Monday, 25 November 2019

What’s in a word?


In English, it’s a university. In Welsh, it’s prifysgol. (Pronounced something like preeve-us-goll.) A bit of digging into those two different words can tell us a lot, I think, about the underlying reasons for the industrial action taking place in many UK universities today and for the coming days.

The industrial action (I think technically it looks like two different but overlapping actions) has a number of immediate causes. One is pensions – a dispute about USS contributions, the nature of the scheme and sustainability. The other is pay and conditions, including equality. (nb I’m not trying to provide a detailed account of the issues, just giving the context. The UCU website https://www.ucu.org.uk/heaction sets out the issues as they see them.)

The two words help us to understand the underlying issues.

Let’s go English language first. University comes from universitas – a Latin word meaning, roughly, a single body. A university is, in the medieval concept, a single corporate body, staff and students alike being subject to specific laws and rules, distinct from the laws which apply to others outside the community. And although the legal framework has changed in the last 800 years or so, universities do (claim to) hold values of collegiality. Members of university Senates and Academic Boards – at least those who aren’t on the university executive – behave in ways consistent with universities being a single corporate community.

Now the Welsh language word. Prifysgol is a compound word: Prif – meaning something like ‘main’, or ‘chief’, and Ysgol, meaning ‘school’. So a Prifysgol is the main school. Universities are the most advanced teaching organisations we have. And in the last twenty years or so (perhaps longer if you go back to the Jarrett report in the mid 1980’s) there has been an emphasis on value for the student and the transactional nature of the student contract. This is most pronounced in England – where there is now a regulator in the student interest, rather than a steward looking out for the sector as a whole – but the change can be seen across the UK in, for instance, the rise in the number of complaints made by students. There’s a correlation with the introduction of tuition fees for full-time undergraduate study, but I suspect you’ll also find a correlation with the increasing size of universities and the increasing proportion of people within an age cohort who go to university.

On these understandings, the strikes speak to two things. Firstly, as satisfying the students becomes more explicitly important, and university managers seek to identify what is wrong in a given situation and how to improve it, the autonomy of individual members of staff – academic and professional service – is diminished. The desires for consistency of approach to students, and for economy of action and cost, mean that universities increasingly try to agree standard approaches. This, coupled with increasing numbers of students, means that the job of teaching can become more routinized, and more subject to scrutiny. Greater micromanagement clever people is rarely a recipe for organisational happiness.

Secondly, the reality that universities are not really single communities. They are complex organisations, closely regulated, which require management. The sense that academic staff can control their work, and that they are working within a system which is fair, is diminishing. Let’s look, for example, at tweets from one academic - @sstroschein2 - to understand a perspective on strike action (I’m going to paraphrase rather than quote directly):

  • Incremental changes over 15 years which make the job increasingly unmanageable
  • High turnover of staff
  • More students, larger classes
  • Increasingly active but inapt management of teaching 
  • More automation
  • Research ranking which harms organisational dynamics and adds no value
  • More pressure to compete in research
  • Casualisation of junior academic staff roles and exploitation, leading to morale problems

Without trying to get into the rights and wrongs of these concerns (although from my observations there is a lot of truth in there), it is clear that there isn’t a broadly shared vision within many universities of what the university is for and how it should be run in the world of mass, student-focused higher education. This contrasts with the apparent culture of collegiality, and leads to discontented staff. In the long run this can’t hold.

What’s to be done? At some point the industrial action will end, with some sorts of compromises. Who knows what and when.

In the longer run, there’s a need for universities to find a stable way to work, which provides for sustainable and fulfilling academic and professional service careers, and which recognises that students are the raison d’être for most universities. Maybe this is a single sector-wide question; maybe it’s a question which each university needs to answer in its own way. (It’s probably a bit of both!)

A precursor, though, will be good leadership, and that means listening not fighting. If we like the notion of the university as a single community, and if we recognise that the students in the main school matter, it would be best to start the sitting round the table now.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Small is beautiful - discuss


My consulting work takes me to many different universities and higher education institutions across the country – 31 in the five years so far – and the differences can be striking. My clients have included very large universities – tens of thousands of students; thousands of staff; more real estate than you can shake a stick at. And very small institutions – tens of students, or maybe a hundred or so at most; tens or low hundreds of staff; one building.


