A rocky road ahead…

November 18, 2016
    “Times of unprecedented change”
    “Challenging economic climate”

Looking back at a number of the reviews of the political landscape that I’ve written over the years, the two phrases above appear with almost monotonous regularity. And they are just as appropriate today as they have been in previous years. However, what is new is that before both the direction of change and the reasons for the economic challenges were known. The big difference today is that result of the referendum on 23 June has thrown uncertainty into the mix. Uncertainty, not just in the higher education sector, but across the whole country as the process to leave the EU begins.

The Government have sought to reduce some of the uncertainty by guaranteeing that EU students that are currently studying in the UK and those that will begin their courses in the coming years will continue to receive funding for the duration of their courses. Similar guarantees have been made for Horizon 2020 research funding. However, what is not clear is what the impact of Brexit will be on the future recruitment of students from the EU or on research funding. It is unlikely to be good news.

The current analysis is that the Government appears to be favouring a hard Brexit with tighter controls on immigration. The dominance of immigration as an issue in the referendum campaign and subsequent policy has been reflected in the statements from the Home Office suggesting further clampdowns on international students. Regardless of the actual policy that emerges, the rhetoric is damaging – a fall of 10% in the numbers of Indian students is evidence of that. It was not by accident that the Indian Prime Minister linked trade agreements with relaxation of visa requirements but although Theresa May stated that talented workers would be welcome, her response regarding students was lukewarm at best. It would appear that the lady is not for turning.

This is all set against the rather gloomy background of HEFCE’s assessment of the financial health of English universities released this week. The picture is likely to be similar in universities in the other countries of the UK. The forecast, made before the referendum, suggests falling levels of surpluses (and in some cases significant deficits), more borrowing and falling levels of cash reserves. The report notes that universities were looking for an increase of fee income from overseas students (of close to 30%), and for growth in home and EU students of over ten per cent by the 2018/19 session. In the current circumstances it is unlikely that either will materialise; a period of budgetary constraint will be the consequence. This will place an even greater emphasis on efficiencies and effective use of data in planning.

The Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) is entering the Report stage before its third reading in the House of Commons. The Bill has seen a number of amendments as it has passed through the Committee stage but these have not radically changed the direction of the Bill. The Bill advocates the abolition of the English Funding Council (HEFCE) and the establishment of the Office for Students (OfS). The importance of the role HEFCE play in monitoring the financial health of the sector has been recognised in an amendment that proposes this role transfers to the OfS.

There is a great deal of focus on the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), particularly the link to fee increases. Although the TEF will initially apply to English universities, similar measures in the past have been adopted by the other countries in the UK so it would not be a surprise if in future years the TEF becomes applicable to all UK institutions.

The governance arrangements for higher education are also changing. In addition to HEFCE’s transformation into the Office for Students (and universities moving under the Department for Education), there are reports of the Welsh funding council being absorbed into a new Tertiary Education Authority and of the Scottish Funding Council being merged into a ‘super-quango’ with a number of other bodies. Both add to the uncertainty in the sector.

Finally one change that we do know about is that the UK will be implementing the EU General Data Protection Regulation before we leave the EU. Although much of the focus has been on the scale of the fines for breaches, GDPR represents an opportunity for organisations to improve their data and its management. UCISA has set up a website to highlight resources and activities that inform and support our members in their implementation of the Regulation.

There are difficult and challenging times ahead. Universities will need to make good use of the data they have to try and predict the effect of changes and plan accordingly. They will need be more agile to deal with the changes that are known as well as those that are yet to emerge. The sector has been resilient at times of uncertainty in the past and many will see opportunities to reshape their offering and operating model to adapt to the new environment. IT will be at the hub of that change.

Scotland and Brexit

September 7, 2016

I attended a seminar yesterday considering the impact of the Referendum result in Scotland. As UCISA is a UK wide organisation it is important to understand the range of views across the UK and the potential impacts on the devolved nations. In Scotland, along with Northern Ireland, the majority cast their votes in favour of remaining in the EU. Nicola Sturgeon has made the Scottish Government view clear – they wish the majority view in Scotland to be respected and for Scotland to remain in the EU. To what extent that can be achieved isn’t clear, partly because the new cabinet at Westminster is still defining its approach to leaving the EU.

