Friday 27 May 2016

Metal Mickey wants your job!

An interesting – worrying? – story this week about robots replacing humans. Foxconn, a Chinese company which makes products for Apple and Samsung (and possibly others) has replaced 60,000 workers with robots. Which probably isn’t great news, economically, if you work on a production line.

There’s a growing amount of speculation that the age of the robot may soon be upon us – here I cite in evidence the BBCs Will a robot take your job? article last year. But surely universities are safe from this kind of thing?

Not coming to a University near you
Don’t be so sure. Walking, talking, robots probably aren’t going to be lecturing any time soon, but a different sort of robot is having an impact. Georgia State University in the US of A has started using a chatbot – a computer programme which independently ‘talks’ to users via text – to handle queries from incoming students. Claiming to answer more than 99% of student queries, the chatbot, called Pounce, has been helping more than 3,000 students apply for financial aid; apply for accommodation and enrol in courses. In its first month of operation.

This is clearly a big thing. If the communication channels for conversion, admission and enrolment can be augmented by such technology, many universities will want to replicate this, and not only across the Atlantic. Speed and quality of response matter in converting an applicant to a student. And this directly impacts on universities’ success, so we can expect to see this grow. And if you have Pounce you don’t need so many people on the phones or at the help desks.

Pounce is a “product of artificial intelligence and supervised machine learning” according to the blurb from AdmitHub, its vendor. Its answering questions which cover a range of standard issues, but can come from left field:
everything from “When will I get my scholarship package?” to “Can my dog live in the dorm with me?”, according to the blurb. 
There are lots of other university situations where this sort of transaction happens. Exam time, submission of coursework; library and IT rules, graduation ceremonies. Universities are guiding students through all sorts of procedures, and a capacity to answer questions naturally, quickly, reliably and trackably, any time of day or night, is bound to be appealing to university managers. Where admission goes, other services will follow.

So it seems that, for some professional service staff at least, Metal Mickey might not want your job. But Hal from 2001 - A Space Odyssey might.

Wednesday 18 May 2016

The inequities of university funding

My job takes me to a wide range of universities across the UK. This morning, at the University of West London, a poster caught my eye. It was the sort of poster that every university displays, encouraging NSS participation, and giving “you said, we did” messages – a catechism for the 21st century university. This one had an interesting call and response:
You said: “Timetabling should take account of students’ lives”
We did: We altered class times to have 10am or later starts.
I know what you’re thinking – lazy students – but you should stop. UWL’s student body is very different to the stereotypical university cohort. There are people living at home with their families, because they can’t afford to go elsewhere. There are an awful lot of students with pre-school age children. University is just one part of complex and busy lives.
The W5 catechism

In this context, later starts make sense. It isn’t about allowing for a lie-in after a heavy night out. It’s about enabling childcare to be sorted; family duties to be done.

So jolly good, perhaps you say, well done UWL. But what’s this got to do with funding?

Here’s the rub. The move to later starting time for classes is going against the grain. 9am is the norm; some universities permit 8am starts in exceptional circumstances. And if some universities start at 9, and others start at 10, then the university that starts later has fewer teaching slots available for use than its peer. Or to put it another way, you’ll need more physical space to accommodate the same number of students/classes with a later start.

So the university with a non-traditional student body will need to spend more on teaching facilities than one whose students are able to start at 9. And guess what – this split between traditional and non-traditional student bodies correlates pretty well with league tables and published hierarchies of universities. So the better you are perceived to be, the more chance you have of recruiting ‘traditional’ students. And the less you’ll need to spend on teaching them.

This isn’t the fault of the universities that can start teaching at 9. I’ve tried to lead efficiency and rationalising projects on teaching timetables more than once: the cost of empty space is real, and if you can use it, it makes sense to use it.

But it does mean that a fees-alone funding regime contributes to maintaining a hierarchy. And in this market-focused age, that surely represents a market failure which justifies government intervention.

Monday 2 May 2016

Vote early ...

