HEFCE “fears government’s controlling hand”

Government control issues for HEFCE

According to a recent report in Times Higher Education HEFCE still fears government’s controlling hand over its budget despite its status as an “arm’s-length” public body:

Newly published Hefce board papers reveal internal fears about its ability to “maintain the standard of its work” and its relative independence given the pressure from ministers to cut its running costs. Hefce is making efficiency reductions of £2 million – amounting to a real-terms cut to its administration costs of 11 per cent this year – to help the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills save £836 million in 2010-11.

During a meeting on 25 November, the body’s audit committee said it was worried that the “continued pressure” to reduce running costs would have a serious effect as it helps universities manage the changes to funding and the introduction of higher fees.

“We expressed our concern about the capacity and capability of Hefce to maintain its standard of work over the medium term when faced with continued pressure to reduce administration costs,” a report of the meeting says.

“We also noted with concern the level of control imposed by BIS over Hefce and the potential impact on its governance and management.”

Whilst it is important that the Funding Council is not protected from the cuts facing the sector, nevertheless it is a reasonably lean and efficient organisation already. So the Council’s ability to maintain its capacity is something to be watched. However, the real concern here is that government uses the opportunity of funding reductions as a lever for greater direction and control over the business of HEFCE and the sector. It would perhaps be surprising if BIS did not seek to exert greater control in the current climate with the significant changes and challenges facing the sector. However, this environment means that, perhaps more than ever, the sector needs a helpful funding council to support an intelligent approach to 2012 and beyond, whatever government thinks.

So, the fear is not misplaced but there will be big challenges ahead, for HEFCE as well as universities. Part of the response has to be to minimise the unnecessary intervention and direction from government both at HEFCE itself but also more across institutions.

Are Undergraduates Actually Learning Anything?

Are Undergraduates Actually Learning Anything? Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses By Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

The Chronicle carries an extract from what sounds like an extremely interesting new book. The paper reports that, drawing on survey responses, transcript data, and results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (a standardized test taken by students in their first semester and at the end of their second year), the authors concluded that a significant percentage of undergraduates were failing to develop the expected skills and knowledge.

While higher education is expected to accomplish many tasks—and contemporary colleges and universities have indeed contributed to society in ways as diverse as producing pharmaceutical patents as well as prime-time athletic games—existing organizational cultures and practices too often do not put a high priority on undergraduate learning. Faculty and administrators, working to meet multiple and at times competing demands, too rarely focus on either improving instruction or demonstrating gains in student learning.

More troubling still, the limited learning we have observed in terms of the absence of growth in CLA performance is largely consistent with the accounts of many students, who report that they spend increasing numbers of hours on nonacademic activities, including working, rather than on studying. They enroll in courses that do not require substantial reading or writing assignments; they interact with their professors outside of classrooms rarely, if ever; and they define and understand their college experiences as being focused more on social than on academic development.

Might be sensationalist and playing to the tabloid view of university education but, on the face of it, sounds like a serious and interesting study.

Ranking of Colleges’ Twitter Influence

Ranking universities and social media

Some entertaining nonsense in the past couple of weeks on ranking university use of twitter etc. Chris Sexton beat me to this with her posting on this topic which covers more than I will.

The fact that people are producing league tables of this stuff shows it already matters but it remains difficult to take it too seriously. Will universities start chasing better ‘Klout scores’? According to the Chronicle Stanford tops the list:

Stanford University’s Twitter feed is the most influential among college and university accounts on that microblogging service, according to a new ranking.

The list was published this week by Klout, an online company that tracks the popularity and impact of Tweets and gives every Twitter account a numerical score for influence. Factors reflected in the score include the number of followers a user has, how often a user is retweeted, and how a user’s tweets are being used in the conversation on Twitter

Stanford earned a Klout score of 70, with Syracuse University, Harvard University, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison all following with a score of 64.

The top 10 is rounded out by University of California at Berkley, Butler University, Tufts University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas at Austin, and Marquette University.

Compare this with a brief summary (which you could turn into a ranking if you really wanted to) on the use of twitter by Russell Group universities. It does suggest that UK universities are still a bit behind the curve on this.

And lest anyone think that the ranking of universities on their social media is getting too serious we have this rather entertaining Dutch analysis.

So, serious rankings of social media useage will emerge no doubt but it is all probably a little premature.

Charity Commission rules and universities’ charitable status

Possible threat to universities’ charitable status

Interesting opinion piece from Pinsent Masons on how Charity Commission rules could threaten universities’ charitable status.

Universities are not like schools, for any number of reasons. One reason, though, will be vital in universities’ coming battle to retain their charitable status: you don’t need to go to university to benefit from university education.

