Thursday, 29 December 2016

More Porter Vice Chancellor? (3)

We are all consumers.
We consume products.
We consume services.

Most products we buy can be returned for a refund if they do not suit us, the only proviso being that we have not used them.  If they break within a reasonable space of time we can get them replaced or repaired.
Services that do not come up to our expected standard can achieve compensation - but you cannot unenjoy a holiday, so there's a challenge here in estimating the compensation to pay.

Higher Education is a different matter.  For a start we have a problem defining who the "consumer" is:

  • The Student
  • The Parent
  • The Employer
  • Wider society
For the purposes of this blog we'll call the consumer SPEW (acronym of above).

So, Porters "powerful"  buyers have choices, ease of switching and the whole purchase is not a major part of their spending.  Powerful buyers can group together and bargain, they have plenty of information available to them to make optimal choices and they are incentivised not only by the benefits they gain but also the sensitivity they have to prices and the source of the funds.

This "heat-map" attempts to ilustrate the strength (red) or weakness (white) of buyer power in the UK HE undergraduate marketplace. In the HE market, the employers and wider society, represented by government, have the greatest power. Students have incentives but lack the ability to act together and lose choice and sensitivity once an offer is accepted.  Parents are bemused onlookers.

So, is it any surprise that Universities model their undergraduate offerings to satisfy the more powerful buyers?

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Seven Pillocks of Teaching

The number seven is a mystical and magical number with many influential books using it to help their message resonate with as wide an audience as possible.
  • The Bible is littered with examples such as the creation of the world in Seven days.
  • TE Lawrence offered "Seven Pillars of Wisdom"
  • There are said to be Seven Deadly sins - there's also a number of less deadly but equally entertaining ones.

So here's my HE offering- Seven Pillocks of Teaching

1.    The pillock who thinks that reading aloud from PowerPoint slides is the same as teaching
2.    The pillock who thinks that student teaching is the same as student learning
3.    The pillock who thinks that being a good researcher automatically qualifies a person as a good teacher
4.    The pillock who thinks that exams are the only way to test achievement
5.    The pillock who mistakes good student feedback for good learning
6.    The pillock who thinks that the way to help students to develop writing skills is to set them an essay

7.    The pillock who is still using the same lecture slides as he/she did 5 years ago

Happy 2017.  Don't be a pillock.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Good King Progressless - a Christmas song

The School ADT looked out
At the students’ queuin’
At the end of every term
All the coursework’s due in.
Surely, thought the goodly bloke,
There’s a better process?
When a bright thought hit him hard
He’d sort out the whole mess!


"Hither, colleagues, stand by me
Here’s my thought in outline:
Yonder process, what the F***?
Why don’t we do it on-line?"
"Yes”, said many, straight away
Thinking of the savings
Off they went to plan the job and
Quell the AD’s ravings.


"Mark my guidance, good my friends
Use it very boldly
Thou shall find thy colleagues’ rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."
In their mentors’ steps they trod
Feeling sometimes rebuffed
‘Til they met an awkward sod
And told him to get stuffed!


Therefore, Colleagues, all be sure
Quills or rank possessing
Ye, who now will use on-line

Shall yourselves find blessing.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

More Porter Vice Chancellor? (2)

Second in my series of compatition in Higher Education.  This time we look at challenger institutions and the ease (or not) of getting into the HE sector.

If it is relatively easy for new entrants to get into the industry and to compete with existing Universities then the "profitability" of incumbent players will diminish.  I use Porter's terminology here - as he considers the pressures on profitability in commercial environments - rather than the measures that Universities prefer to use.

Picture by jscreationzs at
Readers of my blog know that I often liken the challenges of the HE sector (and some of its actions) to that of the banking industry.  Here, there are many examples of "challenger" institutions, entering the market since 2008 whilst the attention of the big players was diverted through past wrondoing, mistakes, mismanagement and an overarching sense of superiority and incumbency.

