Monday 31 March 2014

Student Power

Bologna. Berlin. Manchester. No, not the words on the bag from a fashionable boutique, but important places in relation to student power and the development of the University.

First, Bologna. The University of Bologna is the oldest university with a continued existence from its foundations, in 1088. Its foundation was not the result of top-down recognition – no papal bull, such as at Paris, Oxford or Cambridge – but the result of student federation. Students were attracted to Bologna by the presence of notable scholars, who taught for a fee. But for students from other countries, Bologna was a tricky place - at the time it had laws which provided for collective responsibility for acts committed by foreigners. Thus an English student in Bologna was legally liable for the act of any English person in Bologna.

Not a good situation to be in. So students grouped together in associations – for mutual protection – based around their country of origin. And these associations – or nations – then came together to form a single corporation (or universitas, in Latin) which employed the teachers. The universitas was student governed, with two from each nation on its general council. The universitas employed the professors, and the scary-sounding Denouncers of Professors – a group of students – reported to the student rector on any bad professorial behaviour. (The source for this is Law and Revolution: the formation of the Western Legal Tradition by Harold J Berman, Harvard, 1983.)

Second, Berlin. Prussian minister Wilhelm von Humboldt’s philosophy of education and society influenced the foundation of the University of Berlin, and in particular its model integrating both teaching and research into the scholar’s role. The notions of lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and lernfreiheit (freedom to learn) set out the roles of staff and students. For staff, the right to teach what they in their own judgement determined, without interference from any other person or body.  For students, the right to study whatever they chose from the courses of lectures or labs offered by the staff of the University. This model infused the development of university systems in other countries – notably the USA – and led to the course catalog (sic) and credit hours.

Thirdly, Manchester. Right now. Students in the Economics Department of the University of Manchester, dissatisfied by the failure, as they perceive it, of the undergraduate economics curriculum to include alternative approaches to economics, are taking action. The Post-Crash Economics Society has been established with the following aims

Society Constitution
1) The Post-Crash Economics Society has been set up to try and broaden the range of perspectives and the teaching methods used by the Manchester Economics Department.
2) We will run a campaign to build student support and engage in dialogue with the economics department.
3) We will run events, workshops and other activities.
4) We aim to be a society that is accessible to all students and staff with an interest in economics whatever their economic and political beliefs.

The debate picked up publicity last week when the Times Higher reported that students were being encouraged by the society not to complete the NSS until the University had committed to including a particular module in the curriculum next session. According to the Times Higher:

Joe Earle, campaign coordinator at the society, told Times Higher Education that urging students to make their voice heard through the NSS was a legitimate way to influence the university. 
He said that the society had collected 245 signatures from economics students at Manchester who want the new module to be accredited, but he believed that the university would take the threat to NSS scores more seriously.

And from the same Times Higher story

A spokesman for the University of Manchester said that the society was “leading a national debate on the way economics is taught in higher education” and that the ensuing discussions had been “positive, useful and informative”.

It’s not quite the Denouncers of Professors, but nor is it lehrfreiheit.

Where will be next?

Friday 28 March 2014

Dealing with uncertainty

A really excellent blog post by Gavan Conlon on wonkhe got me thinking about uncertainty within the higher education sector. Gavan’s post was about the RAB charge for tuition fee loans, which turns out to be higher (at the moment) than had been forecast. But also about the longer term changes to the higher education sector which arise from the policy changes.

This is just one example of the uncertainties around UK higher education at the moment. Let’s name check a few of them:

  • Will international students keep coming to the UK given growing HE sectors elsewhere, and the current government’s hostile stance to migration?
  • Will universities be able to regain steady patterns of student recruitment, or is the current system volatility set to continue?
  • How much further will research funding be concentrated after REF, and will this make research unsustainable in some universities?
  • What will the disruption to established patterns of higher education from the internet be? Is it MOOCs, or some other disruption yet to come?

There’s lots to be said about each of these, but that isn’t the point of what I want to say (not today, anyway!). The point is, that no-one who works in or cares about universities can act as if some basic assumptions won’t ever change. And this is a problem, because universities operate on a long cyclical model. For example, the students graduating in summer 2014 with an undergraduate degree, after 3 years of study, entered university in 2011, on promises made in a prospectus which was signed off in autumn 2009. Before Browne, before tuition fees, before austerity budgets.

