Saturday, 5 April 2014

Don't tell him, Pike

A couple of wise souls I follow on Twitter observed last week that there was a lot of activity from HEFCE and on Higher Education generally:

@registrarism: There really are a lot of #HigherEd posts being pushed out today

@SophieBowen1: Are staff at HEFCE about to go on hols? Large number of reports out today ...

And it seems to be true. One recent HEFCE post that caught my eye – but not picked up by the twittersphere that I could tell – was Circular Letter 06/2016 – Supporting Public Accountability: presenting income and expenditure income to current students.

This is the outcome of some work done by HEFCE, BUFDG and the NUS on students’ desire to know more about what universities spend their money on, and a finding that

of 2,400 current students conducted by NUS Research Services ... there was significant interest in this type of information but that:
  • Of the students who looked for this information, 40 per cent were unable to find it.
  • Once the information was found, 44 per cent of students reported that the format it was presented in was difficult to understand.

Not a surprising finding – I have often wondered at the number of staff in universities who aren’t familiar with financial statements, so why should the students fare better?

The guidance is clear enough:

The research identified several priorities for improving the presentation of financial information for students:
  • It needs to provide a useful but not overly complex level of detail.
  • It needs to be accessible to students who may not have expertise in interpreting financial information.
  • It needs to be up-to-date.
  • It needs to be clearly signposted on institutional web-sites (which are where students look for it), with technical language clearly explained.

And the actions also admirably clear:

Institutions are asked to identify their solution by the end of October 2014, ready to publish information from their 2013-14 audited financial accounts by January 2015. 

It’s unquestionably a good thing that universities are encouraged to work with their students’ unions to agree an approach. But I found the examples interesting.

Four approaches were suggested:

Actual numbers and a narrative
A pie chart of expenditure, by category (no figures)
A bar chart of expenditure
An infographic

These range from minimal data but really clearly presented for accountability (that is, the actual numbers and narrative) through to confusing presentation (the infographic) but with a lot more detail and granularity in there. I’m not clever enough with pdf to export the contents to the blog post, but have a look and see what you think. To me, the guidance presents clarity and content as if there’s a trade-off between these two aims.

Why are students interested? Well, my guess is that it isn’t idle curiosity but all because students want to understand the value that they’re getting. A Sir Humphrey quote from Yes Minister is apposite here:

We should always tell the press freely and frankly anything that they could easily find out some other way

It’s all in the annual accounts anyway. My message to universities would be, work sincerely with your students’ unions, agree a format which makes sense, but don’t try to conceal anything with a fancy chart. Authenticity and transparency with your students will be better in the long run, even if you don’t like it now.

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