The Imperfect University: Free Information?

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 on information and digital technology in higher education, tracked 36 requests in seven institutions and found that the average cost, including staff time, of answering an FoI request was £121.

According to Universities UK, higher education institutions received on average 10.1 requests a month in 2011. This equates to an average annual cost of £14,665, which across the sector’s 155 institutions adds up to £2.3 million a year.

I have to say this looks to be something of an underestimate. I asked my colleague in the University’s Governance team which deals with FoI for data for the past couple of years. The data and some examples of requests is set out below. Before we get there though you might wish to refresh your memory with a glance at the ICO guidance – it is 10 page (yes, 10 pages) definition document of what is expected to be published by universities and colleges and covers everything from staff expenses to tender procedures to CCTV locations.

logoDuring the period from 1st January 2011 to December 2012, the University of Nottingham responded to 370 Freedom of Information requests. In 24% of cases, requests resulted in non-disclosure either because the University applied an exemption successfully, defended a position of ‘over the appropriate time limit’ or the information was not held. 27% of requests received a partial disclosure of information. 49% of requests resulted in the requester being entitled to all of the information requested. Whilst we remain ‘purpose blind’ it is self-evident that the majority of requesters continue to be looking for material for journalistic purposes.

Of the 182 (49%) of requests with full responses requests were themed as follows:

Statistics  88
Supplier and contract details  35
Financial figures  25
Policies 21
Communication 2; a total of 7 emails and 1
letter were disclosed
University structure 6
Role profiles 2
Recruitment timeline 1
Research grants 1
Vice-Chancellor’s external roles 1

Supplier and contract details
We receive a large number of requests asking for details of contract agreements in place. In the main these are from competitors. Whilst these requests are an inconvenience there is no applicable exemption to this information as the ICO have made it clear that they do not consider such information commercially sensitive. The data is readily to
hand therefore significant management time is not accrued.
Financial figures
The majority of requests under this category concern library fines, IT costs, legal fees and expenses. We have received individual requests on a small number of issues including costs of artwork, car parking fees, accommodation fees and funding. This information was not considered commercially sensitive and was therefore released to the requestors.
Applied Exemptions
The most common exemption applied, particularly under partially disclosed requests, is personal data. In the main these requests concerned statistics which were so detailed and/or sensitive that disclosing the information would risk unreasonable identification of individuals.

The following exemptions have been applied, either to whole requests or partially:

Commercial interests 10
Personal Data 62
Information already published 18
Information not held 13
Legal professional privilege 1
National security 4
Intended for future publication 2
Vexatious 4

Some of those specific requests over this two year period:

  • Statistics for disciplinary actions taken against students 2010 – present
  • Statistics for Welsh domicile students
  • Student parking fines
  • University investments
  • Server Hardware Maintenance and Software Licensing Contracts
  • the number of UG Taught and PG programmes 12/13 and 11/12 that did not enrol any students
  • Number of students employed in University catering and library departments
  • Amount paid out in hardship funds over last 3 years
  • University Employee Statistics
  • FOI

  • Statistics for research staff recruitment
  • Information and statistics on student bursaries
  • Information on Microscopes Tender
  • Internet traffic
  • Statistics on parking fines issued
  • Statistics for Physics applicants
  • Information and figures relating to Common Purpose
  • Payments from the Pharmaceutical Industry
  • Statistics on changing employment patterns in the public sector
  • Information on admissions cycle for A100 Medicine Course
  • Information on English classes, student figures and fee income
  • Information on research sabbaticals
  • Information on PhD qualifications of staff
  • Information relating to the University’s parking contract
  • Statistics for students failing first year exams
  • Statistics on student housing
  • Information and statistics on student bursaries
  • Information relating to clinical trials
  • Information on Mobile Phone Contracts

Is it worth it? I am dubious. Essentially we spend a great deal of time and effort and public money responding to this stuff and I struggle to see the benefit for anyone, including the requestors. This list also doesn’t include my personal favourite of all dumb FOI requests received (it was before 2011): a request for data on reported hauntings in university buildings. Not quite as bad as the Leicester City Council zombie attack readiness request but still pretty daft. And no matter how silly or pointless such requests may be we have to treat them all equally seriously.

