Thursday, 30 July 2015

One in, one out

There’s another change coming in the collegiate line-up of the University of London. In addition to the forthcoming inclusion of City University, London, there’ll be the departure of Heythrop College.

Heythrop is a small College, with a Catholic ethos and a focus on philosophy and theology. Originally founded in the early 17th century, it gained a Royal Charter and has been a member of the University of London since 1971. And recently – early in this century, if my memory serves me rightly – the College was recognised for public funding, and came within HEFCE’s remit.

So what’s happened? The College’s Principal sets it out in a public letter: in short, the College is too small to bear the overheads and complexity of being a modern university institution, and the Society of Jesus is no longer able (or perhaps willing) to provide funds to keep the College solvent. There had been merger discussions with St Mary’s University, but these had not borne fruit. And so there was no viable future.

The statement from the College’s Governing body included a sentence which I had thought was a face-saving formula:
Both the Governors and the Society of Jesus are committed to finding a way in which the mission and work of the College, including the ecclesiastical faculties, will continue in a new form after 2018.
After all, by leaving the University the College lost the possibility of awarding degrees through the University of London, and that is a valuable thing to give away.

But it seems that I had judged harshly. Through a conversation with a scholarly and learned person I learned that in 2013 the Bellarmine Institute – the part of Heythrop College which maintained specifically Catholic links – had been reinstated as a Pontifical Athenaeum by the Congregation for Catholic Education, part of the Vatican Curia, and hence had a right to award
ecclesiastical bachelors (STB, BacPhil), licentiate (STL, PhL) and doctoral degrees in Philosophy and Theology
This, of course, harks back to the method by which Europe’s ancient universities were founded – by Papal Bull. Ecclesiastical degrees play a significant qualifying role in the Catholic religious hierarchy, so the College may well continue tru to its original mission.

There’s a hard lesson here for other institutions, too. Heythrop was too small to survive (its turnover was amongst the very lowest of UK institutions, and it had run a financial deficit in both 2012-13 and 2013-14). It couldn‘t make a merger work. And so it will cease to trade as a regular UK university. Not, perhaps, the university failure that some had predicted, but nevertheless there’s a reasonable case to be made that Heythrop has been a victim of the marketization of HE.

Monday, 27 July 2015

One plus one equals one

Earlier this month the Board of Trustees of the University of London agreed to admit City University, London to membership of the University. This is quite a big deal, and worth a few words. (Disclosure: I hold a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from the University of London, and I’ve worked at both University of London Senate House and City University, London. I’m very fond of both institutions …)

It’s a slightly complex thing to explain. The University of London is a peculiar kind of university – I’ve heard it described (sorry, I can’t source this) as ‘a mission group with an estates strategy’. A proper account of its history is best left to others, and I heartily recommend – for both wit and learning – Negley Harte’s history of the University, published for its 150th anniversary in 1986.

In short, the University of London was created in 1836 to solve a political problem, being a squabble between Tories and Whigs about university education in London. It was a compromise which enabled both University College London and King’s College London to award degrees, without either being itself a university. The University of London set the examinations and awarded the degrees, and over time other colleges – including many of the future redbrick universities in the UK, and institutions across the British Empire – prepared students for University of London degrees.

Eventually this examinations work morphed into the External Degree programme (now the University of London International Programme), with the University’s Colleges – not only UCL and KCL but also places like LSE, Imperial, Royal Holloway, SOAS and so on – having a much more direct relationship with the University. Towards the 1960’s and 70’s the University was very powerful in relation to its Colleges, but with direct funding of the larger Colleges in the 1980’s and statute changes in 1994 this changed. The Colleges became more autonomous, and the University’s role changed to one of service provision, and guarantor of academic standards in relation to the University of London degree and the External Programme. A few years later, Colleges were permitted to apply for, and use, Degree Awarding Powers of their own. This left the obvious question, what was the University of London for? Imperial left the University in 2006, and I would speculate that were it not for very complicated estates issues, other Colleges might have followed. The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama had joined the University in 2005, so in a sense it was one in, one out, but Imperial was a significant component of the university, and its departure was noticed.

