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.

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Unbelievable excitement as website updated

Big announcements about Unistats.

As previously noted there is no shortage of information available to prospective university students. Unistats was intended to enable better decision-making by students but, whilst it is not without merit, it is no substitute for effective advice and guidance. Unfortunately this shiny website seems to be pretty much all that’s on offer. Still, the good news is it has been updated to help students make even better choices:

The updated and improved Unistats web-site includes even more course information than ever before, and will make it easier for users to search and compare courses by location, as well as on the go via a new mobile phone version.

Unistats is one of the most widely used higher education course comparison web-sites in the UK for prospective students, their parents and advisers. Over the past year, it has attracted more than 250,000 unique visitors and over 5.2 million page views, helping to match students to universities and colleges.

unistats latin

It really is this exciting

Anyway, the Universities Minister David Willetts is a big fan and credits Unistats with students getting into their first choice universities (and I thought it depended on their A level grades):

‘We are empowering people by publishing unprecedented levels of information on their options.

‘It is making a real difference and more students than ever before are now getting their first choice university place.

‘The next stage is to let people access Unistats on their mobiles, at a time and place of their choosing.’

Times Higher Education, reporting on the launch, include a quote from Rachel Wenstone, Vice-President at the National Union of Students who seems really keen on all this:

“Deciding what to study and where to go to university is a big decision and it is crucial that prospective applicants have relevant, impartial information in an easily accessible format,” she said.

“I’m really pleased that the improvements to the site have been made with students, parents and carers in mind and I hope it will contribute to helping even more students make the right application choices,” she added.

(Indeed, NUS seems surprisingly enthusiastic about many government initiatives these days.)

Anyway, it’s all very exciting news. Even if it does make it all sound a bit like a dating site…

Go West. Or East. Plans for more student mobility

Government wants more students to travel.

There is to be a Government initiative to persuade more students to travel. The aim is that more UK students will be encouraged to broaden their horizons by travelling overseas for part of their degree courses.

The new UK Outward Student Mobility Strategy aims to boost the number of students gaining vital international experience from overseas study and work placements, allowing them to complete in the global race for jobs and skills.

B 4

Currently just one UK student studies abroad for every 15 international students in the UK – and the UK lags behind Spain, France, Germany, Italy and Poland in accessing the European Commission’s Erasmus funding for study or work placements.

The strategy, developed by the UK Higher Education International Unit, comes on the same day as the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which is providing initial funding for the strategy, publishes its International Education Strategy.

According to the International Unit the Strategy will be consulted on during summer 2013 and published at the start of the coming session. The strategic activities involved will include:

  • Research and data collection
  • Promotion and awareness-raising campaign for study and work placements overseas
  • Coordination of financial support for mobility opportunities
  • HEI services to build capacity and influence
  • An online hub for all information and resources relevant to outward student mobility.

There is some way to go it seems before we get a full strategy. It is to be hoped that it does offer some useful assistance to universities as there is undoubtedly real value in student mobility and the UK is genuinely lagging in this area. Significant improvement to the position will though require substantial and sustained activity, by Government and institutions, and will not happen overnight.

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.

Yet more support to help UK HE internationalise?

More international support for Higher Education.

A year ago HEGlobal, the new portal for helping universities develop transnational education capability, was launched:

There is a consensus across government that engaging in and promoting international education and skills is strategically important to the UK for three main reasons: firstly it presents potentially significant commercial opportunities; secondly, it is an important soft power tool which supports the UK’s image abroad; thirdly, integrally linked to the above, it is key to maintaining the reputation of the UK education sector as one of the best in the world. However, although the UK’s education and skills sector is already doing well internationally, evidence suggests that we risk not taking full advantage of growing global opportunities. Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and elsewhere want to improve coordination across government by tasking the UK Higher Education International Unit to lead on a sector-wide initiative to do more to help UK higher education institutions (HEIs) increase their transnational education (TNE) capability.

HEGlobal looked like a real sector/government joint effort, although I must admit to being a little sceptical at the time about the need for it.

One of those pictures with lots of logos on it

Leaving aside the contradiction in policy between supporting this form of internationalisation whilst at the same time imposing visa regulations which hamper international student recruitment to the UK and give the impression that we aren’t open for business, there is something amiss here. The last piece of news on the site seems to date from January 2012 and it rather looks like there hasn’t been anything of interest to update the sector on since then. That’s a bit of a worry in the fast-moving HE environment.

But now, stop press, we have another new support unit for UKHE, this time with UKTI in the driving seat on its own it seems. This new team has been established “to help UK exploit international opportunities in education exports”. Sound familiar?

Education UK will capitalise on the growth in demand for UK education abroad

A new team dedicated to capitalising on the growth of demand for UK education from abroad is being established, Skills Minister Matthew Hancock announced today.