Well - UKHE has its challengers too:
  • Niche institutions such as The London Institute of Banking and Finance (LIBF)
  • Alternatives to University such as apprenticeships (or even degree apprenticeships)
  • Global delivery systems (MOOCs, as the tip of an iceberg of on-line resources)
  • Commercial providers in mass market areas (BPP in Law, Accounting, Business...)
  • A lack of conviction that a UK degree is a passport to a job in China
Yes, it is difficult to swim through the mire of regulation, legislation, funding, establishing "academic" credentials, but it is not impossible.  Yes, it is a long term activity but then again, incumbent Universities did not appear overnight.  The message is that the current market can, and will, be challenged.

So, Vice Chancellor, INNOVATE OR DIE.  Don't be a bank.  Don't rely on incumbency and dubious legacy benefits.  Brand will tarnish if it is not constantly polished - and I don't mean changing the logo!

Next in the series will consider "Buyers" - just who buys Higher Education and how much influence do they have on the shape of it?

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Lecture is DEAD! Long live the Learning session!

So, the lecture is dead is it BBC?
Or, more to the point, it should have been euthenased a long time ago as MOOCs, digital provision, e-learning and on-line everything else took over the world.  Trouble is - nobody told the Universities or the students...

Exciting lecturer in full flow - courtesy of  Echo 360 Lecture Capture
The thing is that the lecture - and we're saddled with that name - is an integral part of the expectations of students, borne of parental experience, School guidance (by teachers who have been at University) and media portrayals where exciting revalations or drama happen in the last two minutes of a session (see Good Will Hunting (1997) for example).  Lectures also owe a lot to the estates designs of Universities where the bean-counting "stack 'em high" principle often overpowers the peadagogic quality judgement of small class teaching or workshops (and don't start me on the insistent voice of KIS - see my earlier blog where "contact time" bears no relationship to the quality of provision.)

Lectures also owe a lot to our history - after all, who becomes a lecturer today?  Typically those who have shown good academic skills in undergraduate or postgraduate study, have been funded to or enthusiastic enough to do a PhD from which they can publish.  When these folks consider what it is to prepare for a lecture they fall back on their own experience - having been taught by a series of "lecturers" with similar academic journeys to their own.

So, let lectures be more innovative, less anal, more entertaining, less rigid.  Let lecture sessions be PART of the overall learning in a subject - not ALL of it.  Let's embrace technology but not be guided by it.  Let's be enthusiastic about our subject and have that apparent in the way we teach and the energy we expend in explaining it to oiur students.

As one experienced colleague said to me recently:

"I can't stand listening to myself for more than about 10 minutes, so why should I expect anybody else to?"

We can start by reviewing Phil Race's FREE downloads which do need to be updated for technology but not the pedagogy behind the ideas.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The best of intentions

In any well ordered (I did not say effective) Higher Education provider the Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) of degree programmes not only mirror the benchmark statements for the specific discipline but are also echoed in the individual modules that form part of the programme.
But are these ILOs just for show and for satisfying the "light touch" regulators and global accreditors?  Are the intentions actually delivered?
Picture by iosphere at

What we do not want to do in Higher Education is to:

 "put the notes of the lecturer into the notebooks of the students without passing through the minds of either"

But the methods by which we test whether students have actually achieved the ILOs rely on key skills to be developed and honed whilst at University.  These skills are quite basic and include:

  1. Organising yourself  - the key cause of plagiarism is poor time management and poor organisation of source materials.
  2. Communication (written and oral) which is the way in which we let others know the depth of our knowledge and clarity of our arguments.
  3. Finding Information - OK so, not so basic in the era of the intranet, but todays millenials have been practisining this for years and still coming up short.
  4. Analysis - of the information found.  This is the skill of organising your research, thinking about what it actually means, keeping or discarding it and communicating your insights.
Oh, it looks as if I have written the assessment criteria for nearly every degree programme.

So, isn't it about time lecturers took as much time in developing skills in these things, rather than imparting ever more "knowledge" that will be out of date by the time students graduate?

