The Imperfect University: Students and their Unions – Part II

TIU
Changed days indeed

(As with the previous offering I suspect I’m going to be challenged on much of what follows.)

Part I of these two pieces looked at the changes in the National Union of Students as it almost completely changed its campaign foci to concentrate much more directly on supporting students on local issues shifting from oppositionalism and international policy concerns, occasional leftist posturing to more direct positioning on student experience matters.

Changes in many students’ unions seem to have taken place in parallel to these developments and as universities across the country continue to adapt to the brave new fees-driven world, all are seeking to respond more to student demands as identified through, among other things, the National Student Survey and looking to NUS for support on such matters.

A recent piece in the Huffington Post suggested that at the same time as student activism had been supplanted by ‘lad culture’, students’ unions had failed too:

lad-culture-screen

The decay isn’t only down to students. Student Unions are now anything but ‘Unions’. They are failing to protect the interest of students, nurture a hot bed of intellectual activity or help co-ordinate any meaningful student activism. Today, student unions are just shopping malls designed to extract money from the ‘student market’ and political apathy has made student democracy nothing more than a beautified popularity contest.

Are unions today really just shopping malls? Far from it. Whilst all unions have different characters, strongly conditioned by the local institutional context in which they operate, many have changed their approach in last decade or so from campaigning on external, national and international issues to being much more focused on the direct interests of students in their own institutions. Students’ unions have always had a slightly unusual relationship with their parent institutions as well – arguing and defending their independence fiercely while at the same time being inextricably intertwined with their host, which also provides the largest part of their funding.

A core role of unions is representing the student view to the university. Rather than revolution the consequences of student rebelliousness which ran from 1968 onwards resulted in much stronger representation on various university committees and this principle of representation has been sustained in all universities even across different governance models (within the UK).

However, representation in itself is insufficient. Having student members present at Senate and governing body meetings has arguably allowed universities to believe that this was the full extent of engagement with the union that was necessary. This can result in students’ unions being undervalued and having only superficial engagement with the university, largely confined to pitching up each year to argue for an incremental increase to the block grant. This is no longer adequate.

Another dimension of this lack of genuine engagement is the phenomenon of the naïve indulgence of the less productive examples of student behaviour, demonstrations, occupations and the like. This stems from a misguided and anachronistic 60s liberalism which views student campaigning activity as being just part of growing up (which of course it was for the overwhelmingly middle-class students of that time). However, this is really a failure to see the value and contemporary significance of the students’ union.
nus logo

A similar attitude is often seen in relation to union-run commercial activities, including bars, shops and catering outlets. This can all be happily ignored while such provision delivers good services to students and useful surpluses to the union. However, the last couple of decades have seen major changes in student social and drinking behaviour to which, by and large, students’ unions failed to respond until rather late in the day. The shift in student purchasing to off sales and decline in beer revenues meant that the cash cow, the traditional union bar, quickly turned into a dog and the failure to invest wisely during the good times left many unions exposed. Such services have to be run properly by professional staff. The idea that students should be permitted to “play” at managing services, catering, retail and bars as it is good training for them is just not sustainable, let alone in a time of austerity. Fortunately, many unions do now recognise this.

Beyond representation and some commercial activities, unions have to continue to deliver their other core functions of providing for the wide range of social, political, sporting and cultural student societies and offering necessary support to students on academic, disciplinary and accommodation issues (for example). Universities need to work much more closely with their unions to ensure a joined up, comprehensive, high quality student experience. The issue is not protection of traditional domains, it’s about collaborating to provide the services and facilities students expect. This is not just about shops and bars but covers broader issues including induction, student support, employability, student volunteering and fundraising to name but a few.

slide2

Things aren’t always as straightforward for students’ unions as running shops and bars though. Students’ union officers don’t always know what their members think or indeed choose to represent only a minority opinion as they pursue an overtly political agenda. In addition, they are usually only around for a year, making relationship building something of a challenge. This is where it is crucial to have a much deeper engagement between university staff and those at all levels of the union. A vibrant, democratically active union, with full involvement of students in all fora, from staff:student liaison committees to Senate, and with able and engaged staff working closely with university professional services is much more able to cope with the odd year with a difficult president.