Education UK will specifically target fast-growing markets such as India and the Middle East. The UK has an excellent reputation for education internationally, but isn’t currently exploiting this to the full.

This the approach we need to take with exports

This the approach we need to take with exports – if only we could market HE as successfully as this

So, we have another new unit dedicated to helping UKHE exploit our talents to the full (no information is yet available on the extent of the Princesses’ involvement though). You’d think we weren’t much good at it. You might also be slightly perplexed by the similarity to the British Council’s Education UK campaign which shares the same name and is intended to support international student recruitment (or education exports).

Confused? You will be.

Where are the statues of great academics?

There really aren’t a lot of them about

Perhaps it’s because so many are involved in committees and are therefore disqualified by G K Chesterton’s comment: “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees”.

But really there aren’t huge numbers – I can recall statues of Newton and Darwin and there is one of Alan Turing I think but not someone like Professor Herman Pálsson, a wonderful Icelandic scholar who taught at the University of Edinburgh for nearly 40 years (to pick one of my favourite tutors at random).

The position is a bit different in China as this picture shows:

Professors-Yang-and-Greenaway-2012

This is a picture of our Vice-Chancellor with a statue of our Chancellor Emeritus, Professor Yang Fujia, a notable Physicist and former President of Fudan University as well as member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Look more closely at the picture though and you will notice that there are more statues behind them. In fact there are 94 in this particular park, all leading academics originally from Ningbo (also home of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China). This is just extraordinary. The idea of a city having one or two statues of academics would be surprising but a whole park full of them? You just could not envisage it happening in the UK. At least not right now. But why not?

Perhaps part of valuing universities “for their intrinsic, as well as economic, worth” (Page 17, Coalition Mid-Term Review, 7 January 2013) should be about reminding everyone just how great academics at UK universities are (wherever in the world they are from). So come on BIS, why not commission a few statues.

The Imperfect University: How not to defend higher education

Simple: ignore administrators (or worse)
TIU
The recent launch of the “Council for the Defence of British Universities” (or CDBU) offered some fascinating insights into a particular corner of British society. Like a strongly worded round robin letter to the Times made flesh it attracted some big names  from Sir David Attenborough to Baroness Deech. A rather wry report of the event was published over at WonkHE:

At the root of many contributions appears to be a reaction against the suggestion that academics ought to justify their own existence or the funding they receive. If Plato’s philosopher kings were not expected to appear before the Audit and Accountability Scrutiny Committee of Ancient Greece, why on earth should The Great and the Good of the British Universities?

It doesn’t end here. We hear praise for the University Grants Commission Lloyd George created in 1919 and “lasted us well” for 70 years before its untimely abolition, and later, Francis Bacon’s 17th century “partition of the sciences”. The message is clear – time to go back to the future and the further the better.

Back to the future, Doc

Universities really do need to go back to the future it seems

In addition  a piece in THE on the launch of the CDBU noted that:

The council’s initial 65-strong membership includes 16 peers from the House of Lords plus a number of prominent figures from outside the academy, including the broadcaster Lord Bragg of Wigton and Alan Bennett. Its manifesto calls for universities to be free to pursue research “without regard to its immediate economic benefit” and stresses “the principle of institutional autonomy”. It adds that the “function of managerial and administrative staff is to facilitate teaching and research”.

This is exactly what university administrations are like

This is exactly what university administrations are like

This rather dismissive comment from the launch manifesto about administrators has been reinforced by the comments by Professor Thomas Docherty (someone for whom I have high regard) who has penned a provocative piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the new body. In this article he observes that there are, apparently, two remarkable things about this council. First, it has a membership of very distinguished academics (always a good start for a campaigning organisation that). But there is more:

The second notable thing is the council’s unique mission: It is the only group that exists to put university education back into the hands of universities, and to do so with the determination to reinstate the primacy of academic values. The council has issued a Statement of Aims that should form the basis for how the nation approaches the management of universities, their financing, and their social, cultural, and economic importance. Central to the aims is university autonomy and respect for the independent demands and exigencies of scholarly work.

Corporate management might conceivably be good for some businesses, but it has no place in the university sector. Our administrators need to serve the primary academic functions, but increasingly—and in this they simply replicate a more general social malaise—administrations exist to perpetuate themselves, like some kind of carcinogenic cell that threatens the academic body.

The council hopes to exert influence in Britain, but the common good it wishes to serve goes beyond our borders. I hope American scholars also find that the moment is ripe for the reassertion of academic values and join us in our work. We’ve already received suggestions about the formation of sister councils outside Britain, and we’d certainly welcome an American counterpart. As is clear, the threats to academic values are not just local to Britain: They are global.