Thursday, 17 November 2016

More Porter Vice Chancellor? (1)

In this first of a series of posts about competition in Higher Education I rehearse Michael Porter's 5 Forces model in an attempt to try to understand competition - or the illusion of competition in Higher Education.  My focus is on the UK, long held to provide the benchmark of Higher Education (largely by itself) but without clear analysis Universities risk stumbling into strategic futures that they are unprepared for.

after M.E.Porter (1979)
In Porter's industry model the four external forces are threats or measures of power - Threat of new entrants, Threat of Substitutes, Bargaining power of buyers and suppliers.  Each force can impact the nature of competition within an industry and add to internal factors that indicate how players jockey for position within the sector (rivalry).

So, for UK Higher Education:

  • What barriers exist to keep out unwanted competition in the form of new entrants?
  • How much power do buyers (and who, exactly are they?) actually have?
  • How much power do suppliers (and again, who are they?) have?
  • What substitutes exist - other than that suggested by Derek Bok (Harvard): "If you think education is expensive - try ignorance".
  • How do Universities play out the rivalry between themselves - with some fees effectively fixed at below cost and some above it?
In my next post about this I will explore the Threat of entry - how worried should Porter imbibing VCs be?

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Less is more

When the Key Information Set (KIS) was introduced a few years ago UK Universities were "measured" using a number of metrics that purported to show the "quality" of their undergraduate provision.  The KIS was meant to be a guide to University applicants and had to be displayed on University websites as well as on the Unistats website.

Picture by africa at
Measures such as graduate employment, typical accommodation costs and student satisfaction (NSS Q22) jostled for position alongside the metrics associated with programmes of study: fee levels, contact hours and % of assessment that were exams.  I mused on the subject in 2015 in my blog post KIS my...
Many educators doubted the wisdom of distilling the student experience to a number of metrics, yet the "bean counting" philosophy running through legislation purporting to provide "transparency" and "accountability" won.  Universities had little direct control over the key metrics such as NSS scores and employment rates, although they could argue that the indirect influence was strong.
However, Contact hours were something that could be heavily influenced and controlled - but where to be?
  • Should a programme show lower than average contact hours to reflect reality and to underpin the "independence of learning in HE"?
  • Should a programme have comparable hours to competitor providers, nullifying the use of the metric as a discriminator? OR
  • Should the programme show higher than average contact hours to show value for money to students and "old fashioned" values that appeal to parents?
Of course, the irony was that no choice actually showed the quality of learning.

And, then there's the HEA Engagement Survey that shows that independent study is more important than contact hours - Less is more.  back to the drawing board for the metrics approach?

Thursday, 3 November 2016

RESEARCH means RESEARCH........but what does that MEAN?

"Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing." (Wernher Von Braun) - that may have been good enough for Hitler, but Universities and Journal Editors do seem to be rather more conservative.
original picture from 2016, graffiti by Bob's nephew

Monday, 24 October 2016

The REF Song

With apologies and acknowledgements to Morecambe and Wise
To the tune of "Bring me Sunshine..."

Bring me papers in your file,
Bring me impact all the while,
In this world, where we live, there should be more four star prose,
So much dross you can send, to each brand new online journal,
Make me happy, through the years,
Never share your, rejection fears,
Let your Facebook friends cite you, so that you can cite them back,
Bring me output, bring me funding...or Get the sack!

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at

Sunday, 23 October 2016


CITESTORE© is a MUST HAVE for all budding academics.  This simple app (not available in iStore or Andoid formats) is based on academic discipline specific REF approved and star graded journal articles.
Picture by patrisu at
  1. CITEES upload their publication details
  2. THE CITESTORE© APP allocates a score to each item based on:
    - Journal ranking / Conference standing
    - Popularity of discipline
    - Authors' home institution
    - A magic number that only the app knows©
  3. CITEES agree NOT to make their work available on other so called research sites for 6 months after publication
  4. CITERS use keywords to search for concepts / ideas to CITE in their own papers
  5. And now here's the UNIQUE part....