The lack of clarity stems from before the referendum. There was no White Paper to outline the proposed action in the event of a vote to leave – this contrasts with the approach taken with the Scottish independence referendum where options for both outcomes were known. Further it has become evident that there were no plans or contingencies for a leave success. It isn’t clear how the exit will be triggered or who needs to be consulted – and this might not be clear until a number of legal challenges have been addressed later in the year. Finally, the notion of leaving the EU means different things to different people – there remains a great deal of negotiation between constituents within Government for a clear picture to emerge.

What are the options for Scotland? Given that there appears to be reluctance to hold a further referendum on independence, it will probably be limited to trying to influence a move to a least worst option. David Davies, in his address to Parliament on 5 September, stated that the devolved administrations would have an important role to play (but that they would have no veto). So Scotland will need to lobby hard for a softer Brexit with continued access to free trade against the hard line Brexiteers within the UK Government. An alternative might be for Scotland to build stronger relationships with the EU post exit in certain areas such as agriculture or higher education. However, this may require a further Scotland Act to devolve more powers to Holyrood in order to be achievable. A further option could be for Scotland and Northern Ireland, as the two nations within the UK that voted to remain, to take over the UK’s EU membership but the constitutional challenges that would present within the UK makes that extremely unlikely.

The result of the Referendum on June 23 will have an immediate impact even before negotiations begin. The demands placed on the Civil Service to inform the negotiations and manage the process will cost, both financially and in terms of time spent away from business as usual. So it may be prudent for those organisations that receive direct or indirect Government funding to budget for a reduction in income. Further, it may mean that some issues that might have occupied parliamentary time will be pushed further down the queue.

So what will be the impact on higher and further education in Scotland? Whilst education remains a priority for Holyrood, it is way down the list in the Westminster Government’s Brexit considerations and it will be some time before the full impact is understood. The risk to research through the loss of EU funding and collaboration opportunities is well documented. In the short term, there is the risk of further reduction in central funding and a risk to student numbers. Brexit has given added impetus to the Home Office perspective on international students and the potential damage to applications from beyond the EU. EU student numbers may also decline amidst the uncertainty.

UK universities and their representative bodies will need to be effective in lobbying and influencing Government over the coming months and years. In the short term this will be needed to remove uncertainty (for example, reassuring EU students applying now for 2017 that their fees won’t rise during their course); longer term it will be needed to ensure the continued global success of the sector. What is clear is that the uncertainty means that universities will need to plan for a range of potential scenarios – the need for quality data and systems to support this has never been greater.

The current environment

March 11, 2016

I write a briefing for exhibitors at the two biggest UCISA events – UCISA16 is taking place next week so here’s my take on the current political factors affecting the sector…

The run up to the General Election in 2015 saw very little in the form of legislation and little change in the sector. The year since has been far busier with the publication of the Green Paper Teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice, the introduction of the Counter Terrorism duty on higher and further education institutions (the PREVENT duty), the drafting of the Investigatory Powers Bill and consultations on the information provided to students and the HESA Data Futures programme. The proposals within the Green Paper require refinement – it is not clear what the impact will be on institutions and it is anticipated that there will be further consultation during 2016. Although the Paper only applies to higher education in England, it is probable that a number of the measures proposed will also be introduced in time in the other countries of the UK.

The publication of the Green Paper in November demonstrated that the Westminster Government is looking to shape the English Higher Education sector rather more than it has in the past with emphasis on teaching excellence, better information for students and widening participation. The Green Paper contained little detail and it is not clear how soon detailed proposals will be presented. The BIS Select Committee, whilst welcoming the approach in principle in its recent report, urged caution over the pace of implementation, noting that the second stage of the Teaching Excellence Framework “should only be introduced once Government can demonstrate that the metrics to be used have the confidence of students and universities”. The Green Paper also noted that universities needed to be more accountable for how student fees are spent. This reflects a theme first visited in a Private Members Bill tabled by Heidi Allen, Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire so it is perhaps not surprising to see elements of her proposals feature in the Green Paper.

Despite the emphasis on a light touch approach, it is evident that universities and colleges will need to make effective use of data in order to meet the anticipated requirements of the Green Paper. There are a number of other developments that will place similar demands on our institutions. The HESA Data Futures programme is seeking to redesign and transform the collection of student related data. The programme is in its early stages with a recent procurement to appoint an organisation to design and deliver the future business process, technology and application architecture. UCISA will continue to ensure that suppliers of student records systems are engaged with this initiative. Further, the Higher Education Commission’s report From Bricks to Clicks notes that data analytics has the potential to transform the higher education sector, but cautions that UK institutions are currently not making the most of the opportunities in this area.