Now as has been noted here before, there are rather a lot of administrators in universities. No doubt some in the CDBU would say too many. Are all of these people actively organizing against the fundamental interests of higher education? Are they essentially concerned with protecting themselves and bureaucracies at the expense of academics? Are they unable to support or even understand academic values? Are they simply stooges of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills? Are all administrators merely unwitting dupes in thrall to a neo-liberal marketisation agenda? I don’t think so.

In most institutions, the primary concern of the professional administrator is to support and encourage the best academics to do what they do best, to minimise the distractions and to reduce the unwelcome and bureaucratic incursions of the state into academic life. Administrators are concerned more than anything with protecting academic staff (often with some difficulty) from the worst excesses of the increasingly challenging and turbulent world in which universities operate.

In order for academic staff to deliver as best they can on their core responsibilities for teaching and research it is vital that all the services they and the university need are delivered efficiently and effectively. Universities do not seek to hire and retain world-leading scholars in order to get them to maintain IT systems, organise data returns to statutory agencies or look for good deals on electron microscopes. These services are required and professional administrative staff are needed to do this work to ensure academics are not unnecessarily distracted from their primary duties.

So, in some ways I agree with the CDBU proposition that the “function of managerial and administrative staff is to facilitate teaching and research”. However, it is the tone and place of this within the opening statements which originally troubled me and now causes even more alarm following Professor Docherty’s rather unfortunate comments.

Protect and survive

Protect and survive

Put simply, it looks to me as if, for the very great and extremely good of the CDBU, administrators are, at best, an afterthought. That would be the most benign interpretation one could put on the statements from the initial meeting and more recently from Professor Docherty. Because really it does seem that administrators are to be neither seen nor heard (check out that initial list of members again) and have no place in doing anything as important as defending higher education. Despite the critical role we play in the operation of HE, it seems we are really to be seen as humble functionaries with no part to play in the grand drama of university defence.

If a university prefers to see administrators merely as a servant class or indeed decides that many can be dispensed with through radical surgery to ensure that academics retain the whip hand then it might find it will struggle before too long. Whilst the nostalgia-infused senior common room debates and the delightfully sweet taste of golden age governance will undoubtedly sustain many of the leading participants of the CDBU it won’t be too long in their universities before the infrastructure and professional staffing required to maintain a 21st century institution atrophies and dies. So, the cancer-causing administrators may be excised but it will turn out that this is rather dangerous medicine that the Council has decided to prescribe. Indeed it looks a bit like retreating to 19th Century quackery when modern health care is available. All in all I fear it is a recipe for decay and decline and, you have to say, really isn’t a very good way to go about seeking to build a coalition in defence of universities.

Go compare – Which advice to take?

Which? University adds to the university information mix

Last week saw the launch of the new Which? university comparison website. Trailed in the White Paper n June 2011 it offers yet more information to prospective students in what is already a very crowded landscape.

The Which? University website enables comparisons of courses by students by price, A-level entry requirements and graduate starting salaries. There are also ranking lists, based on a poll of students, which rate universities for creativity, political action, nightlife and sportiness, among other things.

 

 

 

Times Higher Education reported on the launch:

Loughborough University is the top university for sports, while the universities of Northumbria and Newcastle, and the University of Liverpool, are judged to have the best nightlife, according to a poll of almost 10,000 students by market research firm YouthSight.

The School for Oriental and African Studies, University of London, ranks the highest for having the strongest political scene.

Students at the University of Oxford are the most happy, based on scores from the 2011 National Student Survey – though the ancient university was ranked equal in this respect with Neath Port Talbot College and Ruskin College, an adult education college in Oxford.

Graduates from the London School of Economics had the highest average starting salary, beginning on £28,968, the site says.

The site was launched at Westminster College by David Willetts, the universities and science minister and Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students.

“Choosing the right course and the right university is an important, and often daunting, decision,” said Mr Willetts.

“I want prospective students to have all relevant information at their disposal.”

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: “It’s worrying how many people are making one of the biggest decisions of their lives without proper guidance or advice.

“That’s why we’ve launched Which? University so that people have free access to impartial information and can more easily choose the right course and university for them.”

 

 

I’d agree with this point – there really isn’t enough proper guidance and advice available for prospective students. There is however more than enough information and data out there. Before Which? University arrived there was already a similar site doing a similar job (although it now seems to have been suspended) and bestcourse4me.com offering similar information. Beyond this we have all of the main UK league tables and universities’ own websites and prospectuses to draw on for comparative information. Not to mention the National Student Survey and the new Key Information Set (KIS).

There is no information deficit. As noted in a previous post about the KIS there is huge amount of information available for prospective students. The Minister and other partners in the Which? enterprise, including the National Union of Students, demonstrate a touching faith in the power of information and data and popularity polls to help students make the right decisions. But really we don’t need more course comparison sites. We don’t need more information. Students need high quality professional advice and guidance to make sense of this information and to make the right choices for them. That is the real deficit.

