Tuesday 29 July 2014

The money lenders

It does rather seem that David Willetts won’t stop being universities minister. The BBC reports today on the idea, promoted by said former-minister on Newsnight yesterday, that universities take on some of the student loans debt. This will reduce the RAB charge for Treasury (and therefore make student loans more affordable for the public purse) and also make it easier for universities to argue that they could charge higher fees if the Treasury is insulated against the risk.

I was struck by two particular quotes from the BBC write-up.

Here’s the first:

The costs of the debt - currently assumed by officials to be between 30p and 40p in every £1 that it lends - are paid by the Treasury.

The italics are mine.  Did you see the word “assumption”? This is an accounting question, and it’s all about what, today, we think that graduates will be doing in 20-30 years’ time.  Do we really have confidence in these assumptions? On that time horizon we’re almost into personal jet packs, holidays on the moon and ten hour working weeks (I wish!)

And here’s the second:

Cambridge graduates have a 4.3% unemployment rate in the first year out of study; for Staffordshire leavers, it runs at 13.9%.

My italics again. We know about the first year’s outcomes. But we need to know about 20-30 years’ time. Think how much the structure of the economy can change in 20 years. I don’t know for sure what skills are needed then. (Though I would agree that a Cambridge degree probably gives you a head start for reasons other than the quality of education …)

I don’t deny that the Treasury has a real problem to contend with – you can’t ignore or wish away accounting conventions. But to make up long-term policy on the basis of short term economic data seems slightly dangerous to me – like a farmer in Somerset changing from wheat fields to rice paddies on the basis of a rainy week in April.

For a more uplifting take on accounting here’s Monty Python’s money programme (opens in YouTube) …

Monday 28 July 2014

Room at the top?

The BBC reports today on NUS Scotland's call for more women on University governing bodies.  That's an important component of decision-making, but another angle is the make up of the executive team in a university.  I've been looking at the gender make-up of university executive teams - a day going through institutional websites.  I'll post more in due course (there's lots of data to look at) but here's a first finding:

For each UK institution, I identified the top team - usually identified as the group which meets weekly/fortnightly and advises the VC; or as the team within the Vice-Chancellor's office - and counted the number of men and women, including the VC/Principal.  I didn't differentiate between academic and professional service (eg Finance Director, Registrar) roles.

I couldn't identify the team for every institution.  There's 131 institutions represented in the data above; for the remaining 30 institutions I couldn't identify the top team from the university website.  The mean proportion of women on executive teams is just short of 1/3; there's not much difference between this and the national averages for English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish universities.

The data doesn't show equality - if there was no gender bias there'd be a normal distribution curve.  But equally it doesn't say anything about any given university, or the intentions of Vice-Chancellors.

Monday 21 July 2014

Small things can make a big difference

In most universities I’ve seen there’s a problem with using space efficiently, and one of the issues is the small meeting room which each department has “because it’s never possible to book a centrally controlled one when you need it.”

I saw technology in use today which, in its small way, knocked my socks off.  The blurry photo below (sorry for picture quality) is one of the room controllers outside every meeting room at the Life Sciences Hub Wales.

It’s got a touch sensitive screen like a tablet device.  It shows the bookings for the room; allows a user to book the room there and then for a quick meeting; and updates automatically (its connected to the central scheduling system). So you can see if a room is free; make a booking there and then (or online, automatically).  And when a room is in use the border glows red not green, so you can see from a distance whether the room is busy or free; even better, you can use the screen to find an empty room instead. And book it there and then.

Fantastic. It would take investment for the network infrastructure and the timetabling/scheduling system. But it removes the uncertainty about a room’s usage, and also the need for the printed weekly/termly timetables which are pinned to the door of many university classrooms.

Technology in itself doesn’t solve problems, but it can create possibilities for people. And I bet that once users are confident that they will be able to find a room, the pressing need to ‘keep control’ of the departmental meeting room will fade.  Technology here really could help with efficiency.

So should every university go out and install these? Not necessarily – the business case would depend on the specific rooms, usage, space costs, and a host of other things. But they might help change the language, from “centrally controlled room” to “easily bookable room”.  And once that’s believed, change can really happen.

And they do feel very Star Trek. I’ve seen the future. In Cardiff Bay. And it looks like it might work.

[For the record - I've got no connection with the company that makes these. Other similar ones might well be available.]

Sunday 6 July 2014

Setting the boss's pay

The decision by Goldsmiths, University of London, to include a student member on its Remuneration Committee points, I think, to a new way of looking at universities' responses to student demands in the post-Browne era.

The increase in fees for home/EU undergraduates in English and Welsh universities has had much written about it, some by me. What is unarguable is that it has had an effect on universities. Some have seen increases in income, notwithstanding the reduction in HEFCE/HEFCW T funding. Some have seen falls in demand and in enrolment numbers, with a sliggish recoverey so far to pre-2012 levels.

All universities have sought to respond. Some have opted to invest in learning and student experience facilities  - new libraries, sports pitches, and the like. All things which can be addressed by capital spend.  Goldsmiths, we see, has also opted for increased transparency in relation to salaries of senior managerial staff. This is a move which many universities have tried to avoid: it will be interesting to see if other universities now follow suit. It's a cheap (although potentially very disruptive) student demand to concede.

These responses - investment in facilities; greater transparency - are no doubt commendable. But many student demands relate to class sizes and access to tutors. This is recurrent spending which is not so straightforward for universities to commit. I'll be keeping an eye on HESA data over the next few years to see whether student:staff ratios also fall.

Sorry for the absence of links. I'll put some in next week when I'm back in the office.