There continues to be funding pressure on all UK higher education institutions. In Northern Ireland funding has reduced by 28% in real terms since 2010/11 leading to downsizing by the universities in the province. In Wales, a cross-party review of higher education funding and student finance arrangements is due to report in the autumn. Although funding cuts proposed by the Welsh Government have been rescinded, it is likely that there will be some rationalisation within the sector over the coming year. The Scottish Funding Council has also cut the level of funding with some institutions noting that continued cuts put “pressure on institutional viability”. In England, the introduction of competition has resulted in some big winners and losers – those institutions which have seen a fall in student numbers are now having to cut their cloth accordingly. In the Further Education sector, the outcome of the Area Reviews is expected to be mergers between further education colleges.

There may be a lull in the development of policy as elections for new administrations in Scotland and Wales take place in May followed by the referendum on the UK’s EU membership in June. It remains to be seen if changes in the constituency of those Governments are reflected in changes in education policy. It goes without saying that a vote to leave the EU will also have a significant impact on universities and governmental policies. 2016 promises to be an interesting year.

Higher, Further, Faster, More – an opportunity missed?

October 20, 2015

There was much chat online yesterday about the Policy Exchange’s report on improving higher level professional and technical education Higher, Further, Faster, More. Whilst the report sets out some significant challenges and is fairly wide ranging in its recommendations, the focus has, perhaps inevitably, been on the financial implications for the higher education sector. The report proposes significant cuts to central higher education funding with the funds being diverted to further education. The suggestion is that institutional reserves could be used to meet all or some of the costs of funding high cost subjects and widening participation.

The response from the higher education sector was to defend the current funding regime and to highlight errors in the financial aspects of the report. This isn’t entirely unexpected – in these financially challenging times any organisation or body whose funding is threatened is likely to react in the same way and attempt to protect what it has. The question is how that message is interpreted elsewhere. The sector has a reputation in the Treasury for being feather bedded and reference to the reserves held by the sector, whether accurate or not, will do little to refute that reputation. Further it is easy to dismiss responses suggesting maintaining the status quo and even those highlighting errors in the report (‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’) even if the arguments are strong and factually correct. There is, however, little doubt that the FE sector in England is in financial dire straits and something needs to be done. In the circumstances looking at the pot a seemingly rich relation has is natural.

It is not a matter of ‘either/or’ for the higher and further education sectors – they fulfil different needs and the country needs both. What has been missed is the opportunity to highlight the areas where universities and FE colleges are already working together, to address some of the challenges highlighted in the Policy Exchange report. At the recent HE and FE Show, Stephen Jones from BIS advocated the need for HE and FE to work more closely together and gave a strong hint that this need would be part of upcoming reforms. There is evidence of collaboration and working towards common goals. Maddalaine Ansell, the Chief Executive of the Universities Alliance, highlighted several in her presentation at the same conference – collaborative approaches supporting the local communities’ needs. And yet there was little mention of such collaboration in the responses to the report that I’ve seen.

A protectionist approach is sometimes needed but here was an opportunity to demonstrate that the higher education sector is aware of the challenges that FE faces, is aware of the need to develop skills for UK business and industry and is taking steps to meet those challenges and requirements. An opportunity to demonstrate that universities are at the heart of regional economies, working with local FE Colleges, to help meet the needs of the local communities. An opportunity to demonstrate that the sector is in tune with Government policy and thinking. An opportunity missed.

Horses and water…

June 30, 2015

Every year a certain amount of Parliamentary time is dedicated to Private Members’ Bills. These are opportunities for individual MPs to present legislation on practically any topic. This year’s crop illustrates the wide variety – we have bills on riot compensation, exemption from hospital parking charges for carers, and Highways (Improvement, Traffic Regulation and Traffic Management). Amongst the list is the Higher Education (Information) Bill being presented by the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, Heidi Allen.

The summary of the Bill indicates that it is “to require information to be made available to prospective undergraduate students about what is provided to students for the tuition fees charged, how tuition fee resources are expended and what is expected of students; to establish transparency in how tuition fees are spent; and for connected purposes”.