Which? University is not the silver bullet.

 

Blots on the information landscape

Exciting new report on redesigning the higher education data and information landscape

A previous post commented on regulatory issues and the work being undertaken on the “information landscape”. A report on part of this work, the imaginatively entitled “Project B” has recently been agreed by the Interim Regulatory Partnership Group. The report sets out a new way forward for the governance of HE data:

The project report was presented to the Interim Regulatory Partnership Group (IRPG) at its meeting on 15 June. The report envisages a new, collective approach to the governance of the data and information landscape in HE, which could be achieved in the medium term.

IRPG accepted the recommendations of the report and agreed that this work should be scoped as a part of the broader programme of activities being taken forward by the Group.

Part of the evidence considered by the Group was a survey which aimed to establish the totality of external reporting undertaken by HEIs in the UK. The survey identified 550 (550!) separate external reporting requirements and grouped them into seven main categories as follows:

The main recommendation contained in the report is that the key players should get together and agree what data and information is required:

To achieve this IRPG should task some of the key stakeholders in information flows (e.g. HESA, QAA, SLC, UCAS, AoC, Guild HE and UUK) to develop and propose the structure, resourcing and operation of a governance model for the data and information landscape.

This would enable a programme of work, using shared expertise, to create a more coherent set of arrangements for the collection, sharing and dissemination of data. These arrangements would include the identification, development and adoption of data and information standards and the review and scrutiny of data requests.

In order to fulfil this role there would need to be a series of enabling projects, including:

  • Develop a calendar and inventory of data collections across the year as a first step towards streamlining collections and improving the timeliness of information
  • Develop a data model, lexicon and thesaurus for the sector – this would be a purely administrative/reporting model that does not seek to impinge on academic practice or to impact the way business processes are carried out. It may be that this would be a series of linked models using a consistent approach and a common data language.The establishment of this collective oversight of the information landscape would require each of the organisations involved to make a real commitment to work collaboratively and openly on issues involving data and information.

Whilst these steps will be important they do seem relatively modest aims in the light of the sheer scale of the regulatory burden identified by the group. It remains to be seen how much benefit will result from the establishment of a “coherent set of arrangements” in the medium term. Let’s hope it leads to some real reductions in the data information demands placed on universities.

Offshoring opportunities – a real alternative?

Minister proposes overseas campuses as alternative to international student recruitment

Times Higher Education reports that David Willetts seems to be pushing overseas campus expansion – with private finance support – to compensate for reduced international student recruitment resulting from government immigration policies. The idea features, not for the first time, in a speech on international higher education he delivered at the Goldman Sachs-Stanford University Global Education Conference on 20 June:

His call for universities to seek alternative financing for expansion overseas comes amid a drive for every government department to identify sources of economic growth.

The minister is also seeking ways for UK universities to maximise the number of overseas students they teach abroad. The government’s tougher immigration controls threaten to cut the number of students able to enter the UK for study at universities.

Mr Willetts said: “Our universities are internationally recognised: they are a great British brand. We can do more to take advantage of our position. Our universities are well financed for what they do but underfinanced for big expansion. I want to see investors from Britain and abroad helping our universities access these big overseas markets. I know that companies like Goldman Sachs who have organised this conference…are keen to investigate this possibility.”

The minister hopes that Goldman Sachs will be able to identify private investors willing to finance developments such as overseas branch campuses and distance-learning operations.

A previous post reported on an earlier speech by Mr Willetts on the issue of internationalisation. He is undoubtedly serious about the proposition. And he is right to point to the success of the University of Nottingham and others in establishing campuses overseas. However, there are several fundamental problems with this notion:

  1. The income generated by overseas campuses will do very little to offset losses from underrecruitment of international students in the UK. Even where it may be possible and appropriate to repatriate surpluses, the sums involved will not get anywhere near the level of international student income currently received by UK universities.
  2. The de-diversification of UK campuses resulting from the decline in international students will harm the learning experience for all.
  3. Building, growing and sustaining an overseas campus is a long game. Even if every UK university had one it would take a very long time to get to a point where they were capable of providing the scale of export benefit the UK currently enjoys.
  4. If the primary aim of building an overseas campus is to make money then it is unlikely to provide a good basis for a productive relationship with a host country.

So, even with the backing of Goldman Sachs it is not clear that the overseas campus option is going to come close to compensating for the anticipated impact of immigration policies on international student numbers in the UK. The other angle discussed by the Minister, distance learning, may offer possibilities but again is unlikely to deliver on the scale required. Better perhaps to review those immigration policies instead.

How small can a university be?

Size isn’t everything but does it matter for a university?