Different sizes, but both are dogs
You can feel the differences. The large institutions have a buzz, a busy-ness, a sense of possibility and the unknown. And they also can have a sense of anonymity. You’re an individual navigating a complex bureaucracy; you’re one face in hundreds in your lectures. The small institutions can feel more friendly: you can see that students and staff recognise each other; people know who you are. You don't get lost. Equally, you have no place to hide.


The reasons why universities choose to grow are clear. It brings possibilities. It makes fixed costs cheaper. It means you can find resource to solve most problems. Boards of Governors tend to promote growth: it looks like a proxy for success. As higher education expands, governments like universities which grow: they make it easier to reach participation targets.


It's also true that smaller institutions can have real problems. A small HEI has exactly the same governance and compliance duties as a large university, but with a fraction of the resource to solve the problem. In a large university, a bad year’s recruitment to a discipline can be lost in the noise of the bigger picture; for a small HEI it can mean imminent financial disaster. There’s no fat to keep going through a difficult winter.


So here’s a provocation. I wonder if, in the expansion of universities to accommodate higher rates of participation, we’ve lost something important about the scale of learning communities. We’ve lost the sense of the learner being an important part of that community, and the sense that the individual matters. What if we have a new rule, that no university could have more than 5000 students?


We’d obviously have more universities. Maybe every town would have its own university. Every large city would have several - one in each suburb.  This would address supply in cold-spots at a stroke. The current behemoths would have to split – maybe on disciplinary lines; maybe by adopting towns nearby and creating new, smaller campuses. It would be easier for students to get to a university; the possibilities for working and studying at the same time, without life being impossible, would be much greater.


And with a more consistent scale of institution, regulation could be more proportionate, with much more transferable approaches to good practice. If something works in one place, there’s a much greater chance it would work elsewhere.


When Robbins was published in the 1960s, 3000 students was a big university. What have we lost in the growth since then?


Could we have smaller universities? Should we? What do you think?

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Climate change and university governance


Governance is, in a nutshell, a set of principles and practices which ensure that good decisions are taken properly. (Longer definitions are available, but that’s my working shorthand.)

In the context of universities, these practices include the use of risk management, and a focus on evidence to support decision-making. Risk management helps universities to identify priorities and to ensure that significant issues are not ignored; the encouragement to use evidence is to ensure that decisions are grounded, where possible, in knowledge about the situation.

In this blog I want to look at how climate change poses a challenge for university governance.

Rising sea levels

A recent paper by Kulp and Strauss in Nature Communications gives the results of a more precise modelling of the likely impact of sea-level rise. The model uses a method which reduces the uncertainty in previous models, arising from problems in interpreting satellite data.


The data has been used to create maps of the forecast rises in sea level. In red are those areas which are currently land and which, the authors forecast, will be under water at high tide by 2050. (The map works on most browsers but not Edge or Internet Explorer. A quick download of another browser, if you need to, solves the problem, I found).


Naturally, the maps spark curiosity. Looking at Great Britain, there are areas of the south coast; of Kent; of the Thames Estuary; of East Anglia; of Lincolnshire and Humberside; of the Tees valley; of the Lancashire Coast; of South Wales; of the Clyde valley, and of the Somerset levels; which are forecast to be sea not land. By 2050. If I do well, that’s in my lifetime – its only 31 years hence. And it won’t happen with a swoosh in 2050 – some of these areas will be under water sooner, if nothing is done.


Now Nature Communications is a serious journal, and the work presented has been subject to serious peer review. (It is educative to look at the Peer Review File which is linked at the end of the Nature Communications paper – this shows experts working to improve a publication. Proper science.) Any forecast will always be subject to the ultimate scrutiny of reality, and what has actually happened by 2050 will no doubt differ in some respects, but the paper and the maps derived from it represent current best estimates. They are evidence.


So what impact is there on universities?