There are a number of potential issues here and I’ll say now that I am not privy to what will be included in the Bill so all of this is guesswork. We’ll hopefully know more when the Bill gets its second reading on 23 October. Firstly, there is the level of detail required – are universities going to be expected to provide such detail on a course by course basis? There would seem little value in the Bill if it didn’t and so the assumption is that it will be expected that there will be different costs for different courses. So costs such as Estates, IT, the Library and indeed academic time will need to be apportioned across different courses. The cost to universities in calculating and providing this information will increase depending on the level of accuracy required.

If, on the other hand, all that is required are aggregate costs then there seems to be little value to the applicant. There will still need to be some apportioning of costs (how much academic time is spent on teaching activities compared with research for example) and as such institutions will need to justify how they have split such costs if they are to avoid accusations of top loading the tuition fee spend.
Regardless of the level of detail, there will be a cost to the universities of putting this information together. However, I would question how much use applicants make of the information that is already available to them. I know of several 18 year olds that are (hopefully) heading to university in September and none have made use of the Key Information Set in making their choices. I realise there is an element of horses and water here but is there any evidence that providing this information will really lead to a significant number of applicants being influenced by how their money is spent?

I am not against transparency and I do believe that there is value in demonstrating how income from course fees is spent. However, I am not convinced that there is a strong business case for providing such information, nor do I believe that it will radically change the way that applicants make their choices. Regardless of the level of detail provided, there will be a cost to provide it, as there is a cost of meeting the requirements of other legislation. How many institutions will be open enough to include a line detailing the cost of providing the information required?

Current challenges for IT departments

March 9, 2015

I provide a brief to the exhibitors for the main UCISA conferences that highlights the current issues for IT services and gives my take on the current HE climate. Here’s this year’s offering for the UCISA15 Conference.

1. Cloud and shared services

Many of the IT Service departments within our universities and colleges are now providing services to their institutions through a blended service delivery model. A number of components of the overall service are now provided through some form of outsourced provision. These include email and storage for both staff and students, office applications and collaboration tools, and the virtual learning environment. The drivers behind the move to cloud solutions are varied but include improving the services offered, improving resilience, and freeing up internal resource from managing commodity services to delivering services aligned with the institutional missions of teaching and research. There has also been recognition that economies of scale can be delivered by collaboration, joint procurement and sharing of services. There have been examples in the past where larger institutions have run applications for smaller neighbours but we have seen more collaboration in recent years. Recent examples include the North East Scotland Shared Date Centre (Winner of the 2013 UCISA Award for Excellence) and the recent collaboration between four London based institutions, two research centres and Jisc to procure a shared data centre.

The move towards cloud services continues and, as institutions look to negotiate contracts with suppliers, some are seeking to establish flexible arrangements which will facilitate sharing and allow the arrangements to be extended to other institutions. Such arrangements will benefit the supplier as they facilitate growth within a single contract, the anchor tenant as they will be able to benefit from greater efficiencies as new tenants come on board, and subsequent partners who will benefit from both lower costs and from much of the procurement activity having already taken place.

2. Student experience and engagement

The increase in competition in the higher education sector has triggered investment in facilities and services across the sector. These have included new and refurbished buildings on campuses providing high quality equipment and access to a wide range of learning resources and facilities, and investment in new technologies to enable access to services from off the campus, including via mobile technologies such as smart phones and tablets. Whilst access to teaching and learning resources are important factors in the student experience, it is equally important to ensure that all interaction with students are efficient, effective and professional. Consequently institutions are investing both in improving all their interactions with the student body and in raising the quality of the face to face services they provide. Continual improvement is now very much the mantra. The increase in student fees in 2012 led to greater student engagement on a number of levels. Students are now involved in many decisions at their institutions. Further a number of institutions have developed student engagement programmes. Such activity includes building relationships with IT suppliers so that they may offer training and development opportunities to the student population, employing students to help deliver IT services and engaging their students to assist (or in some cases, lead) development of applications and services.

There are a number of examples of both student engagement and service improvement in the submissions for the 2014 UCISA Award for Excellence. In particular, the winning entry from the University of Edinburgh picks up on a number of these themes – the submission describes how a student developed system to aid course selection was transitioned into a full production service.

