Monday 25 November 2019

What’s in a word?

In English, it’s a university. In Welsh, it’s prifysgol. (Pronounced something like preeve-us-goll.) A bit of digging into those two different words can tell us a lot, I think, about the underlying reasons for the industrial action taking place in many UK universities today and for the coming days.

The industrial action (I think technically it looks like two different but overlapping actions) has a number of immediate causes. One is pensions – a dispute about USS contributions, the nature of the scheme and sustainability. The other is pay and conditions, including equality. (nb I’m not trying to provide a detailed account of the issues, just giving the context. The UCU website sets out the issues as they see them.)

The two words help us to understand the underlying issues.

Let’s go English language first. University comes from universitas – a Latin word meaning, roughly, a single body. A university is, in the medieval concept, a single corporate body, staff and students alike being subject to specific laws and rules, distinct from the laws which apply to others outside the community. And although the legal framework has changed in the last 800 years or so, universities do (claim to) hold values of collegiality. Members of university Senates and Academic Boards – at least those who aren’t on the university executive – behave in ways consistent with universities being a single corporate community.

Now the Welsh language word. Prifysgol is a compound word: Prif – meaning something like ‘main’, or ‘chief’, and Ysgol, meaning ‘school’. So a Prifysgol is the main school. Universities are the most advanced teaching organisations we have. And in the last twenty years or so (perhaps longer if you go back to the Jarrett report in the mid 1980’s) there has been an emphasis on value for the student and the transactional nature of the student contract. This is most pronounced in England – where there is now a regulator in the student interest, rather than a steward looking out for the sector as a whole – but the change can be seen across the UK in, for instance, the rise in the number of complaints made by students. There’s a correlation with the introduction of tuition fees for full-time undergraduate study, but I suspect you’ll also find a correlation with the increasing size of universities and the increasing proportion of people within an age cohort who go to university.

On these understandings, the strikes speak to two things. Firstly, as satisfying the students becomes more explicitly important, and university managers seek to identify what is wrong in a given situation and how to improve it, the autonomy of individual members of staff – academic and professional service – is diminished. The desires for consistency of approach to students, and for economy of action and cost, mean that universities increasingly try to agree standard approaches. This, coupled with increasing numbers of students, means that the job of teaching can become more routinized, and more subject to scrutiny. Greater micromanagement clever people is rarely a recipe for organisational happiness.

Secondly, the reality that universities are not really single communities. They are complex organisations, closely regulated, which require management. The sense that academic staff can control their work, and that they are working within a system which is fair, is diminishing. Let’s look, for example, at tweets from one academic - @sstroschein2 - to understand a perspective on strike action (I’m going to paraphrase rather than quote directly):

  • Incremental changes over 15 years which make the job increasingly unmanageable
  • High turnover of staff
  • More students, larger classes
  • Increasingly active but inapt management of teaching 
  • More automation
  • Research ranking which harms organisational dynamics and adds no value
  • More pressure to compete in research
  • Casualisation of junior academic staff roles and exploitation, leading to morale problems

Without trying to get into the rights and wrongs of these concerns (although from my observations there is a lot of truth in there), it is clear that there isn’t a broadly shared vision within many universities of what the university is for and how it should be run in the world of mass, student-focused higher education. This contrasts with the apparent culture of collegiality, and leads to discontented staff. In the long run this can’t hold.

What’s to be done? At some point the industrial action will end, with some sorts of compromises. Who knows what and when.

In the longer run, there’s a need for universities to find a stable way to work, which provides for sustainable and fulfilling academic and professional service careers, and which recognises that students are the raison d’être for most universities. Maybe this is a single sector-wide question; maybe it’s a question which each university needs to answer in its own way. (It’s probably a bit of both!)

A precursor, though, will be good leadership, and that means listening not fighting. If we like the notion of the university as a single community, and if we recognise that the students in the main school matter, it would be best to start the sitting round the table now.

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Small is beautiful - discuss

My consulting work takes me to many different universities and higher education institutions across the country – 31 in the five years so far – and the differences can be striking. My clients have included very large universities – tens of thousands of students; thousands of staff; more real estate than you can shake a stick at. And very small institutions – tens of students, or maybe a hundred or so at most; tens or low hundreds of staff; one building.

