A strange use for a weapon

On the slightly odd tradition of the university mace.

During our summer graduations, as I sat on stage and mused on the various facets of these wonderful if rather bizarre ceremonies (as I’ve done before so won’t repeat here) I was struck by the strange presence of a mace as part of the proceedings. Our University of Nottingham mace is carefully looked after, carried in and laid down by our Esquire Bedell – pictured here with the said item.

Dr John Whittle, Esquire Bedell. Armed with mace

Dr John Whittle, Esquire Bedell. Armed with mace

It is last on and first off the stage at each ceremony.

Occasionally it is the target of a pick up by a daring graduand (fortunately that hasn’t happened for a few years) but largely remains immobile at the front of the stage reflecting grandly the bright lights overhead. But why a mace? And where else do they appear?

Monarchs in England and the UK have had them for centuries and there are quite a few locked away in the Tower of London I believe. Prominent towns have had them for many years as, I guess, a symbol of civic pride. There are maces in both Houses of Parliament and the one in the Commons has been swung a few times by MPs keen to make a point before being suspended. A number of other countries deploy maces in formal settings too including the Philippines, Canada and Australia (according to my sources at Wikipedia) and there is also a ceremonial one in the US house of Representatives. Slightly strangely they appear to find favour with Cossack leaders too.

Anyway, just about every university seems to have one. Presumably our first universities led the way with this and more recent (19th and early to mid 20th Century arrivals) sought to emulate them and the cities in which they were founded. More recently it has just become part of the full university package along with the logo, the gown and hood design and the corporate Jag. So, a bit bizarre but really rather endearing I think.

Reducing regulation in Australia

But will regulatory review deliver?

A story in Inside Higher Ed notes that the Australian government is considering cutting higher education regulation. A previous post noted the woeful track record of UK governments in reducing the regulatory burden on universities so it will be interesting to see if Australia makes more progress:

In a radical policy change, Australia’s Tertiary Education Minister, Craig Emerson, is this week releasing a new approach to quality control that meets university demands for a lighter regulatory burden and could gut Labor’s own creation, the Tertiary Education Quality Assurance Agency.

More or less?

More or less?

While Emerson is announcing only a regulatory review, measures included in the announcement make it clear he has heard and understood the concerns of Universities Australia and the Group of Eight, and accepts that an estimated $280 million in annual compliance costs for universities to report to government is unacceptable. “The review will ensure more of the government’s record investment is directed at student tuition than administration,” he planned to say.

In immediate measures Emerson will announce rationalizations of reports required by his department and says the departmental secretary, Don Russell, will write to the chief commissioner of the quality assurance agency, Carol Nicoll, to “seek advice about any immediate actions that can be taken to ameliorate concerns in the sector about red tape.”

It is just a review in the first instance but it does look like everyone wants to make changes. It will be interesting to see if the Australian sector is more successful in reducing the regulatory burden than we have been in the UK.

A Huge Outsourcing Deal

Texas goes large.

A while ago via The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on massive outsourcing activity in Texas. Whilst outsourcing in itself is not that unusual, the scale of the deal done by Texas A&M University is pretty extraordinary. Last summer the university outsourced all of its main dining and facilities services to Compass Group USA this summer for an estimated $260-million in savings and revenue over the next decade:

Controversy over the decision to outsource flared on the College Station campus last spring, but then quieted after Compass Group, a North Carolina-based company, hired almost all of the university’s 1,600-some dining, maintenance, custodial, and landscaping workers. It began providing those services in the university’s stead in August.

Questions about the move persist, however, as the deal reverberates beyond the Brazos Valley. The Texas A&M system is inviting its other universities and even colleges elsewhere to take up the framework of the Compass Group contract.

As college administrators continue to face fiscal pressures, outsourcing becomes more attractive, even when it means cutting jobs. The College Station campus has lost 14 percent of its state appropriations in the past two years, and while it managed to stave off across-the-board tuition increases in that period, it saw its student-to-faculty ratio increase from 19:1 to 21:1.

Zoológico de Berlim.

The move to outsource “was all about, in tough economic times, finding the revenues that you can pour into the classroom and the research laboratory,” says John Sharp, the system’s chancellor, who drove the effort.

Texas A&M officials were already considering outsourcing the campus dining services when Mr. Sharp announced in February, after just six months on the job, that proposals were being accepted to take over not only the university’s dining operations but other services as well.