    © based on their CITATION activity.
    THEN redeem CITEPOINTS© by being favoured by those they CITE

    © can be earned and redeemed as follows:

Nobel prizewinner Bob Dylan considers the App "a crock of cite" (possibly misheard).

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Gold, Silver and....why did you bother turning up at all?

Teaching is (obviously) like an event at the Olympics.

Picture by lekkyjustdoit at

...So, it's only right to award GOLD, SILVER and BRONZE medals to recognise teaching achievement - isn't it?

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Pale Ale and Library books - there's just no demand for them...

"You're the fifteenth person who has asked for Whitbread* Pale Ale today - there's just no demand for it!!"

Today's HE students are demanding - and why not?  They (laregly) pay high fees for a programme of study that should lead to the award of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree - an entry ticket to graduate jobs that will help to pay back the student loans incurred.

So what do they demand?

  • Well informed, enthusiastic, capable teachers (note I did not use the term "lecturers");
  • Decent internet connectivity in buildings and wi-fi everywhere;
  • Teaching rooms that are fit for purpose in the 21st Century;
  • Lecture materials and support both on and off-line;
  • Lecture Capture of all teaching sessions (just in case);
  • Library access 24/7 and enough books for everyone...
the list goes on.

So Universities are caught in a market situation described by, amongst others, Economist Burton Weisbrod (strangely translates as Whit(e) Bread) in the 1960's  - potentially infinite demand by individuals who may or may not end up "consuming" the product or service but do have the capacity to do so - most often because the product or service in question is a "public good" provided comunally on which individuals can call (such as the NHS or Police).

Of course, planning, tracking previous behaviour and pilot experiments are all deployed by Universities to try to estimate actual demand.  But, research that shows that only 15% of students actually watch Lecture Captured lectures does not mean that it should not be available to 100% of students.  The fact that nobody visited the library at 11pm at a weekend reflected more about the doors being closed and the lights off than option demand.  Today's students are often fully functioning at 2 or 3 in the morning when all lecturing folks are tucked up in bed!

And top all that by the fact that failure to meet such high expectations leads to dissatisfaction (and University Quality is measured by student satisfaction) and you have a fine old mess.

Answers to this conumdrum on a postcard please...

*Also Whitbread no longer make it - but that would spoil a good line with facts!

Saturday, 8 October 2016

School Anthem

Help save our latest Dean,
Support our pressured Dean,
Please help the Dean,
Send him good REF impact,
TEF gold and Lectures packed,
Knowing he could be sacked,
Please help the Dean.

Picture by stockimages at

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

New NSS questions revealed

After years of NSS ( National Student Survey) manipulation by Universities in the UK whereby every institution can claim to be at the top of the league table for something...

ABC University, first in the West Country for communication changes to the course and teaching effectively. "Clearly the Air Raid Siren and Butlintz style Tannoy system installed on campus was well worth it" said Vice Chancellor Arthur Turnip.

XYZ University, first in the East Midlands for Universities beginning with X. "The University has always been alphabetically challenged, but the NSS gives a huge boost to our marketing efforts" said Principal, President and Leader for Life Zoe Z Zhou.

 ...FIVE new statements are added to the survey for final year students for 2017.  The motivation, I am sure, is to allow many more Universities to head up the tables in a marketing hyped league of their own:

Here's a sneaky preview of some of the questions that didn't make the final cut:

  1. My Halls food was different shades of goop
  2. My Vice Chancellor Photo-Bombed student events
  3. The culture on my course allowed me to stay in bed until noon every day
  4. Lecturers spoon-fed me the answers to exams

 to answer use a 0 - 5 Likert range to indicate satisfaction:


Thursday, 29 September 2016

Essay mills - a gap in the market.

Essay-mills are the latest in a series of phenomena designed by cheats to help students to fool themselves that they deserve the marks and award they are given. Whilst plagiarism has been with us for as long as academics have published their work the use of text-matching software and the ability to both buy and sell essays has been facilitated more recently by the Internet.

