Monday 29 September 2014

This sporting life

I noticed that a couple of 'my' teams are sponsored by universities.  Ospreys by Swansea University (and also by Neath Post Talbot College); the Cardiff Devils by Cardiff Metropolitan University. And a client I'm currently working with sponsors Ealing Trailfinders RFC. Some universities evidently see a benefit in a connection with sport.

Student sport also matters. I confess that this only became clear to me some way into my career in universities - as a student the closest we got to sport was avoiding the Three Tuns when the Athletics Union were there. It just made for an easier life. But some universities make sport a big part of their student offer, and gain considerable kudos (witness Loughborough's continued pleasure at their students' performance in commonwealth games. They'd be almost as good as Yorkshire if they were both allowed to enter independently.)

(Sponsored by Swansea University. Disturbingly!)

So what's going on? We clearly aren't heading for US-like community engagement with university sport. Excepting the Oxbridge boat race, which is an institution, student sport only rarely gets coverage outside of the universities concerned. You don't get 30,000 people turning out to see the university side take on another university.  

I see it as basically about marketing, but there are some benefits for the students too.

Some universities sponsor sports teams to reinforce a local brand. I remember hearing one VC talk about his university's sponsorship of the local League Two football club. Objectively, this wasn't as strong a sporting side as the town's rugby or cricket clubs (supporters of the club in question may think I'm talking cobblers...). So the sponsorship wasn't about association with a successful brand. But the football club had a much stronger appeal amongst the local community, so sponsorship helped cement the idea that the university, like the football club, was a local institution for local people. Great for breaking down barriers to participation. 

For some universities sponsorship works to help make relationships. A box at a sports ground gives somewhere to entertain guests of the university, and like it or not, entertaining is a necessary activity for a university. Engendering goodwill matters. And here the quality of the entertainment is clearly a factor: the better, or more recognised, the team, the better a box at the ground will be. This is one of the ways that a premiership club can be a real asset for the town or city in which it is based.

There's also an element which is about the facilities provided to students. If studying at the university can be associated with great facilities for sport (and the opportunity to try new sports) then it might just be the factor which sways an applicant's decision. And the benefit is no doubt real to the students who take part, forging friendships and helping them to find a part of their character which perhaps they didn't know about. That's what university is meant to be about, isn't it?

These identifies can run deep. When Imperial left the University of London, a significant issue to address was whether its medics could continue to play in the London medics leagues. People can give a lifelong loyalty to a particular university sports club, and attempts to change anything can run into resistance: witness the campaign to maintain Cardiff Medics teams within the BUCS structures, which featured national petitions and press coverage.

So sport can't be ignored. But it also highlights a problem for universities: sport speaks to a particular group of students - 'traditional' full-time undergraduates. It's been a long time since this was the only type of student. How do you find something that can appeal to all?

Until this question is answered, expect to see more university logos on shirts, on hoardings and in programmes at sports grounds. The one thing that sports and universities have in common are league tables, and they're not going away any time soon.

Friday 19 September 2014

Neverendum? Neverlegislatum!

Blimey! An extraordinary day yesterday in Scotland, and already an extraordinary morning in UK politics. Here’s a lesson from higher education, and a consequence for higher education.

David Cameron’s commitment to address, at the same fast pace, both further devolution to Scotland and the anomalies for the rest of the UK is quite a promise. Draft legislation by January to resolve the West Lothian question in ways which also take into account Wales and Northern Ireland is breakneck speed.

Less significantly, I’ve seen this kind of pace before in universities, when either a VC or a Council decides that committee structures are too cumbersome, and can’t we rationalise them. Quickly. What tends to happen is that some apparently big changes get identified quickly, but these are either found not quite to do the job necessary, or need further detailed work for some years. Or alternately some Registrarial sleight of hand gives the impression of change without the disruption. But neither approach really does what the VC/Council want.

The comparison might not be so out of place. Several reforms of university governance have required acts of parliament, or have stalled on a vote when put to the people. With confidence I can predict, based upon university experience, that there will be complications which either prevent the timetable being adhered to, or have in the footnotes and subsidiary clauses an argument which lasts for years. Not neverendum but neverlegislatum.

Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament
That’s the lesson from higher education. What about the consequence?