At the same time as the student movement has been reorienting to focus on teaching and learning issues there has been a structural realignment in the governance of students’ unions. The changes arising from the Charities Act, which necessitated separate arrangements from those of the parent university, have legally pushed institutions and Students’ Unions further apart. This makes collaboration and partnership between unions and universities all the more urgent and vital to ensure we have a shared understanding of our contributions to a high quality student experience. Working together is in the mutual interest of unions and universities. It needs to happen at every level, it needs a range of structures to make it happen as well as formal underpinning through some form of meaningful memorandum of agreement. However, there has to be trust, mutual confidence and sharing of expertise too, including in the co-ordination of delivery of effective student services. In addition, clear open communication channels are critical, and not just at times of crisis.

Many students these days really only want to play quidditch

Many students these days really only want to play Quidditch

Too often it seems unions do have too strong a focus on catering for 18 year-old UK full-time undergraduates (there is some pandering to ‘lad culture’) and struggle to adapt to part-time, mature and international student groups. This is linked to the British youth drinking culture, the freshers’ week phenomenon (other countries seem to manage a transition period without an emphasis on alcohol) and sports club initiations (again often drink-fuelled). There are positive cultural features too including major fundraising efforts, lots of volunteering activity and a general commitment to promoting socially responsible behaviour by students. And whilst a student charter, setting out rights and responsibilities may look an appealing prospect in this consumerist age, without proper partnership between the university and the union it is never really going to get past fine words.

Unions and NUS do deserve credit for focusing more on the student experience, starting with this early report back in 2008 which covered everything from accommodation to quality of teaching and from personalization to student finance and employment. More recently NUS has worked with QAA to produce a series of research reports on different dimensions of the student experience. This has inevitably impacted on the approach students’ unions take to working with their members and universities.

The Union that likes to give you more

 

Students’ unions have changed significantly in response to the radically altered higher education environment. although some of these changes are pushing unions and universities apart I believe is essential that we seek to counter this with greater convergence where possible. This depends on universities engaging properly at every level with their unions and recognising how important their contribution is to campus life and the student experience. In return, unions have to continue to engage seriously and consistently and recognise that there is significant common ground here. Whilst there will always be disagreements these should not perturb serious partnership working which is in the interest of the union, students and the university. These relationships were central to the analysis and recommendations Universities and their Unions (ISBN: 0 902683 78 0, LFHE, University of Warwick, 2006 Tom Bell, Paul Greatrix and Claire Horton) which sought to offer a set of pointers, suggestions, observations and comments and help universities and students’ unions to work together a bit better.

Students’ unions are more important and relevant to universities than they have ever been before. This is not because of the passing fancy of government or QAA but because meaningful student engagement is important to vital lively university life and a first rate student learning experience.

 

(Once again huge thanks to Aaron Porter for his extremely helpful comments on a draft of this piece.)

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.

Guidance or directive?

Easy finance

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

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

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

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

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

Clear enough for you?

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

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

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

 

The impact of universities on the UK economy

A big impact indeed

EconomicImpactOfHigherEducationInstitutionsLrg

This new Universities UK report on the impact of universities on the UK economy really is a very interesting piece of work which covers the sector’s increasing impact in terms of output, contribution to GDP, job creation, and overseas investment. It also looks at the knock-on effects of expenditure by universities, their staff, and international students. The report finds that in 2011–12, the UK higher education sector:

• generated over £73 billion of output – up 24% from £59 billion in 2009

• contributed 2.8% of UK GDP in 2011 – up from 2.3% in 2007

• generated 2.7% of all UK employment and 757,268 full-time-equivalent jobs

• generated £10.7 billion of export earnings for the UK

• received less than half its income from public sources

The report also compares HE’s contribution to GDP to that of other sectors:

Higher education’s contribution to GDP (O) is clearly significant. Further analysis was undertaken to assess the impact of universities on GDP compared with a number of other UK sectors. As Figure 11 shows, the higher education institutional contribution to GDP (O) in 2011–12 was comparable to that made by legal activities, greater than that of office administration and less than telecommunications. The industry figures were sourced from the ONS Use Tables for 2010 and hence should not be regarded as a direct like-with-like comparison as the higher education figures are for the year 2011–12. However, Figure 11 is broadly indicative and is helpful in illustrating the relative position of universities in terms of their contribution to GDP. This is an industry-to-industry comparison (ie the secondary GDP generated by the universities or their students is not included).

 

HE v other sectors

It’s a really impressive piece of work and reinforces the critical place of higher education in the UK economy. The report is also accompanied by a set of more detailed reports which examine the impact of universities on the economies of the English regions. All very helpful and interesting.

