The most optimistic new year greeting ever?

Reposting this great message from a couple of years ago. Happy new year!

Registrarism

A great new year message!

I’ve never had any dealings with the Alfred Nobel University but I do like the sound of them on the strength of this extraordinarily positive message which I’ve just received:

Just great!

Happy new year!

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The Imperfect University: The End of Internationalisation?

A post from earlier in the year on why MOOCs do not trump internationalisation in higher education

Registrarism

Is it the end for internationalization?

No. It’s not a bubble. It’s not bursting.

A recent Chronicle blog suggested that, in common with some other higher education activities, internationalization was a bubble and about to burst. It isn’t. International student recruitment patterns continue to evolve, some branch campuses are less successful than others and the global economic downturn is having an impact on everyone. This doesn’t mean international higher education is finished.

Unfortunately though it does seem that with all of the hype around MOOCs and the talk of the havoc that this disruptive innovation will wreak on higher education it is beginning to feel that internationalization is last year’s topic for university leaders. Leaving aside the fact that online learning, in whatever form, can largely be offered freely across national borders, the key issue here is the challenge presented by MOOCs to the traditional campus experience, especially when it…

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By not very popular demand: it’s the top Registrarism posts of 2013

Well, it’s been a busy old year.

Following the incredibly innovative post pretty similar to this last year I thought I would repeat this highly efficient means of listing previous postings. Yes, it’s the list of the most viewed Registrarism posts of 2012 2013! Here we go then…it’s rankings, rankings, China, rankings, MOOCs, my book, true crime, hobbits, leadership puppies, rankings and yet more rankings.

Let’s hope there’s a bit less league table enthusiasm next year. Unlikely though, which possibly explains why this blog continues to avoid the epithet ‘award-winning’.

Home page / Archives 17,887
Sunday Times 2013 University League Table Top 20 11,789
The Times: 2013 University League Table 5,322
The Times, Sunday Times, Guardian and Complete University Guide League Tables 2012-13 3,657
Times and Sunday Times 2014 University League Table Top 20 Placings 3,261
UK HE in China 2,125
Sunday Times 2012 University League Table 1,595
2014 Complete University Guide League Table 1,540
2013 Complete University Guide League Table 1,310
About Registrarism 1,290
Another World Ranking: High Impact Universities 1,246
The Times, Guardian and Complete University Guide League Tables 2012-13 1,215
Guardian League Table 2013: Ups and downs 1,148
The Times: 2012 University League Table 1,045
Why MOOCs won’t kill universities 1,029
THE World University Rankings 2013 696
Ranking in Latin America 681
Dangerous Medicine on Kindle 586
The Times: 2011 University League Table 563
True Crime on Campus §26: Best of 2012 537
RAE 2008: Results and rankings 487
Hobbit talk 485
Sustainability charts: UI GreenMetric World University Ranking 2012 482
The Imperfect University: what do we know about HE leadership? 469
THE World University Rankings 2012 421
New Guardian 2010 UK University League Table 389
Exam stress? Head for the puppy room 371
What about a university professional services NOOC? 356
Daft University Traditions 328
The Imperfect University: Free Information? 328
 

This post also signals a brief hiatus for the holiday period. Back with more tip top higher education posts in the new year. In the meantime, here’s a picture of some cure puppies:

puppies

Do we really need more performance indicators in HE?

Review proposes yet more performance indicators.

An earlier post noted that the UK Performance Indicators Steering Group (or the UKPISG, perhaps one of the least felicitous acronyms in higher education), was undertaking a major review of performance Indicators for higher education. It was hoped (by me at least) that this might lead to some rationalisation of performance indicators and a reduction in the demands placed on universities to provide data.

Disappointingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, there is to be no reduction in this burden. Rather the group has concluded that the performance indicators are valued by the higher education sector and the current approach should be retained.
performance
It also recommends:

broadening the populations and institutions covered by UKPIs to take account of the changing make-up of HE provision and of the HE sector

introducing a small number of additional UKPIs to take account of the wider role of higher education.

So, more rather than less.

There is also going to be more detailed investigation into current PIs and, once this completed, exploration of new areas for additional PIs will begin.

