The Imperfect University: rational admissions – it’s time for PQA

Returning to a post from earlier in the year. It really is time to look again at PQA.


A brighter future for university admissions?

It will be some time before all of the results are in but it does look at this stage as if this year’s admissions round has been a little less turbulent than last year’s. The mood across many universities seems to be one of some relief after a period of significant uncertainty. More students have been admitted than at this point last year and for most institutions (and those students) this is going to be good news

The 2012 admissions round – which coincided with the move to £9k headline fees for most instutitions – heralded major changes to the system: after years of relative stability and constrained Home/EU undergraduate recruitment targets the cap was removed for students with AAB or better at A level. This caused some significant waves across the sector with everyone seeking to find their way through this uncharted territory.

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Developing the UK’s international education strategy

But the report strikes a few wrong notes.

Back in July 2013 the Department for Business Innovation and Skills published its International education strategy: global growth and prosperity. For some reason it passed me by, despite its ambition:

This strategy sets out how the government and the whole education sector will work together to take advantage of new opportunities around the globe. It aims to build on our strengths in higher and further education, in our schools overseas, in our educational technology and products and services, and in delivering English language training. The strategy covers:

  • our warm welcome for international students: explaining that there is no cap on the number of international students who can come to the UK, and supporting students when things go wrong in their home country
  • supporting transnational education: supporting British schools and colleges operating overseas, developing ‘end-to-end’ English language training, and strengthening quality assurance
  • leading the world in education technology: actively encouraging development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and launching a design call, through the Technology Strategy Board, on commercialising education technology
  • a new relationship with emerging powers: prioritising UK engagement with key partners, doubling investment in development higher education partnerships and expanding the number of Chevening scholarships for study in the UK
  • building the UK brand and seizing opportunities: developing a new ‘Education is GREAT Britain’ campaign, and the Education UK Unit will help build consortia to take up high value opportunities overseas

This will ensure we grow both our economy and our wider links with partners around the world.

All worthy stuff. But it doesn’t seem to have had a huge impact since its publication.

BIS intl doc cover

The following passage in the report though was recently drawn to my attention by Gayle Ditchburn of Pinsent Masons:

UK education institutions have a noble history, rooted in the charitable impulses of past generations. To this day, many schools, universities and colleges have charitable status. They consider that this is an important part of their identity, and they discharge their obligations willingly and diligently. Although this model has many strengths, it does not lend itself to rapid growth. The governance structures and obligations of charities, or of bodies of similarly ancient pedigree established by Royal Charter or equivalent instruments, were not designed to grow rapidly, or to run a network across the world.

Consequently, many higher education institutions are conservative in their approach to risk, in both the size and type of funding, viewing equity finance as a last rather than optimal resort.

2.13 It is for institutions themselves to decide their own structures. Some have found ingenious ways to combine profit-making and non profit-making arms. Others, such as the recently created University of Law, have amended their governance structures, establishing models that could be of interest to others. In some circumstances the current structures could mean that international opportunities are taken by other organisations with fewer constraints.

2.14 The challenge will be to ensure that decisions are not taken by default. A positive strategic commitment to remain at a certain size is one thing. A reluctant ossification and decline, caused by an inability to see how to change a structure that is thought to have outlived its usefulness, would be quite another.

It’s a damning assessment of UK universities and also quite unfair. Also, using the newly created University of Law as a prime example of change seems somewhat inappropriate. The reality is that where UK universities do want to take international opportunities they have been able to do so. Recent press reports suggest that some of these overseas adventures may have proved rather too risky but the case of the University of Nottingham, as just one example, shows how international success can be achieved without being constrained by traditional governance structures.

Current structures and governance arrangements are therefore no impediment and there are also many examples of universities seeking creative approaches to securing additional finance. So it really is an unfair criticism of universities and a rather unhelpful one in a document intended to promote international activity in the national interest.

Robbins? Or Bobbins?

The all new higher education game.

Inspired by the recent Rewriting Robbins conference I thought it would be fun to create a new game to mark the 50 years since the publication of the Robbins report (any resemblance to any silly games popularised by radio’s favourite daft duo, Mark and Lard, is entirely coincidental). So, use your skill and judgement to decide which of the following passages are actually from the mighty Robbins report and which are not. So, which are:

Robbins cover

And which are bobbins?

