Friday 23 May 2014

Squaring up

The Higher Education (Wales) Bill 2014 has now been published and introduced at the Senedd, and it seemed like the pre-fight press conference for a heavyweight title fight. Well, maybe that’s bigging it up a little too much, but there was certainly some drawing of lines. Possibly in the sand.

The Bill and an Explanatory Memorandum were published on 19 May. They are both substantial documents: the Bill is 37 pages; the explanatory memorandum 148 pages. So there’ll be more to write and say about these as they make their passage through the Senedd. (A note for English readers: the Senedd is the Welsh parliament. The ‘dd’ in Senedd is pronounced like the ‘th’ in there. Now try saying Senedd – I suspect it’s the same root as Senate.) For now I want to concentrate on an apparent spat between universities and the government.

The Bill seeks to set out a new regulatory framework for higher education in Wales, following the tuition fee reforms introduced following the Browne review. Put simply, HEFCW previously controlled much of the resource for universities in Wales, and so had an effective means to influence universities’ actions. When most of the state funding flows via students instead, through tuition fees, HEFCW has no real means of influencing. And so the Bill seeks to give the government, via HEFCW, some powers which work in the context of fees, rather than those which used to work in the context of the block grant.

To quote from the explanatory memorandum:
35. In summary, as a consequence of the new tuition fee and student support arrangements, the financial relationship between HEFCW and institutions has weakened. Whilst the overall quantum of funding available to HEFCW has decreased the Welsh Government continues to make a significant contribution towards the cost of higher education provision in Wales through the provision of government backed tuition fee grants and loans. This shift in funding means that the current regulatory framework based on HEFCW’s conditions of funding will no longer function in the manner originally intended. The continued regulation of education delivered by or on behalf of institutions providing higher education in Wales is in the public interest. 
It’s important to note a particular difference between Wales and England. OFFA in England is autonomous from HEFCE. English universities’ access agreements were connected to block grant by a more attenuated mechanism than in Wales, where universities submit fee plans to HEFCW; approval of these by HEFCW is a condition of funding.

The Bill allows for automatic designation of providers with charitable status; reserves the most generous student support arrangements for automatically designated providers; requires automatically designated providers to have a fee and access plan agreed by HEFCW; and gives HEFCW powers to not agree such plans. Specific changes to the arrangements are the limitation to charities; making student retention a priority; and providing for monitoring of the proportion of tuition fee income spent on access arrangements (as it has been in England since the word go.)

So what’s the fuss about? Higher Education Wales (HEW) issued a statement which highlighted the need for institutional autonomy; identified a worry that the regime gave HEFCW disproportionate power compared to that exercised by students; and highlighted the use of subsequent regulation (the ‘negative resolution’ procedure) to set out much of the detail of the new system, making a response difficult.

The ‘negative resolution’ procedure is a variety of government regulation, deriving from the so-called Henry VIII clauses, which allow legislation without parliamentary approval. Essentially, they mean that the Bill identified areas where ministers make the regulations, which are valid unless the Senedd votes them down. HEW argued that the regulations should be subject to an affirmative procedure – that is, voted on at the Senedd before implementation.

It’s easy also to see why HEW might be suspicious. The Bill gives those inspecting quality (which will still be the QAA) or adherence to the financial code the right of entry to premises, and the right to inspect documents; and also provides that they should show identification on coming to the premises. (See paragraphs 117 and 150 of the Explanatory Memorandum.) If it looks like the police it’s easy to see why people think that it might be the police.

So what the other side of the argument? Simply put, higher education matters more in Wales than in England, in two senses. Firstly, Wales needs a more skilled population to create economic well-being. The guts of the Welsh economy were ripped out when mining, steel and manufacturing went in the 1980’s. A new economy can be found, but it’ll need a population with more skills than at present. Welsh universities have a job to do for Wales. And secondly, higher education represents a higher proportion of the Welsh Government’s spending and powers than for the Westminster government. Because the Welsh Government has a narrower remit than that of Westminster, then the areas it does control – and HE is a big one – represent a higher proportion of its spend. The RAB charge takes a bigger share of the Welsh cake than it does in Westminster.

And the fighting? Here’s an extract from the Senedd discussion (you can see the whole exchange at 1600 in the report):

Leighton Andrews (the former minister): I do not know whether the Minister has yet had the opportunity to read the very weak and conservative response from the vice-chancellors’ lobby today. To my mind, it borders on the hysterical. If he has not read it, I would urge him not to waste too much time on it. ... So, I would urge him not to pay too much attention to the murmurings of the vice-chancellors.