I picked up an interesting blog post from Andy Westwood, CEO of GuildHE, in which he argues that the reduction in the required number of students for the award of university title is a good decision by government and will deliver another “level playing field” (see earlier Imperfect University post on that topic) in higher education:

In last June’s Higher Education white paper (yes it really was that long ago), BIS declared their intention to reduce the qualifying threshold for university title from 4,000 to 1,000 students. All the other qualifying criteria – notably the need to hold degree awarding powers – would remain intact. Those institutions that might benefit from such a change made headlines when the precise proposals and criteria were published in the subsequent technical consultation in August 2011.

They include the Royal Agricultural College and Harper Adams – university colleges in the land based sector, Falmouth, Norwich and Bournemouth University College of the Arts and also Newman, Bishop Grosseteste, St Mary’s and Marjon university colleges in Birmingham, Lincoln, Twickenham and Plymouth. In all of these places and in the specific sectors they serve, these are familiar institutions that are both well-known and highly valued. Collectively they have been around for over 1,000 years – with most founded during the 19th century. ‘New’ universities they might become but ‘new’ institutions they most certainly are not.

Westwood suggests there are already some universities with fewer than 4,000 students, including Buckingham, but I’m not sure there are others with such modest enrolments. He goes on to argue that the new universities in the 1960s all started with small numbers and took some time to grow to have more than 4,000 students. But they were brand new and expansion was slow and steady in era of elite rather than mass participation so this is hardly a surprise and really not a compelling argument for changing university criteria nearly half a century on.

So as in many other arguments this is about a level playing field. Quality, reputation and brand are increasingly vital to institutions and to the UK as a whole and it’s in no one’s interest to let any slip. But to continue to do so we should recognise and value excellence and enable diversity and specialism to flourish. That is precisely what ministers are considering and it’s in everyone’s interest.

Of course size isn’t everything but there is something about a university which does carry a sense of range of subjects and a critical mass of students and staff. Any minimum number of students is bound to be arbitary but 4,000 seems a more realistic baseline. The logical conclusion of the level playing field argument here is that there should be no minimum number and any body which has taught degree awarding powers and is

…able to demonstrate that it has regard to the principles of good governance as are relevant to its sector

(which is the other criterion) can be awarded the university title. I’m not certain that this is a good thing. This is not to say that that these institutions aren’t good in their own way. But not every college can be a university – if every institution has the title then it inevitably becomes less meaningful. And that’s not good for anyone.

David Willetts on internationalisation via sharing university statutes

An interesting idea?

At the recent HEFCE Annual Conference the Universities Minister, David Willetts, delivered a wide-ranging speech which included a couple of interesting points on internationalisation:

Since becoming universities minister, I have worked hard with UUK’s excellent international office and of course the British Council in forging partnerships with other countries: with China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and – in the past fortnight alone – Turkey, the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Malaysia and Indonesia. This week in London, I have already met my Chinese counterpart, and today I am meeting he science minister from India. There is a lot going on. In Turkey, for instance, I witnessed the real potential for a “system-to-system” offer – with students able to study in either country, sharing of educational technologies, academic exchanges and degree validation. The Science Without Borders initiative with Brazil is path breaking.

In Indonesia, I agreed a joint communiqué on education to develop our links with Indonesian universities – promoting two-way student mobility, institutional leadership and knowledge transfer. The likes of Nottingham University already have solid connections to Indonesian institutions. There’s room for more productive associations – in Malaysia, for example, which has more overseas British campuses than any other country.

My department is working with UUK, UKTI, the British Council and others to support our excellent universities – and private companies working in the education sector – to seize these opportunities. It means attracting overseas students here. It means more overseas campuses. But it has to go further and be a full offer from the range of players that make up British higher education today – from architects and trainers of administrators through to external examiners and shared post graduate study. We are still only scratching the surface. This is one of Britain’s great growth industries of the future. The deep respect for our universities across the world is a reminder of what we have achieved here and what more we can do in the future.

All very positive but does remain rather at odds with the Government’s visa policy. One point which was made by the Minister, which does not appear in the published speech, I found rather interesting (and not a little bizarre). Referring to one of his visits, possibly to Kurdistan, Willetts reported that he had been approached by an academic who was seeking to establish a new university. As a starting point, the Professor had downloaded the charter and statutes of Lancaster University and was using them as a blueprint for setting up a regulatory framework for the new institution. The Minister was clearly taken with this idea and thought that it might be a good thing to take copies of a university governance template on future international missions.

I’ve not looked at the Lancaster statutes but if they are anything like those of other universities of a similar vintage and even if the charter, statutes and ordinances had been modernised in the past few years they are unlikely to offer the ideal model for a new university. The Willetts idea is, I am sure, well-intended but statutes and ordinances will be the product of a series of negotations, local and national (in the case of the Model Statute relating to academic terms and conditions), and will have been modified and adapted over many years. There are some good examples out there but statutes don’t lend themselves to being copied in quite the way suggested. Nevertheless, having a Registrar and Secretary or similar on international missions who is able to advise on governance may well be a useful idea.