More means worse? (Data that is)

 Lots of information is not necessarily a good thing for prospective students

I’ve written before about concerns about too much data and the importance of quality rather than just quantity in the information provided to applicants to higher education.

Now a new HEFCE report on Improving information for prospective students has come to a similar conclusion.

keyboard
The report summarises existing research into decision-making behaviour and comes to some interesting conclusion:

 

Relevant research was identified across a wide range of disciplines, including information science, cognitive and behavioural psychology, behavioural economics and social theory. This research is likely to be relevant to how prospective students make their higher education choices.

The research draws attention to the need to examine fundamental assumptions about how people use information in decision-making.

Key findings in the report include:

  • The decision-making process is complex, personal and nuanced, involving different types of information, messengers and influences over a long time. This challenges the common assumption that people primarily make objective choices following a systematic analysis of all the information available to them at one time.
  • Greater amounts of information do not necessarily mean that people will be better informed or be able to make better decisions.

 

It’s a really detailed, serious and comprehensive report and sets out eight principles which it is proposed should govern future information provision for prospective HE students. Let’s hope it is taken seriously and that we now take a fresh look at this important issue. Mike Hamlyn has also commented on this report and is entertainingly sceptical on its findings.

The Imperfect University: Students and their Unions

TIU

Part I: How much power in the union?

(I suspect I’m going to be challenged on just about every aspect of what follows.)

Students’ unions and the National Union of Students, which recently celebrated its 90th birthday, have a long and distinctive history in UK higher and further education. There have been major shifts in recent years though, in both FE and HE. This piece will focus very much on higher education which is not to say FE isn’t hugely important – it is, and is reflected in the election of the first ever NUS President from FE – but rather is a topic for another day. The character of HE unions has changed significantly in the past decade in particular – whilst always concerned with the representational, support and extra-curricular aspects of student life they are now much more directly interested in and increasingly involved with the core issues of teaching and learning. A clear indication of this is that the National Student Survey (NSS) now includes a specific question on students’ unions. Whilst I think the NSS question itself is not terribly valuable it is symbolically important, signalling the value placed on the students’ union in the context of student satisfaction.

nus logo

I am a big fan of students’ unions and the student movement (as it is sometimes, perhaps rather inaccurately, known). Whilst they can often be challenging and make life difficult for university leaders, they nevertheless have huge amount to contribute to campus life. As an undergraduate at a disaffiliated university back in the 80s I was massively disappointed not to be a member of NUS but nevertheless greatly enjoyed local student unionism. NUS has a fascinating history, one which was largely non-political until the late 1960s when it dropped its non-political stance, and since then has leaned left to a greater or lesser extent. During most of the past 45 years or so though the political dimension of the Union has appeared to be its defining characteristic.

However, that has all changed in the past few years. NUS appears, quite remarkably, to have transformed itself from an organisation where the default activity was a demo and one where national conference and standing orders dictated activity to something which would be almost unrecognisable to those activists from previous decades. Now NUS is seen as a rather effective lobbying body and an organisation which is a sought after partner of government and national HE agencies rather than purely a voice of opposition. A recent piece in the Guardian, which previews a new piece of research by the Leadership Foundation, notes the much closer alignment which now exists between student leaders and university managers.

How did this come about? I honestly don’t know but I suspect that an awful lot is down to a succession of talented presidents and some excellent staff working together to deliver a strategic transformation born out of a realisation that after major defeats on fees a different approach was required in order to secure the union’s future existence. A major review of governance in NUS, which concluded in 2007, although it does not look on the face of it to be a huge departure from previous positions may in fact have been key here.

The mission and vision is perhaps not that surprising although the environmental concern is undoubtedly relatively new and demands for a “quality learning experience” has not appeared on many placards down the years:

 

Our mission

Our mission is to promote, defend and extend the rights of students and to develop and champion strong students’ unions.

Our vision

Our vision is of NUS as a pioneering, innovative and powerful campaigning organisation: the national voice of students.

We will fight barriers to education, empower students to shape both a quality learning experience and the world around them, supporting influential, democratic and well-resourced students’ unions.

Our ethics

NUS and students feel passionately about the environment.

Ethical and Environmental principles are core to our culture. These values underpin all of our work and have done for over 30 years.