3. Support of research

Research is a key activity in all universities but supporting research presents a number of challenges to IT service departments. Part of the challenge is managing seemingly conflicting drivers – there is a desire for open access to research data and outputs but also a need to implement appropriate security measures to protect the institution’s intellectual property. Information security is critical in assessing the risks to information and determining the level of protection that information should receive. This is an issue that UCISA has recognised; we will be launching our Information Security Management Toolkit at the Conference. Institutions are also faced with the challenge of managing the volume of data generated from creation through to its long term storage and archiving. This requires different services and skills to be deployed at the various stages of the research data lifecycle and a coordinated approach to research data management needs to be taken by each institution. The need to transfer data and to link systems to give an overall perspective of research data and information is driving the adoption of standards. However, interoperability of research related systems remains an issue.

Current environment

The 2014 admissions cycle saw the number of applicants placed through UCAS exceed 500,000 for the first time, maintaining the overall upwards trend of participation in higher education. The UCAS end of cycle report notes that almost all applicants received an offer from one of their selected institutions and many received offers from all of their chosen options. This suggests that it is currently a buyers’ market – undergraduate applicants are generally in a position to choose where they wish to study. The situation has also improved with regards to international students with numbers seemingly recovering from the impacts of the poor perception of the Government’s immigration policies abroad. There is, however, no room for complacency. The number of eighteen year olds, the mainstay of undergraduate applications, will decline over the next few years and the higher education sector faces increased competition from apprenticeships. The growth of the higher education sector in India and China may also provide increased competition for international students from Asia. Institutions need to redouble their efforts to attract, and then retain, students from both home and overseas.

There is recognition that the future job market will require different skills than at present and a common belief that the UK is ill prepared for the digital age. This is highlighted in a recent House of Lords report Make or break: the UK’s digital future which is critical of the higher education sector’s response to the need to reskill the workforce and to equip graduates for working in the digital world. Further, the ability to make best use of technology in teaching and research is being inhibited by low skills levels by staff and students alike. The report makes a number of recommendations targeted at the next Government and it remains to be seen whether any initiatives are funded to improve the nation’s digital capabilities. However, given that the period of austerity is likely to continue regardless of the result of the election, it may be that universities and colleges have to tackle the skills shortfall on their own.

The forthcoming election is probably the most open in many years. General elections lead to periods of uncertainty at the best of times but this is being exacerbated by predictions of a hung parliament and the prospect of a second election within the calendar year. It is clear though that the overall unit of resource of funding for students will not increase in real terms and so institutions will need to continue to drive efficiencies and process improvements. This may well lead to further collaboration and more shared services.

In many ways, my conclusion twelve months ago still holds true – the future higher education environment will be characterised by increased competition and as a consequence, institutions will need to be more agile in order to stay ahead of or respond to the competition. IT remains critical to higher education institutions with IT embedded in every aspect of an institution’s operation. This will require a highly skilled IT department which, from the top down, has a good understanding of the institution’s business and aims.

Shaping the information landscape

February 5, 2015

One of UCISA’s roles is to ensure that suppliers to our sector are kept abreast of developments that may impact the software and services they deliver. The aim is to alert suppliers of potential changes in legislation or other statutory requirements so that they can effectively plan future developments. A recent example of this activity was the briefing day that UCISA and HEDIIP arranged at the end of January to bring suppliers of student records systems up to date with the work being carried out under the HEDIIP programme.

The meeting heard updates on four of the HEDIIP projects: data capability; the new subject coding system, the Unique Learner Number and the new Information Landscape. In addition we heard from HESA about the CACHED project. The aim of the HEDIIP programme is to redesign the information landscape to enhance the arrangements for the collection, sharing and dissemination of data and information about the HE system. Each of these projects will contribute to that overall goal – I won’t go into detail on these here but if you are interested in learning more, each is outlined on the HEDIIP website.

There were a number of common themes that emerged from the day. The first was the adoption of standards. One of the challenges the sector faces currently is that the same term can mean different things to different organisations (the term course being a prime example) so standard data definitions are essential to a common understanding and data sharing. This has been a particular problem with the JACS subject coding scheme where changes and growth in JACS’ range of functions mean it is no longer consistently applied.

The second theme was managing cultural change both within higher education institutions and a number of the organisations requesting data from the sector. In some institutions, many processes are geared around producing the HESA return and the need to get it “right”. The focus on a single return suggests that these institutions may be unaware of the volume of demands made on their data and the amount of resource across the institution spent in ensuring the various returns made are correct. It is highly unlikely that there will be one version of the truth in these institutions – indeed it was noted that one institution had over 200 separate collections of student records. It goes without saying that the data management in such institutions is poor – it will take a significant change to move away from data being an input to deliver a return to a point where it is seen as an institutional asset.