Its election time! On 5 May, amongst all of the voting across the UK, the elections for the Welsh Assembly take place. What’s on offer for higher education in Wales? It’s a devolved matter, so policies can (and do!) differ from the other UK nations. I’ve read the manifestoes so you don’t have to: here’s your cut-out-and-keep guide, in strictly alphabetical order …

The Senedd Building in Cardiff Bay
Firstly, a piece of context. Tuition fees are different in Wales to the other parts of the UK. The Welsh Government funds part of the tuition fees for Welsh-domiciled students attending university anywhere in the UK. And as a decent number of Welsh-domiciled students go to university in England, this means a lot of Welsh Government HE money is funding English universities. Which causes a bit of a stir. The policy looks unaffordable, although the government denies that there’s a problem. But in any event a commission (the Diamond review) has been established to look into it and report just after the election. Where have we heard that before?

The Welsh Conservatives have six manifesto commitments relating to higher education:
  • Establish an HE institution focused solely on initial teacher training and educational research.
  • Reform tuition fee support, introducing a ‘Student Rent Rebate’, offering undergraduates timely and sustainable help with university living costs. 
  • Reduce student debt by exploring the viability of compressed degrees studied over two academic years. 
  • Encourage the growth of part-time, distance and flexible course options.
  • Develop links between local employers and the Further and Higher Education sectors. 
  • Continue to back Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, and explore a revised remit.

School education is one of the major campaign issues in Wales, which explains the focus on ITE. The fees policy is to stop the fee subsidy, and instead support living costs.

Welsh Labour make but two explicit commitments in relation to higher education:

  • A new funding body for Higher and Further Education in Wales 
  • A better package of student support than that on offer in England, based on the recommendations of the Diamond Review

The first arises from policy already on the cards, via the Hazelkorn Review. By making it a manifesto commitment, it will be harder, should Labour return to power, for the policy to be opposed by Universities or traded in coalition negotiations. And the second is the sound of a ball being kicked into the long grass.

The Welsh Lib Dems make commitments about universities, innovation and research; and also in relation to student support and HE funding:

  • Creating a database of Research & Development at Welsh universities to encourage collaboration between Higher Education and the private sector. 
  • Expanding investment in Knowledge-Transfer Partnerships to transfer academic knowledge smoothly to real-life businesses' projects. 
  • Providing additional finance for universities to support more expensive subjects such as engineering and computer science and tackle gender imbalances in student recruitment. 
  • Establishing a Wales-wide alumni network for European and international students who have studied in Wales, and Welsh students who have studied abroad, as part of a broader Diaspora Strategy to develop international business links.
  • Introduce a Student Living Support Grant for all Welsh students registered for a first undergraduate degree at a UK university, including part-time students, payable on top of the existing means-tested Assembly Learning Grant, replacing the Tuition Fee Grant. 
  • Require universities to adopt a 'Fair Access Agreement' outlining measures to broaden access and improve student retention. 
  • Pay the full tuition fees of care leavers. 
  • Protect hardship funding for the most vulnerable students. 
  • Introduce an Employability Enhancement Bursary to support students on postgraduate courses at universities in Wales and appropriate work placements that emphasise employability skills. 
  • Protect funding for Higher Education in Wales, and increase funding for HEFCW.

There’s no shortage of policy there. Like the Conservatives, there’s a focus on living costs not tuition fee subsidy.

Plaid Cymru make longer, and more grammatical, commitments for higher education:

As a matter of principle we believe that higher education, as a public good from which we all benefit as a society, should be free at the point of learning and paid for through general taxation. However, as the Diamond Review has already identified, unilateral action by Wales alone is not financially sustainable. 
We will reform student finance so that Welsh domiciled students who work in Wales after graduation will receive £6,000 per year during the first five years after graduating, up to a maximum of £18,000. This will ensure that our best and brightest have the opportunity and incentive to stay or return to Wales after completing their studies. 
We want to make Welsh universities attractive and successful institutions, and we will allocate funding to HEFCW to close the growing funding gap between Welsh and other UK universities. This substantial increase in investment will be conditional on a commitment, through a national compact, to better reflect the needs of Wales at national and regional levels in their research programmes, their investment in impact and innovation, and in addressing Wales’ most pressing knowledge and skills gaps. 
Supporting our young people in widening their horizons is also important for Wales. We will for the first time provide student financial support for Welsh-domiciled students enrolling as undergraduates in universities outside the UK, on similar lines to the recent pilot in Scotland. 
We will also expand our support for Erasmus+ so that more of our young people get the opportunity to study for part of their degree or work placements elsewhere in the European Union. 
We will support post-graduate study through a new postgraduate fund for loans to Welsh domiciled students. These loans will be income contingent long-term loans at preferential interest rates.
Again, a different approach to Labour on tuition fees; and a significant emphasis on student mobility.