The Imperfect University: Do we need a level playing field?

On the issue of a “level playing field” for universities

For the next, slightly briefer, piece in the Imperfect University series, I thought it might be interesting to pick on a topical issue which nevertheless has wider relevance and also serves to highlight some of the imperfections inherent in higher education. Following the White Paper, Putting students at the heart of the system, published in June 2011, there has been a lot of talk about importance of a “level playing field” for the universities and the expected new for-profit entrants to higher education provision in the UK (or, to be precise, England, given that the other nations in the UK have different, and increasingly divergent, arrangements for higher education and therefore their own playing fields with which to concern themselves).

The demands for a level playing field seem to come from all quarters, with established players insisting that new entrants should be subject to all the same controls and constraints that already apply to them and the for-profit wannabees insisting that they need more of a break given the decades of advantage enjoyed by recipients of public funding.

The fact that we are already in the sporting arena for our metaphors is in itself interesting (is this just a game then or is it more serious than that?) but if we set that matter aside and confine ourselves to the consideration of playing fields what can we conclude?

Different pitches, different teams

Steve Egan, Deputy Chief Executive at HEFCE, at a recent AHUA (Association of Heads of University Administration) event, was rather dismissive of the idea of a single level playing field, preferring to imagine number of different playing fields. However, it was not clear if these were side by side or one on top of each other or indeed whether they were marked up for the same game or which teams were playing on each.

Pinsent Masons, in a draft response to the BIS technical consultation (dated 14 October 2011, circulated by email on 18 October) observe that charitable universities and non-charitable for-profits have fundamentally different aims. They are two quite different teams – hens versus foxes is what Pinsents suggest – which means we are unlikely to get either a good match or a fair result.

The paper rightly points out that this is a key issue when considering what we mean by a University:

…the problem with the BIS proposals, as it seems to us, is that alternative providers will be given access to public funds when they have no corresponding obligations in relation to public benefit and the long term interests of the sector.

Our alternative proposal is that in order to access public funds, whether directly through grants or indirectly through access to the student loan system, HE providers must have charitable status.

There are plenty of ways for for-profit providers to compete, with many of the advantages which come from their lack of regulation but, as Pinsent Masons put it:

fundamentally, public money should not be subsidising the private benefit of the owners and shareholders of for profit HEIs.

So, it looks like the playing field is already sloping in favour of the for-profits.

International matches

This is a key issue internationally too as we find in The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities. This recent report from the World Bank makes specific reference to this thorny issue. Examining the very different positions of publicly funded and private universities, the report cites a range of examples from East Asia to Chile:

The case studies, which analyze a number of positive and less favorable governance situations, show that an appropriate regulatory framework, strong and inspiring leadership, and adequate management significantly influence the ability of research universities to prosper. Indian Institutes of Technology, for example, would not have operated as effectively as they do if they had been constrained by the same financial and adminis- trative regulations that all other public tertiary education institutions must adhere to in India. They have also, by and large, been protected from political interference for the selection of vice chancellors and the recruitment of academics.

The comparison between the University of Malaya and the National University of Singapore illustrates in a striking way the differences in leadership and management approaches and their direct impact on the respective performance of the two institutions. Similarly, the University of Chile’s status as a public entity prevents it from competing on a level playing field with the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Paradoxically, the latter is not subject to the same rules concerning administrative, procurement, and financial control as the former, even though the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile receives budget contributions from the state as other public universities do. The University of Chile is also handicapped by excessive decentralization, which undermines the power of the rector, and by not having a board with outside stakeholders that can help the university to respond better to the needs of society.

As private universities, Pohang University of Science and Technology and Monterrey Institute of Technology have enjoyed much more autonomy and flexibility than public universities in Korea and Mexico, respectively. And as just discussed, the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile has certainly benefited from its status as a private institution by enjoying the best of two worlds—the agility and independence of a nonpublic university, while obtaining public subsidies on a regular basis.

The key dimensions of autonomy brought out by the case studies include the ability to mobilize significant additional funding from a variety of nonpublic sources; to provide attractive remuneration packages for top academics; and to boost the international nature of the institution in terms of program content, language of instruction, and focus of the research. (p332)

The playing field therefore looks rather uneven in Chile too.

