Tuesday 22 September 2015

Going private …

The BBC today reported what sounded a little like outrage at the news that University of Central Lancashire is offering a medical degree to overseas students only. The timing plays right into the ‘b****y foreigners coming over here getting our jobs/benefits/houses’ narrative which, unfortunately in my view, seems to have become part of the UK’s political culture. It’s worth looking in detail at what’s going on.

UCLan make the point – fairly – that they don’t have permission to recruit home students – student numbers in Medicine and Dentistry remain capped. See, for instance, this note by HEFCE explaining its role and the caps which apply at England’s medical schools. (nb that there are similar controls in the other UK nations). The devil is in the joint funding by HEFCE and the NHS.

Within the NHS there’s an element of funding – called Service Increment for Teaching (SIFT) – which covers the costs of clinical placements for medical students. These are the costs of having consultants supervise groups of trainee doctors (firms on rotations, if you want the jargon) and are allocated by the relevant medical school to the hospitals and GPs who offer clinical placements.

HEFCE and the NHS see the value in having some overseas students, and so the placement cap includes capped places for overseas students – at about 7.5% of the total cohort. This means that on funded medial programmes, there’s absolutely no crowding out of home students – medical schools simply cannot trade off home for overseas. Look again at the HEFCE note and see the number controls.

UCLan has therefore, in all likelihood, come to a separate deal with the hospitals and GP surgeries where its overseas medical students will undertake their clinical practice. The fee levels quoted suggests that UCLan won’t be making much of a financial surplus on this programme. And for the NHS trusts it gives them a little more income in what will be challenging financial times.

So the anger is misplaced. UCLan aren’t taking away chances from homes students. And if we need more UK doctors, the answer is for the government to fund them.

Sunday 20 September 2015

Parliamentary scrutiny

Post general election there’s been an ‘emergency’ budget, a new government, elections of new party leaders (has anyone noticed this?) and parliamentary business back in full swing. (Albeit now temporarily suspended for party conference season.)

One of the manifestations of parliament being back in action is the announcement by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee of an Inquiry into Assessing Quality in Higher Education.  This follows the policy proposals for a Teaching Excellence Framework and a forthcoming Green Paper on Higher Education.

In establishing the Inquiry, the Committee’s chair, Ian Wright, is quoted on the committee website as saying:
“Ministers say they want to develop new incentives to improve teaching quality, tackling what the Government sees as patchiness in provision. The Government faces a number of challenges in seeking to introduce a new Teaching Excellence Framework – not least the challenging timescale it has set – and the Committee will be involved in looking at how this policy area develops from an early stage. As a Committee, we want to scrutinise the Government’s plans for assessing quality in Higher Education, making sure that any new mechanism is effective and works to strengthen the UK’s world-leading university brand.”
All of this is positive – recognising the risks involved in the establishment of the TEF and stating an intention to work on accountability through the development process, not retrospectively.

This is also an area where the realities of the higher education sector work against the devolved nature of government. The sector shares values and habits which work across all of the UK nations, and, because of the dominance in scale of the English sector compared to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, decisions about managing the sector in England have a knock-on effect on the devolved nations.  But HE is a devolved matter, so although the proposals about linking TEF to funding look like they apply only to English universities, they’ll have consequences for the other nations, whatever their governments may want to think. Where England goes, then other nations will probably follow, albeit using a slightly different road (think about driving from London to Bath using the A4 instead of the M4 –it may take slightly longer, but it’s probably also a more pleasant drive, if you enjoy that sort of thing).

Parliamentary committees have no direct power – they can’t direct a change in government policy, or themselves amend a bill – but they are part of the mechanism that helps draft and improve proposed legislation. So the inquiry is timely and important for the sector, to make sure that detailed concerns are heard.

The scope of the inquiry is on the Committee’s website, and for convenience (I’m all about saving you a click or two) here they are too:
The BIS Committee is keen to hear views and welcomes written submissions which address the following questions:
1 What issues with quality assessment in Higher Education was HEFCE’s Quality Assurance review seeking to address? 
2 Will the proposed changes to the quality assurance process in universities, as outlined by HEFCE in its consultation, improve quality in Higher Education?   
3 What should be the objectives of a Teaching Excellence Framework (‘TEF’)?  
a. How should a TEF benefit students? Academics? Universities?
b. What are the institutional behaviours a TEF should drive? How can a system be designed to avoid unintended consequences?
c. How should the effectiveness of the TEF be judged? 
4 How should the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework and new quality assurance regime fit together?  
5 What do you think will be the main challenges in implementing a Teaching Excellence Framework?  
6 How should the proposed connection between fee level and teaching quality be managed?  
a. What should be the relationship between the Teaching Excellence Framework and fee level?
b. What are the benefits or risks of this approach to setting fees?
The Committee itself is made up of eleven MPs – six Conservative, four Labour (one of whom is chair), and one SNP:

Local universities
Iain Wright (Lab) – Chair
Durham, Teeside
Paul Blomfield (Lab)
Sheffield Central
Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam
Richard Fuller (Con)
Peter Kyle (Lab)
Brighton, Sussex
Amanda Milling (Con)
Cannock Chase
Staffordshire, Wolverhampton
Amanda Solloway (Con)
Derby North
Jo Stevens (Lab)
Cardiff Central
Cardiff, Cardiff Metropolitan, South Wales
Michelle Thomson (SNP)
Edinburgh West
Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier, Heriot-Watt, Queen Margaret
Kelly Tolhurst (Con)
Rochester and Strood
Greenwich, Medway Campus
Craig Tracey (Con)
North Warwickshire
Coventry, Warwick
Chris White (Con)
Warwick and Leamington
Coventry, Warwick

You’ll see that there is Scottish and Welsh representation as well as English, so an opportunity for some perspectives from the devolved nations to be heard. And also a fair spread of types of university in or near their constituencies, so there’s plenty of opportunities for lobbying by these universities.

The Inquiry is seeking responses by 30 October. These can come from individuals as well as groups, so this is a good chance to get involved in shaping something which will matter to higher education. Reformism in action.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

A curate's egg

Higher Education Minister Jo Johnson’s speech to Universities UK this morning presages an interesting few months. He set the scene for a forthcoming green paper, with four broad themes.

Firstly, teaching excellence. The idea of a Teaching Excellence Framework was set out in July; we now know a bit more, but I’m not certain that BIS have a clear idea yet. On the one hand, they know their target: it’s the idea of students’ workload, with the Minister comparing a busy engineering student at Bristol with a drop-out humanities student at ‘a prestigious London university’.  And there’s the notion of a disengagement contract.

The Minister quotes Palfreyman and Tapper; it’s worth looking at the full quote (from Reshaping the University: the Rise of the Regulated Market in Higher Education):
The last item paints a grim picture indeed of ‘limited learning on college campuses’ based on an extensive research project funded by the US Social Science Research Council (this is not some hysterical polemic to be brushed aside by the HE establishment): students’ ‘academic effort has dramatically declined in recent decades’ from some 40 hours per week in the 1960s to about 27 in the 2000s, and the ‘faculty cultures and orientations’ of ‘the college professoriate’ has much to answer for, since they have struck a ‘disengagement contract’ with their students (along the lines of ‘I don’t want to have to set and mark much by way of essays and assignments which would be a distraction from my research, and you don’t want to do coursework that would distract you from partying: so we’ll award you the degree as the hoped-for job ticket in return for compliance with minimal academic requirements and due receipt of fees’; and on the Party Pathway through HE as some HEIs come to resemble country clubs see Armstrong and Hamilton 2013).
The words quoted by the minister are italicised; the whole sentence shows that the authors were describing a US study of a US issue. There may well be issues with teaching in UK universities, but I’m not sure that it’s right to raise the temperature by scare stories from across the Atlantic. And increasing the marketization of HE is precisely moving us towards a US model, not away from it.

That aside, there’s also a little bit of muddle between what they’re seeking to encourage. There’s speak of excellence in teaching, assessment, feedback and employment skills. From students being busy, and the Minister’s recollections of university life (Oxford, Balliol, Modern History) we also get an implicit elision to contact hours. So do we care about students being busy, or being in the classroom? They’re not the same thing.

And there’s an emphasis on information to applicants so they can see what they get (presumably KIS hasn’t done the trick). It’ll be good to see what this actually looks like when the Green paper is published; but there’s also a clarity that it’ll matter. Success in TEF will enable a university to increase its £9k fee in line with inflation. Ouch!

Second up is Widening Participation. The Minister has two issues in his sights: participation by black and minority ethnic students with a Caribbean background, and participation by white British boys from disadvantaged backgrounds. Participation by both of these groups is low, and I think that the focus is spot on in this regard. And there’s talk of better data to enable this to be understood (be still my beating heart!)