Of course teaching staff can reduce the incidence of cheating by designing new and unique assignments, using authentic assessments, writing their own case studies and, quite simply, by using different assignments every time.

Cheat Cloud by

But wait, there's a gap in the market here. Clearly, essay mills could extend their scope by recycling assignments to hard pressed academics! Why just sell the answers when you can re-cycle and sell the questions too?

Thursday, 22 September 2016

At last - a metric for Teaching Excellence in Business (TEB)

Detractors of the UK's latest attempt to control and manage education through the blunt instrument of  the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) must think again.  Of course excellent teaching can be measured!!

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) has proved to be a brilliant pre-cusror to TEF.  Excellent research has, undoubtedly been undertaken under its auspices, although some doubt if the REF panels would know it if they saw it.  Not me!!  Of course the best research is undertaken by the best (and highest paid) researchers who need to isloate themselves from the  day to day confusion and distraction of teaching and counselling students and managing cash cows for their respective Universities.

So, here are my ideas for "scoring" academics for Teaching Excellence in Business (TEB) - it follows an "unbalanced scorecard" framework and focuses on (almost) measurable data:

Someone just pointed out that I used TEB in a previous blog about a Chinese "Super bus" scam and that in French it stands for trop d'éléphants blanches.

So I'm seeking a new acronym.......

Friday, 9 September 2016

Ode to professors

Professors are magical creatures
Who possess superior features
And given the time
They make limericks rhyme
Which is more than can be said for ordinary lecturers

The glittering prize

As an academic I always felt reassured, rewarded and strangely happy at the bi- annual graduation ceremony. It's not just about dressing up in quasi ecclesiastical garb and prancing about on stage (although that does appeal). It's also about meeting the parents, seeing students in reasonably decent clothes and taking bets on which of them will topple off their impossibly high heels and land in the  Vice Chancellor's lap as they totter across the stage.
Picture by David Castillo Dominici at

For a number of years I have had the pleasure of handing certificates to graduates as they leave the stage. I have even taken the place of the Dean and announced the names - my pronunciation and pace were remarked upon by the Pro Vice Chancellor.

And yet...

3 or 4 years work - even hard work, a potential £50,000 in debt and conflicting evidence of the "graduate premium" that will make it financially worthwhile..........eventually.
And, to top that - a maximum of 5 years credibility through being able to offer that same certificate to employers who may well filter applicants by University name, then degree class, then other criteria.

So, no wonder students and employers are considering other routes to graduation.  Apprenticeships, School Leaver programmes and Corporate Universities are alternatives to the traditional University experience.

The degree certificate is no longer, by itself, the currency that graduates need. Indeed it is an entry ticket. The glittering prize is just how well and fully students learn and mature and develop skills whilst pursuing a subject that really interests them.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The art of reflection

Looking at my grizzly and often blurred image in the mirror every morning makes me consider the value of true reflection.  For a start, I see myself the wrong way round.  I also see myself in 2D.  I also see myself as an older person with blemishes that I did not use to have.

Far better to use a 3D webcam pointing at me and displaying the photo-shopped and airbrushed images it captures as holograms (does that even exist yet?)

What we think is a reflection may only be 2 dimensional, will certainly show "warts and all" and may not be our own viewpoint but that which others see or expect to see.

Picture "Swan Mirror Image" by Dr Joseph Valks at

Teachers in HE are aware that the goal of students becoming reflective and independent learners, developing their own journeys through the academic maze, needs to be nurtured and supported.  Many of us have attempted to encourage students to learn about their own strengths and development needs (note: I did not say weaknesses as I've been on the Diversity course).

But in an on-line portfolio where the expectation is that material WILL escape at some time, how honest are students?  How honest, indeed, when their tutor is the most likely sole reader of their blog, reflection or portfolio - and that it might be used as the basis of assessment and even marks.....