Different sizes, but both are dogs
You can feel the differences. The large institutions have a buzz, a busy-ness, a sense of possibility and the unknown. And they also can have a sense of anonymity. You’re an individual navigating a complex bureaucracy; you’re one face in hundreds in your lectures. The small institutions can feel more friendly: you can see that students and staff recognise each other; people know who you are. You don't get lost. Equally, you have no place to hide.

The reasons why universities choose to grow are clear. It brings possibilities. It makes fixed costs cheaper. It means you can find resource to solve most problems. Boards of Governors tend to promote growth: it looks like a proxy for success. As higher education expands, governments like universities which grow: they make it easier to reach participation targets.

It's also true that smaller institutions can have real problems. A small HEI has exactly the same governance and compliance duties as a large university, but with a fraction of the resource to solve the problem. In a large university, a bad year’s recruitment to a discipline can be lost in the noise of the bigger picture; for a small HEI it can mean imminent financial disaster. There’s no fat to keep going through a difficult winter.

So here’s a provocation. I wonder if, in the expansion of universities to accommodate higher rates of participation, we’ve lost something important about the scale of learning communities. We’ve lost the sense of the learner being an important part of that community, and the sense that the individual matters. What if we have a new rule, that no university could have more than 5000 students?

We’d obviously have more universities. Maybe every town would have its own university. Every large city would have several - one in each suburb.  This would address supply in cold-spots at a stroke. The current behemoths would have to split – maybe on disciplinary lines; maybe by adopting towns nearby and creating new, smaller campuses. It would be easier for students to get to a university; the possibilities for working and studying at the same time, without life being impossible, would be much greater.

And with a more consistent scale of institution, regulation could be more proportionate, with much more transferable approaches to good practice. If something works in one place, there’s a much greater chance it would work elsewhere.

When Robbins was published in the 1960s, 3000 students was a big university. What have we lost in the growth since then?

Could we have smaller universities? Should we? What do you think?

Wednesday 6 November 2019

Climate change and university governance

Governance is, in a nutshell, a set of principles and practices which ensure that good decisions are taken properly. (Longer definitions are available, but that’s my working shorthand.)

In the context of universities, these practices include the use of risk management, and a focus on evidence to support decision-making. Risk management helps universities to identify priorities and to ensure that significant issues are not ignored; the encouragement to use evidence is to ensure that decisions are grounded, where possible, in knowledge about the situation.

In this blog I want to look at how climate change poses a challenge for university governance.

Rising sea levels

A recent paper by Kulp and Strauss in Nature Communications gives the results of a more precise modelling of the likely impact of sea-level rise. The model uses a method which reduces the uncertainty in previous models, arising from problems in interpreting satellite data.

The data has been used to create maps of the forecast rises in sea level. In red are those areas which are currently land and which, the authors forecast, will be under water at high tide by 2050. (The map works on most browsers but not Edge or Internet Explorer. A quick download of another browser, if you need to, solves the problem, I found).

Naturally, the maps spark curiosity. Looking at Great Britain, there are areas of the south coast; of Kent; of the Thames Estuary; of East Anglia; of Lincolnshire and Humberside; of the Tees valley; of the Lancashire Coast; of South Wales; of the Clyde valley, and of the Somerset levels; which are forecast to be sea not land. By 2050. If I do well, that’s in my lifetime – its only 31 years hence. And it won’t happen with a swoosh in 2050 – some of these areas will be under water sooner, if nothing is done.

Now Nature Communications is a serious journal, and the work presented has been subject to serious peer review. (It is educative to look at the Peer Review File which is linked at the end of the Nature Communications paper – this shows experts working to improve a publication. Proper science.) Any forecast will always be subject to the ultimate scrutiny of reality, and what has actually happened by 2050 will no doubt differ in some respects, but the paper and the maps derived from it represent current best estimates. They are evidence.

So what impact is there on universities?