That announcement was met with resistance from faculty, staff, and students, many of whom expressed concern for the hundreds of university workers who would be affected. Others saw the decision as having come “from above,” in a move that “overrode the autonomy of the university to make its decisions,” says John N. Stallone, a professor of veterinary medicine and speaker of the Faculty Senate, who remains unconvinced of outsourcing’s benefits.

Although there was clearly some opposition it has not stopped developments as since then, the University has also outsourced landscaping, building maintenance and “custodial services” jobs across its 16 campuses. Leaving aside the question of why a university needs “custodial services” this is another major step which will result in savings of, it is claimed, $92m over 12 years.

I can’t find any details on how well these services have been operating since the outsourcing move but it in a separate development it has recently been announced that the President of Texas A&M is to stand down after a relatively brief tenure.

[Photo by Márcio Cabral de Moura used under Creative Commons licence]

Badges, badges, badges

Earn your first badge now!

I’ve posted before about this nonsense but then I heard the exciting news about how you can bypass all that messy unpleasant formal education stuff and get straight on and get some real recognition for your achievements via this super Open Badges concept:

Want to get started? Earn a Mozilla Webmaker badge.

Or set up your Mozilla backpack to start storing, collecting and sharing your badges across the web.

Earn a badge from one of these members of the Open Badges community.

Need a demo? Take the badges 101 quiz, and earn a badge in the process!

Get recognition for the things you learn, online and off

 Not an accredited qualification

Not an accredited qualification

Open Badges includes a shared technical standard for recognizing your skills and achievements. Badges help make them count towards an education, a job or lifelong learning.

Earn badges from anywhere. Then take them everywhere. Collect and store your badges in your backpack, sort them into categories and then display them across the web — on social networking profiles, job  sites, websites and more.

Prove skills. Employers, organizations and schools can explore the data behind each badge issued using Mozilla Open Badges to verify your skills, achievements and interests.

Knit your achievements together. Whether they’re issued by one organization or many, badges can build upon each other, joining together to tell the full story of your skills and achievement.

And if you go to this site you can make your own badges. It’s all a bit Blue Peter really. I made my own:


Still struggling to see any merit in any of this. Also I really can’t take claims of shared standards at all seriously. And which employers are treating these kinds of things as comparable to formal qualifications.


Faking it: China’s Diploma Mills

Report Reveals 100 Fake Universities (and wild chickens).

A blog post last year noted the case of a non-existent university in the USA. Now there is an interesting report on China’s Diploma Mills which has shown up a large number of fake institutions in the country:

As China’s notoriously difficult college entrance exam, the feared “gaokao,” continues to be mired in controversy, some Chinese may be tempted to skip higher learning and just obtain a diploma from one of Beijing’s several fake universities. Human resources managers looking to hire from China, be warned: If you see a school like Capital University of Finance and Economics, Beijing Economic and Trade Institute or Beijing Foreign Trade Institute while reading over a resume, they’re fake.

In China, these illegitimate schools are called “universities of wild chickens,” and refer to institutions that have deceptive names that are similar to real, well-known universities, the main difference being that the fake ones have no licensing that allows them to even accept students, let alone reward degrees. Still, that does not stop those students who scored poorly on their gaokaos from turning to these kinds of institutions to get a fake diploma.

Disappointing really and not good news for students. “Universities of wild chickens” does sound like a very appropriate name for these outfits though.

More Data – Open Data

Data for all.

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

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

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




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

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

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

Regulation without legislation

Not a campaign slogan but the next steps in HE regulatory change from HEFCE

Something of a surprise announcement from HEFCE on new changes to HE regulation. The changes follow a written Ministerial statement from David Willetts. The changes cover a lot of ground:

The success of higher education in England is underpinned by the principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, and the new arrangements build on these strong foundations. The Government has asked HEFCE and the Regulatory Partnership Group (RPG) to implement them within existing legislation, while recognising that a new legislative framework will be required in the longer term.

The Operating Framework - part of the regulatory framework governing HE

The Operating Framework – part of the regulatory framework governing HE

Working in partnership with the RPG, HEFCE is asked to take on a regulatory oversight and coordination role. HEFCE is leading work on a number of strands of the new arrangements:

  • developing a register of higher education provision in England
  • consulting on proposed revisions to HEFCE’s Financial Memorandum
  • operating of a new system of specific-course designation for alternative providers
  • implementing further changes to student number controls, including extending them to alternative providers from 2014-15.