The debate is squarely about what matters are UK-wide and what matters are devolved to a different level – nation, (city) region, county – within the UK. There’s also an incommensurable: maintaining the Barnett formula implies continued central state disbursement of money, if it is to be meaningful; against this is a commitment to devolve tax and spending decisions. It’ll be tricky to have both.

At the moment higher education is devolved, with one important caveat, which is the unified funding of research councils via the dual support mechanism. This has up to now been protected by intense lobbying of the relevant minister in Westminster. But will universities have a powerful voice to protect this? If there’s greater regionalism, isn’t it likely that some nations or regions will want to have control of all money for HE in their purview? The hubbub of the bigger question will be large, and it may be that universities complaints fall on ears which can’t hear: not deaf, but too busy. Watch this space!

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Do universities really not care about students?

The Daily Telegraph today carried an article by Graeme Paton, the gist of which is that top universities don’t care about students. Let’s look at the arguments cited:

  • Tuition fee income is a minority of the income for top universities 
  • Some researchers aren’t interested in teaching undergraduates
  • League tables don’t recognise teaching quality as important (because it can’t be measured)

Tuition fee income

There are two problems with Graeme Paton’s argument. The first is that university income is currently in a moment of transition. The new tuition fee regime started in England and Wales in 2012-13, with a phase out of teaching grants to universities. Tuition fees in many cases do give universities more income, per student, than the grants they replace, but in 2012-13 only the first year of this new income is recorded. So, the numbers will not reflect the full extent of the contribution of tuition fee income to universities’ overall income. Once all years of the new policy are in place, income from education will represent a larger share of universities’ income, and, as it can fluctuate annually (unlike many programme research grants which can cover 3-5 years) universities are paying attention to students and teaching. It is simply not true to say that universities don’t regard teaching as important.

The second problem is the selection of data. I will now make an uncontroversial statement: Cambridge is atypical of the UK higher education sector. It’s atypical even of ‘top’ universities. The following graph – using HESA data for 2012-13 – shows the proportion of each Russell Group university’s income which depends upon teaching:

The red bar is Cambridge. It’s an outlier. Caused, in part, by the income from the university press and the exam boards. The mean for the Russell Group is 42% of income, a proportion which is likely to rise as the tuition fee regime comes fully into play. Universities don’t ignore 42% of their income.

Some researchers aren’t interested in teaching undergraduates

Graeme Paton was right that universities are complex places. They exist to propagate and generate knowledge, which gives two related but distinct missions: to teach and to research. Every university does both of these, to differing extents. And just as every large organisation employs specialist staff, so do universities: there are academic staff whose main focus is research; and those whose main focus is teaching. But the standards that they use when selecting staff are the same: the excellent teachers are expected to be every bit as good at teaching as the excellent researchers are expected to be good at research.

It follows from this that there will be staff who don’t really engage with teaching undergraduates and, as Graeme Paton’s article points out, some research staff only engage with students who are doing PhDs. But using a Nobel Prize winner as your example is slightly naughty: we’d probably all rather that Nobel Prize winners spent more time doing the thing that got them the Nobel Prize in the first place.

League tables and teaching 

It’s certainly true that the QS world rankings don’t weight teaching highly, and also true that there isn’t really a good comparative measure of the quality of teaching across nations. That’s more a criticism of leagues tables than it is of universities, and there’s plenty of criticisms of league tables to be made. But that doesn’t imply that universities don’t care about teaching. Many ‘top’ universities identify both an international league table target and a UK one – for example, Cardiff has a world ranking target and a UK target.

And universities do try to demonstrate that they are good at teaching. In the days of QAA subject review, league tables had a measure which was the average subject review score (out of 24) or the proportion which had achieved ‘excellence’ in teaching (22 or above out of 24.) This target made it into university strategies, and enormous effort was expended in demonstrating the quality of teaching.

There is definitely a need to find a good measure of teaching quality for league tables, but the absence of a measure of teaching quality doesn’t mean the absence of effort or of concern. Nowadays there are professors in ‘top’ universities who have got the title not for their research, but for their teaching. This is a change unthinkable twenty years ago. It really is time to stop trying to make a simple argument that teaching doesn’t matter as much to universities as research: remember, these are complex organisations. Just like the man from the Telegraph says.