Answers at the bottom of the page…

Passage 1

The organisation of higher education must allow for free development of institutions. Existing institutions must be free to experiment without predetermined limitations, except those necessary to safeguard their essential functions; and there must be freedom to experiment with new types of institution if experience shows the desirability of such experiments.

Passage 2

We have inherited institutions of very different sizes, with different strengths, different patterns of participation, different offerings by level and subject of study, different local, regional and national orientations, different legal status and governance arrangements and different histories. Some are of very recent origin; some are ancient foundations; most owe no allegiance to any particular group in society; others are church foundations. All of these factors influence the pattern of institutional provision and the institutions’ individual and collective characters and strategic aspirations.

Passage 3

Quite rightly our education system is envied on many levels, stretching beyond our academic excellence. Other countries are attracted to the expertise that UK institutions and organisations can offer on governance models, on professional development and curricular design, on construction, on the international reputation of our qualifications and on management and finance. The attraction also extends to the innovative equipment and technology solutions that our educational suppliers are constantly developing. But the UK can also learn from others. Countries like India quite rightly want a reciprocal partnership with the UK based upon shared values and mutual respect.

Passage 4

Students should be expected to spend a substantial part of their vacations on work related to their fields of study. Guidance on how best to use the vacations should be given by the institutions in which they are studying, and evidence that the time has been used to good purpose should be required.

Passage 5

Halls of residence in the traditional sense, where some teachers also live, and where teachers and students dine together, have common rooms and other social facilities, are expensive and they are not necessarily desirable for all students. Halls of residence provide a sense of real community; but to some students they may seem unduly restrictive.

Passage 6

Our visits overseas suggest that, in the long term, other nations will increase their investment in higher education to sustain their economies. There is some emerging economic evidence to support such an approach. First, that countries which are the first to develop new research and technology capabilities gain a long term advantage over their competitors. Secondly, that ‘the weight of evidence is increasingly that education is positively associated with income growth and higher education seems to be the most relevant educational variable in more developed countries’. As a matter of economic strategy, we must match international levels of investment to anticipate and respond to the changing structure of the international and national economy.

Passage 7

It is the essence of higher education that it introduces students to a world of intellectual responsibility and intellectual discovery in which they are to play their part. They have to be taught techniques and methods and acquire a corpus of relevant knowledge; but, more important, they have to be inspired to learn and to work. The element of partnership between teacher and taught in a common pursuit of knowledge and understanding, present to some extent in all education, should become the dominant element as the pupil matures and as the intellectual level of work done rises.

Passage 8

In some universities postgraduate students may be a further potential source of assistance in informal teaching and the conduct of discussion groups. At present about half of all students in courses leading to Ph.D. degrees do some teaching, the proportion being much higher in science than in arts.† There are obvious dangers here both for the postgraduate, who requires all the time he can find for his own work, and for the undergraduate, who should not be dependent on inexperienced teachers. But with proper safeguards and with proper departmental supervision a small amount of teaching is good for some postgraduates, and would give them an introduction to university teaching. Further, undergraduates may benefit from being taught by those who have recently passed along the same way.

Passage 9

In the professions, the UK’s institutions, such as its accountancy bodies, command worldwide respect for their roles in setting standards of entry to the professions and for professional development, covering ethical as well as technical standards. The qualifications offered by UK professional bodies are seen as benchmark standards in countries around the world. These qualifications are valued by business and governments for the depth and breadth of finance and business skills they teach, and by students because they open a wide range of international career opportunities.

Answers below:

Passages 1, 4, 5, 7 and 8 are from the Robbins Report
Passages 2, 3, 6 and 9 are Bobbins – 3 and 9 are from the BIS report International education strategy: global growth and prosperity and 2 and 6 are from the Dearing Report.

France invents the “Pop-Up Campus”

A bold assertion.

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

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

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

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

One day all universities will be like this

One day all universities will be like this

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

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

pop up campus logo

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

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

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

The Imperfect University: what do we know about HE leadership?

Revisiting a post from earlier in the year. We still don’t know much about leadership in HE…


What do we know about leadership in higher education?


Not a lot, seems to be the answer.