The Government has announced that it intends to delegate to HEFCE responsibility for the process of approving designation of HEFCE-funded universities and colleges, and for providing assurance that the agreed terms and conditions are met. Eligible courses at these institutions are and will continue to be designated automatically, allowing students to access student support. Institutions will not be required to undergo a separate designation process. This means that in practice there will be little change for existing institutions, and no additional administrative burden.

This last piece is a critical one. Whilst there are new requirements on alternative providers it is claimed there will be no extra burden on universities. To achieve this the changes to the Financial Memorandum will need to be modest. And it is not at all clear that any of these changes will leave us with a reduction in regulation. At some point the focus of higher regulation partnership working moved from seeking to reduce the burden on institutions to concentrating “on policy, strategic and operational issues arising from the development of the new funding and regulatory regime for higher education.” This is a matter of significant concern given the many competitive and regulatory pressures universities are under. So whatever happens in this latest iteration it is vital that the promise of no additional administrative burden is delivered. Then we can move to actually reducing the level of regulation.

A higher education report to remember?

Or not much of an impact?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An engaging app for students?

Possibly. But it’s a tough sell.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on a new app which claims to offer faster outreach to students. But will it catch on?




The app, Student Engauge, is part of a larger trend toward mobile outreach, as colleges seek ways to engage with students who often don’t respond to e-mails or online pestering, says Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The app follows in the path of mobile warning messages that many colleges have adopted to alert students of campus emergencies.

Once downloaded on a mobile device, Student Engauge syncs to a student directory, allowing students to authorize their accounts using their existing credentials. The college can then send out questions or alerts based on those data—for example, asking a student whether he or she liked a professor, or asking a specific group of students if they found a counseling session to be helpful.

More details can be found on the website.

The promo video offers a little more of a taster of what the app might offer

Does it offer enough to ensure widespread adoption? It’s not at all clear. And it could really do with a better name.

More honoraries: serious or celeb 2013

Who are the lucky stars this year?

A previous post on Honorary Degree recipients noted that almost all of them fall clearly into one of two categories: they are either serious or celeb. The former really don’t get much press coverage so it doesn’t really matter if you have won a Nobel prize, discovered a new element or are a great writer or artist you really aren’t going to get noticed for your Honorary if you don’t feature regularly in the tabloids. So who are this year’s celeb graduates and who are the serious stars?

First up is Emma Thompson who collected an honorary degree from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) in Glasgow along with her mother Phyllida Law.

Sir David Attenborough has been given yet another honorary degree from Queen’s University in Belfast, adding to his huge pile of scrolls. This is allegedly at least his 31st honorary. He’s always been a bit of a collector.

Birmingham chose to honour Mock The Week panellist Chris Addison. The press release notes that “the funny man first graduated from the university with a degree in English literature in 2004.”


Birmingham is also awarding an honorary to Michael Acton Smith, founder of Moshi Monsters, together with media star and former Midlands Today presenter Kay Alexander.

Olympic gold medal winning cyclist Jason Kenny has been award an honorary doctorate of science by the University of Bolton.

The ubiquitous Emeli Sande was awarded a Doctor of the University by Glasgow for her “outstanding contribution to the music industry”.


UCD has honored Sinead Cusack who was once a student there but quit to be an actor.

Barbra Streisand received an honorary doctorate of philosophy degree from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Glenn Close received a Doctor of Laws from Canada’s Queen’s University

Bowie State University awarded Ashford and Simpson, singing duo, an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree (or possibly one each).

Warwick honoured Gavin and Stacey star Ruth Jones. who was made an Honorary Doctor of Letters along with Adrian Lester, who appeared in BBC series Hustle.

Judy Dench picked up yet another Honorary from Stirling.

Bill Clinton popped into the University of Edinburgh to pick up his latest award.

St Andrews awarded Terry Jones an Honorary.

And finally, my personal favourite, Richard Jobson, formerly of the popular beat combo The Skids, was awarded the world’s biggest ever Honorary Degree by Napier University.


News just in that this year’s most inspired Honorary Degree award has been made by Salford University. Step forward Dr John Cooper Clarke who is quoted thus in the Manchester Gazette:

The Doc

The Doc

John said: “I am very proud to receive an Honorary Doctorate from Salford University.

“The city where I was born and grew up.

“I am very much looking forward to using the title ‘The Doc’.