In the light of this, City University applying to be a College is a big deal. It shows that the University’s offer – services for student and academic staff, and a very strong brand internationally – is still worth having. And it re-forges an old connection – prior to its being granted University title in 1966, City University London was the Northampton Institute (because it’s in Northampton Square, EC1) and prepared students for the University of London degree as an Institution having Recognised Teachers.

So what were the reasons on each side?

For City, there’ll have been a reputation argument, and a facilities argument. City has been seeking to strengthen its reputation as a research university (with considerable investment in staff, its GPA went from 2.48 in the 2008 RAE to 2.95 in the 2014 REF), and membership of the University of London will help to cement this. Equally, the University of London brand will help student recruitment in the UK and overseas (City has a strong brand in the Cass Business School, but in other areas it is not so well known). And finally, the University’s students will have access to the University’s facilities, both academic and sporting. A good thing for City University London, in lots of ways.

For the University of London the issues are slightly different. I do think that a part of it is the demonstration that the University still has vitality and appeal, as argued above. But also relevant are the very strong links which City University London has to the City of London – something which the University of London will be keen to build upon. The naming and foundation of City University in 1966 recognised the benefits of an association between a university and the City of London. That this was not clearly best accomplished through the University of London speaks to the historical lack of structural engagement between the square mile and Senate House.

There is an annual subscription fee which will be paid by City to the University of London, and no doubt there’ll be some haggling about this. But in the scheme of things the financial issues are small for both sides.

Also interesting are the governance changes necessitated by the move. To quote from City’s press release:
City intends to join the University of London in August 2016. This will allow time for the Privy Council to agree a supplemental Charter which will change City’s name and the titles of its senior officers reflecting that it will have become an autonomous College within the University of London.
One of the conceptual stumbling blocks to City joining was the question of whether you could have a university as a member of a university. In this case, the solution is for City to lose its University status and title– my money would be on City, University of London as the new title. Similarly, you can’t have two Vice-Chancellors in a University, so Professor Paul Curran looks like being the last Vice-Chancellor of City University, London, and the first Principal (or possibly President) of the new College of the University.

Come August 2016 there’ll be a big party in Northampton Square, and probably in Russell Square too. And I’ll raise a glass to that!

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Improving Service Quality

I'm working on a tool to help universities measure and improve the quality of their professional services.

My idea is to develop a maturity matrix (see here for an example of one relating to quality management), which shows the different elements of service quality, and the different stages of development. It's an approach which is familiar in IT, and many thanks to my various IT colleagues who have helped me to learn about the approach.

As a first step, I'm hoping to articulate the different elements which make up service quality - the Y axis of the matrix. I've written a first draft, which is available here, and on which I'd really appreciate any comments or feedback which people may have.

My aim is to create a framework which anyone can use, so it will need to be on some sort of creative commons license. I'm not asserting copyright on the draft, but I am saying that if anyone uses it or subsequent drafts, please share it on the same terms and attribute the source. I will want to use the framework commercially (I have to earn a living!), and I wouldn't want to rule out anyone else doing so, but equally the more feedback there is, the better it will be for all.

Please let me know what you think of the draft. Full acknowledgement will be given to those who help develop it, on the understanding that your comments are given freely and without copyright. If you'd be interested in working more closely with me in developing this framework, I'd love to hear from you.

You can post comments on the draft elements as a reply to this blog post (and it would be great if you did, as then a conversation could start!), or email me: hugh @

Thank you!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Who pays?

The ifs published a briefing note on the impact of the changes to student finance announced in the budget. There was plenty of media coverage, but as always, there’s more in the report than has yet been covered.

Firstly, the background. In his budget the Chancellor announced two specific decision, and three proposals for consultation relating to higher education:


  • Increasing the maximum loan to £8,200
  • Replacement of maintenance grants with loans 

For consultation:

  • Freeze the £21,000 repayment threshold (ie let inflation reduce the real value)
  • Allowing institutions with high teaching quality to increase the £9,000 fee in line with inflation
  • Review the discount rate applied to student loans and other transactions to bring it into line with the government’s long-term cost of borrowing.

