Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Higher Ambitions - and what might it mean for us?

On 3rd November, Lord Mandelson launched "Higher Ambitions", a framework for higher education in the UK. The document is available at the BIS website, and announcement from the Lords is on the BBC democracy live site.

Pleasingly the document notes the success of HE in the UK, across a variety of institutions and their different missions: "The success of the last decade is not simply the achievements of the ancient institutions and the leading research centres. Many of the most encouraging developments have come in new and transformed institutions which are pursuing excellence in particular fields and building creative links to local communities and businesses around the country."

The framework covers:

  • Wider and fairer access to higher education
  • Equipping Britain’s workforce for a global economy
  • Research, innovation and knowledge exchange
  • The student experience of higher education
  • Engaging with our communities and the wider world
  • Supporting a world class system
Wider and fairer Access to HE

As well as statements regarding improved advice and encouragement to potential students, an increased used of contextual data in admissions processes and a review of widening access to the most selective universities, an interesting point for our faculty is a "priority to growing a diverse range of models of higher education. These include options such as part-time and workplace-based courses aimed particularly at mature students or those from nonconventional backgrounds". This is pleasing to see - much of the statement (and this was picked up in the questioning in the House of lords) was very much about "normal" 3 year degree programmes for 18-22 year olds.

Equipping Britain’s workforce for a global economy

This is the potentially contentious area - are universities just there to train workers for future jobs in the economy, or also to provide broader educational aims? Universities do both, and different universities do a greater or lesser part of each, depending on their individual goals.

Again, of interest to us as a faculty is the proposed enhanced support for STEM subjects, where skills gaps will be identified, and contestable funds provided by HEFCE, allowing funds to be diverted to courses that meet strategic skills shortage needs, and diverted from those institutions where courses don't meet required outcomes. An interesting debate that needs to be had here, is how do we attract students to those areas that are identified as being shortage areas - the reduced interest in subjects such as engineering and computer science are well known.

Research, innovation and knowledge exchange

Excellence will remain the basis for assigning research funding, and this will mean more concentration of funding. The paper notes that not every institution should feel that maximising success in REF is central to its mission. That's not really a surprise, and emphasis the fact the not all universities are the same, and nor should they be.

The student experience of higher education

There will be an expectation that universities will provide more information to prospective students on issues such as: contact hours; study responsibilities; availability of facilities and employability amongst others. The expectation is that QAA HEFCE and UKCES will work to identify a mechanism for providing this information.

Most universities make all of this readily available in prospecti, programme specifications, at open days etc - I'm not sure how providing raw data will help student choice, as it will need to be understood in the context of the whole student experience, and what we expect students as engaged partners to put into their studies.

Engaging with our communities and the wider world

A recognition that universities are major contributors to the regions in which they are located - providing employment, and and impact on the local economy from students. The wok of universities with regional development agencies is noted - we can look to our own University Quarter developments to see this in action.

Supporting a world class system

This section notes that universities in the UK do achieve excellence but that "Universities may need to withdraw from activities in which they cannot achieve excellence in order to focus on the areas where they can." Oh dear............but again, this links to the previous points about different universities doing different things. And to support this, there will be a review of fees - as trailed heavily for months - which will report after the general election. Bets are now on for the outcome of that!

Overall then, an interesting paper, and one which is supportive of UK universities. Some of the headline grabbers - the information on contact hours - pander to a press and government determined to identify students purely as customers, rather than engaged partners in the education process.

The key issues for this faculty will be around: selective funding of STEM subjects; working with different types of students; engaging with employers; reassessing our commitment to research; looking a the data provided to prospective students and eventually looking at our bursary scheme.

Friday, October 30, 2009

National Student Forum - Annual Report

The National Student forum, which was set up by Government in Feb 2008 to give a greater voice to students on Higher Education courses across England, has produced its second annual report.

Under a range of key topics, the report provides:
  • an ideal vision of what it would be like for students if everything is working well in this area
  • suggestions as to how individual universities and colleges can support students in this area recommendations for Government, and/or for areas which require further consideration and collaboration at a national strategic level
The key topics in this year's report are:
  • Teaching and Learning
  • Employability
  • Postgraduate Students
  • Mature and Part Time Students
  • Disabled Students
  • Accommodation
Under Teaching and Learning (obviously the area I will look at first!), the following comments are made:

"We would like to see all universities and colleges:
  • professionalise teaching and learning within the institution personalise and differentiate approaches to take account of disabilities, learning difficulties and learning styles
  • increase flexibility in course structures and modes of study
  • develop a cross-institutional strategy to enable students to co-design and manage their learning
  • undertake regular reviews of course content and material to ensure currency and relevance (where appropriate to subject matter)
  • ensure a university-wide focus on assessment for, not just of, learning
  • review adequacy and accessibility of study resources for number and range of students
  • monitor and formally record students’ broader learning
In particular, we identified some of the current barriers to the growth of technology-enhanced learning: unequal digital access; unequal digital literacy for both students and staff; the lack of time and lack of support for tutors to develop the necessary skills and restrictive university policies and practices at some institutions.

We would like to see all universities and colleges: implement a systematic policy to enhance traditional teaching methods with new technologies; leverage technology to provide innovative methods of assessment and feedback; implement a dedicated support programme for students and lecturers to develop skills and confidence in using technology; support whole campus access to ICT resources for all students; and promote the university or college’s technology-enhanced learning approaches and resources to prospective students."