A quick tour round the areas of Great Britain which are impacted shows that a number of universities, or university campuses, are in areas which are forecast to be under water in 2050. Working clockwise, and starting at North, we have:


  • Durham University, Queens campus
  • The University of Hull
  • The University of Lincoln
  • The University of East London
  • The University of Portsmouth
  • The University of South Wales, Newport and Cardiff campuses


 Here's some of the maps; remember - the red is forecast to be under water in 2050.


University of Portsmouth

Durham University Queen's Campus

University of East London Docklands

This looks properly scary. The forecast inundation of Portsmouth in particular strikes home to me. My nan lived in Portsmouth, and I spent a fair few childhood holidays staying with her. I’m feeling slightly teary as I write – no more Southsea Beach; no more dockyard. Sic transit gloria mundi.


Rationally, we can argue that reality will be different. The maps, obviously, take no account of mitigations which might be put in place (sea defences, for example). There’ll probably be local factors which will make a general model inappropriate for a specific location. But the broad parameters of the model seem robust. And the challenges it presents for universities – some very specifically, some by implication – are surely a matter which now begins to fall within the scope of university governance.


The challenge for university governance

The challenge is two-fold.


Firstly, there’s a case that risk registers should now include the potential impacts of climate change. Sea-level rise is one example of this; changed weather patterns (flooding seems to be getting more common in the UK) are another. These will become pressing matters.


There are also the impacts of measures to mitigate climate change. Changing diets. The installation of charging points within university car parks. Stopping flying for university business – academic conferences, overseas student recruitment, university field trips.


And if as a society we’re spending more on mitigation (which we will be!) then there’s less to go around elsewhere – funding for HE will be more pressured.


Risk registers should arguably begin to include all of these things: not as a bureaucratic exercise, but as a prompt for university managers to begin to think about the impact of these on the university’s life and operations, and begin to come up with workable and sustainable long-term approaches.


The second challenge relates to financial governance.


Put simply it is this: If it is reasonable to assume that climate change will impact upon the usability of university buildings and property, when does this get reflected in balance sheets? Do buildings which may in the medium-term become unusable retain their current asset value? 30 years is within the scope of long-term borrowing. When do lenders begin to demand higher interest rates, or even refuse to lend on certain areas? Perhaps more critically, how do insurers react? Higher premiums are one approach; but when do business premises become uninsurable?


In answering these questions, we’d need to look at the likely effectiveness of government action to mitigate. Universities do not exist in a vacuum: their local communities will have similar concerns. Are universities playing a role in looking at mitigating actions? Is government responding?


Mitigating against sea-level rises of this magnitude means large scale engineering projects. These don’t happen quickly, and they’re not cheap. For example, work on HS2 – the high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham and the North – began in earnest in 2009, when the company was formed. The first trains won’t run to Birmingham until 2026 by the company’s own estimates, and until 2033 to Leeds/Manchester. That’s twenty-four years, with what are likely to be optimistic estimates. And the cost is between £81bn and £88bn.


This means that a plan to the impact of rising sea levels in 30 years’ time needs to be put in place pretty quickly, with resources allocated, for it to have a chance of succeeding. The evidence on its likely effectiveness will begin to be available quite soon.


The robustness of local and governmental responses to climate change will be a factor in considerations of risk – not just for universities but for businesses with which they work, including banks and insurers. The more that is done effectively now – mitigation measures and carbon reduction at a suitably quick rate – the less risk arises. We’ll all have our individual views on this and how likely it is to work.


What should universities and university governors do?


What’s clear to me is that all universities – and definitely those which can identify a clear issue which impacts on them – should be considering climate change as an increasingly significant risk. This means:


  • Identifying how climate change might impact upon them – sea levels, changed weather patterns
  • Identifying how changes behaviours to mitigate climate change might impact on business and operating models – reductions in the availability or acceptability of flying; changed diets, using less meat and dairy; changed local transport
  • Identifying what they can do to become more sustainable, and to live more within their values. Are university cars and vans electric rather than petrol or diesel? Do policy frameworks mandate the most sustainable/least carbon transport options?
  • Making sure that governors are aware of what is being done, and why. If radical changes are necessary at some point, a governing body which is forewarned is much more likely to be onside.


The challenge to governance – coming back to where I started – is that these are very big questions. The changes which are likely to be necessary represent significant changes from business as usual. Will university governance be up to the challenge?