 

The Union that keeps on giving

The Union that keeps on giving

In the year I graduated, when Vicky Phillps was President, some of the key issues for NUS were Apartheid, Israel/Palestine (that’s not changed), welfare reform and equality issues.

NUS could not have been further from influencing government on any of these (although this is not to say that contribution to Anti-Apartheid was not significant, it was) but look at where we are now. NUS seems to be a keen supporter of the following:

  • The Key Information Set – a key element of the marketisation of higher education
  • Unistats
  • The Office of the Independent Adjudicator
  • Which? University
  • The new Student Engagement unit
  • The HEFCE-funded Student Green Fund
  • QAA involvement with students as active members of review teams
  • And, perhaps most significantly, the National Student Survey, now with an extra question about Students’ Unions thanks to NUS lobbying.

This support for a government-inspired survey of students would seem on the face of it to be a bit of a surprise but speaking to the Telegraph back in September 2012, Liam Burns, then NUS President said:

We have supported and worked with the NSS since it began in 2005 as a tool for securing improvement to student experience. Although in that time progress has not been as rapid as we would have liked, particularly in areas such as assessment and feedback, results have continued to improve year on year and they must continue to do so.

In addition, NUS is keenly supporting the Office of Fair Trading which has recently undertaken an investigation into alleged unfair terms imposed by universities on students and wider examination of the operation of the market in undergraduate student recruitment.

In all of these cases, it would not be unfair to suggest that the NUS view is closer to that of the current Government than to that of many university vice-chancellors (although they are a diverse bunch). Indeed at times it is indistinguishable and NUS officers these days often look like they are best mates with the Universities Minister and appear to have easy access to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

BFF?

BFF?

This coziness is reinforced by the section of NUS website modestly entitled ‘Our impact on history’:

NUS sits on the boards of HEFCE, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OFFA) and UCAS.

Where there is an advisory board, strategic committee or working group, there is NUS, working alongside the sector to present the views of students and ensure their interests are taken into account.

Students are now intimately engaged in every aspect of quality: students act as peer reviewers for institutional review, and students’ unions are invited to submit a student-written submission as part of evidence submitted on the quality of an institution’s provision.

The Quality Assurance Agency has a student sounding board, and is currently funding projects based within NUS to enhance student engagement in quality enhancement at course level.

The Higher Education Academy has worked with NUS for the last two years, undertaking a major project on student engagement – exploring how students can act to shape their educational environment through provision of feedback and representation.

NUS is also working with HEA to deliver student-led teaching awards at institutions around the UK, helping students to recognise excellence in teaching.

NUS is developing its relationship with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Fearful of the impact on students of the new fees and student support regime, NUS successfully worked with OFFA to ensure students’ unions would be consulted in the creation of institutional access agreements.

 

Beyond these big current policy agenda NUS seems to offer much more in the way of activities in support of students’ unions, their core operations and the training and development of students’ union officers. Moreover its professional staff seems to be much more concerned with developing policies, practice and services which will directly help students rather than any broader political activity.

Not so long ago all of this would have been seen by many NUS members as a betrayal of the organisation and its principles (and no doubt sparked some kind of demonstration or occupation of somewhere). So is student activism dead as a recent piece in the Huffington Post proposed?

Student activism was once a force to be reckoned with. It changed the world, visibly and profoundly. It was the catalysts that lead to the end of the Vietnam War, it pressured governments to finally stop supporting apartheid and it forced the world to start addressing institutionalized racism. But today, in the face of genuine and widely felt grievances, students are impotent and apathetic. Universities are businesses, education is job training and a degree is a holiday.

Not everyone loves NUS

Not everyone loves NUS

Has student political activity been replaced by “lad culture” as this author suggests? No, but there has nevertheless been quite an extraordinary change in the student political arena in a relatively short period of time. (This is not to say that “lad culture” is not an issue nor that it is not being taken seriously as this NUS campaign and recent summit demonstrate.)

Fundamentally it seems to me to be down to a recognition that NUS is there to serve all of its members and represent their interests rather than simply campaign for or against matters determined by a highly politicised executive. A more cynical observer though may suggest that NUS appears to have been at least partially co-opted into successive governments’ higher education agenda and to have been seduced by the BIS “students at the heart of the system” line. Even if this were true though it is undoubtedly a profound shift which has taken place.

Changes in students’ unions seem to have taken place in parallel to these developments and we will look at these in the second part of this piece.