Finally, the biggest challenge is governance. At an institutional level, mature data management will only be achieved with effective information governance being driven from the top table. Getting the value of data understood at senior management level is key to improving the data and information management within an institution. There are wider governance issues that the HEDIIP programme will need to address. Moving to a set of standard data definitions is one challenge – ensuring that the governance mechanisms are in place to ensure that the standards remain consistently applied and understood is a league apart. Similarly with the new subject coding scheme, establishing a governance model that is supported by an appropriate selection of stakeholders, with sufficient authority and resources to manage its evolution will be critical to the success of the new scheme.

The feedback from those suppliers present was positive. They could recognise the efficiencies in moving to a model where, for the most part, data is submitted to a single point at various points in the year and drawn down from a single repository. The HEDIIP programme is only part of achieving this goal – the institutions need to improve their data management and change their processes, those requesting data may also have to change their processes and suppliers will need to amend their systems to implement new standards and enable data to be extracted at key points in the academic year or cycle. It will be a long journey but one that offers much reward.

ORCID seeds

January 22, 2015

I attended a meeting today to hear the final reports from a number of pilot projects looking at implementing the ORCID researcher identifier. UCISA was one of a number of organisations that were signatories in 2012 to a recommendation that ORCID should become the standard researcher identifier in the UK. Over one million researchers worldwide now have an ORCID with the growth being driven by improved integration with internal and publisher systems. ORCID has been adopted by a number of other countries in Europe and may be emerging as a de facto standard.

The difficulty in establishing any standard is that the benefits are only realised when there has been widespread adoption covering all aspects of the process. The pilot studies reflected this to a degree with a number highlighting the challenges of selling the long term benefits and managing the expectations of the early adopters within their institutions. Quick(ish) wins include improved internal systems integration but these are perhaps more likely to deliver benefits to professional services teams rather than the researchers themselves.

Overseas, implementation was being driven by mandating use or consortia funding. There was support amongst those present for employing both approaches in the UK. Jisc is to consult shortly on a possible national subscription for ORCID. This was identified as a quick win at a workshop on research data management last year and would encourage adoption across the UK. It would also put the sector in a strong position to lobby funders, publishers and other systems providers to include the ORCID and so facilitate better discovery and integration. However, this would still result in a slow and piecemeal adoption – a degree of mandation would hasten adoption, strengthen the business case and ensure that some of the benefits were realised earlier than might otherwise be the case. Although funders could support adoption by insisting researchers had an ORCID as part of their applications for grants, the key driver was seen as the 2020 REF. ORCID offers an opportunity to ease the burden of reporting on research outputs and impact and this may be sufficient to encourage adoption. Mandating that all researchers to be included in the REF must have an ORCID will hasten the process and should deliver wins all round.

The changing landscape of technology in higher education

January 21, 2015

I took part in a panel session at the BETT Show today on the changing landscape of technology in higher education. The panellists were invited to speak for a few minutes at the start of the session in order to prompt further discussion. I took the view that it wasn’t all about the technology…

Firstly there are the students themselves. A while back I spoke to a number of school leavers who were heading to university to try to find out how they were going to use the technology they were taking with them and what their expectations were of using technology at university. Their expectations were probably aligned to what they had seen during open days. They were expecting to make use of computer pool rooms and “Learning commons” facilities but there was little expectation of how technology was going to be used in their own education. Some had thought about the technology they were going to take to university – a smart phone for making quick notes, for reminders and for finding information on the move, a tablet for taking notes in lectures and for searching for information, and a laptop for producing their coursework. But although they regularly exchanged information with friends and were informally learning through their contacts, there wasn’t an understanding of how they were going to translate those skills into their university environment. Consequently universities need to help their students improve their digital capabilities, to help them make good use of the technology they have, to provide facilities for collaboration, to help them stay safe, and to distinguish between good online sources and bad.

On the other side of the equation, do universities have the ability to optimise the use of technology in teaching and learning? Research suggests that a blended model of teaching (utilising both face to face and online components) results in increased learning and understanding. However expertise in using technology and employing different pedagogic methods amongst academic staff varies enormously. Similarly the desire to move to a new teaching model also varies hugely. Teaching online and making use of technology to change how students learn requires different skill sets. Facilitating a discussion is different from delivering a lecture. Delivering short micro lectures where you are getting a key point across in fifteen minutes is different to delivering a 45 minute lecture. Further, there are many credible resources available online that can be used in teaching. Do academic staff understand how to make best use of the resources available or appreciate how technology could be used to teach in a different way? Universities have to work to develop the digital capabilities of their academic staff. They need to invest in training and supporting academic staff and invest in the estate to provide flexible learning spaces and social spaces that their student body can use for informal learning, collaboration and group work.