Every time a doctor heals a sick person, an architect designs a building that does not fall down or an artist makes something beautiful, society benefits. Universities make society a better place. And if we all benefit, they should be allowed to keep their charitable status.

Someone should tell the Charity Commission this. It claims that a change in the law aimed at fee paying schools should apply to universities that increase their fees.

UK universities are charities and a recent change in charity law in England and Wales means that in order to qualify as a charity an organisation must demonstrate the public benefit it delivers, rather than operate under a presumption of that benefit.

The Charity Commission has produced guidance which says that organisations will pass the public benefit test if the opportunity for people to benefit is not restricted by an ability to pay and if the organisation does not exclude people in poverty.

Following the changes to fee arrangements and the increase in the cap of up to £9,000 where additional widening participation activities and spend are offered there is a concern that if the Charity Commission Guidance is followed there could be a problem. By charging a fee above £6,000 it is suggested in the article that universities risk preventing poorer students attending and might therefore could lose vital charitable status.

It’s not clear how an increase in the cap would make such a difference to the current position. Especially given that universities wishing to charge more will have to make significant new widening participation commitments and have a new access agreement with the Office for Fair Access. Nevertheless, concern remains.

Lawrence on University College Nottingham

A controversial piece from D H Lawrence

More of Lawrence on Nottingham is available here but this entertaining piece is a highlight. Not exactly what you’d want to use in promotional material though.

‘Nottingham’s New University’ in Pansies (1929)

In Nottingham, that dismal town

where I went to school and college,

they’ve built a new university

for a new dispensation of knowledge.

Built it most grand and cakeily

out of the noble loot

derived from shrewd cash-chemistry

by good Sir Jesse Boot.

Little I thought, when I was a lad

and turned my modest penny

over on Boot’s Cash Chemist’s counter,

that Jesse, by turning many

millions of similar honest pence

over, would make a pile

that would rise at last and blossom out

in grand and cakey style

into a university

where smart men would dispense

doses of smart cash-chemistry

in language of common-sense!

That future Nottingham lads would be

cash-chemically B.Sc.

that Nottingham lights would rise and say:

-By Boots I am M.A.

From this I learn, though I knew it before

that culture has her roots

in the deep dung of cash, and lore

is a last off-shoot of Boots.



True Crime on Campus – Best of 2010

True Crime on Campus – best bits

Started posting these (real) extracts from University Security reports earlier in 2010. There really is an endless list of this stuff and some of my favourites from the past year appear below. All credit to colleagues in Security who really do put up with an enormous amount of hassle in doing a superb job for the University. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

0845 Request for Security to attend an office in Trent Building. A member of staff had a pigeon in his office, which would not leave. Security attended and the pigeon was escorted from the building.

0355 Report of a female Conference Delegate feeling unwell in Willoughby Hall Security attended the female stated she had drunk a large amount of a Caffeine based drink. An organiser from the Conference was contacted and asked to sit with the Delegate.

1015 Report of a male talking to a wall at the rear of the Biology Building. Security attended and spoke to the male. The male identified himself as a member of Staff – he stated that he was working through a Mathematical problem and would be returning to his office after his lunch.

1255 Report of a person trapped in mud in the Lake adjacent to University Park. Security attended and after a search, a female was found stuck in the mud up to her waist. The Fire Service were called out they were able to extract the female from the mud. No explanation was given as to why she was in the mud.

1900 Report of a Bouncy Castle being used in the Portland Building. Security attended. The Egyptian Society had put the Castle up and a large number of children were using it without supervision. The organisers where asked to take it down.

0210 Report of a Tarantula Spider in a room in Southwell Hall. Security attended and were told the Spider had gone under the bed. After a careful search by Security Officers, a small house spider was captured and removed from Campus. The occupant of the room confirmed that the spider was the one they had seen.

1840 Report of a suspicious package in Nottingham Medical School – Security attended and after checking the package removed it from the building. On examination, the package was found to contain a tin of gravy granules.

1645 Report of youths urinating and spitting on vehicles. The youths were also said to be swearing at passing Students. Security attended but the youths had left the area. On checking the CCTV, the youths were found to be a group of children the oldest around 7 years old, the youngest around 5 years old. The Police will be informed to see if they can recognise them and give advice to their parents.

1100 Report of a strange man walking around the Music School playing a Guitar. Security attended – no one matching that description was found.

23.50 Report of a suspicious vehicle parked at the rear of Cripps Hall with its engine running. Security attended and on approaching the vehicle a male and female emerged from the back seat in a state of undress. They apologized and after getting dressed left campus.

21.15 Report of a group of students with a pig’s head being offensive in a hall of residence. Security stopped the group and removed the head from them. The Warden is to be informed.