Huw Lewis (the current minister): I thank the Member for the Rhondda for those insights and comments. Yes, I have read the response of Higher Education Wales, which followed rapidly upon its receipt of today’s news, and I have to say that I was—well, it is almost a euphemism to say that I was disappointed in terms of the tone and the content, especially when you consider that, since the White Paper was published back in 2012, numerous conversations have been held between officials, Ministers and the sector itself. This response today is not worthy of the subject matter, and I would appeal to it to rapidly raise its game in terms of the level of input that we would expect, and that the public would expect. We really need constructive dialogue and engagement in order to get these issues progressed. In many points that HEW made today, it almost seemed to have disregarded all conversations that had gone before, and has suddenly woken up to the situation as it is. We know that it has had a great deal of time to think about this, and we need it, as an active and intelligent partner in the development of this legislation. Let us hope that this particular press release today does not signal the level of engagement that we might be able to expect from HEW.

That’s fighting talk! I’ll keep you posted as the bout begins.

Monday 19 May 2014

Operational effectiveness

Any manager will at some point have worried about achieving reliability and efficiency in delivering a service. There’s a powerful combination of two established management tools which can help you.

The first tool is to use Standard Operating Procedures – SOPs. This isn't (just) an instruction manual for how to do something. It’s also a set of habits which keeps that recipe card current. Here’s how.

Document the procedure – and have it done by those who actually operate it. SOPs are common in laboratories and in manufacturing processes – here's guidance from the US EPA which includes examples – but they also apply to administrative processes, and particularly those which use complex databases or other IT systems. SOPs should articulate the critical steps; and identify any choices that the operator has to make, and the parameters for those choices. They should also not be so long that they become unusable.

Have the procedure reviewed and signed off by a senior member of staff, not involved in its drafting – the head of section or, if it's a small team, their manager. This is so that the process has formal authority as well as the expert authority that comes from the knowledge of its authors. It also means that any organisational or resourcing issues have to be addressed. And finally, it shows that the SOP is serious: make the sign-off process a real hurdle, and people will see that it matters.

Include in the document the reasons for the steps. Tell people why something matters and they are more likely to do it. Robert Cialdini reports a fantastic example of this in his book ‘Influence’, reporting on work done by Ellen Langer of Harvard University. Ellen Langer conducted experiments in which she asked people queuing to use a photocopier if she could push in.

  • When the question was Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I'm in a rush? 94% let her go ahead of them
  • When the question was Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine? only 60% let her go ahead of them
  • And when the question was Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies? 93% let her go ahead of them

So when you give a reason – because – you get much more agreement. And note that the reason doesn't even have to be a good one – ‘because I'm in a rush’ and ‘because I have to make some copies’ get pretty much the same response, but the second reason adds no extra information. Why stand in a photocopier queue if you don’t want to make copies? So use a because and people will more likely notice.

Train people in using the procedure. It doesn't have to be a full day's training session, but at least talk them through the procedure; let them ask questions; observe and coach if they're unsure.

Set a review date; stick to that date; and involve those who operate the procedure in the review. Keep the procedure current; make sure you take account of any other organisational or priority changes which might impact; and learn from the experience of operating the procedure.  What tips and wrinkles have the operators identified? What would they change to make it better?

So that’s the first tool – standard operating procedures.

The second tool comes from Lean thinking, and is both simple and devastatingly powerful. It’s about identifying the nature of the tasks to be done, and makes the following distinction.

  • Runners are tasks that occur on a daily basis, and are of sufficient volume to justify having a specific process to deal with them
  • Repeaters are tasks that occur on a regular basis, but not frequently, and are not part of the day-to-day business of the organisation
  • Strangers are tasks that occur infrequently

Now apply this distinction to a standard operating procedure. Does a single procedure try to cope with too many different types of event? Are you dealing with repeaters and strangers when you could be focusing only on runners? This can lead to delays where questions get passed around the organisation, and bottlenecks are created in workflow. I've seen this happen in processes around the student journey, where one non-standard case delays processing a whole batch of students, resulting in disproportionate problems.

The trick is to design the bottlenecks out. Make the procedure work for one specific task. If there’s another task which occurs, have another procedure. You can’t make apple pie with a recipe for blancmange. And make sure that you have triage at an early stage: work out if a case has the right features to be dealt with by a given procedure. If it has, then process it. If it doesn't, then refer it elsewhere. Just like a hospital, making sure that the broken bones go to the fracture clinic, and the blocked ears go to ENT.

