Friday 17 April 2015

On sustainability

Just to give you a break from HE election fever, some thoughts on sustainability.

We recycle in Wales too ...
A few years ago (2010-11 to be precise) HEFCE required English universities, if they wished to continue to be eligible for capital funding, to commit to carbon reduction strategies, and encouraged universities to aim for a 40%-50% reduction by 2020, based on a 2005 baseline. Brite-Green consultancy (with whom I have no connection) have published a report and league table at the mid-point in this process, highlighting progress or lack thereof. The Times Higher picked up on this story, and the underlying report is well worth a read.

I want to take the question a little further, though. The HEFCE action plans relate to direct carbon emissions by universities, and action plans concentrated on measures which would reduce universities’ direct consumption of energy. So more efficient lighting; insulation; new windows, combined heat and power plants and solar were all amongst the strategies. This is all good, and certainly to be applauded. But to me it is an approach aimed only at complying with a particular piece of legislation, rather than trying to address climate change in a joined-up way.

One significant omission, for instance, was the carbon emitted by travel by staff and students. Not only the day-to-day travel to and from work and study, but travel by staff to conferences around the world, or by international students to and from university at the start and end of the academic year. There’s no easy answer to this (and in fact one of the greatest benefits of university is that it exposes people to different cultures and practises, and helps one to see things in very different ways), but if the world stopped being such an easy place to travel within (either because of fuel costs, or conflict, or perhaps increasing unacceptability of plane travel) then universities do have a problem.

There’s a second dimension too. Universities which have funds to invest are coming under increasing pressure from students to disinvest from the oil and gas extraction industries – see for instance the pressure being put on Oxford in this regard. Will genuine action to reduce carbon emissions become more important to future cohorts of students (and alumni)?

One to puzzle on. But in the meantime kudos to the universities doing well in reducing their emissions, and a ‘try harder’ to those who aren’t. It does matter.

Sunday 12 April 2015


Two weeks into the election campaign and it seems that despite university and student funding being a matter for the devolved administrations, it’s becoming an election issue where Westminster policies will drive devolved decisions.

The headline issue is Labour’s £6k tuition fee policy. I’ve blogged on this before, and noted that, in my view, this will need an Act of Parliament if there aren’t to be quite significant unintended consequences. Looking at the impact of this on other administrations makes me doubly sure.

Take, for instance. English and Welsh fees policy. They are the two most similar in the four UK nations; universities are allowed to charge up to £9k per year Home/EU undergraduate fee, subject to a test around fair access. The difference is that the Welsh Government pays some of the fees for Welsh domiciled students (that is, students who come from Wales, wherever in the UK they study).

Suppose there’s a Labour Government, and it caps English universities at £6k fees. This creates four different scenarios.

For an English university, there’s two policy worries. Firstly, will HEFCE actually make up the £3k difference? Maybe in the first year, for forms sake, but it would be a brave bet that said it would carry on as a ring-fenced spending item in perpetuity. And secondly, will they be allowed to charge £9k for a student from Wales?

For a Welsh university, slightly different worries: will the Welsh Government continue to fund undergraduate education for Welsh domiciled students at a rate about £9k, regardless of where the funds come from? That’s a question for the Diamond review, but a dramatic change in English arrangements would be bound to have an impact. And secondly, would they be allowed to charge English students £9k? And, perhaps more pertinently, if they did, would any come?

The market for higher education and UK politics intrude inexorably on the devolved administrations. There’ll be similar dilemmas for universities and governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Even when we’ve understood, as a political culture, how to do devolution, there’s still the unavoidable reality that England is by far the largest of the four home nations, in population and economic terms. That reality won’t be changing any time soon.

Most of the answers to the questions above require both political consensus and amendments to Acts of Parliament. If there’s a government with a small majority HE funding might become a touchstone issue. Again.

Wednesday 8 April 2015

Changing rooms

My work takes me a lot to two sorts of places – universities and budget hotels. There’s a lot the latter can learn from the former.

We had guests last weekend (bear with me – I’ll show relevance, as Perry Mason used to say) which meant a fair amount of quilt-cover changing. Or quilt wrestling – it isn’t a quick and easy job. But I saw something in one of the UK’s premier budget hotel company’s rooms which gave me pause for thought. Their quilt covers have two design features unlike those we use at home.

One end is simply open – no press-studs, no buttons, no toggles. It’s just a big bag for the quilt. And at the other end (and this is sheer genius, I think), the seam is left open for about six inches, just where it meets the top, and just where your hands can go to make changing the quilt cover a really easy job.

More useful knowledge about quilts
What’s happening here is that the hotel has thought about what you need in a quilt. Clearly, as the guest, I wanted clean and warm. Call me picky, but they’re non-negotiables when it comes to quilts as far as I’m concerned. You also want, perhaps, a quilt that goes with the rest of the room d├ęcor –it makes the place seem more stylish. Not an essential, but a nice to have. So that’s some big ticks as far as the guest experience goes: warm, clean, stylish.

From the hotel management’s point of view, they also want rooms to be cleaned quickly: fewer staff keeps the costs down, and it’s a very competitive market. So, they’ve clearly looked at what takes time in servicing a room, and worked out how to make it a bit quicker. It doesn’t detract from the guest experience (it’s a budget hotel: I’ve already done some trade-offs in my head, and know that I’m not staying in a four-star place). It helps them deliver the value which their guests want. And it makes the cleaner’s job easier, which is also good.

Taking a step backwards, what the hotel have done is think very clearly and carefully about what their value proposition is – why people stay in the hotels. And that’s something like a decent room at a good price. So they know that they need to meet (and exceed) basic expectations; but they also know that they need to keep the cost down: frills are undesirable.

And then they’ve clearly involved their staff in thinking about how to make it better – I’ll bet you that the ideas for the quilt changing improvements didn’t come from management sitting round a table, but from the people who clean the rooms taking part in a lean process review.

So how does this affect universities?

Well, all universities are engaged to some extent in price competition, some more clearly than others. What value is delivered to the student for their fees? Of course, the main value comes in the learning and the recognition of success through a degree award; but there’s also a value in the experience (or why would universities be building better halls of residence, and 4G sports pitches and the like?). By identifying what the value proposition is; by understanding what the student expects as a minimum and what the delighters are; and by thinking about how to deliver this as efficiently as possible, universities put themselves in the best position to attract students and have the capacity to invest in academic activity.

It isn’t comfortable language for a university, but if done properly it can help universities be better for their students without losing their soul. We might need a new language (marketing jargon goes down very badly in an academic environment) but the practice will remain valuable.