Keeping it fair

So perhaps the way to keep the playing field level is with the conditions that attach to public funding. Whilst these often feel excessive to those of us working in universities, there is, nevertheless, a strong argument for at least some accountability for the use of taxpayers’ money (although there does needs to be a balance here too – more of this later in the series). David Willetts, speaking at the HEFCE annual conference on 18 April 2012, argued that there is already a level playing field (no, really) and that therefore we should all stop worrying about the precise legal status of the new entrants to higher education. It is difficult not to be concerned about this though.

Nicola Hart in another Pinsent Masons flyer circulated on 23 March 2012 entitled ‘HE reforms – on or off?’ makes the accountability argument more forcefully:

The HE reforms are going full steam ahead. There is a market. For-profit providers are full competitive players in the sector, and seem pretty content with the current (no bill, no extra regulation, no charity law obligations) state of affairs. With these competitive pressures rapidly increasing, encouraged by government, nobody can afford to be complacent and assume that the sector (or their part of it) will remain unchanged. Universities need to continue to think strategically about how they position themselves in a climate that’s becoming less predictable and where change will be driven by policy, not big set-piece legislation. The for-profit providers have been noticeably effective in their lobbying efforts with government. Universities should also think hard about what they want to achieve and what lobbying they need to do to get policy decisions working in their favour. The main missing ingredient is a coherent system of regulation to match the fundamental changes the sector is going through. The leverage of state funding delivered via HEFCE is about to disappear. For-profit providers are playing on the same field as universities but with different (fewer and less onerous) rules and obligations. We think this is important and something which government will need to square – where there is public funding, in whatever form, there needs to be (at least) appropriate public accountability and regulation.

For the for-profit entrants, they will need to subject themselves to the same requirements as others if they wish to access public funding (as Hart suggests). The alternative is to enjoy the freedom to act which comes without such regulatory constraint. So, not exactly a completely level playing field and indeed the rules are a little different for both teams but there would at least be a chance of a decent match.

And if we change ends at half time then we can at least argue that the unevenness of the ground doesn’t matter (although no doubt there would always be some complaints: “they had the wind behind them in the first half and it’s now changed direction” or “we had the sun in our eyes” etc).

Then all we have to worry about is the referee. Or perhaps finding a new metaphor.

Risk of managers swamping universities?

Some seem to think that management numbers are growing too fast

HESA, the Higher Education Statistics Agency has recently published its annual summary of staff numbers in higher education. The headline data follows:

Academic staff

Of the 181,185 academic staff employed at UK HEIs, 44.2% were female, 12.4% were from an ethnic minority and nearly a quarter (24.8%) were of non-UK nationality.

17,465 academic staff had contracts conferring the title of ‘Professor’. Of these 19.8% were female, 7.3% were from an ethnic minority and 16.7% were of non-UK nationality.

Non-academic staff

As well as academic staff, there were a further 200,605 non-academic staff employed at HEIs in 2010/11. The majority (62.4%) of these staff were female. 10.0% of non-academic staff were from an ethnic minority and 9.3% were of non-UK nationality.

16,395 non-academic staff were coded as ‘Managers’. Of these 52.4% were female, 6.0% were from an ethnic minority and 5.9% were of non-UK nationality.

This is the definition of ‘Managers’ used by HESA:

Non-academic Managers are defined as those individuals who are responsible for the planning, direction and co-ordination of the policies and activities of enterprises or organisations, or their internal departments or sections. Senior academics who act as vice chancellors or directors/heads of schools, colleges, academic departments or research centres are coded as academic staff.

To summarise this HESA offers a handy infographic:

On the face of it this all looks pretty innocuous but it seems that, despite the relatively small number of managers in the sector, around 4% of the staff total and smaller than the professoriate, the rate of growth of managers has been faster than academics. For some, according to the Times Higher Education, (which seems to use different data in places) this is a bit of a problem:

The percentage increase in the number of managers in higher education in recent years is more than twice that for academics, an analysis of new figures has suggested.

Data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal there were 15,795 managers in higher education in December 2010 – up by almost 40 per cent on the 11,305 employed in the 2003-04 academic year.

That was compared to the 19.2 per cent increase in academics since 2003-04. It means there is now a manager for every 9.2 academics compared with a ratio of one to 10.8 seven years earlier.

Sally Hunt, University and College Union general secretary, said: “Despite the fact that there has been a large increase in the number of students in recent years, there has been a larger increase in the number of managers than academics.

“We have raised fears about the changing nature of universities as the market in higher education continues to grow. However, institutions and government must never lose sight of universities’ key roles in teaching and challenging students.”

Meanwhile, statistics released by Hesa on 1 March showed staffing levels at universities fell by 1.5 per cent last year.

The figures showed there were 381,790 people working at UK higher education institutions in 2010-11, down by 5,640 from 2009-10.

These numbers though really are not large and manager numbers have grown by just under 4,500 at a time when academic numbers have grown by over 16,000 (which makes the point from Sally Hunt factually incorrect).