We therefore have a little breathing room but it remains a very disappointing outcome.

 

Retaining institutional knowledge

Memories…

Inside Higher Ed has an interesting article on avoiding the loss of valuable institutional knowledge which occurs when employees move on.

Previous An earlier post commented on the importance of institutional history but this is more about the efficient retention of business critical information. It’s an thought provoking commentary:

There are steps organizations can take to reduce the level of institutional knowledge that they lose with the loss of skilled employees. Specialized training, documentation of processes, and job sharing are a few of the ways to combat this loss. One of the more effective methods of lessening the loss of institutional knowledge is having the older and more experienced workers serve as mentors and trainers, allowing them to pass on their knowledge to others within the organization. In order to prepare for the loss of institutional knowledge and plan for knowledge transfer, organizations must develop strategies to ensure business continuity. This is something that many organizations, I believe, are not doing enough.

files pile

My 2012 survey of our Gen-X and millennial employees were asked a number of questions dealing with institutional knowledge. They were asked them about the value of their institutional knowledge and perception of the loss that the institution would suffer if they left. They were also asked about the business process and continuity, and other skills that they had acquired while working at the institution, and what outcomes (including gains or losses) would the institution realize, if they left. The results of the survey from these questions were not as surprising.

The majority of both generational groups believed that what they have learned at the institution was very important and had value. Furthermore, they maintained that this value, or institutional knowledge, would be a critical issue if not addressed by management. Both generational groups believed that their supervisors and managers would be hard-pressed to find replacement employees with similar skills or knowledge. The institution did not have either a tacit or explicit formal plan to transfer knowledge. Though the responses were not surprising and had a bit of humility tied into their responses, it did bring up the question of what we’re doing to retain, acquire, or transfer this knowledge before they leave.

card index

Additional research or studies may be necessary to really understand the importance of institutional knowledge and the methodologies by which to retain or acquire it. Aside from several articles on the subject, there’s not much published on this topic.

On a larger scale, I believe that if efforts aren’t made to address the retention of Gen. X and millennial employees, we could possibly see a large gap in the loss of institutional knowledge, continuity and history that the earlier generational groups had or made available. This knowledge may be difficult to replace. Hopefully, additional work on this subject will bring this issue to the forefront and lead to effective implementation of plans to preserve institutional knowledge.

I’m not sure that the target group of Generation X and millennial staff is the key grouping here but the general point about the need to develop plans to retain institutional knowledge is well made. Part of the solution is systemic, i.e. having the document management systems and processes which encourage and require knowledge retention, and the other element is cultural, everyone has to recognise the importance and value of preserving this kind of information in the long term interest of the institution. This does however require a really serious strategic focus on the issue and probably not insignificant investment of resource.

Universities unable to regulate guns on campus

More crimes about guns

A post here a couple of years ago noted the challenges US universities were facing in trying to address guns on campus. More recently there was news in a survey on US students’ views on carrying concealed weapons which highlighted what seemed to be quite a large proportion of students who did not object to concealed carry.

Now Inside Higher Ed reports that a Florida appeals court has rejected the right of public universities to regulate guns on campus.

Someone who posted a pic on Facebook to offer a nuanced view on this topic

The court has determined that universities, except in limited circumstances, lack the legal right to regulate gun possession on campus:

The ruling came in a case involving a rule at the University of North Florida banning students from keeping guns in their cars. But the appeals court went beyond that rule (which it rejected) to speak more generally to the right of public colleges and universities to limit gun possession on campus, as local news media indicated they do. Under Florida’s Constitution, the appeals court found, only the Legislature can make such restrictions, so most rules imposed by public colleges and universities would be invalid.

Sadly they're talking about real ones

sadly they’re talking about real ones

The university had argued that a specific exemption in Florida law giving school districts the right to regulate guns in their facilities applied to public universities as well. The appeals court rejected that argument, saying that lawmakers specify different types of educational institutions in their regulations, so that references to school districts cannot be assumed to go beyond elementary and secondary education.