Back to Blair. He claims that FoI is not used, for the most part, by “the people”, but by journalists. His view is that “For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet.” It sometimes feels a bit like that in universities too.

(With thanks to Sam Potter for providing the University of Nottingham material included here.)

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The College Scorecard: KIS-ing in the USA

President Obama announces a higher education initiative which looks a bit familiar.

scorecard

The College Scorecard as it is known has attracted some mixed reviews since it was announced by the President. The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that it is intended to help prospective students but that it doesn’t perhaps do all that is claimed:

In his State of the Union address earlier this month, President Obama announced the release of the College Scorecard, a project he first proposed in a speech at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor last year. The interactive online tool provides comparable information on college affordability and value, to help students and families figure out “where you can get the most bang for your education buck,” the president said.

Most interestingly it bears some quite striking similarities to the Key Information Set, recently established in England, ostensibly to aid student decision-making about higher education choices:

graduate-employment

Graduate salary information

finance

Financial information

And as an earlier post on Unistats and KIS noted, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

“Title arousal” issues in German Education

Another German Minister with Doctoral Difficulties.

BBC News recently reported on German minister Annette Schavan having her doctorate withdrawn following accusations of plagiarism. This comes barely two years after another minister was found to have plagiarised parts of his dissertation.

It’s a rather unhappy picture:

A German university has voted to strip Education Minister Annette Schavan of her doctorate after an investigation into plagiarism allegations.

The University of Duesseldorf’s philosophy faculty decided on Tuesday that she had carried out “a deliberate deception through plagiarism”.

The minister has denied the claims and said she will appeal.

An earlier plagiarism row brought an end to the political career of Germany’s defence minister in 2011.

Large parts of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s 2006 legal dissertations were found by Bayreuth University to have been copied and he stood down before it issued its damning verdict in May 2011.

Using the same words as Duesseldorf’s Heinrich Heine University, it concluded that he had “deliberately deceived”.

ctrl_c_ctrl_v_plagiarism

The New York Times offers an additional angle, commenting that the scandal reflects a distinctive German fascination with titles:

Coming after Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was forced to step down as defense minister over plagiarism charges in 2011, Dr. Schavan’s déjà-vu scandal can only hurt Dr. Merkel ahead of September’s parliamentary election. But the two ministers are far from the only German officials to have recently had their postgraduate degrees revoked amid accusations of academic dishonesty, prompting national soul-searching about what the cases reveal about the German character.

Germans place a greater premium on doctorates than Americans do as marks of distinction and erudition. According to the Web site Research in Germany, about 25,000 Germans earn doctorates each year, the most in Europe and about twice the per capita rate of the United States.

Many Germans believe the scandals are rooted in their abiding respect, and even lust, for academic accolades, including the use of Prof. before Dr. and occasionally Dr. Dr. for those with two doctoral degrees. Prof. Dr. Volker Rieble, a law professor at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, calls this obsession “title arousal.”

“In other countries people aren’t as vain about their titles,” he said. “With this obsession for titles, of course, comes title envy.”

Title arousal and title envy do seem rather striking reasons for plagiarism but something very strange does seem to be happening in German politics. But also in Romania and Hungary where similar accusations have been levelled at ministers there too.

Speaking with difficulty

New advice from the Charity Commission sows some confusion.

The Charity Commission has recently published some new guidance which is intended to help trustees protect their charities against “abuse by extremists.” This guide/toolkit though seems to offer a particular challenge to universities which are subject to legislation on external speakers dating back to 1986 which was designed for a quite different purpose.

Let’s start with the new guidance from the Commission on “Protecting your charity against abuse by extremists”:

The guide, which is available on the regulator’s website from today [Tuesday 22 January 2013], explains trustees’ duty to prevent their charity being used to promote extremist views or terrorist ideology.