The UCU comment suggests it is taking its lead from David Willetts.  He made a similar point in a speech made to a UUK conference back on 9 September 2010:

There are other ways of cutting overhead costs. In 2009 the number of senior university managers rose by 6% to 14,250, while the number of university professors fell by 4% to 15,530. On that trend the number of senior managers could have overtaken the number of professors this year. I recognise that universities now are big, complex institutions with revenues from many sources which need to be professionally managed. But we owe it to the taxpayer and the student to hold down these costs – we are now in a different and much more austere world. Again, we are not going to shirk our share of responsibility for tackling this. We will to do away with unnecessary burdens upon you that require the recruitment of more administrators. Do tell me – and HEFCE, of course – of any information requirement or regulation which you believe comes at a disproportionate cost. They have to go: we cannot afford them.

So this is the moment to be thinking even more creatively about cost cutting. I congratulate you on your initiative in inviting Ian Diamond to chair a UUK group on efficiency savings. You are right to get to grips with this. We can work with you on this agenda without getting sucked in to micromanaging our universities. No returning to a time – a century ago, actually – when one vice chancellor reacted to a Board of Education demand for figures on staff teaching hours by complaining that “Nothing so ungentlemanly has been done by the Government since they actually insisted on knowing what time Foreign Office clerks arrive at Whitehall.”

As noted in a recent post, these claims about reducing regulation ring rather hollow and, given that government demands on universities have increased rather than declined, this does perhaps provide one explanation for the growth.

How signifiicant is all this though? While the staff group ‘managers’ has grown faster than academic professionals at all universities and at Russell Group universities (but not at Nottingham as it happens), this is a small category of staff representing only 7-8% of all non-academic staff. The definitions of the various staff groups provided by HESA do allow some judgement in the allocation of staff to the various groups and there is some evidence of differing practice at different institutions. However, the definition of academic professional is straightforward and unambiguous and it is clear that at Nottingham such staff have grown considerably more than non-academic staff since 2003-04.

Universities need managers to function effectively. They are key to enabling academic staff focus on delivering excellent research and first class teaching and for protecting academics from the worst regulatory excesses of government. So this modest growth is really nothing to get excited about.

HEGlobal – helping UK higher education internationalise?

International advice for Higher Education

HEGlobal, the new portal for helping universities develop transnational education capability, has launched:

There is a consensus across government that engaging in and promoting international education and skills is strategically important to the UK for three main reasons: firstly it presents potentially significant commercial opportunities; secondly, it is an important soft power tool which supports the UK’s image abroad; thirdly, integrally linked to the above, it is key to maintaining the reputation of the UK education sector as one of the best in the world. However, although the UK’s education and skills sector is already doing well internationally, evidence suggests that we risk not taking full advantage of growing global opportunities. Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and elsewhere want to improve coordination across government by tasking the UK Higher Education International Unit to lead on a sector-wide initiative to do more to help UK higher education institutions (HEIs) increase their transnational education (TNE) capability.

An admirable initiative? Maybe. There is a useful set of links to relevant agencies together with brief profiles of a lot of countries in which universities might be interested. But this feels very much like a starter pack for institutions completely new to international activity. Nothing particularly wrong with that except that I’m not sure there are many institutions which aren’t in a significantly more advanced position than the target level of the advice. So it does raise the question about the audience for this site.

The FAQ section gives a bit more information about the intentions here:

HEGlobal has been established to act as a gateway to information sources, advice and guidance on all elements of transnational education (TNE) from finance through to in-country market intelligence and on-the-ground expertise. There is a substantial amount of support and expertise available to the sector already. HEGlobal has been designed to bring together information on all sources of available support in one place, thereby raising sector awareness, as well as signposting individual institutions to sources of further assistance on a range of relevant topics including finance, strategy, legal and quality insurance.

HEGlobal consists of a website which documents the services and information available to the sector on TNE, as well as a telephone helpline and email inquiry function.

It is not a centralised repository for all research and data on TNE, but instead brings together a range of sector stakeholders providing support to higher education institutions in developing their TNE activities. HEGlobal is a sector-led initiative and one of its greatest strengths is its intelligence-gathering function. By providing a mechanism for the sector to highlight existing needs, HEGlobal will facilitate the development of additional resources for the higher education sector to complement and enhance those already available.

Again, it is hard to see what this gateway is offering beyond what universities have already done for themselves or have the capacity to undertake. On the face of it, this all looks good and useful. In practice though it seems unlikely, in its present form, that it will offer a huge amount of value to institutions. Even those with small-scale TNE activities will probably not find a huge amount of new information here.

But what this really exposes though is the contradiction in policy between supporting this form of internationalisation whilst at the same time imposing visa regulations which hamper international student recruitment to the UK and give the impression that we aren’t open for business.