Third up, a blast form the past. Having spotted that alternative providers need validation to be able to award degrees, and that this presents a potential conflict of interest, there’ll be a consultation on ‘alternative options for new providers if they do not want to go down the current validation route’. Which sounds an awful lot like the return of the CNAA. The old Gray’s Inn Road building looks like rental office space now – I wonder if that could be used …
Parts of the speech are excellent

And finally, a level playing field. There’s a recognition that the current regulatory environment is complicated, with different levels of scrutiny for different types of provider, and, now that HEFCE funds universities less and students themselves fund more, a more limited range of sanctions are available to regulators. If you only have a nuclear option, you never use it, which isn’t good for regulation. Wales has got this a bit better – by having HEFCW oversee access agreements, there’s a more nuanced approach possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if HEFCE and OFFA went the same way.

Another aspect of a level playing field is recognising that entry to the market implies the possibility of exit from the market, and the promise of consultation on ‘measures to require all providers to have protection measures in place so that students who benefit from greater choice and diversity do not lose out in the event of provider failure’. An insurance bond scheme for universities? It’s an idea from the travel market, but the costs of securing provision elsewhere would be potentially large: I’ll be interested to see how the economics of this play out.

So lots to come, and some good and necessary issues flagged, but there’s still woolly and ideological thinking in there.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Sexual harassment on campus

The BIS announcement on Monday of a UUK task force to tackle violence against women on campus is targeted at a real and longstanding issue. In this post I’ll look at the proposed task force, what’s behind this, and what universities can do.

The task force isn’t the government’s – it’s to be run by Universities UK, but has been asked by BIS to do five things:

  • Develop a code of practice to support cultural change in universities
  • Work up a kitemark scheme to recognise successful universities 
  • Develop practice in working with local police
  • Ensure proper use of OIA and – interestingly – the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for complaints
  • Encourage universities to work with local groups

Codes of Practice and kitemarks can be a bit woolly but there’s some specifics in there, which suggests that this is a little more than window dressing.

There’s no doubt that there is a problem to be addressed. An NUS report in 2010 – highlighted by BIS – identified that one in seven respondents to a large-scale (n=2058) survey of female students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student, with more than two-thirds experiencing some form of verbal or non-verbal harassment.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator – in its 2014 annual report – identified sexual harassment as an Emerging and High Profile issue:

Sexual harassment and the ‘lads’ culture’
The NUS and many providers have taken a close interest, both in the UK and overseas, in sexual harassment on campus. Student and national media carry frequent stories about what is euphemistically termed ‘laddish’ behaviour, often from sports clubs and other student societies. There are disturbing reports of what one student newspaper called the ‘rape culture’. One student committed suicide in 2014, following allegations of persistent sexual harassment.
The OIA receives a small number of complaints each year from students who may be victims, or who are alleged or convicted perpetrators, of harassment and sexual assault. Some of these cases relate to crimes for which perpetrators have been convicted by the courts. Others cover incidents that have been dealt with internally under a provider’s disciplinary regulations, but do not lead to criminal charges. Some of the students involved struggle to understand that behaviour that they wrongly believe is acceptable breaks disciplinary codes, and sometimes laws, that have been put in place to protect others.
It should be of concern to everyone working and studying in higher education that cases occur of unwanted physical contact, unwanted advances, initiation ceremonies, sexual innuendo and threats. We have made, and providers have implemented, recommendations about improving support and strengthening processes to help students, and also staff, involved in such cases. The OIA’s role is not to judge the behaviour but to look at how the providers dealt with complaints or disciplinary cases. One case concluded in 2014 confirmed that a provider’s decision to expel a student following complaints about indecent exposure was reasonable, but only after it was required to re-run the disciplinary process having mishandled the case first time around.
These are not easy issues to deal with. The OIA is in early stages of discussions with the NUS and other stakeholders on joint working to provide additional guidance.
The Task Force terms of reference and membership have not yet been announced by UUK – no doubt it will be discussed at the UUK Annual get-together this week. But the steer that BIS have given UUK is interesting.

Firstly, the Equality Act dimension. The Equality Act – and especially the Public Sector Equality Duty - place an obligation on universities not only to reactively deal with issues of equality, but proactively to work towards a greater degree of equality. This is a powerful tool.  By citing it, BIS are making the issue of sexual harassment, and its likely effect of making women less likely to thrive within an HE environment, one for which universities are responsible. Universities cannot dismiss the issue as one of individual transgressions: there’s a systemic element.

Secondly, there’s an element of rebuke here. The Public Sector Equality Duty makes universities responsible for proactively identifying and dealing with issues which militate against equal treatment. That it’s taken BIS – in 2015 – to publicly identify something which NUS flagged in 2010 does mean that universities have not had their eyes on the ball – collectively – with this one. Obviously universities haven’t ignored the issue when it was raised with them by BIS. It wouldn’t be a task force if they had. But it’s interesting to see that BIS are willing to engage with wider sector issues like this.