The toolkit also suggests steps trustees can take to minimise risks associated with particular activities, such as organising public events and debates and circulating information.

It is aimed in particular at charities that host regular events involving external speakers, and those with educational purposes that distribute material and information. Examples include charitable think tanks and debating societies, students’ unions, schools, colleges and universities and religious charities.

OK, so far so general. But when we get to the detail of the guidance it becomes clear that the Commission things get a bit interesting. Whilst any illegal views or action is, of course, unacceptable, charities are required to consider whether allowing a particular speaker to present their views may be inconsistent with public benefit as this extract from Chapter 5, Section E of the guidance indicates:

Under charity law, charities must comply with the public benefit requirement. Views or activities which are violent or which encourage violence cannot be for the public benefit because they are illegal. In addition, there are other extreme views and activities, particularly activities which seek to radicalise or use radicalising materials which may be inappropriate for a charity to host or promote. Such views may not be in furtherance of the charity’s purposes, or may breach the rules on political activities. Other extreme views may help to create an environment conducive to terrorism. In addition, promoting views which are harmful to social cohesion, such as denigrating those of a particular faith or promoting segregation on religious or racial grounds, or which seek to radicalise by making claims to which violence is subsequently presented as the only solution may well be inconsistent with the public benefit requirement even though such views might fall well below the criminal threshold. All these pose unacceptable risks to a charity.

Ed act

But if we look now at The Education (No. 2) Act 1986 there is a very direct requirement on universities to ensure and promote freedom of speech. This dates from a time when Conservative ministers were being prevented from speaking on university campuses by the actions of well-organised groups of students and the government was therefore keen to ensure they were protected and enabled to present their views. The Act provides that:

(1)Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.
(2)The duty imposed by subsection (1) above includes (in particular) the duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the use of any premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with—
(a)the beliefs or views of that individual or of any member of that body; or
(b)the policy or objectives of that body.

So there is a positive duty to ensure that speakers are not prevented from speaking because of their views or beliefs or the policies of the organisation.

In addition, universities have to have in place a code of practice which sets all of this and there are further specific obligations:

A duty on every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of the institution to take such steps as are reasonably practicable (including, where appropriate, the initiation of disciplinary measures) to secure that the requirements of the code of practice are observed.

A duty to ensure that the use of any university premises is not denied to any individual or body of persons on the grounds of their beliefs, views, policies or objectives.

Whilst it is clear that the 1986 Act does not extend to speakers who break other laws or incite violence, nevertheless it does appear to require universities to adopt a rather different position to that set out in the Charity Commission’s guidance. Whilst this legislation and the Commission’s guidance are separated by over quarter of a century of change in HE and are intended to address very different challenges, the apparent conflict between them is, I fear, going to cause some real problems for universities before too long.

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.

Higher education funding letters: another bundle of joy

On government HE funding letters

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has written to HEFCE with the Department’s annual message on funding and helpful bag of instructions.

The letter

sets out Government funding and priorities for HEFCE and for higher education for the second year of the new financial arrangements for higher education in England. The Government’s vision for higher education, outlined in the higher education white paper ‘Students at the heart of the system’, remains, and HEFCE is asked to continue to support learning and teaching activity, quality assurance, widening participation and an enhanced student experience. HEFCE will also continue our support for postgraduate provision.

Super. More instructions.

Not only does it offer even more directions to HEFCE, at 36 paragraphs and eight pages it is the second longest of the four to date issued by the Secretary of State and the Minister and confirms a return to the sterling epistolary efforts made by the previous government.

Last January’s effort really set the standard though – although it contained 35 paragraphs was in fact nine pages long. The December 2010 was somewhat shorter at only 28 paragraphs and can be seen as the BIS duo just getting into their stride.

The earlier post on this topic back in August 2010 noted:

The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:

Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  1. The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
  2. The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  3. The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  4. David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  5. In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  6. January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  7. The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  8. December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  9. The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  10. January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  11. January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  12. January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  13. The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  14. June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).

So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 14 years of funding letters.

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.