The coverage of the ifs report rightly – because they are the certainties – focuses on the two decisions. But the ifs report also analyses the effect of the three proposals for consultation, and its two things about these that I want to highlight.

Firstly, the effect on government borrowing. The RAB charge is the measure of how much student debt the government expects to have to write off. At the moment the RAB charge stands at 39.2% - the government expects almost £2 in every £5 it lends to students to be written off as un-repayable. If all five measures are introduced, the ifs expects the RAB charge to reduce to 21.9% - effectively halving the amount of debt write off. This is all to do with changing the discount rate. In the ifs’s own words:
The proposal to reduce the discount rate is essentially an accounting ‘trick’: it will not change the real resources going to students or universities; nor will it increase repayments from graduates. Instead, it means that future repayments will be valued more highly today. This has the effect of increasing the value (but not the cash amount) of repayments made in future, hence making it appear that the cost of the system (in net-present-value terms) is lower than it was before.
And secondly, a change in the balance of who pays for higher education. To quote from the budget document:
The government must therefore ask graduates to meet more of the cost of their degrees once they are earning.
Using the ifs data it is possible to work out the graduate’s share of the costs of their education, as in the following table.

So, at the moment the costs are shared roughly equally between the taxpayer and the graduate. If all of the budget reforms are implemented, the graduate share increases to 75% of the total cost. What looks like a technical accounting decision has real consequences for individuals.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Red tape

The Privy Council Office publishes notices in the London Gazette, and it’s fascinating to see what business is transacted. A search on the term ‘university‘ gives 236 instances of notices containing that word – most petitions for changes to charters or statues.

And most of the business relates to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, because of the provisions of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1923. The 236 instances could be attributed as follows:

Number of notices
Universities of Oxford or Cambridge
Other Universities
Non-university business

Fully 89% of the notices published by the Privy Council related to Oxbridge, because of the provisions of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1923

Remove ‘university’ as a search term, and only 644 results are revealed – so Oxbridge accounts for almost one third (211/644) of all of the notices placed by the Privy Council Office in the London Gazette.

Amending the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1923 to enable those universities to manage their own affairs without the intervention of the Privy Council would save a lot of time and effort. And not just for Oxbridge – this is public money. 

In times of austerity, isn’t it time to do away with unnecessary relics of a more argumentative past?

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Fair access?

There’s a fascinating pair of stories on the BBC Education website today.

Firstly, university access, and the release by OFFA of details of access agreements for 2016-17. Access agreements are the documents which set out what resources English universities will commit, from their tuition fee income, to support access by students from socially under-represented groups to higher education. There’s lots of data in the report (pdf file), about which perhaps I’ll post another time, but for now what caught my eye was the spin in the reporting:
“Universities agree to take more disadvantaged students” (my emphasis). 
As if the reason for disproportionately low participation rates amongst some social groups was all to do with universities’ willingness to admit students and not to do with a myriad other factors.

And the second story: that the average cost of school-age private education in the UK (that is, the fourteen years from ages 5 to 18) is £286k and, if on a boarding basis, £468k. By my reckoning this makes £20k plus per year or, at the boarding rate, £33k per year. So, parents who send their children to private schools think that the investment is well worth it, and they spend a lot of money on it too.

There’s all sorts of trails to follow from this. One is about class sizes and contact hours: private schools do well in part because they have smaller class sizes – the pupils get more attention from their teachers, and hence do better. At a cost of £20k per year. Compare the pressure on contact hours for universities where fees are set at a maximum of £9k per year. I can do the maths, and it doesn’t surprise me that universities are feeling the pinch a little – although £9k per year feels a lot for a young adult to take on as their first financial obligation in life, it isn’t much compared to the amounts parents are willing to spend on their children’s behalf.