Not much to answer there then!

Professionalising teaching in universities is always a thorny subject (maybe more so in some institutions than in others, but for those who are primarily involved in teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, subject expertise will get you so far, but there is an increasing recognition that teaching IS a key part of the role of a University lecturer, and so aksing for professionalisation of this part of the role is not unreasonable. Of course, promotion and career progression still tend to be associated with parts of the job not associated with teaching....

The increased flexibility and modes of study will come - due to market forces if nothing else. For any institution to maintain the number of its students, relying on the traditional market of 18-22 year olds wanting to study for 3-4 years for a degree, will be difficult in light of student finance and a falling demographic. New modes of study are already being developed which will fit in with a broader range of students' aspirations,

I would hope everyone carries out regular reviews of course content - not just as a part of formal quality procedures, but as a recognition that subjects develop, and the material supporting awards in those subjects needs to move on as well. Sets of lecture notes and slides that are 5 years old, may not just be out of date, they also show to students that we don't care about the material we give them.

Assessment for learning as well as assessment for learning is essential - and links to the other key theme always raised in student surveys - the amount, the timing and the usefulness of feedback given. Institutions and individuals have to develop was of providing this feedback more quickly and during the delivery of a module - not easy with 300 students at a time!

Adequacy and accessibility of resources is always raised as an issue, especially in technical subjects where labs, studios, IT centres are needed. We've already moved to a 24/7 library and information service, and have increased lab and studio opening times, but these are a finite resource that are under heavy demand for 24 weeks a year. So what about the other 28 weeks.........

Monitoring and recording student's broader learning - increased used of negotiated modules, and fully negotiated awards goes some way to recognising and providing a solution to this issue. Broadening this to wider groups of students might also present two possible issues - resourcing, and ensuring credibility of any learning accredited in this way.

All in all, a welcome report, that shows real demands from real studnets, as opposed to some of the more hysterical comments in the press, and one which provides plenty of food for thought

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Keeping our universities special - Surviving and thriving in a turbulent world

A link to an interesting publication by PA Consulting Group, which looks at the potential future for universities, and lays down their thoughts.

The starting point is a University-centric model of HE - a "producer-led, self-defined model has been sustained largely on its own terms by generous public funding and protection by statutory powers and regulations. And it has worked extraordinarily well, educating generations of national leaders in every field and sustaining the UK as a global engine of scientific and intellectual progress."

Four themes are presented that are undermining or inexorably changing this current position:
  • the expanding economy of knowledge
  • the rise of new competitors meeting the demands for knowledge
  • the advance of information technology
  • the change in public policy
It is proposed that currently universities are built on 7 major building blocks
  • organisation
  • products
  • delivery
  • quality
  • brand
  • governance
  • economics
Each of these is subject to change from the 4 themes, and the paper concludes with a different seven building blocks-
  • organised for solutions
  • co-creation of learning
  • lifelong learning relationships
  • knowledge "kite-marks"
  • recognition of achievements
  • optimised portfolio value
  • governance of results
The paper concludes with "What is needed now is for the sector to transform itself from without, from the outside-in, while remaining true to its defining values of independence and learning. It is some challenge."

This is really worth a read - it distills many of the things we think of when considering where Universities, including ours, are going, and provides interesting pointers for future development. The institutions that do mange to transform themselves over the next 5 years will be the ones to reap rewards in the area in which they have chosen to specialise, the ones that continue to do just as they always have (particularly in the "new" university sector) will be flailing or even failing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"Mickey Mouse" Degrees and Employability

Interesting article in today's Sunday Times, that bastion of traditionalism. The argument is made that degrees frequently described as "mickey mouse" - and how often have we heard those comments in the media, including on R4's Today programme - are now proving a hit with employers.

David Willets. the shadow secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills has said:

"“The attitude towards some so-called Mickey Mouse courses is a classic example of the information problem. There is an assumption that all of those courses must be useless, but when you look at the hard evidence, it’s just not the case. Some of these courses are useful, and some of them are useless. Some of them are really valued by employers. Young people and their parents are entitled to that information.”

Peter Bradwell, at the think-tank Demos, has recently completed a study on higher education and the university system, and believes Willetts may have caught the mood. “Whatever angle you look at higher education from,” he says, “the really interesting question is why people do a degree, and why that might be changing.

“Traditionally, going to university was about learning, utility and virtue. As the cost of higher education is increasing, and falling more heavily on the learner, students are going to think much more rigorously about what kind of returns they are going to get.”"

The comment is made in the article of a student who attended a top 20 University, which had a graduate employment rate of only 56% for that course.

Students are becoming increasingly discriminating consumers, especially those who are choosing vocational qualifications, and tables such as the National Student Survey are useful here, giving the kind of data that might help more than a simple ranking in a typical league table. But still, NSS results need to be read with caution - the data provided is still not granular enough to give an indication by course - students would be best advised to read all sources of information, and ask some piercing questions at University open days.

Sunday Times University Guide and Tables

Published today, the Sunday Times has weighed in with its annual University guide and league tables. As usual not many surprises at the top - Oxford overtake Cambridge (yawn) to take first place.

Staffs Uni don't seem to have so well - a drop to 95th from 77th last year. It'll be interesting to work out why this is, but I hazard a guess that a high weighting applied to research excellence will have had an effect based on the most recent RAE scores.

For Midlands universities we score 14th out of 19.