(Enormous thanks to Aaron Porter for his extremely helpful comments on a draft of this piece.)

Two very different approaches to campus security

Sophisticated Mobile App or an Armoured Truck? Tough Call

The Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting report on the introduction of ‘LiveSafe’, a mobile app that was adopted by the university in August and has been downloaded 4,200 times:

“We get the luxury of getting a lot of information from the students because we have this platform that is really, really easy to use,” Mr. Venuti says, noting that students can text alerts to officials anonymously if they chose. “These kids are text-driven. They are mobile-device-driven. They can text faster than any of us can probably type.”

LiveSafe, according to the report, was co-founded by a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, and is one of a number of similar apps being snapped up by colleges to help with emergency comms and response. This kind of technology is apparently gaining momentum in the US “amid a national conversation about campus safety that extends all the way to the White House”:

In some ways, the technology moves institutions beyond mass-alerting systems, which became a legal requirement in the wake of Virginia Tech and allow colleges to send out emergency notifications by email, text message, and loudspeaker, among other mediums.

While specific features vary, many of the new apps can be integrated into existing alerting infrastructures while also creating a two-way channel of communication. Users send written or visual messages tagged with their GPS location to public-safety officials, who monitor the apps’ back-end dashboards through web browsers, typically on monitors in command centers or on laptops in patrol cars. Officials can respond to alerts with follow-up questions or specific instructions.

It’s smart stuff and sadly likely to be very useful at US campuses where there seem to be fairly frequent severe incidents at universities.

Meanwhile, over at Ohio State University…

Huffington Post reports that the University has acquired Military-Style Armoured Truck.

There are no suggestions that Ohio State has had a problem with roadside bombs recently but they do now have a response to such eventualities. It is, apparently, a “mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle”. It’s army surplus we are told:

The 19-ton armored truck (specifically, a “MaxxPro,” manufactured by the Illinois defense-vehicle maker Navistar) is built to withstand “ballistic arms fire, mine fields, IED’s, and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical environments,” according to its product description.

This does seem a little over the top – surely things at US universities aren’t this bad?

It does look like the app may have a little more value than the truck but we’ll have to wait and see.

Money, Money, Money

HE Income and Expenditure 2012/13

Perhaps not the most exciting publication of the year to date but nevertheless some interesting information in the new Higher Education Statistics Agency report on Income and Expenditure of HE institutions.

HE Finance Plus 2012/13 shows that the total income of higher education institutions (HEIs) in 2012/13 was £29.1 billion. Funding bodies provided £7.0 billion of this income, while tuition fees and education contracts contributed £11.7 billion.

This handy chart shows the proportions of total income of UK higher education institutions by source in 2012/13:
PR201_Inc_721w

The total increase in income over 2011/12 was 4.5%.

And then there is also this helpful summary of total expenditure.
PR201_Exp_485w

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of spend (just over 55%) is on staff. Total spend has increased by 4.7% over 2011/12 and expenditure on staff has risen by 4.1%. It will be interesting to see how this global profile of total spend changes in subsequent years.

One thing is absolutely clear from this summary: with growth in spend outstripping income by 4.7% to 4.5% the position is unsustainable. And it’s only going to get worse in terms of teaching funding. So either institutions will have to find new ways to raise more money or reduce expenditure. The future doesn’t look very bright. It’s a rich university’s world.

OFT gives English HE a 2i (just)

A decent result for HE in England?

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

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

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

There is a caveat though, and quite a big one

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

Some of these challenges include:

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

index

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Trinity rebrand shock

Although perhaps not quite that radical

According to the headline:

‘Ivory towers’ shaken by plan to rebrand Trinity

The Independent has the full story on this shocking plan:

Outraged tenured academics, referred to as Fellows, have held a number of meetings to discuss a proposed change in the name of the college to ‘Trinity College, University of Dublin’.

The college hired market research firm Behaviour and Attitudes to produce a report entitled ‘TCD Identity Initiative’, which showed clearly that the vast majority of students, staff and members of the public are strongly opposed to changing the name.

But the survey also revealed that Trinity was widely viewed as a “snobbish and elitist” institution, rich in heritage and tradition but not really regarded as a modern university.

The report adds that the possible name change is part of a drive to “modernise” to attract more international students. It really isn’t clear how adding a comma and two words is going to deliver that. Nor how the current logo…

TCD-logo-wide

…fails to convey the University bit.