So universities have to adapt to events, but they carry a heavy burden of commitments which make his hard, and which place burdens on staff who are very busy just delivering the day-to-day. (If universities are sometimes seen as slow to change, I think this is one of the reasons)

There’s no magic wand which will protect a university, or a team, or a person in a university, from change. But there are things you can do to help you prepare. Here’s three things you can do

1. Keep reading news.  And thinking about it.  By the time something is a headline it’s too late to avoid it, but by looking into what’s behind the headlines, and thinking a bit about what factors are driving developments, you can see further into the future.  The film Armageddon is a bit like this (honestly!)  If you nudge the asteroid far enough away from earth, it flies past harmlessly, but if you wait too long it’s gonna get you.

2. Scenario planning: imagine a few futures – in the five year horizon works well – and think about what would have to happen for that to come true, and what would be the implications if it did. So, for instance, suppose that in five years MOOCs are a dominant form of learning in higher education: a higher completion rate; reliable ways found to assess performance. If it were like this, who wouldn’t follow courses from Harvard and Yale? So universities would need to think about changing the teaching model, to focus perhaps on small group teaching as an adjunct to online lectures (welcome back, blended learning!) And to find ways to award credit for MOOCs. Will this happen? Personally, I doubt it, but if you were, for instance, responsible for quality assurance processes in a university, you might want to look at your APL rules to see how much use they would be in this scenario.

3. Keep yourself lean: I don’t mean exercise more, but lean in the sense of the processes that you use. Do you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and have you thought about what effort you might be wasting doing things that don’t need to be done? Some of that’s about priorities, but some if it is just about being efficient. Here’s a clear introduction from the Cardiff University's Lean University team about what lean is and is about – there’s lessons and benefits for all of us.

So there’s three steps: read the future, think about it in a structured way, clear the decks so you can react.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Big data, small budgets - 7 ways to make a difference

You don't need a big budget to get more from the data you have.

I saw this morning an advert from a company specialising in big data for universities – how to join together the data that universities already hold, turn it into useful information and get value from it in making a university more effective. There were some very impressive applications on display, enough to make any university management green with envy. All very good – but the client list is the big beasts of the higher education jungle: University of Michigan (income $3.4bn, 60k students), Oxford University (income £1bn, 22k students), Cornell University (income $3.1bn, 22k students), Brown University (income $700m, 8k students), Texas A&M (income $4.1bn, 53k students), Berkeley (income $2.1bn, 35k students). It can take big bucks to get big data.

In many UK universities budgets are tighter, and investment in the databases and analytics software that frees up big data isn’t this year’s (or next’s) priority. But it isn’t a lost cause: here are seven ideas which can make a real difference.

1. Know what data you have. Universities will have systems to record information and transactions about admissions, enrolments, exams, staff, space, finance, timetabling, learning resources, alumni, donors, research and more. Some of these systems may only be a spreadsheet, or paper-based files stored in one place, but knowing what is there can make a real difference. University management teams will see the possibilities of combining information; planning professionals will want to know what is there, make sure that its meaning is understood, and what the limits are on sharing the data.

2. A focus on data quality can be a real help. Look at where errors are creeping in to your data. Are you double-entering data because systems are not set up to be compatible? Have you got good documentation – with clear, unambiguous and relevant definitions of data fields, and good guidance for users – for all of the IT systems which you use to manage your background processes? A data quality policy will get you a tick from the governing body when it comes to the annual return to the funding council, and it can help you identify where you need to address problems.

3. Use the expertise you have. Universities have plenty of people who understand data and statistics – within the professional services, but also amongst the academic staff. Often these people will be only too pleased to be involved in making the data work better for their university. For staff in a professional services team, being part of a wider group looking at data can be a way to get a glimpse beyond the silo of their current role; and for academic staff, the chance to contribute on an institution-wide basis can be good for career development and professional recognition.  

4. Get in training. Train people in what data you have – sharing this knowledge opens up possibilities.  Train people in using the functionality of spreadsheet software – there’s power in these tools, for analysis and for presentation, which might surprise you. And train people in numerical reasoning – we all know an otherwise-high-performing-professional who has a real block with numbers, and overcoming this can be very empowering for them and for you. 

5. Use the data you have. It’s always possible to want better quality data, in different formats, and bringing together data sets which don’t match. And there are some questions where you do need real accuracy. But the data you have is good enough to help answer an awful lot of questions: focus on what you can say, rather than what you can’t, and don’t let the quest for perfect data get in the way of effective use of data. Read ‘How to measure anything’ by Douglas Hubbard to get a sense of what is possible. And think about letting a postdoc scientist loose on the data – it’s their capacity to see and understand the numbers that matters, not their knowledge of the underlying business. You’ll be surprised at what a data scientist can do!

6. Look for bottlenecks in your systems.  Do you have a colleague whose job it is to manage data requests, or is it a little bit of many people’s jobs?  Is the data team in IT and disconnected with users, making prioritisation difficult?  Sometimes sorting out one or two little problems can have a dramatic effect on how data can be made available and shared.