The need to invest highlights the need for those making the decisions on funding to understand the possibilities and benefits in investing in technology for teaching and learning and investing in the workforce, and to understand the impact on the estate. Much has been made of the ability of online learning to be easily scaled up and it would be easy to conclude that using technology to deliver learning, whilst not free, is a cheap alternative to traditional models. However, one benefit of the advent of MOOCs has been a recognition that, if you are going to deliver material online, you have to do it well. It is not a cheap option. Universities’ senior management teams, whilst perhaps not needing the same level of digital capabilities as academic staff and students, do need enough knowledge to understand the potential.

A little on technology – MOOCs have been a disruptor but not in the way that was anticipated. One impact has been that it has been recognised that externally facing resources have to be of a high quality – they are your public face and advertisements for your institution. As a consequence the quality of all online delivery has been raised. MOOCs also allow self paced learning accommodating different learning styles as students find their way through the presented material. This is one area where learning analytics can make a difference. Using all the information that is available to the institution, entry data, cumulative data from previous cohorts and data from the students themselves will allow universities to be more supportive and help guide their students to a successful conclusion. In the future this may be supplemented by personal profiling ahead of entry, helping to guide students earlier to identify the right course for them at the application stage. The question is, how far should this assistance go? Whilst it is desirable to get as high a pass rate as possible, does too much guidance mean that our graduates are less prepared for the world at large?

PS Readers may be interested in the results of UCISA’s Digital Capabilities survey. The Executive summary is available on the UCISA website.

Benchmark to improve

December 9, 2014

UCISA has run the HEITS exercise to collect benchmark statistics for seventeen years. During that time, members have used the data to assist in making business cases for funding, for quality assurance purposes and for comparing themselves with their peers. I attended a workshop run by EUNIS’s BENCHEIT working group last week partly to hear what others were doing in the way of benchmarking and partly to see if there were any lessons that we could learn from our peers (and thirdly to promote the results of the UCISA Digital Capabilities survey).

The Finns compiled their statistics by carrying out an in depth analysis of the costs of services. This is similar to the approach adopted by the Jisc Financial X-ray – although it takes time to produce the data, particularly when considering the apportionment of procurement items and staff costs, it does lead to detailed costs. It also permits quite detailed comparison between institutions. Individual institutions can pick out areas where their costs are very different (higher or lower) and they can then ask questions of the other participants to establish the reasons for the variation.

The Dutch approach was similar but they also used the statistics strategically within the individual institutions. Whilst they also identified the exceptional costs and sought to identify the reasons behind variations, they used the statistics to demonstrate value internally (“the IT infrastructure is only costing x% of the student fee”) and to baseline costs in order to highlight the impact of projects. In both the Finnish and Dutch cases, the statistics prompted an open discussion on the costs of contracts and where there were significant variations they were cited in talks with suppliers in order to bring costs down. There seemed to be far more openness with regard to commercial contracts than appears to be the case in the UK – perhaps this is something we need to address?

Whilst the Dutch and Finns largely concentrated on the costs of services, the Spanish adopted a more holistic approach. There too were carrying out cost comparisons but this was being done within an overall framework that assessed the maturity of the IT Governance and Management in the institution. A catalogue of principles, broken down into objectives, each with quantifiable indicators and variables, was used as the basis for the study. Each indicator and variable is fully defined to avoid any ambiguity. The results were then passed back to the institutions showing their position for each indicator relative to their peers.

The one message that emerged from the workshop is that it is important not to take raw cost figures as the basis for comparison. There are many reasons for differences in costs – the size of the institution and its mission will be contributing factors and the CHEITA group have been looking at using these to facilitate international comparisons (more in a later post). Other factors include the quality of the service being provided and institutional drivers – higher costs may be as a result of investment in any given year. It is important to have a dialogue in order to understand the context and the underlying reasons for any variation. It is a message that I continue to promote in the UUK benchmarking initiatives: the figures alone do not give the full picture – you need to understand the institutional drivers and the value of that spend in order to make a genuine comparison.

(also published on the UCISA blog)