“There have been lots of positive changes since I worked at Salford Tech, in the 70s.

“I am pleased to be known as Salfords’ Bard and to have helped put it on the map.”


Great one this – another inspired choice – Leeds Met give an Honorary to Barry Cryer. “My CV is now one line. BA Eng Lit. Failed. Honorary Doctor of Arts.”

Another amusing attack on administrators

Flipping administration. Clever.

An entertaining piece on another splendid idea by Benjamin Ginsberg. A previous post noted his recent book The Fall of the Faculty had a distinctive analysis of the process of strategic planning as a tool for power-hungry administrators.

This time, it is suggested we “forget MOOCs” and use MOOA instead (it really doesn’t make a lot of sense).

Studies show that about 30 percent of the cost increases in higher education over the past twenty-five years have been the result of administrative growth,” Ginsberg noted. He suggested that MOOA can reverse this spending growth.  “Currently, hundreds, even thousands, of vice provosts and assistant deans attend the same meetings and undertake the same activities on campuses around the U.S. every day,” he said.  “Imagine the cost savings if one vice provost could make these decisions for hundreds of campuses.”

This is a completely different MOOA.

This is a completely different MOOA.

Asked if this “one size fits all” administrative concept was realistic given the diversity of problems faced by thousands of schools, Ginsberg noted that a “best practices” philosophy already leads administrators to blindly follow one another’s leads in such realms as planning, staffing, personnel issues, campus diversity, branding and, curriculum planning. The MOOA, said Ginsberg, would take “best practices” a step further and utilize it to realize substantial cost savings.

So, massive open online administrations. It’s good to see that the whole idea has been thought through in real detail and that the MOOA will be offering a strategic plan for lots of institutions early in 2014. With the exciting title of “administeria” it really sounds like a winner.

Delivering better higher education data?

Another attempt to clean up HE data.

A previous post on the HE regulatory landscape noted the challenge of sorting out the massive range of data reporting required of universities – 550 different reporting requirements – which entailed a major programme of work. A year later things have moved on it seems and we now have the Higher Education Data & Information Improvement Programme. The rather infelicitously entitled HEDIIP is meant to address at least some of these issues:

The Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Programme (HEDIIP) is being established to enhance the arrangements for the collection, sharing and dissemination of data and information about the HE system.

This follows the challenges set out in paragraph 6.22 of the BIS White Paper Students at the Heart of the System which called for the HE information landscape to be redesigned “in order to arrive at a new system that meets the needs of a wider group of users; reduces the duplication that currently exists, and results in timelier and more relevant data.”

This work has been overseen by the Regulatory Partnership Group and HEDIIP is now being established to carry forward a programme of changes to build a more coherent, responsive and less burdensome information landscape.

There is a desperate need to sort out the regulatory landscape. Will this new initiative make a difference? Time will tell but there is really very little to go on here as yet and a solitary tweet in 10 weeks does not auger well either.

More interest in branch campuses

Immigration constraints prompt overseas interests

Out-law.com has an interesting piece on institutional ambitions overseas:

In research carried out by Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, 67% of surveyed universities said that Government policy on immigration and fees made them more likely to establish an overseas presence.
The internationalisation of higher education is not, of course, a new phenomenon – 80% of universities surveyed already have an international presence – but the pace of internationalisation is accelerating, driven in most cases by the change in Government policy.
The most popular method of international collaboration is currently the use of joint or dual degrees, with 57% of those surveyed already providing these and 52% considering collaborating to reach overseas markets.


University of Nottingham Ningbo, China - Internationalisation for real

University of Nottingham Ningbo, China – Internationalisation for real

As the article notes there is a lot more to internationalisation than branch campus development but nevertheless it does seem that there are plenty of institutions considering the possibility:

When choosing where to expand to, the Pinsent Masons survey revealed that, unsurprisingly, universities are focussing on where the greatest demand is – namely countries with an expanding middle class and a relative shortage of higher education places.

This is why universities are focusing on China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Brazil and the Middle East. Of those surveyed, 80% of universities told us that they were targeting China.

More surprising is the presence of the USA, an already mature higher education market, on the priority lists of over half of universities.

Although the idea of establishing an overseas campus is not new and does represent a rational response to the challenges of Government immigration policy this is a far from straightforward strategy. As noted in a previous post about the University of Nottingham’s international activities there is a lot to consider and it requires a significant, deep and sustained commitment to internationalisation. Both abroad and at home.