Another is about how to address widening participation. By and large universities admit on the basis of prior educational attainment. Better A-levels get you into a better university. If you want to increase participation from deprived social backgrounds, invest in the schooling – more teachers, better equipment. It’ll help get better outcomes for the children. More of whom can then get into university.
Just your average students
And if you want to think about raising their aspiration to go to university? Rather than beat up universities, I think a better place to start is asking why society enables some parents to buy their children a brighter future, and how does the dominance of certain social groups in our society persist. The Bullingdon Club of the 1980’s is ruling the country now, and I’d be astonished if the rulers of 30 years’ time weren’t about to enrol in Oxford and Cambridge, having come from the better private schools.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Principals and principles

Here’s an interesting article on the Herald Scotland website. Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, has reportedly written to other university leaders - just in Scotland? it isn’t clear from the article – “raising concerns about the wider impact of … campaigns” to divest themselves from fossil fuels.
A fossil-fuel divestment decision in London

This follows decisions in some universities to cease investing in fossil fuels, and is newsworthy in Scotland because of Ferdinand von Prondzynski’s role in developing proposals for changes to university governance in Scotland, including as stronger voice for students, which have now led to specific proposals by the Scottish government. (See here for a critique by Paul Greatrix, Registrar at Nottingham and acute observer of things HE.)

What’s the controversy?

On the one hand, campaigners have encouraged universities to cease investment in fossil fuels – and in some cases via direct action have caused this to happen. The argument is that by investing in a technology which causes harm, universities are acting inappropriately and immorally – “not in our name”.

The counter argument is that universities have a duty to secure good returns on investment capital that they have; that engagement helps to sustain meaningful change in the fossil fuel industry; and that universities research the things that help transition away from fossil fuels, and only by engaging can this be meaningful.

It’s a classic revolution versus reform argument. When I was an undergraduate, we had a similar situation at LSE, with a campaign to force the School to divest from South Africa, in solidarity with the anti-apartheid campaign. It was ultimately successful, but the clinching argument was, I understand, when the SU demonstrated to the LSE’s finance committee that investing outside SA would bring higher returns. Collapse of Stout Party.

The argument about fossil fuels has another dimension. There’s a concern that divesting from fossil fuels will imperil research activity in that area, and research funding. This brings student activism into direct conflict with academic freedom, and in particular the freedom to choose what to research. I suspect this means that the arguments won’t be so quickly dealt with nor go away – this is about the work of many people in the university, not just Principals and principles.

Friday, 3 July 2015


The release of the Employment Performance Indicators by HESA this week made interesting reading. Universities up and down the land will be celebrating or holding post mortems, more so as employability seems set to increase in prominence in the government's thinking about higher education.

It’s a large data-set making it hard to spot patterns. I thought it might be useful to look at the aggregate outcomes by type of university. That isn’t going by mission group, but looking at institutions in historical context:

  • The ancient universities – not just Oxbridge but also the Scottish ancient foundations
  • The redbrick universities – the civic foundations of the 19th and first half of 20th centuries
  • The CATs – the Colleges of Advanced Technology given university status in the 1950’s and the 1960’s
  • The plate-glass universities – the new creations of the 1960’s
  • The post 1992s - the former polytechnics which became universities en masse in 1992
  • Newer universities – those created after the 1992 transition, often from colleges of higher education or former teacher training institutions
  • Specialist institutions – arts, drama, agriculture, medical and so on

The HESA methodology changed in 2011-12, meaning that there’s only three years of comparable Employment PI data. This is how those seven categories aggregate:

Employment PI (%)
Post 1992

It’s all very close, but note one interesting feature: the types with the lower employment of graduates are the post-1992 universities and the former CATs. Both of these types of universities aimed, historically, to focus on programmes and skills which met the needs of business and industry.

Within the data, of course, are highs and lows in each category. And the outcomes for any institution will have lots of factors which determine the employment KPI– whether its region and the local economy or subject spread, or even very local issues about how the DeLHE survey was conducted.

Nevertheless, it’s sometimes good to take a step back from the data and see what might be going on.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Agenda setting

Not a minister
Not a Scottish footballer
Jo Johnson, Universities minister, gave a speech to UUK today.

When his appointment was announced back in May, I misread and thought they’d appointed Mo Johnston, former Scotland striker. Instead they went for a slightly blonder minister, whose speech shows that the government has an agenda for higher education.