Finally, UKIP also have plenty to say:
The number of young people studying at university is at an all-time high, as are the costs. Yet, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 58.8 per cent of UK graduates are in non-graduate jobs, a percentage that was exceeded only in Greece and Estonia. 
UKIP will encourage students to choose careers that will help fill the current skills gap, both to benefit Wales and to set our young people on the path to a solid, prosperous career. We will also support expansion of the Welsh higher education sector, which remains a success story for Wales, with an emphasis on teaching STEM subjects and quality of research.
UKIP is also concerned that, as a condition of our EU membership, we are currently obliged to give out tuition fee grants of £5,190 to European Union students studying in Wales, rather than EU students applying for places at UK universities as self-supporting international students.
UKIP will:

  • abolish fees for Welsh domiciled undergraduates taking degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEM) subjects in Wales, i.e. extend tuition fee grant to cover the current tuition fee loan element of costs for eligible courses
  • replace tuition fee grant with loans for Welsh domiciled students choosing to study in England
  • establish a bursary fund to help students from poorer backgrounds attend the most prestigious universities beyond Wales, whether in England or internationally, with a particular emphasis on STEM subjects and modern foreign languages
  • remove the £5,190 tuition fee grant from EU students studying in Wales following a ‘Leave’ vote in the referendum
  • retain the quality-related research (QR) budget that underpins world leading research in Wales
  • support part-time provision to widen access to higher education and to help up-skill the Welsh workforce

And there's more!
Using figures from the Diamond Review interim report we [UKIP] estimate that the saving to the Welsh government of replacing fees with loans for Welsh domiciled students studying in England as £62.1 million. However, the Welsh government is too optimistic regarding likely repayments on loans and the Diamond interim report implies that £11.9 million more a year should be set aside to cover non-repayment. We estimate the cost of abolishing fees for Welsh domiciled students studying STEM subjects in Wales as £28.7 million. The net annual saving from the above would therefore be around £21.5 million, of which we propose to use £5 million for our proposed bursary fund, leaving £16.5 million to help finance our spending priorities in other areas.
Part-time higher education and flexible learning opportunities, useful to workers and employers alike, are essential if we are to have any chance of improving the Welsh economy. There are over 34,000 part-time students studying at higher education level in Wales. Almost 23,000 of these are studying at undergraduate level. The number of students studying part-time HE in Wales is in decline: there has been an 11.5% drop in part-time undergraduate numbers between 2009/10 and 2013/14.
UKIP will:

  • encourage institutions to keep part-time fees low and to incentivise part-time provision.
  • maintain the current flexible credit system including credit transfer
  • retain the widening access premia paid to institutions to support recruitment and students from widening access backgrounds 
  • continue existing grants for part-time students
  • introduce loan restriction exemptions for Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) students in priority subject area
  • support disabled students to counter any adverse effects from the proposed changes to Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA)

This looks like it’s been written by somebody with a good working knowledge of HE management and governance. ELQs and premia are a bit of a giveaway.

But does it all matter? All of the smart money is suggesting that Labour will be by far the largest party, but will be a few seats shy of a majority. In second place, neck-and-neck in the week before the election, are Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives. UKIP are expected to get enough seats to need two hands to count them; the Lib Dems will do well to get three AMs, and may even disappear entirely.

All of which means that we’re in coalition territory, based around Labour, or a minority Labour government. So most manifesto commitments won’t count for anything except in negotiation, and Labour have given themselves a lot of room for manoeuvre on HE issues. I suspect that Labour would be glad if another party required a change of tuition fee policy as a condition of coalition, or confidence and supply. It’ll get them off what is a pretty messy hook at the moment.