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

On conferences


I’ve just spent a fantastic two days at the 2019 AUA Conference. Here’s some of my highlights, and my thoughts about why it’s important to make time to tend your professional development.

The AUA is the Association of University Administrators – a body of which I’m a Fellow, having been a member and been involved since the late 1990’s. (I’m currently programme lead for its rather excellent Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Administration, Management and Leadership.)  It runs – amongst many other things – an annual conference, focused on professional development, and a very excellent conference it is too. There’s a mixture of plenary session and workshops; I’ll focus on the workshops I attended.

Sketch-noting: If you’re on Twitter you may have seen @Katrina_Swanton tweet her fantastic sketch-notes of workshops and conferences she has attended. Sketch-noting is a method of taking notes using pictures as well as words. As well as being interesting to see afterwards, they work well as a learning tool. Dual-coding is the thing here: by drawing pictures as well as writing words, we will better remember the material. And Katrina ran a great session, giving us the confidence to develop our skills and then to practice on a couple of TED talks. You don’t need to be an artist to sketch-note, you just need to be open to a new way to take in information. You can see below my first go, at a later session.

Defining the future profession: A session I co-presented with Susannah Marsden, of City, University of London. I’ll blog about this another time. Sufficient for now to say that the session seemed to go well, and people confronted the eternal question. With respect to trivial pursuits, is it pie or cheese?

Digital transformations: Fola Ikpehai of SUMS Consulting led a lively session focusing on digital transformation. Fola is a really engaging presenter, and her approach – rightly – focused on the organisational., process and cultural issues necessary to succeed in any digital transformation project. Its always interesting to hear another’s approach on a familiar topic: Fola’s experience in digital transformations in the museums sector meant that she had a great perspective on how to think like a customer, and how to embed digital thinking within an organisation.

The Changing University: A tour de force from @mike_rat which took us on a historical journey to see how universities have changed over time, adapting to the different demands that society places on them. From first foundations at Oxford, through to the abolition of the binary divide, Mike shared some fascinating images and created a narrative of quirky adaptability. Plus some great facts, which you’ll have to hear Mike talk to find out more about. For instance, why Oxford MAs had to swear an oath not to teach in Stamford; why elevenses were banned at an English University; and why freedom of speech is so strong a thread in the US university sector. A really fantastic session, plus, the chance to try out sketch-noting in the wild. What do you think?

A sketch-note, by me, of the great session by @mike_rat 
All of the sessions, in different ways, gave me cause to reflect on my own practice, and to rethink the contexts within which I work. I learnt about approaches and techniques which will help me to solve real problems in my work; I found out about good practice in many university activities. And, as always, I met up with old friends and made plenty of new ones. UK universities are fortunate in the calibre of people working within their professional services. The sector is fortunate to have the AUA.

Two days well spent, I’d say. Why not join me next year at the AUA conference in Nottingham?

Monday, 18 February 2019

1844 days …


… is, by my sums, how long I’ve now been consulting as a freelance. Just over 5 years. Here’s some reflections on lessons I’ve learnt during those years.

Stay flexible. Arrangements change. Things can (and do!) take more or less time than you expect; events might mean that when on your travels you need to add new destinations, or change dates. Don’t grumble, just go with it. Practically, this means avoid the cheaper advanced tickets on trains (the ones that tie you to a specific train). And trains are better than cars. Not just for the environment, but for the thinking and working time that they bring. Just allow yourself an extra hour for signal failure.

Its always wise to check that you’ve understood the client. Listen, really listen. Try to give yourself time to pick up the nuances. What assumptions are you making about what the client is saying which might be wrong? What situational changes might be occurring within the client’s organisation that might have an impact. The client is often in a hurry – its useful to know why. Is it an urgent to deliver a result, or is it simply urgent to start a process? This last point isn’t as cynical as it might sound: once a person knows that they will get some help and that a solution can be found, it can free them up to be more reflective and to open up about their underlying worries, fears, and hopes. Time spent growing your understanding of the problem repays itself later. Big time.