I’ve written a bit before in the Imperfect University series about leadership in universities. There is a new report out which seeks to sum up what we know about leadership in HE.

This report, written by Professor Jacky Lumby  and published by the Leadership Foundation, must have been difficult for the LFHE to come to terms with. I think they deserve credit for publishing it as it does rather suggest that we really haven’t learned an awful lot about leadership in HE despite all the research undertaken by, among others, the Leadership Foundation. It is a fascinating and refreshingly candid read.

F9AA402C809A43E5421B506E76C01028It considers the big questions about leadership in HE:

  • Does the HE context demand a distinctive approach?
  • Who are the leaders in higher education?
  • How do the leaders operate and…

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Betting the farm. On a stadium.

How one university is going for broke with a new stadium.

Inside Higher Ed has an interesting story about Colorado State University’s plan to solve all of its problems with a new stadium. The University is, in common with many other public institutions in the US, in a difficult financial position. But the response at Colorado State is a distinctive one – they are planning to build a new football stadium at a cost of $226 million as the way out of the crisis.

So, what’s the plan?

Colorado State is a middling football team in the Mountain West Conference, competing against respectable but not stellar athletic programs. The stadium plan relies on the hypothesis that if the university has great facilities, it will be able to recruit better athletes, sell more tickets and (this is the end game) attract more out-of-state students to help make up for a steep drop in state funding.

“At the end of the day, athletics is part of what drives national attention for the university,” said Kyle Henley, director of public relations and business and community development for the Colorado State system. “We’re a university on the rise and fundamentally, at the end of the day, if we’re not part of that national conversation at the athletic level, we’re missing out on opportunities.”

Yet some sports economists and faculty members who say they’re being stonewalled by the administration are warning against the gamble.

Colorado State President Tony Frank has vowed to keep the process public, and CSU System Chancellor Mike Martin said “the fact that we haven’t publicly debated those folks, doesn’t mean [their economic projections] aren’t relevant to our discussions.”

It’s a bold move but really seems like an extraordinarily optimistic and expensive gamble. It’s hard to imagine a similar move happening in the UK.

Ashes Fever Grips US Campuses (kind of)

Cricket take off at US Universities.

The Boston Globe has a great story about the rather remarkable resurgence of cricket at US universities:

After years of dormancy in America, cricket is making a rapid comeback at American colleges and universities, and the players are from a number of foreign nations — and from here in the United States. From the five teams (including Boston University) that took part in the first modern college championship tournament in 2009, there are now 70 clubs competing across the country, made up largely — but not exclusively — of students who are first- or second-generation immigrants from nations such as India, Pakistan, and parts of the Caribbean where the game is popular. And the game has caught on quickly in education-rich New England, where Northeastern, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bryant University, and Worcester Polytechnic, to name a few, have each established cricket clubs over the past few years.

Pm cricket shots09 5786

Cricket (not actually in the USA)

Perhaps even more surprisingly:

There was a time, believe it or not, when cricket was the most popular team sport in the nation. Harvard’s original cricket team was formed all the way back in 1868. The club lost its varsity status in 1902, when interest in cricket had died off here, victimized by the emergence of those other, more “American” games like baseball and football, which began to appear on college campuses in the latter half of the 19th century.

So it seems that the game, driven at least in part by an influx of overseas students, is suddenly taking off again in the US. Will cricket overtake baseball, lacrosse or even Quidditch in popularity on US campuses? Time will tell. Will there be a student world cup in due course? I doubt it but you never know.

(This story also reminded me of the novel Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill which features, unusually, cricket in New York.)

What about a university professional services NOOC?

A post just for University Nottingham (UK, China and Malaysia) colleagues: what about a university professional services NOOC?

Following the success of the first NOOC (Nottingham Open Online Course) on Sustainability in, among other things, involving staff and students from the UK, China and Malaysia campuses in shared learning it occurred to me that it might be an idea to use a similar model to offer a course for staff in professional services.NOOC_Logo_RGB

A group of colleagues have had an initial discussion about what such a NOOC might look like and come up with a number of interesting ideas for subjects it could cover. However, before going any further I wanted to test some of these thoughts on colleagues.

What might a professional services NOOC look like?