As noted in the report this leaves universities “powerless” to deal with guns on campus and the decision “defies common sense.” This puts it mildly. In order to maintain a safe and secure environment for students, staff and the public, surely they have to have the power to govern the presence of weapons on campus.

What are academic bloggers up to?

What are academic bloggers blogging about? And why?

A great article for the Guardian Higher Education Network by Pat Thomson ( @ThomsonPat )  and Inger Mewburn ( @thesiswhisperer ) on bloggers in higher education. The piece is a summary of an article in a special edition of Studies in Higher Education and the longer one is well worth reading too.

Both of the authors are academic bloggers (Pat Thompson’s blog can be found here) who wanted to work out what other academics were blogging about and why. This was clearly not an unchallenging exercise and even deciding what counted as an academic blog was far from straightforward:

keyboard

We opted for the blogger who stated an institutional affiliation, had some kind of academic purpose and was connected to other academic blogs. We called the bloggers who weren’t professors, lecturers or fellows ‘para-academics’. We couldn’t get a representative sample as there is no handy index of blogs, the numbers change all the time, and frankly, there were just too many. And because we speak English, our choices had to be blogs we could actually read.

By using various online listings of academic blogs, we eventually compiled a list of 100 we could use as a sample set. Of these, 49 were from the UK and 40 from the US, five from Canada and six from Australia. 80 were by teaching and researching academics, 14 from para-academics and six from doctoral researchers.

By analysing and categorising the content of these blogs, we determined that 41% largely focused on what we call academic cultural critique: comments and reflections on funding, higher education policy, office politics and academic life. Another 40% largely focused on communication and commentary about research. The remainder covered a diverse range, from academic practice, information and self-help advice to technical, teaching and career advice.

The vast majority of blogs studies used informal essay formats and straightforward reporting styles of writing, but a significant proportion (40%) also used a formal essay style, not dissimilar to academic journal articles but with less intrusive referencing. Interestingly, given the rhetoric around blogging, 73% of the content we analysed was geared for other academics, while 38% was designed for interested professional readers.

We conclude that, in this sample at least, most academics are blogging for professional peers, rather than for the public in any general sense. Our results do not coincide with what the loudest advocates of academic blogging suggest we should do. But we think what we saw in our 100 blogs is understandable.

So, academic blogging is perhaps less about public impact than many have thought and much more about building new online communities and the sharing of ideas with peers in new and interesting ways.

A really worthwhile and absolutely fascinating study.

The Imperfect University: Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future

All change please! Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future

Rewriting Robbins? The very thought

I recently agreed to give a presentation on this theme at an event entitled “Rewriting Robbins” by those lovely people at SGP Martineau.

You can find the full details of the event here  and my rather fetching but nevertheless superficial parade of pictures here:

Apologies in advance

Having agreed to deliver such a presentation I quickly realized the mistake I’d made but by then it was too late. It was of course ridiculously presumptuous to undertake such an exercise and even to contemplate commenting on Robbins with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight seemed like an outrageous impertinence. So, apologies in advance for any offence caused.

There was recently a very good piece in the Times Higher on Robbins. Among the many interesting points was a recollection from one of his committee members, Claus Moser, that Robbins wrote nothing down during the many sessions of the Committee, preferring to commit data to his phenomenal memory. He then went off and wrote the whole report pretty much by himself. Another key factor was that is was intended to be thoroughly evidence-based. And you can see in the rigour of the investigations and the detail of the appendices that this was carried through. Robbins didn’t want to make recommendations which weren’t properly grounded.

Going for growth

A fundamental principle was the need to expand in order to meet the future needs of the country and the demand from a post-war population boom. He anticipated an increase in the APR from 8% in 1963 to 17% by 1980 meaning 216k students in 1962-3 rising to 560k by 1980-81.

And in facilitating this expansion the most famous Robbins Principle was invoked:

courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.