You’ll be living with uncertainty, and its important to make your own peace with that. As a freelance you are dependent upon others’ timescales, both when it comes to initial discussions and also, sometimes, when in mid-project. Your planning horizon gets much shorter. When I used to have a ‘proper’ job, I could reasonably book leave, for example, months ahead, knowing that work cycles would permit it. Now, I can often only see clearly, in work terms, for 4-5 weeks ahead. That doesn’t mean that you can’t plan ahead, but it is riskier to do so. Can I be sure that no big project will present itself, needing attention at precisely the time I’ve committed to something personal? You need to learn to go with the flow, I think.

You need a different sort of resilience. There are hard days, where for whatever reason it’s tough to focus. If you’re in an organisation, the routines of office life can help you to kick start yourself (or to give you a kick up the backside) but when you make your own routines, you have to dig yourself out of the hole. I miss having close colleagues: the day-to-day benefits of social chitchat in the office are not to be underestimated. So its good to develop a new group of colleagues: folk who you might not see every day but with whom – through phone, text, social media – you can chew the fat, shoot the breeze, and generally know that here are people who notice you. Some of my new tribe are fellows in the consulting world (and I’ve inducted a few …), some are folk who work at places where I’ve done projects. And they all make it into the pantheon of people I’d consider friends not acquaintances.

There’s a real joy in being your own boss. Everything that you do is because of your choice, in a much closer way than when you work for an organisation. And this means that things like backing up your IT aren’t a chore, they’re an obvious must do. So they don’t seem as faffy. Yea, even unto the recording of expenses. But because everything that you do is your own choice, it’s really important to be consistent with your values. Earning money is the transactional reason for my consulting practice, but that doesn’t sustain you through dull days and hard hours. You need to know that the big thing you’re doing – in my case helping universities to be better places – is worth it. And as I’ve worked with different universities, students’ unions, and sector bodies (over 25 different clients on over 40 projects in five years, since you ask!), my belief that higher education matters, and that universities can be made better places, has deepened and grown. It’s a sector that I love.

Finally, get over yourself and chase the invoice. The fear that they don’t want to pay because what you did was rubbish is just a voice in your head! Invoices are late mostly because of bureaucracy, because emails get forgotten in inboxes, and because nobody (well, almost nobody) outside of finance departments and suppliers understands the importance of a purchase order in enabling subsequent payment of an invoice. But the feeling when your first invoice is paid – wonderful! Repeat business is a real pat on the back. And projects with clients who you didn’t know, where you’ve been contacted because of recommendation from elsewhere the sector, is a very positive appraisal.

When I started out on this journey I had a deal with my partner to see how it was going after two years. And it turns out that it was going fine. The five-year anniversary tells me that so far I’m on the right path. Here’s to the next five years!

Monday, 8 October 2018

#BanEssayMills


I’ve posted before about a petition to government, askingfor legislation to ban essay mills. The petition is more than half-way towards its first target – enough signatures to require a government response.

Let’s rehearse the issues.

There are organisations – known as essay mills – which for a fee will write an essay or similar piece of work to whatever specification a student asks. Although they market themselves as revision aids, there is no doubt that they are aiming to encourage students to buy an essay which they can submit as part of their university assessment, instead of writing it themselves.

This is a bad thing. The student doesn’t learn, and is cheating. So for those of you keeping count, this is in fact two bad things. And it’s hard to stop.

Half-way there ...
It’s hard to stop because the bought essay may not show up as such in plagiarism detection software used by universities. In fact, essay mills typically guarantee that they will pass such software checks – why would they make this guarantee this if they were only revision aids?

So why the petition? A law won’t make plagiarism software any better. But it can make it possible to deal with the essay mills, not just the students who use them. At the moment, if a university suspects that a student has submitted an essay that they have bought, the only laws which could apply are those governing fraud. But to use this would involve university staff giving evidence against individual students, which is time consuming and unlikely to happen. (It’s important that students trust their academic tutors. Anything which reduces this trust is a bad thing. That’s one of the problems with Prevent, by the way.)

It’s also using heavy tactics. In my career I’ve had to deal with many hundreds of cases where students have cheated, and nearly always it was a student who didn’t understand what that what they’re doing was wrong (plagiarism is a difficult concept, and culturally dependent). I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times where a cheating student was clearly being malevolent. So by all means punish students who cheat – and help them understand that what they have done is wrong – but we must remember that often they cheat through ignorance or desperation.