Culture Clubs

US builds up cultural presence in China

Perhaps slightly surprising news from Inside Higher Ed on the establishment by the US State Department of “American Cultural Centres” in partnership with Chinese universities.

“Their primary purpose is to expose Chinese audiences to the depth and breadth of U.S. culture,” said Erik W. Black, an assistant cultural affairs officer at the American embassy in Beijing, which administers the grants. Colleges that have received them have used the funding to create resource centers or reading rooms, host visiting faculty lectures on American cultural topics, and sponsor arts programming.


This looks like a direct response to the significant spread in universities around the world of Confucius Institutes, supported and funded by the Chinese government. There are now well over 300 of these and, as can be seen from the Hanban website, they have a wide reach:

Over recent years, the Confucius Institutes’ development has been sharp and they have provided scope for people all over the world to learn about Chinese language and culture. In addition they have become a platform for cultural exchanges between China and the world as well as a bridge reinforcing friendship and cooperation between China and the rest of the world and are much welcomed across the globe. Through the joint efforts of China and the Confucius Institute host countries in addition to the enthusiasm and active support of people all over the world, by the end of 2010, there have been 322 Confucius Institutes and 369 Confucius Classrooms established in 96 countries. In addition, some 250 institutions from over 50 countries have expressed requirements for establishing Confucius Institutes/Classrooms, amongst them some of the world’s top universities.

Confucius Institutes/Classrooms adopt flexible teaching patterns and adapt to suit local conditions when teaching Chinese language and promoting culture in foreign primary schools, secondary schools, communities and enterprises. In 2009, Confucius Institutes/Classrooms around the world offered 9,000 Chinese courses of a multitude of styles, with a total enrollment of 260,000, a 130,000 strong enrollment increase from the previous year. More than 7,500 cultural exchange activities took place, involving the participation of over 3 million reaching double the participation figures of the corresponding period of the previous year.

Recognising the imbalance in public engagement levels in China’s favour the US has been looking for ways to make a greater impact in the East. One major operation was formally launched back in 2010 with the “100,000 Strong Initiative” which aims to encourage many more Americans to study in and learn about China:

The 100,000 Strong Initiative is transitioning into an independent, non-profit organization external to the State Department. Updates on the Initiative’s programs will be provided by the new non-profit organization soon. Citing the strategic importance of the U.S.-China relationship, in November 2009, President Barack Obama announced the “100,000 Strong” initiative, a national effort designed to increase dramatically the number and diversify the composition of American students studying in China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially launched the initiative in May 2010 in Beijing. The Chinese government strongly supports the initiative and has already committed 10,000 “Bridge Scholarships” for American students to study in China.

This initiative seeks to prepare the next generation of American experts on China who will be charged with managing the growing political, economic and cultural ties between the United States and China. The initiative also seeks to develop specific opportunities and funding sources for underrepresented students to study in China.

The American Cultural Centres look like the next stage in this development:

The State Department’s request for proposals implicitly poses the Confucius Institutes as a model for the kind of university-to-university collaborations it is hoping to promote: “The PRC’s creation in the United States of multiple university-based ‘Confucius Institutes’ has increased the level and quality of the study of Chinese language and culture in the U.S,” the document states. “Though China as a national policy requires the study of the English language broadly among its students, there is no equivalent mechanism for increasing understanding and appreciation for the strength and diversity of American culture and society. While hundreds of affiliation agreements between U.S. and Chinese universities have promoted academic cooperation, the sharing of technical expertise, and U.S. study of China, they have done little to help address the overall level of misunderstanding of U.S. society and culture.”

The funding available is limited and is essentially pump-priming to support new and existing partnerships between US and Chinese universities. According to Inside Higher Ed there around 20 of these so far and they come in different forms:

Ohio State University used its $100,000 to create a resource center at Wuhan University, with which it has had a 30-year relationship. The center, housed in Wuhan’s foreign languages building, includes a lounge, kitchen, and resource library, complete with a large selection of American cookbooks. “We see it as a place where not only Wuhan faculty, but people from Hubei province and the city of Wuhan, can come and interact with people from Ohio State on a regular basis,” said William Brustein, Ohio State’s vice provost for global strategies and international affairs.