Part of the growth could be met by the new universities already under development or planned but there would still be a need for more places so Robbins proposed a range of additional institutions:

It may be that most of the university places that are required in the next ten years can be provided by such developments. But if no further steps are taken, the situation will thereafter be irretrievable, for universities take long to establish. We therefore recommend the immediate foundation of six new universities, of which at least one should be in Scotland. Another would be the new Special Institution for Scientific and Technological Education and Research. Such new foundations might provide 30,000 places by 1980. The remaining places should be provided by the advancement to university status of some ten Regional Colleges and Colleges of Education. If the scale of these recommendations should seem over-ambitious, we would remind the sceptics that demographic projections beyond 1980 suggest no lessening of the rate at which the demand for places will grow.

Robbins cover

In short the growth would include:

  • Six new universities should be established at once so that they can provide about 30,000 places by 1980/1.
  • Teacher training institutions should become proper Colleges of Education and aligned with universities
  • Three special Institutions for Scientific and Technological Education and Research should be created.
  • Two postgraduate business schools, providing courses in management, should be developed, each in association with a university or a Special Institution and close to a large business centre.
  • Scottish Central institutions – the most advanced should become universities
  • A further 20,000 university places should be provided by giving university status to some ten Regional Colleges, Central Institutions and Colleges of Education.
  • And in addition he proposed that the CATS, the Colleges of Advanced Technology should all become universities, each with 3-5000 students

(All of this is set out in Chapter X of the report although I must be honest that I found some of the institutional types difficult to disentangle on occasion.)

CATS and non-CATS

And sure enough in1966, the CATS became universities. Some of these are obvious, others less so:

images copy

Cats

  • Birmingham CAT became Aston University (the first designated College of Advanced Technology (or CAT))
  • Loughborough CAT became Loughborough University
  • Northampton CAT (London) became City University
  • Chelsea CAT became Chelsea College of Science and Technology as part of the University of London then later was subsumed into King’s College London
  • Battersea CAT became the University of Surrey
  • Brunel CAT became Brunel University
  • Bristol CAT became the University of Bath
  • Cardiff CAT became part of the University of Wales, then Cardiff University
  • Salford CAT (the Royal College of Advanced Technology) became the University of Salford
  • Bradford Institute of Technology became University of Bradford

And just to complete the picture, the other universities founded in the 1960s:

Not Cats

Not Cats

1961   Sussex
1962   Keele
1962   Swansea
1963   East Anglia
1963   Newcastle
1963   York
1964   Lancaster
1964   Strathclyde
1965   Essex
1965   Kent
1965   Warwick
1966   Heriot-Watt
1967   Dundee
1967   Stirling
1969   Open
1969   Cranfield

Beyond Robbins: things really have moved on

Although the changes set in train by the report were substantial and far-reaching, since Robbins there has been a transformation in both the scale and reach of institutions (as well as total student numbers and the composition of the student body, which I didn’t cover here as they were addressed by others at the conference).

In looking for growth in existing institutions Robbins was anticipating universities of up to 10,000 students not the level of 30,000 which he associated with the big federal systems in the US. 10,000 students was big though:

In modern conditions it is desirable that universities should be large enough to have an adequate division of labour within departments and to make economical use of buildings and equipment.

But if we look at the sector in the UK now we have over 100 institutions with more than 10,000 students. More than half of these have over 20,000 students enrolled and leaving aside the Open University around a dozen have more than 30,000 students. A completely different scale.

What is also fascinating is to look at the growth in institutional numbers too. We have a huge growth during Robbins’ time but then a period of some stability before renewed and continuing expansion as this crude chart of UK university numbers demonstrates:

Number of universities

Number of universities

Beyond scale there are of course many other differences these days – from the pace of change to the volume of regulation and from the interconnectedness of institutions and activity to the sheer complexity of operations. In addition there is the international dimension: whilst the Committee accumulated plenty of learning from other countries it really didn’t anticipate our internationalized institutions or scale of global activity. The fact that there are now more than 435,000 students from overseas studying at UK universities and not a greatly smaller number studying for UK HE qualifications in other countries is a most remarkable transformation.

Moreover, whilst we might in the UK fret about mergers and takeovers and whether or not to establish campuses overseas in the meantime dozens of institutions from other parts of the world are establishing outposts and branches in the UK (mainly in London). Higher education is very much a global activity now.

What does the future hold?

So that was then and now, but what of the future? Predicting the future in higher education is of course a mug’s game. You can never win. However, it is difficult to resist the opportunity to take part.