Monday 15 September 2014

It's very complicated

Take a look at this article in the University World News, reporting work done by Claud Xiao and Rob Downs at Palo Alto Networks, a US internet-security company. It seems that it usernames and passwords, valid at universities across the world, are available on Taobao, the Chinese version of e-Bay. Accounts were available to buy at universities in Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Italy, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the USA.

I’m not an IT security expert, and this post isn’t about the technologies behind this: if you need counsel in that regard, don’t talk to me! My observations here are more about how complex the world is becoming for universities.

The accounts for sale were, reportedly, valid current student accounts – often accounts which were being used without the knowledge or permission of the student. “Don’t change the password” was the vendors’ advice, so as not to raise suspicions.

The most popular type of account was one which enabled the purchaser to unlock their Windows phone. This won’t be good news for the universities concerned, which will probably have a bit of explaining to do when the renegotiate their license fee with Microsoft. But at least in that case the use was external to the university. But also flagged were accounts which got access to research and library databases, and support. A university’s knowledge is the core of its value to the world, so this is looking difficult (albeit probably marginal for now) for universities.

But here’s a couple of bigger thoughts.

Firstly, universities are places which work on trust. Once you’re in, the culture is that you’re an equal member of the family, and that people will treat you as such. Does this sort of problem nudge universities even more to regarding their students instead as customers who perhaps aren’t what they seem? My guess is that the human factor (easily guessable passwords; risky online behaviour) is behind these hacks, so it isn’t about the unwitting students here trying to be bad. But the consequences of their behaviours gnaw away at trust.

And secondly, how much of our view of the world is conditioned by the language in which we browse? The world has lots of different alphabet types, let alone languages, and whilst I can’t speak and translate Danish, for instance, without help, I can at least recognise it as Danish and I can use Google to help. But my keyboard doesn’t do other sorts of alphabets – logographies, syllabaries, abjads. (If you want a good distraction check out this Wikipedia page on alphabet types, which enabled me to write the last sentence; you can find out what an abjad is too, aside from being a great Scrabble word). How can I even begin to understand what is going on with web pages which I don’t know how to read?

I don't know what this says ...
Many universities seek to act on a world stage, but how many are really equipped to do this? The IT account issue above shows that on the web, some of your neighbours speak and write in ways you can’t understand. This might worry you. But to push the neighbour metaphor a bit more, when you live in a multicultural place, you can either get suspicious, lock the doors and grumble about how it isn’t like it used to be; or you can accept change, have fun, and learn a bit of the lingo, so your neighbours become less like strangers.

If universities really want to internationalise then perhaps there’s a need to have more language fluency within management teams.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Independent thinking

I posted recently on Scottish independence and what it might mean for students and universities. There’s a parallel question, of course, about research and what impact independence might have on this.  An important disclaimer – I’m not arguing for, or against, independence; just looking at what it might mean.

HESA data on research finance is one way into this question.  Funding for research comes from a number of sources – public, private, charitable, UK, EU, rest of the world, and so on.  The data lets us see how the Scottish picture compares with the rest of the UK.

Research funding makes up a higher proportion of funding for Scottish universities than it does for the rest of the UK – 21% against a UK wide proportion of 16%. Of course, that also reflects, in part, the different UK tuition fee systems – higher tuition fee income for English and Welsh universities inevitably changes the proportions of other types of funding.

HE funding; HESA 2012-13 data
Research funding is typically (although not universally) awarded by a competitive process involving peer review of specific projects.  Comparative performance at this level of detail does tell us something about the research strengths of the different UK nations.

Shares of UK Research Income by nation - HESA 2012-13 data
The highlighted cells show where a nation’s share of total UK funding in that category is higher than its overall national share. The right hand column shows what proportion of overall research funding come from that source.

So we can see that Scotland performs better than its average on the two largest income sources – Research Council (RCUK) funding, and UK charitable income from open competition.  These aren’t small sums of money, either: these two sources accounted for over £2.4 billion in 2012-13.

