is seriously unwell and I would encourage everyone  to sponsor Jonathan Nicholls, Registrary at Cambridge University, who is running the London Marathon to raise funds for Bristol University’s cancer research fund.

See Jonathan’s Just Giving page for details.

On Meaningful University Collaboration

Collaboration Theory and Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Students’ Unions Matter

Students’ unions are important for many reasons

I’ve got a piece in the Times Higher Education about some of the reasons I think students’ unions are important:

Students’ unions have a long and distinctive history in UK higher education, but their character has changed significantly in the past decade.

While they have always been concerned with student representation and support, and with the extracurricular aspects of student life, they are now much more directly interested in – and increasingly involved in – the core issue of teaching and learning.

Following the lead of the National Union of Students, which has displayed a new willingness to work with the government, students unions’ have shifted from a position of general opposition to change (particularly on student finance) and campaigning on international policy matters (often combined with leftist posturing), to arguing for better libraries, improved IT, more class contact and improved feedback on assessed work.

When I was a student many years ago, student unionism was primarily concerned with fighting apartheid, denouncing Margaret Thatcher and supporting the miners. Debate was passionate and it all felt massively important, but unions rarely concerned themselves with day-to-day university life. How times have changed.

And the change is for the better. The full piece is available via Times Higher Education. (Thank you THE for asking me to do the piece.)

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Risk of managers swamping universities?

Some seem to think that management numbers are growing too fast

HESA, the Higher Education Statistics Agency has recently published its annual summary of staff numbers in higher education. The headline data follows:

Academic staff

Of the 181,185 academic staff employed at UK HEIs, 44.2% were female, 12.4% were from an ethnic minority and nearly a quarter (24.8%) were of non-UK nationality.

17,465 academic staff had contracts conferring the title of ‘Professor’. Of these 19.8% were female, 7.3% were from an ethnic minority and 16.7% were of non-UK nationality.

Non-academic staff

As well as academic staff, there were a further 200,605 non-academic staff employed at HEIs in 2010/11. The majority (62.4%) of these staff were female. 10.0% of non-academic staff were from an ethnic minority and 9.3% were of non-UK nationality.

16,395 non-academic staff were coded as ‘Managers’. Of these 52.4% were female, 6.0% were from an ethnic minority and 5.9% were of non-UK nationality.

This is the definition of ‘Managers’ used by HESA:

Non-academic Managers are defined as those individuals who are responsible for the planning, direction and co-ordination of the policies and activities of enterprises or organisations, or their internal departments or sections. Senior academics who act as vice chancellors or directors/heads of schools, colleges, academic departments or research centres are coded as academic staff.

To summarise this HESA offers a handy infographic:

On the face of it this all looks pretty innocuous but it seems that, despite the relatively small number of managers in the sector, around 4% of the staff total and smaller than the professoriate, the rate of growth of managers has been faster than academics. For some, according to the Times Higher Education, (which seems to use different data in places) this is a bit of a problem:

The percentage increase in the number of managers in higher education in recent years is more than twice that for academics, an analysis of new figures has suggested.

Data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal there were 15,795 managers in higher education in December 2010 – up by almost 40 per cent on the 11,305 employed in the 2003-04 academic year.

That was compared to the 19.2 per cent increase in academics since 2003-04. It means there is now a manager for every 9.2 academics compared with a ratio of one to 10.8 seven years earlier.

Sally Hunt, University and College Union general secretary, said: “Despite the fact that there has been a large increase in the number of students in recent years, there has been a larger increase in the number of managers than academics.

“We have raised fears about the changing nature of universities as the market in higher education continues to grow. However, institutions and government must never lose sight of universities’ key roles in teaching and challenging students.”

Meanwhile, statistics released by Hesa on 1 March showed staffing levels at universities fell by 1.5 per cent last year.

The figures showed there were 381,790 people working at UK higher education institutions in 2010-11, down by 5,640 from 2009-10.

These numbers though really are not large and manager numbers have grown by just under 4,500 at a time when academic numbers have grown by over 16,000 (which makes the point from Sally Hunt factually incorrect).

The UCU comment suggests it is taking its lead from David Willetts.  He made a similar point in a speech made to a UUK conference back on 9 September 2010:

There are other ways of cutting overhead costs. In 2009 the number of senior university managers rose by 6% to 14,250, while the number of university professors fell by 4% to 15,530. On that trend the number of senior managers could have overtaken the number of professors this year. I recognise that universities now are big, complex institutions with revenues from many sources which need to be professionally managed. But we owe it to the taxpayer and the student to hold down these costs – we are now in a different and much more austere world. Again, we are not going to shirk our share of responsibility for tackling this. We will to do away with unnecessary burdens upon you that require the recruitment of more administrators. Do tell me – and HEFCE, of course – of any information requirement or regulation which you believe comes at a disproportionate cost. They have to go: we cannot afford them.

So this is the moment to be thinking even more creatively about cost cutting. I congratulate you on your initiative in inviting Ian Diamond to chair a UUK group on efficiency savings. You are right to get to grips with this. We can work with you on this agenda without getting sucked in to micromanaging our universities. No returning to a time – a century ago, actually – when one vice chancellor reacted to a Board of Education demand for figures on staff teaching hours by complaining that “Nothing so ungentlemanly has been done by the Government since they actually insisted on knowing what time Foreign Office clerks arrive at Whitehall.”

As noted in a recent post, these claims about reducing regulation ring rather hollow and, given that government demands on universities have increased rather than declined, this does perhaps provide one explanation for the growth.

How signifiicant is all this though? While the staff group ‘managers’ has grown faster than academic professionals at all universities and at Russell Group universities (but not at Nottingham as it happens), this is a small category of staff representing only 7-8% of all non-academic staff. The definitions of the various staff groups provided by HESA do allow some judgement in the allocation of staff to the various groups and there is some evidence of differing practice at different institutions. However, the definition of academic professional is straightforward and unambiguous and it is clear that at Nottingham such staff have grown considerably more than non-academic staff since 2003-04.

Universities need managers to function effectively. They are key to enabling academic staff focus on delivering excellent research and first class teaching and for protecting academics from the worst regulatory excesses of government. So this modest growth is really nothing to get excited about.