If there was a law banning the advertising of essay writing services, and the sale of essays through such services, it would be possible to remove the issue at source. Accounts by those who have used such services show that they are clearly seeking to entice students. There are also stories of students being blackmailed once they have used the essay writing service. And under the current legal framework, universities are powerless to deal with the essay mills themselves.

This is why we need a law. It isn’t enough to deal with individual students who cheat: they need to learn; and the problem of catching them is real. There isn’t an existing legal framework which will enable universities and sector bodies to deal with the essay mills themselves. It’s time for the government to lend a helping hand.

Here’s the link to the petition. Please sign it, please share the petition. Help to #BanEssayMills

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Is university admission an academic decision?


One topic which exercises many universities is admissions: not only for the obvious reason of recruiting enough students to meet targets, but also for the question about who should be in charge.

Across UK higher education, the underlying culture is that it is an academic decision: suitability to study for a programme should be determined by the academics who teach the programme.  This doesn’t mean that actual academics always take decisions, however: many universities have agreed that specific decisions can be taken by professional service staff, as long as they fall within parameters agreed with admissions tutors. So, if a student gets more than so-many tariff points, or better than such-and-such A level grades, they can be offered a place without reference to a tutor.

David Willetts (in his very interesting book, A University Education) reminds us that the UK is odd in this regard. In the US, admissions decisions are not typically made by faculty tutors, or not even in consultation with faculty tutors. Decisions can be based, for example, upon familial donations; upon siblings having attended; or on residency within a particular state. (Before you get too shocked, I recommend that you have a read of Willetts’ book: there’s more too it than nepotism and a disregard for academic standards.)

The difference can be understood, I think, in relation to a very good underlying principle, which is that academic decisions can only be made by academics in the discipline concerned. This is at the heart of academic freedom. Ask yourself a question: what is the academic decision which is at the heart of university admission?  Is it about who socially gets to do higher education? That doesn’t feel academic to me. Is it about whether a person has the necessary prerequisite knowledge? (For instance, do you need A-level maths to take the first-year modules on the programme?) That sounds much more academic, and is at the heart of the differences in the UK. In the UK specialism takes place at the start of university education; in the US students enrol, study a wide variety of modules for a couple of years, and then choose their specialism. And they take an extra year (at least) to study, so there’s time for this breadth.

It's that picture again! 
I don’t think its controversial to say that there are US universities operating this approach which are at least as good as UK universities. The UK systems generates good graduates a year sooner than the US system, but that isn’t because we’re cleverer: its because the system is structured to produce graduates after three years. As part of this, it is necessary to have early specialisation, and this means that admissions decision have to consider specific subject knowledge and readiness for study.

Now I am going to say something slightly controversial. These tests are more about the resources devoted to pre-university education and upbringing rather than any intrinsic academic merit. We know that a private school education boosts a person’s chances of getting good A-level grades and hence a place at a ‘better’ university. We also know that, in aggregate, for students with the same A-level grades, those educated at state schools will do better overall than those educated at private school (see, for instance, this HEFCE research). This means, I think, that private school with better resources, smaller classes, and concomitant greater parental support for learning – has a better short-term impact.  But when learning resources and chances are evened out at university, the impact dissipates.

The point is that university entry based on A levels is about readiness to study. Background knowledge, confidence and social capital are what matters, because this enables a person to graduate in three years.

On this telling, university admissions should really be understood as a business decision. Remove some of the selective elements, and you won’t get the three-year throughput upon which the UK higher education system is built. (The development of foundation years to enable wider entry to selective universities supports this point: only by an extra year can pre-university educational differences be resolved.) University admission is only an academic decision because we set the system up to make it so. More time at university would enable foundation level study to become a norm. And at that point entry decisions would not be about pre-requisite knowledge, and entry barriers would come down.

And this is my challenge to the Office for Students, and to the UK government’s review of higher education. If you’re serious about removing social barriers to higher education participation, what are you going to do to enable longer degree programmes, to take the apparently academic decision out of the admissions loop?