If we did develop such a NOOC it would probably be similar in structure to the Sustainability NOOC (do have a look at it here) but would only be open to University of Nottingham staff in the UK, Malaysia and China.

The course would last perhaps 10 weeks and each week would provide a new activity through which key themes for Nottingham professional services would be explored.

So, thinking about such themes – could you select all from the list below which you think should be part of a professional services NOOC.

Would you be interested in taking such a course?

Would you think formal assessment for academic credit should be an option?

Could you imagine such a course forming part of your annual professional development and personal review (PDPR) or equivalent?

Any other comments or ideas for topics do add to the comments box below.

Global Employability University Ranking

Global Employability University Ranking 2013

A new Global Employability University Ranking has just been published by Times Higher Education.

The list is compiled by French human resources consulting group Emerging Associates along with Trendence, a German polling and research institute:

It is based on responses from 2,700 recruiters in 20 countries, who were asked which of their local universities produced the best graduates.

According to Emerging Associates, the performance of smaller northern European countries such as the Netherlands, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries had surprised this year.

“In a general way, those universities that specialise in business tend do well, which is understandable, but what is evident in a number of countries is that the universities that do best are those that have managed to adapt themselves to recruiters’ expectations – irrespective of their specializations,” said Sandrine Belloc, director of Emerging Associates.

The top 20 is headed by Oxford with Cambridge 3rd with heavy representation from  US institutions in the upper reaches although there is some variety in here too:

1 University of Oxford, Great Britain

2 Harvard University, USA

3 University of Cambridge, Great Britain

4 Stanford University, USA

5 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

6 Princeton University, USA

7 Columbia University, USA

8 Yale University, USA

9 California Institute of Technology, USA

10 The University of Tokyo, Japan

11 Technische Universität München, Germany

12 University of California, Berkeley, USA

13 University College London, Great Britain

14 University of Toronto, Canada

15 University of Edinburgh, Great Britain

16 École Polytechnique, France

17 HEC Paris, France

18 Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong

19 École Normale Supérieure, France

20 Australian National University, Australia

There are 14 UK universities in the top 150 but universities in the US dominate the table, securing 45 places in the ranking overall, including seven of the top 10.

1 Oxford University

3 Cambridge University

13 UCL

15 Edinburgh University

21 Imperial College London

27 Manchester University

37 King’s College London

41 LSE

45 University of Nottingham

Good to see Nottingham in there too.

Variations in HE participation

Some big differences across the country

HEFCE has just published its latest research on participation in HE for 14 cohorts of young people aged 18 in the academic years from 1998-99 to 2011-12:

In October 2013 we published a report on the latest trends in young participation. This report builds on earlier reports to include cohorts up to and including those who entered HE aged 18 in the academic year 2011-12, or aged 19 in the academic year 2012-13.

This means it covers young people who entered HE aged 18 the year before the new funding and finance arrangements for HE came into effect. So it provides a baseline from which to measure participation rates in the new funding environment.

An interactive map shows the variations across the country.

map1 particpation

But as the report notes significant differences in participation remain – in particular between:

  • young people from advantaged and disadvantaged groups
  • young people living in different parts of the country
  • young men and women.

While it seems that some of these differences have reduced slightly others have become larger. The variations across different regions are most striking on the maps, particularly in North Nottingham where the participation rate, at 16%, is the lowest in the country. We have a long way to go but this is one of the reasons for the importance of Nottingham Potential, the University of Nottingham initiative to increase participation in this region.

The Imperfect University: Truly Transnational

On the eve of the International Leadership Conference at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China ( ) I thought it would be timely to re-post this piece from earlier in the year about what makes an international university.


There is something close to a genuinely international university

Last year Andrew Stewart Coats, commenting on his appointment and the interesting plans for the new partnership between Warwick and Monash Universities, asserted that in higher education:

there has been little or no globalization in how we organize ourselves; no global entity runs viable universities in multiple countries and no truly transnational offering for students and academics exists

He also noted what he described as the “outposts” of universities in China, South East Asia and the Middle East and questioned whether this could “in itself create a truly global university?”

As a member of a global university, with three truly international campuses, I have to disagree. I drafted this piece late last year at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia Campus (UNMC), home to some 4,500 students and over 450 staff, located at the edge of Kuala Lumpur in a breathtakingly beautiful…

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