2325 Report that a picture had been taken off the wall at Hugh Stewart Hall by a Pirate. The Pirate had gone in the direction of the Mooch Bar. Security attended the Mooch where they found over 40 Pirates none of whom had the picture.

More to come in 2011.

Australian review of student visa requirements

Australia seems to have realised that student recruitment matters

Times Higher carries an interesting piece on changes to student visa arrangements in Australia.

Universities in Australia have welcomed the “timely” decision by the country’s federal government to review its student-visa system in light of the recent collapse in demand from overseas students.

Ministers announced the review last week alongside an immediate package of measures designed to ease restrictions that have been partly blamed for the decline in applications from key markets such as India and China.

Although other factors such as the global recession, the strong Australian dollar and the fallout from attacks on Indian students have also hit enrolments, the government has come under pressure to change its visa policy.

Concerns have also been expressed that the Australian government was giving overseas students the impression that it was not “open for business”, with the result that students were heading for competitor countries such as the US, Canada and the UK.

Given the decidedly unfriendly tenor of the government’s latest immigration proposals, this move could reverse the flow of traffic. Good news for Australian HE, not good for UK universities (or the UK economy).

Universities ‘scared of private sector’

Oh no we’re not

Some festive cheer from politics.co.uk.

The analysis here is somewhat overstating the case though:

Massive efficiency savings which could drive down costs in higher education are only possible if university managers get over their suspicion of the private sector, Policy Exchange has claimed. A report by the centre-right thinktank’s Alex Massey published today argues that significant benefits are possible from “productive collaborative arrangements”.

Up to 30% of the total cost of university administration could be saved if more services were shared, the report claims. Across the total higher education sector this amounts to £2.7 billion.

There really is nothing much new in this report from Policy Exchange, the full text of which can be found here.

Four brief points to note:

  1. Universities really do need the VAT changes we have argued for for many years in order to create real incentives for sharing services (the report endorses this).
  2. Simply outsourcing lots of services does not necessarily deliver a better service for students or guarantee savings: it works in certain areas in certain contexts at certain times but is no panacea.
  3. The report rightly acknowledges significant examples of sector wide shared services which already exist, including UCAS, but also what about JANET and jobs.ac.uk? Not sure would really argue that QAA is a shared service in the same sense although there is a case for HESA.
  4. The savings figures quoted here are just fantasy.

So, overall a modest contribution to the very real challenges facing universities. Yes, we should collaborate more on services but only where it will both deliver savings and improve the quality of the service we provide. But the idea that universities are ‘scared’ of the private sector is very wide of the mark.

New Green World University Ranking

University of Indonesia produces its GreenMetric World University Ranking

The recently published table has Berkeley in first place and the University of Nottingham in second. From the press release:

As one of leading University in Asia, University of Indonesia come up with its new innovation in effort to build sustainable environment within its campus through UI Green Metric Ranking of World Universities 2010. This is the only rankings that measure each university participants in its commitment in developing an ‘environment friendly’ infrastructure as its indicator.

Based on research and survey conducted through on-line by the UI Green Metric team on thousands of universities in the world, which was conducted in May – November 2010, University of California, Berkeley, United States (total score of 8,213), is the best campus in terms of its environment policy. University of Nottingham, the United Kingdom ( total score of 8,201), and then followed by Northeastern University, United States (with score of 7,909) is in the third place.University of Indonesia is in the 15th place (with score of 6.875), position it as the best university in Indonesia based on its environment policy.

The criteria are not entirely clear:

But the results are quite interesting with four UK universities – Nottingham, Bangor, Sussex and Kent – in the leading group. The top 20 is below and the full table can be found here.

University of California, Berkeley US 8,213.18 1

University of Nottingham UK 8,201.55 2

York University Canada 7,909.14 3

Northeastern University US 7,885.73 4

Cornell University US 7,799.14 5

Universiti Putra Malaysia Malaysia 7,698.60 6

Washington University In St. Louis US 7,501.53 7

Georgia Institute of Technology US 7,479.51 8

University of Wisconsin-madison US 7,437.97 9

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill US 7,320.58 10

Bangor University UK 7,242.69 11

University of Sussex UK 7,087.82 12

Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral Ecuador 7,046.20 13

University of Kent UK 6,948.10 14

Universitas Indonesia Indonesia 6,875.82 15

Universidad de Alcalá Spain 6,863.83 16

King Mongkut´s University of Technology Thonburi Thailand 6,859.71 17

Institut Teknologi Sepuluh November Indonesia 6,817.01 18

Hokkaido University Japan 6,785.95 19

National University of Singapore Singapore 6,737.98 20

Will it catch on? Time will tell.