So in a completely flawed and unscientific attempt to set out what might happen I offer four possible versions of the future:

The Wild West

Version 1 is the Wild West. It starts with the OFT smashing its way through our cozy higher education set up and leads to takeovers, merger mania and chaos with lots of institutions being allowed to go to the wall and many more private for-profit institutions springing up all over the place (every supermarket has one).

Government removes all attempts to manage the system and there is no meaningful  regulation. The QAA is abolished, no need for any funding councils and there are no more committees of the great and good to pontificate on higher education. Anyone can set up and call themselves a university but in this environment only the richest, strongest and nastiest survive.

It’s the ultimate free market. In other words, higher education anarchy.

Private Frazer

Private Frazer scenario

Private Frazer scenario

Version 2 means that, unfortunately, we’re all doomed (which was Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer’s famous but rarely deployed catch phrase). The MOOC providers will win and kill most traditional universities. As Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, predicted a few years ago there will be only 10 universities left in the world in 50 years’ time. Of course universities only have themselves to blame having nurtured, supported and then allowed the MOOC providers to disrupt the system. So if there are only going to be 10 around the world how many will be left in the UK? Oxford? Cambridge? The Open University?

(Fortunately this scenario is looking quite unlikely, Thrun is rapidly recanting and it could be that the MOOC bubble is already bursting.)

Regulated mediocrity

Version 3 represents something of a straightjacket with a levelling down to leave us with lots of rather similar universities, all beset and overwhelmed with ludicrously excessive bureaucracy designed to keep every stakeholder happy. We have ever more regulation overseen by a host of super-regulators, meta-regulators and regional regulators. It feels a bit like every aspect of university life is directly governed by the QAA.

Moreover, immigration regulations mean there are next to no international students and there are rigid targets for everything from widening participation to detailed specification of class contact hours, SSRs, assessment turnaround times, exam duration, graduation ticket fees and academic dress.

Students have more information available to them than has previously been written in all of human history and spend substantially more time filling in surveys on their experiences than undertaking any learning.

All too credible I fear.

Wildflower meadow

The final version is something a bit closer to a higher education ideal (relative to all of the others that is). It offers a lightly regulated and managed environment, well-tended, all collegial and harmonious. Many different flowers bloom and institutions co-exist in a state of delightful equilibrium. There is a perfect balance between teaching and research, the widening participation job is done and there is an optimal balance of different kinds of institution with different missions.

This is the future (we hope)

This is the future (we hope)

Some universities come and go, some last, some spread their wings but overall there is a perfect balance between market and regulation. It really is higher education nirvana.

Into uncharted territory

It is though very unclear what the future holds. Monsters, in the form of as yet unknown Ministers for Universities, and wild uncharted lands await. But we could do worse than note some more words of wisdom from half a century ago from Robbins:

The fundamental question that we have to answer is whether a system of higher education in the sense in which we have used the word ‘system’ is desirable. As we have said, it is misleading to speak as if there were already a system in this sense. Higher education has not been planned as a whole or developed within a framework consciously devised to promote harmonious evolution. What system there is has come about as the result of a series of particular initiatives, concerned with particular needs and particular situations, and there is no way of dealing conveniently with all the problems common to higher education as a whole.

Our point is that the central decisions that have to be made should be coherent and take account of the interests of all sectors of higher education, and that decentralised initiative – and we hope there will always be much of this – should be inspired by common principles.

Wise words?

Unfortunately, we couldn’t just leave it there. The whole series of Robbins quotes offered during this event (and bandied around more widely) led me to speculate on the possibility of a new parlour game which tested whether one was reading a real Robbins quote or a made up one.  If you can bear it then do see the earlier post on this great new game the whole faculty can play: Robbins or Bobbins?

With the most profound apologies to Lord Robbins and all of his great works.

The Imperfect University: Free Information?

Revisiting this earlier post In the light of the fact that the University of Nottingham has received 50 FOI requests in November and 258 so far in 2013 versus 182 for the whole of 2012. And one of those is an FOI request asking for the number of FOI requests received…

Registrarism

Freedom of Information costs. But does anyone really benefit?