This is where the impact of independence may be felt. The Research Councils are UK-wide bodies. The large charities are UK-wide. If you redefine UK, then inevitably these funding streams cannot, without other things happening, carry on as they were.   And this is where you get into the unknowable: if Scotland votes yes, then there will be negotiations on a whole raft of things, and the continuation of the Research Councils on a pan-national basis is one of the desiderata of the SNP. Equally, how charities will react is a big question – some charities may have specific clauses that prevent them working across a border, although equally there may be a neat negotiated solution to this.

Another feature can be seen from the data. Both Wales and Northern Ireland have disproportionate shares of UK Government funding. One hypothesis here is that government funding is supporting universities in those nations as a matter of policy, and it would be open to a future Sottish government to do just that. Undoubtedly Scottish universities are one of Scotland’s very valuable assets, and probably have a longevity greater than oil.

The most that I think we can conclude here is that in the event of a yes vote there would be some hard questions about current pan-UK research funding, but it is too soon to say what the effect could be – it’s up for grabs.

Another way to look at this is the question of research culture. Research collaborations between universities are driven by many factors, but an important one is the research question being addressed. Teams working on the same area will know each other, from conferences and journals. They’ll work together if it helps the research question (bringing together expertise, or sharing equipment).

Scottish independence wouldn’t move it further away from the rest of the UK; the question would be whether there were barriers placed in the way of continued collaboration. Unintended consequences of broader negotiations or national policies would be critical here. If Scotland were to join the EU, barriers would be eased. If a good bilateral agreement were reached, then no doubt research collaboration could continue. But research funding may become a pawn in a bigger game.

Friday 5 September 2014

Occupational hazard

The NATO conference in South Wales this week – preparations and protests! – has given me cause to think about student occupations, and what to do about them. It’s a matter which I’ve become familiar with from the point of view of the occupied.  Many years ago I was an occupier: I can confirm that it’s much more fun.

If you’re occupied – or more precisely, if you’re the one who’s responsible when an occupation happens in your university – there are good things to do and mistakes to make. I speak from experience.  Here’s my top tips.

Make contact with the occupiers. You need to know who they are, why they are there; how many of them there are. Expect hostility initially, but the more you can develop a rapport with the occupiers (they may elect a small number of spokespeople) the easier things will be.  Often an occupation will adopt very participative democratic forms, so don’t expect a quick answer. (I once spent an evening making many phone calls to the leader of an occupation: every suggestion I made had to be discussed and voted on. It was a very long evening.)

Negotiations with occupiers can look like this. I'm the one in the suit.
Sometimes it can be a good idea to put a bit of distance between yourself personally and the occupiers. I worked once with a splendid director of estates who turned out to be a great siege negotiator: he would not overreact to any provocation, and was trusted by the occupiers.  It also gave us a stronger hand, as he could represent our position without being able himself to make concessions. I think he quite enjoyed it, really.

Try not to get medieval. It is very tempting to treat an occupation as a siege, but this is problematic. You run the risk of losing goodwill on campus, and when you get the building back (and you will, sooner or later), the mess will be yours to clean up. So keep the power and wifi on (they can use mobile phone signals anyway, so there’s no advantage in turning the wifi off) and if possible arrange to have cleaners go in to keep the place hygienic.  You may still have a duty of care, even if you can’t get normal access to the building.  Making sure that there are university security staff nearby all of the time is a good idea: to keep an eye on what is going on, and to be able to intervene in case there’s trouble.

Try to find out how long it will last.  Some occupations are symbolic, and if they’ll be leaving in 24 hours then doing nothing might be the best plan. If the occupiers have demands, then find out what they are. The demands may be beyond your control, but if they are things that you can control, don’t dismiss them too quickly.  Occupations in the end run out of steam: although its not always the right tactic, patience can be very rewarding.

There’s a legal route to ending an occupation involving injunctions and bailiffs.  Get legal advice quickly, by all means, but if the occupiers are all your students, then think carefully before gong to court. It’s a balance between the disruption caused by the occupation and the costs; but the costs can include long-term loss of trust on campus.  If they are all external, then it is an easier option, but the physical act of removal can be dramatic and messy.

Manage the media. I don’t mean the papers and TV - managing that goes without saying - but definitely the social media within and beyond the university.  Make sure that staff and students in the university (the vast majority will not be taking part in the occupation) know what is going on. This will also make clear that you’re aware of and dealing with the situation. Make sure to follow any twitter feeds or blogs associated with the occupation: no state secrets will be given away, but at least you’ll know what rumours you need to squash, or who seems reasonable that you can deal with. Authenticity matters a great deal, if you post on social media in such situations. Remember that however irritating they may seem to you, most people taking part in an occupation are idealistic and sincere.