And there you have it. Think about runners, repeaters and strangers, to make sure that your procedures have the right scope and focus. And then write and use a standard operating procedure to improve quality and reliability.

Good luck!

Thursday 15 May 2014

Masterful guidance

The four UK higher education funding bodies have been working together on guidance for PGT recruitment teams on information for prospective applicants. Published so far by HEFCE and HEFCW; no doubt coming to Scotland and Northern Ireland soon. PGT, by the way, is Post-Graduate Taught – Master’s degrees by any other name.

The guidance looks very sensible, and is grounded in comprehensive research into the views of current prospective taught postgraduate students. What surprised me is how very basic some of the guidance is. For example, “Prospective PGT students are often balancing a broad range of commitments so information regarding expected attendance and assessment periods, if any, will help them assess whether study is possible for them”. Although obvious, this is a really important point, and I know that it needs making.

It also, I think, makes us ask a question about the role of PGT programmes in universities. (The guidance, that is, not the specific point about teaching times).  And that is, what are PGT programmes for? To a student, they can be the natural extension of an undergraduate degree, either for interest or as a stepping stone to research study. Or they can be a means to learn specific skills and knowledge for career development – either immediately after a first degree or later into a career.

And universities of course cater for both types. Sometimes both at once. But there are definite splits, with some university departments or research groups seeing a Master’s programme as a long and self-financing (sometimes!) interview process for a PhD, or as a means of creating acolytes for the professor’s research topics. To my mind the published guidance is giving a clear steer away from this type of approach – coaxing universities into more uniform ways of presenting PGT programmes, and thereby normalising and regularising the market.

Is this just the funding councils seeking something to do, now that undergraduate programmes are far more obviously subject to market rigours? That sounds a trifle paranoid, I agree. But there is a worry that, come September 2015, debt-laden new graduates will seek employment rather than further study, and a UK student on a full-time PGT programme may become a rarity. And if the sector is to try to seek government funding to support PGT provision at that or a later point, it won’t hurt to have got our house in order.

So there’s a bigger picture to the guidance: if the sector does all it can to make PGT provision readily available, then there’s a stronger case to government for supporting an important part of the UK offer.

Thursday 8 May 2014

The heart or the head?

Idealism and reality seem currently to be clashing in higher education, and the turbulence is bringing some interesting things to the surface.

On the one hand, there’s an idealism inherent in the notion of higher education, which sees it as a liberating force for the individual and society and that there is a moral duty to deliver the enlightened world which could arise if more people benefited from a higher education. And in the UK context, that strand of thinking was given a boost by the introduction of considerably increased tuition fees for undergraduate study in England in 2012. The notion that access to higher education should not be rationed by affordability, as well as provoking riots in Trafalgar Square, led to some radical initiatives, such as the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, which enables people to access a ‘free co-operative higher education’ and the Free University of Liverpool, which has now wound up.

And on the other hand, the gritty reality that the traditional form of higher education in the UK (ie full-time, attending a campus away from home) is an expensive business to deliver, with a spiral of expectation created by higher fees, a focus on the non-academic aspects of the student experience, leading to phenomena like the ‘athletics arms race’, on which Paul Greatrix has blogged, and a yearly cycle of what-more-have-we-got-to-justify-high-fees?. Sustaining a large sector, which employs over 450,000 people in the UK (HESA staff return 2012-13, table A), requires a lot of money. Which means you’re straight back to the argument about where the money comes from, who pays, and whether it higher education funding is more like a progressive tax or a means test which in itself acts as a barrier.

(This reminds me of a chant during a late-1980’s demo against student loans:

"Education should be free
For the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie!")

The BBC flagged another interesting initiative – the University of the People. This claims to be free if people need it; to be online (but not dependent upon high specification technology); to be international; and, crucially, to offer US accredited degrees. If it is what it seems to say it is – voluntary, humanitarian – then it clearly sits with the heart not the head. And if it is offering proper degrees of a high standard, then it will surely attract a lot of students.

It’s too early to declare that this is the shape of things to come: the challenge of supporting a few hundred students online is different from the challenge of supporting tens of thousands, and the initial enthusiasm may wear off. But what if the University of the People accepted credit transfer from completed MOOCs? A lot of business models might be seriously disrupted, and the heart-versus-head question might become starker still.