TIU

“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

These are the words Tony Blair addresses to himself in his memoirs while reflecting on his government’s introduction of the Freedom of Information Act as noted in this BBC report.

Last year Times Higher Education ran a story suggesting that the average cost of FoI compliance equals £121 per request:

A study into the costs of answering Freedom of Information enquiries suggests that less than £10 million was spent across the sector last year.

When the House of Commons Justice Committee called for evidence on the effectiveness of the FoI Act, 23 universities submitted evidence, of which 18 complained about the cost burden, among other concerns.

But Jisc, the UK’s expert body…

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Show and Tell: The Office of Fair Trading is Looking at Universities (again)

And they are looking for a lot of information.

Back in October 2013 the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) issued a call for information on the undergraduate part of the higher education sector in England.

This follows the earlier look (outcome awaited) at terms and conditions in relation to student debts and universities’ practices in relation to withholding conferment of degrees. So what is it they want to know? Quite a lot it seems:

Universities play a crucial role in the UK economy. They contribute directly to economic growth, employment and local economic activity, delivering skilled workers into the wider economy, and contributing to export earnings. In many respects, UK universities are world leaders in research and teaching.

In launching this project, the OFT wants to understand whether universities are able to compete effectively and respond to students’ increased expectations, and whether students are able to make well-informed choices, which would help drive competition.

index

The OFT is particularly interested in receiving information about how universities compete, the impact regulation has on universities, and the student experience of the current system.

We will be engaging with higher education providers, students, employers, government and regulatory organisations and others with an interest in the higher education sector over the next 10 weeks by issuing information requests, arranging roundtable discussions and holding bilateral meetings. We will also be inviting comments from any other interested parties.

Once information has been gathered and submissions have been received, we will analyse the evidence we have collected in order to determine whether there is any evidence of  competition or consumer problems and whether any further action is warranted.

The focus on competition for undergraduate recruitment is an interesting one given the fee cap. But it will also be fascinating to see how they address the continuing growth in the regulatory burden on universities in this context. And we can only speculate what further action they may wish to take in the light of the findings…

More information on the call for information is in the OFT launch document.

Shared Services in the USA

It’s probably not quite what they were hoping for.

Inside Higher Ed reports on a bold plan at the University of Michigan to address shared services within the institution. The idea must have seemed such a good one at the time – centralise large parts of departmental administration into a single place in order to improve productivity and save money ($17m was the planned saving). The approach, described rather unfortunately as “lift and shift” seems to have run into a few problems though:

For one thing, department chairs were kept in the dark about the effort and then given what faculty members have described as “gag orders” to prevent them from talking about it. Now professors and graduate students are speaking out publicly, and it’s clear they are unhappy about losing staff members with familiar faces from down the hall to an off-campus facility.

For another, the plan is no longer expected to save nearly as much as once hoped: just $2 million or $3 million in its first year and $5 to $6 million per year in the near term, according to a university spokesman.

University of Michigan August 2013 210 (Weill Hall)

They probably didn’t move to this building

That savings doesn’t factor in $1 million a year the university will pay to lease a new building to house the staff in one place. Or the $4 million the university expects to spend fixing up that building. Or the $11.7 million contract Michigan has with the consultant Accenture for advice about how to save money. All told, an effort to save money might barely break even in the short term, though officials expect savings to ramp up in the long term.Michigan is just the latest campus to turn to “shared services,” a cost-saving approach being tried at an increasing number of colleges across the country, including the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Kansas, the University of Texas at Austin and Yale University.

The idea is simple. Instead of each academic department having its own staff to handle bookkeeping, departments should rely on a pool of staffers. The theory is each of the employees in the pool could specialize in quickly dealing with certain paperwork instead of trying to be jacks-of-all-trades in departments across campus. One staff member would get really good at travel reimbursements, for instance, while another focuses on payroll.

So, all a bit messy. Whilst such shared service developments can work it does rather seem as the consequences of this kind of big bang approach might not have been fully anticipated in this case. It will be interesting to see if the promised savings do materialise. And whether the departments get the right level of service too.