Be aware of other impacts. People who can’t get into their normal workplaces can feel very angry about things, and it helps a lot to explain fully what is going on, and why you can’t just call the police in. (Because they won’t just come in, by the way: trespass is a civil not a criminal offence.)

There are a couple of longer-term things to do, as well.

The first is to cultivate your Students’ Union.  You can’t expect them to be stooges for you in an occupation, but they may be able to act as interlocutors, between you and the occupiers; they may also be a good source of information. Sometimes it can be very helpful to have the SU officers vouch for your sincerity, when there’s a baying crowd. And in the aftermath, you’ll need to work with them to help rebuild trust and confidence on campus.

The second is to make sure you can prove your ownership of the university estate.  If you go down the legal route, you need to be very specific and precise about what and where the occupiers are; your rights over the building; and the other areas of campus where you don’t want them to occupy.  A folder of all the title deeds is a very handy thing when you’re trying to expedite a hearing in a court.

As I said at the start, it’s more fun to occupy than be occupied.  The increased instrumentalism which seems to have come from increased tuition fees might mean fewer occupations; or occupations more directed at on-campus problems. If it does happen to you, I hope that this is helpful.

Monday 1 September 2014

Academic dinosaurs?

A strand of the public discourse around higher education, since the coalition’s funding reforms in 2010, has been about how alternative providers (ie the private sector) will enter the market, compete with established universities and force those ‘academic dinosaurs’ to improve their offer to students, to compete on successful terms.

Two friendly academic dinosaurs

Now no doubt there is a market – you can see some evidence for this in the UCAS data – but I’m not sure that it’s as simple as the ‘more competition = better all round” narrative might have you believe.

Markets are segmented. There are different types of customer; and different types of supplier. This is true for all markets; and hence true for higher education.  Higher education differs in that price is not only about money, but also about entry tariff: you aren’t able to go to some universities unless you have the right qualifications.

On the supplier side (and for simplicity let’s focus on undergraduates only here), you have differentiation by

  • length of study (accelerated degrees versus ‘traditional’ degrees; foundation years; part-time study)
  • range of subjects (specialist institutions versus multi-faculty)
  • mode of study (distance learning versus campus based; daytime versus evening)
  • focus on teaching versus focus on research
  • qualifications needed to gain entry
  • price
  • location (near home; another city; a rural location; a different nation)

On the ‘customer’ side, you have differentiation around:

  • Price sensitivity (in relation to living costs; total fees; willingness to commit time)
  • Confidence (in their own ability)
  • Focus (are they looking for ‘the student experience’ or for a qualification?)
  • Willingness or ability to travel to university
  • Instrumentality (that is, are they focused on the career options open to them, or looking only at the educational aspects)
  • Flexibility (that is, how flexible a university must be in the facilities and options it offers the student: think childcare on campus; 24/7 library opening)

This isn’t a simple marketplace. It also strikes me that the alternative providers are seeking out particular niches – a particular subject or a rigorous focus on the learner – and that only one private provider – the University of Buckingham – seeks to play on level terms with other universities.  Not a surprise, but also not a revolution.

My prediction (and it is just that! no value judgments are made here!) would be that private providers will compete mostly with some of the newer universities: attracting students with less familiarity with higher education; focusing on the learner; offering flexible study.  The older universities will continue to be popular with students who have familial experience of university, and for whom ‘going to university’ has been part of their life plan since before they knew it, in short, who come from ‘traditional’ backgrounds..

If this is right, the effects of competition won’t be on the sector as a whole, but on a subset of existing institutions only. And not, noticeably, on those institutions with a strong focus on research, which I’ve heard as a particular bugbear of the alternative providers (why subsidize research with fees? they ask).

Back to the dinosaur metaphor, this is consistent with what know – evolution is a slow process, impacting on particular ecosystems and subspecies; changing a food chain here and there; but passing almost unnoticed from one generation to the next. In the absence of a metaphorical meteorite hitting the UK university sector, the dinosaurs may be successful for some time yet.