But they could certainly make themselves look more modern. Including by pretending those 420 years of history and academic achievement didn’t happen.

Still waiting for a decent new campus novel?

Fertile territory for Higher Ed fiction?

Previous posts on Higher Ed fiction have looked at the end of the campus novel and some flickers in the embers with a few more recent offerings including the Marriage Plot. More recently I also posted on satire in HE which covered, among other things, an unpromising series of British novels which didn’t seem to add greatly to the corpus.

Now Inside Higher Ed has a piece on a professor and a former university president (both in the US) who have both just published new academic novels. The synopses do not inspire confidence. The first, Academic Affairs, seems to hinge on an extraordinary set of circumstances:

As the book opens, Smithfield University graduate student Jim Hagedorn — who identifies as gay, and who is theoretically monogamous with his long-term partner, Kevin — discovers that he has accidentally impregnated his classmate and rival, Sally. Meanwhile, Jim’s thesis adviser, the successful but tormented sociologist Bill Massy, finds himself in the same boat with Smithfield’s provost, Esmeralda Marcos. Marcos has other problems, notably the outrageous request made of her and Smithfield’s president, Roger Turner, by Stanley Egbert, a would-be major donor who is willing to pony up $250 million in exchange if Marcos and Turner will adhere to his conditions. Turner would rather decline the offer, but he’s pressured to accept by Smithfield’s board chair, Peter Hagedorn — Jim’s brother. And that’s just the beginning. (Academic Affairs runs to more than 500 pages, and they’re densely packed.)

The new campus bonkbusters?

The new campus bonkbusters?

The other, Signature Affair, looks like a bit of wish-fulfillment:

Cochran had written a full draft of what would become Signature Affair — the story of Steve Schilling, the charismatic and successful president of Eastern Arkansas University, whose spiraling sex addiction threatens to destroy his marriage and career. Schilling loves his wife, Suzanne, but he can’t seem to stop falling in love with other women as well: an old girlfriend from graduate school; the widow of a major donor; a faculty member; a political contact; even the university’s mailroom supervisor. Indeed, Schilling’s affairs are so numerous that it becomes rather difficult for the reader to keep them straight; Schilling himself manages it only by giving them each a different color of stationary on which to pen him romantic missives, which all five of his paramours are apparently eager to do.

Cochran didn’t set out to write a novel about sex addiction, he said, but as he was in the midst of writing the book, golf superstar Tiger Woods’ now-notorious affairs began to make headlines. As Cochran read news coverage of the scandal, he started to notice parallels between Woods and his protagonist, and he found himself thinking, “This is the guy I wrote about!”

Indeed. It looks like we might have a bit longer to wait for a great new campus novel.

Too Many Administrators?

Here we go again

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting piece on administrative staff numbers which suggests that a 28% growth in Higher Education work force numbers is primarily due to additional administrative staff.

As report says

Other industries have found ways to outsource services that are not central to what they do, but higher education has invested more and more—as part of a strategy, he contended. Just as a cable company bundles channels together and makes you pay for them all, whether or not you watch them, colleges have bundled counseling, athletics, campus activities, and other services with the instructional side to justify charging more.

“All of those things they are bundling are adding to the price of attendance,” he said.

So, not a terribly helpful view.

And, naturally, people working in student services see things rather differently:

Patricia L. Leonard, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said that growth in student services might reflect colleges’ response to increased regulation and pressure from parents and policy makers.

Faculty members typically don\’t deal with legal disputes, government regulations, athletics compliance, or intervention in mental-health, sexual-assault, or disabilities issues—that’s the professional staff’s job, she said.

“When you put that all together, there may be increased staff, but it’s because campuses are trying to meet the need,” she said. “Any one case is extremely time-consuming.”

People have come to expect that education extends to activities outside the classroom, she said. Many of her staff members not only coordinate with instructors, but also teach classes.

“It’s an integrated approach,” she said, “and I don’t think that would happen if it were outsourced.”

We’ve been here before. A previous post on this subject made my position pretty clear on this issue I think:

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.

So, there is a lot more to be done to support the student experience, a great deal more regulation to deal with and ever more support required to help academics do the best job they can. There will undoubtedly be scope for efficiencies too and the situation in the UK is nowhere near as dramatic as shown by this US data but still this does not point to immediate outsourcing as the solution to all of these concerns.

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.