So what can universities do? Engage with the task force’s work and implement its recommendations, for sure. Implement the Code of Practice and get the kitemark. But there’s a deeper issue here. Universities have a long habit of trying to deal with matters internally. This goes right back to the original medieval foundation of universities as being responsible for their own staff and students in all matters. (That’s the derivation of 'university', by the way – universitas being a single corporate body; it’s got nothing to do with universality of knowledge.) But crime on campus should be treated as such, and universities will need to become more adept at bringing in the police when necessary, and counselling individual students of the need to report crime as crime.

This is an agonising issue. When a student is crying in your office, with a sad account of wrongdoing and harm done, it is a natural response to try use the tools you have– internal disciplinary codes, and the like – to sort it out. Especially when the alleged perpetrator is a fellow student. But a crime is a crime and treating it as if it were an internal misdemeanour can go wrong – leaving a mess that doesn’t wash out easily. So there’s a need for more resource for advising students, but also a need not to intervene when your regulatory powers to do so are not up to the task.

Students’ Unions are a boon in such circumstances. Obviously not in breaching confidentiality in individual cases, but as a partner in helping individual students recognise that harm done to them should be reported and dealt with by the law; and also that their individual behaviour can have consequences. This is how culture will change over time.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Minority report

The Times Higher ran a piece today with the news that ‘Academics [were] in the minority at more than two-thirds of UK universities’. This accompanied by comments about ‘an army of administrators’ and the like.

It’s hard to know what to make of stories like this. One the one hand, they belong to the long tradition of ‘academics versus administrators’ – the twin nonsenses of universities would work better if it was just left to academics and academics don’t understand the things that they should do to make the place run better.

But there is an important point which is about the growth of universities as complex organisations, with increasing regulation and accountabilities, and ever-more-demanding students.  Is it surprising that as universities get bigger and have to do more complex things, many of them decide that it’s best to hire staff with the right specific skills and abilities, allowing academic staff to focus on teaching and research? Napoleon said – in French, I expect – that armies march on their stomachs. Perhaps in the modern university academics teach with their professional service colleagues.

The THES data is easily replicable – it’s the staff data from Table 5 of HESA 2013-14, and the Finance data from Table 7.  The story identifies the top and bottom ten universities for costs per non-academic staff member, and percentage. It’s worth looking at the missing data – the top and bottom ten universities for costs per academic staff member. Here they are, using the same THES definition of only counting universities with more than 500 academic staff:

Highest ten costs per academic

Average cost - academic
Average cost - support
London Business School
London School of Economics
City University, London
King’s College London
Royal Holloway
University of Reading
Brunel University, London
Strathclyde University

Lowest ten costs per academic

Average cost - academic
Average cost - support
University of the Arts, London
University of Kent
Coventry University
Edge Hill University
University of Sunderland
Southampton Solent University
University of Chester
University of Central Lancashire
Anglia Ruskin University
Staffordshire University

I’d observe two things from these lists: firstly, higher academic staff costs seem to have an association with London location – Strathclyde being an outlier here. And lower unit costs seem to be associated with newer universities.

And then a further observation – the average cost per support staff does not seem to follow this pattern, with high and low in both of my lists, and a mix of locations and types amongst the THES lists.

So perhaps this says that there isn’t yet a standard business model for university professional support services. Now that’s an issue worth thinking about – if there is a best way to do it, the benefits for universities and their staff are large – efficiency and effectiveness, yes, but also greater transferability of skills, and possibly better career progression for professional service staff.

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Not just the tall poppies

I blogged last week on the growing proportion of students in the UK who come from overseas, and its clear that the success of the UK higher education sector is built on global foundations. I thought it might be useful to look at the picture for individual universities.

Source: HESA data, 2013-14, calculations my own
The chart shows two things.

The blue columns represent the total number of overseas (ie non EU) students at each university, rank ordered from smallest to largest. The data is from the most recent HESA publication (2013-14) and is headcount, not fte. The largest is Manchester, the next is UCL; the axis on the left gives the scale.

The black dots are not dirt on your screen, but represent the proportion of students at each university who are from overseas. The right hand axis gives the scale; the highest proportion is the London Business School; the second highest is LSE.

What does this show? It shows that there are plenty of universities and colleges with relatively small numbers of overseas students who nevertheless are pretty dependent upon them. Take away (or reduce) overseas student numbers and you have an effect upon the whole HE sector.

Just saying.