The speech name-checked the government’s manifesto pledges, so it’s worth reminding ourselves about what they were:

We will ensure that if you want to go to university, you can
This year, for the first time, over half a million people have been admitted to our universities, including a record proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. From September, we will go even further, abolishing the cap on higher education student numbers and removing an arbitrary ceiling on ambition. Our reforms to university funding mean you do not have to pay anything towards tuition while studying, and only start paying back if you earn over £21,000 per year. We will ensure the continuing success and stability of these reforms, so that the interests of both students and taxpayers are fairly represented. We will also introduce a national postgraduate loan system for taught masters and PhD courses. We will ensure that universities deliver the best possible value for money to students: we will introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality; encourage universities to offer more two-year courses; and require more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates.
Conservative manifesto 2015, p35
Like every good to-do list, it includes two things which have already been done – removing the cap on places at English universities and introducing postgraduate loans (again in England only – HE is a devolved matter). That leaves four pledges:

1. Ensuring the continuing success and stability of the student loan system
2. Introducing a framework for teaching quality
3. Encourage university to offer more two-year courses
4. Require more data to be available to students

‘Value for money’ is the catch all for the last three of these.

And then the speech itself:
… my focus will be on implementing 3 key manifesto pledges, so that we consolidate and build on these achievements:
Firstly, lifting the cap on student numbers and widening participation, so that we remove barriers to ambition and meet the PM’s commitment to double the proportion of disadvantaged young people entering higher education by 2020 from 2009 levels.
Secondly, delivering a teaching excellence framework that creates incentives for universities to devote as much attention to the quality of teaching as fee-paying students and prospective employers have a right to expect.
Thirdly, driving value for money both for students investing in their education, and taxpayers underwriting the system, so that we ensure the continuing success and stability of these reforms.
Teaching at the heart of the system, speech by Jo Johnson to UUK, 1 July 2015

And he had a lot to say about this, highlighting:

  • Data that shows students are less happy about choices they have made (but see my post on the ComRes data)
  • The possibility of assembling data showing student engagement and specific salaries from different universities, and the need for greater transparency about how fees are spent
  • The government’s commitment to support an increase in the number of high quality universities
  • His worry that the graduate premium has reduced, and the need to find out why and do something about it
  • The need for partnership with business to influence curriculum design
  • Plans for a Teaching Excellence Framework: 

"I expect the TEF to include a clear set of outcome-focused criteria and metrics. This should be underpinned by an external assessment process undertaken by an independent quality body from within the existing landscape."

  • A green paper to be published in the autumn
  • The need to tackle degree class inflation
  • The need to use continual assessment (ie the GPA system) to push students harder throughout their programmes (with a dig at contact hours in the meantime)
  • His intention to focus on WP in the more selective institutions (by means of two year programmes, apparently)

Four thoughts on this.

Firstly, who’ll run TEF? QAA looks like the obvious candidate, but let’s not forget the other “independent quality bod[ies] from within the existing landscape” –

HEA – they know about teaching
HESA – they have data on student progress
OFFA – they know about student success
OIA – they know what makes students cross
Ipsos Mori – they know about student opinion through the NSS

Secondly, how do you do a light-touch TEF? You can use data on student achievement and value-added, which is about outcomes not about teaching; you can survey the taught, which is about perceptions not about outcomes; or you can inspect the teaching, which won’t be light touch. Answers on a postcard to Jo Johnson, please, before he has to sign off the green paper.

Thirdly, this stuff about the GPA. I’ll need to think about this but it seems to me that the argument goes that moving from degree classification to a 13 point scale will help student motivation because students currently don’t work hard because degree classes are an inexact measure of achievement. I’m not sure that this is an entirely flawless argument.

Fourthly, the graduate premium. The minister acknowledges that a university education is about more than salary, but argues that the decline in the graduate premium is a cause for concern, and promotes data that enable students to see what previous graduates have earned. Is this an argument that paves the way for raising the cap on fees, when the evidence, or sector action, supports the conclusion that it’s worth it? Or an argument for not raising the fee cap, as there’s work yet to be done?

There’s more to think about, and enough material for seminars and conferences, let alone some more blog posts. Interesting times.