A quick tour round the areas of Great Britain which are impacted shows that a number of universities, or university campuses, are in areas which are forecast to be under water in 2050. Working clockwise, and starting at North, we have:

  • Durham University, Queens campus
  • The University of Hull
  • The University of Lincoln
  • The University of East London
  • The University of Portsmouth
  • The University of South Wales, Newport and Cardiff campuses

 Here's some of the maps; remember - the red is forecast to be under water in 2050.

University of Portsmouth

Durham University Queen's Campus

University of East London Docklands

This looks properly scary. The forecast inundation of Portsmouth in particular strikes home to me. My nan lived in Portsmouth, and I spent a fair few childhood holidays staying with her. I’m feeling slightly teary as I write – no more Southsea Beach; no more dockyard. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Rationally, we can argue that reality will be different. The maps, obviously, take no account of mitigations which might be put in place (sea defences, for example). There’ll probably be local factors which will make a general model inappropriate for a specific location. But the broad parameters of the model seem robust. And the challenges it presents for universities – some very specifically, some by implication – are surely a matter which now begins to fall within the scope of university governance.

The challenge for university governance

The challenge is two-fold.

Firstly, there’s a case that risk registers should now include the potential impacts of climate change. Sea-level rise is one example of this; changed weather patterns (flooding seems to be getting more common in the UK) are another. These will become pressing matters.

There are also the impacts of measures to mitigate climate change. Changing diets. The installation of charging points within university car parks. Stopping flying for university business – academic conferences, overseas student recruitment, university field trips.

And if as a society we’re spending more on mitigation (which we will be!) then there’s less to go around elsewhere – funding for HE will be more pressured.

Risk registers should arguably begin to include all of these things: not as a bureaucratic exercise, but as a prompt for university managers to begin to think about the impact of these on the university’s life and operations, and begin to come up with workable and sustainable long-term approaches.

The second challenge relates to financial governance.

Put simply it is this: If it is reasonable to assume that climate change will impact upon the usability of university buildings and property, when does this get reflected in balance sheets? Do buildings which may in the medium-term become unusable retain their current asset value? 30 years is within the scope of long-term borrowing. When do lenders begin to demand higher interest rates, or even refuse to lend on certain areas? Perhaps more critically, how do insurers react? Higher premiums are one approach; but when do business premises become uninsurable?

In answering these questions, we’d need to look at the likely effectiveness of government action to mitigate. Universities do not exist in a vacuum: their local communities will have similar concerns. Are universities playing a role in looking at mitigating actions? Is government responding?

Mitigating against sea-level rises of this magnitude means large scale engineering projects. These don’t happen quickly, and they’re not cheap. For example, work on HS2 – the high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham and the North – began in earnest in 2009, when the company was formed. The first trains won’t run to Birmingham until 2026 by the company’s own estimates, and until 2033 to Leeds/Manchester. That’s twenty-four years, with what are likely to be optimistic estimates. And the cost is between £81bn and £88bn.

This means that a plan to the impact of rising sea levels in 30 years’ time needs to be put in place pretty quickly, with resources allocated, for it to have a chance of succeeding. The evidence on its likely effectiveness will begin to be available quite soon.

The robustness of local and governmental responses to climate change will be a factor in considerations of risk – not just for universities but for businesses with which they work, including banks and insurers. The more that is done effectively now – mitigation measures and carbon reduction at a suitably quick rate – the less risk arises. We’ll all have our individual views on this and how likely it is to work.

What should universities and university governors do?

What’s clear to me is that all universities – and definitely those which can identify a clear issue which impacts on them – should be considering climate change as an increasingly significant risk. This means:

  • Identifying how climate change might impact upon them – sea levels, changed weather patterns
  • Identifying how changes behaviours to mitigate climate change might impact on business and operating models – reductions in the availability or acceptability of flying; changed diets, using less meat and dairy; changed local transport
  • Identifying what they can do to become more sustainable, and to live more within their values. Are university cars and vans electric rather than petrol or diesel? Do policy frameworks mandate the most sustainable/least carbon transport options?
  • Making sure that governors are aware of what is being done, and why. If radical changes are necessary at some point, a governing body which is forewarned is much more likely to be onside.

The challenge to governance – coming back to where I started – is that these are very big questions. The changes which are likely to be necessary represent significant changes from business as usual. Will university governance be up to the challenge?