It’s a fascinating development and one which may help to redress the balance in time. Assuming that is that they are doing a little more than just sharing recipes.

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.

 

2012/13 QS World University Rankings

Latest QS world league table is out

A preview of the 2012/13 QS World University Rankings from John O’Leary, makes clear the impact that the league tables have. Not just on institutions but also on governments:

The rankings, which will be published on September 11, are intended primarily to guide international students, their parents and advisors in their choice of university. This year, there will be 700 institutions to compare on six different measures, with additional faculty-specific rankings to illustrate particular strengths.

But QS rankings are also used by governments from Denmark and Germany to Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Japan to evaluate the standing of their own and other countries’ universities. Positions are used in funding allocations, promotional material and even immigration decisions.

The German and Japanese governments have both used QS ranking positions as one of their performance measures in research budgeting. Thailand is one of a growing number of countries to use the rankings to shortlist the universities chosen for additional funding to help them compete internationally.

In the UK, the Browne Report on student fees used QS rankings to illustrate the high standing of the country’s universities. A Government-funded advertising campaign coinciding with the Olympic Games in London to promote the UK as a tourist or business destination also quoted the rankings.

Full details of the rankings can be found at the QS website. A summary of the world top 10 follows where we find a swap at the top as MIT replaces Cambridge at No 1 and four UK universities remain in the top 10:

Global top ten

2012 2011 Institution
3 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
1 University of Cambridge
2 Harvard University
7 UCL (University College London)
5 University of Oxford
6 Imperial College London
4 Yale University
8 University of Chicago
13 Princeton University
10  12 California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

 

The UK also has 18 universities in the top 100:

Top UK universities

1 University of Cambridge GB
7 UCL (University College London) GB
5 University of Oxford GB
6 Imperial College London GB
21  20 University of Edinburgh GB
26  27 King’s College London (KCL) GB
28  30 University of Bristol GB
32  29 The University of Manchester GB
54  59 University of Glasgow GB
58  50 The University of Warwick GB
66  72 The University of Sheffield GB
69  64 London School of Economics and Political Science GB
72  74 The University of Nottingham GB
73  75 University of Southampton GB
77  67 University of Birmingham GB
92  95 Durham University GB
93  97 University of St Andrews GB
94   93 University of Leeds GB

 

On the real bottom line

Transnational initiatives pay dividends far greater than a share of the overseas student market

Times Higher Education carries this piece (by me) on the real value of international activity:

The British Council has predicted that most universities in the West – with the exception of some in Australia – will recruit markedly fewer international students in the years ahead than they have done in the past decade.

Its recent report, The Shape of Things to Come, recommends that universities set up more overseas branch campuses and institutional partnerships rather than relying on attracting students to the UK.

The University of Nottingham has many years of experience in this area. We set up international campuses in Malaysia in 2000, and then in 2004 became the first institution to establish a Sino-foreign university in China.

In May, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, invited universities and banks to a round-table meeting to talk about establishing international branch campuses. This was seen, by some at least, to be a response to the impact of visa controls on international student recruitment to the UK. It was also suggested, rather cynically, that it was a good way for cash-strapped universities to make money in the wake of overseas student recruitment problems arising from the government’s immigration policy

 

The piece is linked to this year’s International Leadership Conference: Managing Global Universities taking place from 29 October – 1 November 2012 at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China.

Campus at University of Nottingham Ningbo China


The conference, which takes place annually, has previously welcomed delegates from the UK, Denmark, China, Colombia, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, the US and Belgium. The event is designed for senior leaders to discuss and share best practice on important topics around the internationalisation of higher education. Including the real value of international higher education activity. Do come – we would really like to see you there.

From National to Global Universities

A nice piece from David Wheeler in the Chronicle of Higher Education on some of the challenges for universities in going global:

Universities, like companies, may need to make the transformation from being a national brand to being a global one. Siemens, once thought of as a German company, now says that it is “a global powerhouse in electronics and electrical engineering, operating in the industry, energy, and health-care sectors.”