7. Spring clean your reports. Many data systems have reporting functions which require knowledge of SQL, for instance, to generate a report. Is the library of reports which have been coded a manageable size, and they reports which you still need? Find out what reports have already been written, remove duplicates, specify what you need now, and share the menu with others. Manage requests for new reports – if there’s real value in a new report, then it’s worth coding, but sometimes a colleague can happily use what already exists.

These seven tips won’t give you big data – you’ll still be casting longing glances at the analytics some universities use – but they will help you make an impact. And once the management team gets an appetite for data, who knows where that will go?

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Bigger is better?

Every now and then there’s a splash about the sheer number of administrators in higher education – see, for example, Registrarism’s post in February 2014 picking up on a scare story in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  If you set aside the nostalgia for imagined lost days of senior common rooms, pliant students and No Administrators, there is a an interesting question about how much universities actually spend.

In the UK at least this is public data, from HESA.  I looked at the proportion of staff spend by UK universities which was not on academic staff.  I excluded staff spend on premises (ie estates and facilities management) and residences because these are sometimes contracted out, which would skew the data.  And I plotted this data, for 2011-12, against total income of institutions in that same year.  The resulting chart can be found via the Resources page on, here.

And what do we see?  Well, there does seem to be a correlation between scale and less spend on professional service staff.  (Remember – correlation does not imply causality, although as Edward Tufte observes, it sure is a hint.)  But what a variation there is too – spend is pretty much all over the place.

It’s important not to jump to conclusions about this.  Importantly, there’s no data here about the quality of the service provided, and maybe you get more and better if you spend more.  And UK universities aren’t all the same, and don’t operate in a vacuum.  So, I’d want to look at subject mix; location; research-intensiveness; and history (because patterns of spend tend to lock themselves in over the years; and because many universities saw their unit of resources squeezed by late 1980’s and early 1990’s public funding mechanisms).

But there’s also food for thought.  Are you above the line or below it?

Friday 14 March 2014

The disruption that is to come

Registrarism's blog post Surviving an avalanche - which reminds us of the hype a year ago by IPPR about The Massive Changes To Come in higher education - got me thinking about what the real disruptive digital approach to higher education will be.  

MOOCs have a lot written about them, and there's serious money behind them, but that says that they are a business proposition, not an educational one.  I think the disruptive technology is on us already, and it's not happening to universities, its happening in universities.  It's the use of social media by academic staff to interact with students.

My Twitter feed includes a couple of lecturers who tweet well, and whose account is clearly part of their day-to-day engagement with their students.  There's the expected ups and downs.  Some great conversations which show how Twitter in the classroom can qualitatively change students' engagement with the topic and the class.  And some exchanges where the immediacy of Twitter enables a student to express their frustration very directly to the teacher.  It's obvious that the quality of how the lecturer responds to the latter - quickly, openly - contributes a lot to the positive uses that Twitter can have.  It enables a lecturer to be visibly personally authentic, and who couldn't like that?

This is the revolution, I think.  As the use of social media becomes part of the everyday fabric of life, those in universities who don't use it, or who don't use it well, may find themselves less noticed, and less able to make a difference.  And the qualities for personal authenticity in social media are quite different to some of the norms of university life: social media isn't hierarchical, and it isn't always serious.  

If this is the disruptive technology for higher education, then it won't be an avalanche that buries us, it will be a slow rise in sea level.  Like the good citizens of High Brazil in Terry Jones' Erik the Viking, we may be up to our waists before we notice that things have changed for ever.

Thursday 6 March 2014

Welcome and why?

Welcome to Sweeping Leaves, the blog from Hugh Jones Consulting.

Why Sweeping Leaves?  To my mind, this is what a lot of management and leadership is about - sweeping leaves on a windy day.  You want to make the place nice and tidy; you've got a good broom, but the wind keeps on scattering the leaves, old and new, back to where you've just swept.  It's a constant task.  Almost Sisyphean.

Management can be like that too - just when things are 'nice and tidy' - you've got the right team doing the right things to get the right results - something changes.  Maybe a new team member.  Maybe a new external challenge.  Maybe an oportunity.  And all of a sudden things don't quite work.  If you recognise this, then I hope you'll see why Sweeping Leaves is what I've called this blog.

Sweeping leaves will be a resource for you.  I'll be posting on topics around higher education leadership and management; on higher education policy and politics in the UK; and also posting resources, every now and again, that I hope you'll want to make use of.  Think of me and the Sweeping Leaves blog as your assistant gardener.

Happy sweeping!