Global brands can be adapted to various local markets, while still staying globally integrated. I just gave away a collection of international Coke cans, consisting of many different shapes and bearing Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish words, among others. But they were all instantly identifiable as Coke cans.

As some universities seek to be global, they often emphasize that a degree in one country will be exactly identical to a degree in another. I’m left wondering if a little more flexibility might be in order.

Human-resources departments may need to rise in importance as universities seek to become more global. The complexities of managing different people in different places are high, and human-resources departments, which are often simply the servants of academic departments at many universities, need to acquire and share their expertise on how to manage a mix of expatriates and local workers in a variety of countries.

I think this flexibility point is well made. Institutions do have to adapt to the environment in which they are operating. Education cannot be entirely context independent. Academic standards do, of course, have to be consistent. So, whilst term dates may be different and the timetable may look a little unusual, the curriculum, learning outcomes, assessment and examinations, admission requirements and academic staff qualifications, to name but a few components, do have to be directly comparable to ensure that the standards of awards and the quality of the student learning experience are maintained. These are fundamental to sustaining the institutional brand.

An earlier post noted the continued growth in branch campus developments by universities. All of the issues faced by global corporations, from maintaining the brand to developing HR operations, are shared by universities looking to grow a presence overseas. But it is very difficult to do this alone:

Lastly, I think that universities can learn from corporations about how to better manage partnerships. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say it: Universities approaching partners need to think of programs that would benefit both parties. Approaching a computer company and asking for money or machines to take back to the university doesn’t work for the company, without some benefit being offered. Companies have their own problems to solve.

The issue of partnerships is crucial. Any institution looking to establish a genuine global presence is not going to be able to do it alone and will in all likelihood require government backing as well as other partners to help with infrastructure development and navigating through a different policy and legal environment. None of this is straightforward but can be done and does bring rewards. In the long run.

There is an interesting link here to the recent story about the UK Universities Minister’s discussions with Goldman Sachs about ways to support offshoring opportunities for British HEIs. Branch campuses are not the solution to domestic economic travails but they are a serious option for universities looking to establish a global brand. Although there are many challenges associated with such developments, the benefits are significant.

Scottish Universities Challenged

Improving governance or constraining autonomy?

An earlier post covered the outcomes of a review of governance in Scottish universities and reported a number of concerns about what looked like far-reaching and extremely interventionist proposals.

Following this review the Scottish government has now indicated its response and, according to the Scotsman, it looks set to adopt many of the recommendations:

THE Scottish Government has unveiled a radical shake-up of the country’s universities and colleges.

• Education secretary Mike Russell unveils plans for a shakeup of pay and quotas

• Labour’s education spokesman Hugh Henry likened the plans to a ‘power grab’

• Scotland’s colleges currently undergoing mergers following earlier plans to save money and prevent duplication of courses

Education secretary Mike Russell said he had accepted “virtually all” the recommendations of a review of university governance, which called for elected chairs, quotas for female board members and curbs on the pay of high-earning principals.


Universities Scotland has sought to respond in a measured fashion to this development. The Scotsman carries the piece by Alastair Sim:

The von Prondynski review set out a range of affirmations and challenges for the sector. Some of these are matters of public policy or of legislation, and it’s important that universities and government keep talking to find ways forward which will genuinely improve the effective and responsive governance of Scottish universities. We welcome the recognition in the minister’s statement that this will be an evolutionary process which may include adaptation of the original proposals. Let’s use the time between now and proposed legislation to make sure we are getting things right.

Let’s hope they do keep talking. The review recommendations do, on the face of it, seem to represent significant challenges to institutional autonomy in Scotland and offer not insubstantial increases in the bureaucratic burden on universities. Serious consideration needs to be given to whether these proposals will really improve governance and institutional success or, as many fear, will in fact limit the ability of Scottish universities to deliver their missions.

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.