So, how do we give students the confidence to be honest with us?  to tell the truth to themselves and to benefit from reflection as part of their learning journey?  Certainly the "massification" of HE does little to help.  Student Staff ratios exceeding 20:1, in theory, (40:1 in practice once absent professors are factored in), helps even less.  Calling students "customers" is damaging too as it implies passive delivery of "learning" in exchange for payment.

Back to the old days?  That is hardly realistic, but we do need to build trust relationships between tutors and students, we do need to focus on the student's learning and we do need to forge ways in which genuine reflective practice can flourish.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

If it looks too good to be probably is too good to be true

Of course we all want the best return on our investments but by their nature, returns come in the future and may not bear any resemblence to past returns and if we do not do our homework properly and use common sense then the returns may never come.

Good research and asking lots of questions is the way to reduce risk of disappointment or loss - a lesson learned the hard way as reported by Bloomberg in respect of the Chinese super-bus project TEB.

Was it a PONZI scheme?  was it a simple case of "buyer beware" for frustrated Chinese investors?

Universities can learn lessons from this - and many are.  League tables and metric based indicators such as graduate employment rates and NSS scores show past performance of other people in different economic conditions.

What today's astute student needs to do is to ask lots of questions about how these metrics are achieved, whether thise factors have changed - in fact, whether the investment is likely to pay off.

Now, I'm not suggesting that any Universities are running Ponzi schemes but they do need to embrace not only social media (in an honest and not corporate way), They need to have Tasters and Open events so that prospective students can really feel the fabric.  The experience pre-University needs to be authentic so that more round pegs are placed in round holes and pure metrics (and here we can include A level grades) are treated with the weight they deserve.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The magic firkin

Once upon a time the was a magic firkin (hogshead or cask).  It's magic properties included the apparent impossibility of filling it.

One day Baron Thomas arrived in the village. He and his friends had been drinking at the fountain of hope and expectation and needed to relieve themselves. The Baron began to  use the firkin. His friends followed suit and soon the firkin was full. Baron Thomas went back to his castle, happy and confident that the firkin had done its job well.


But the Baron was a cautious and jealous leader and wanted the firkin to be exclusively for his own use - so he appointed an overseer to supervise it. The overseer never thought to empty it and it stood, steadfastly, in the village centre, full but not overflowing. Every few days the Baron used his exclusive firkin and handed back to the overseer's safe keeping, to ensure that the firkin could not be used by anyone else. 

The Baron protected the firkin from abuse by others by announcing that the firkin was enchanted - a magic cask that could never be filled up.  The cask became know, locally, as Thomas' Enchanted Firkin (TEF for short).  However, over a number of years the contents of the firkin became stale and began to be a health issue for many who worked near it.  Neither the Baron nor the overseer really bothered about it - because the firkin was doing the job it was always intended to do and the enchanted status meant that nobody asked serious questions.

One day the overseer needed to relieve himself too and turned to the full firkin.  He was mindful of the Baron's orders and the nature of the enchantment and so ensured that nobody saw him.  He used the firkin and found, to his immense surprise, that it coped with his needs without overflowing, complaining or leaking.

"Truly, this is a magic firkin" said the overseer  and told the population that they lived in a truly blessed realm.

Once again Baron Thomas came to the village and relieved himself in the firkin.  He then emptied the contents over the overseer as a punishment for disobeying his orders. It was then that the firkin realised that the reason why it never filled up was that someone - probably the Baron himself - had arranged to extract its contents under cover of nightfall so that it appeared never to fill up.  The act of tipping the firkin upside down had stirred the firkin's memory.

The moral of this story is that there is no such thing as a magic firkin that will never overflow and that the country's leaders will often take the pee.


Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Will they ever learn?

OIn my occasional musings about the state of UK Universities I have used the backdrop of banks as a benchmark of over exuberance and unfettered selfishness. I do so in the hope that lessons can be learned and sensible behaviour reinstated - in order, largely, to avoid the problems and ignominy awarded to financial institutions through their actions following various regulatory regimes NOT mirroring the global situation.

Banks are a reasonable foil for Universities as they have seen lax and then more stringent regulation, protected markets being entered by new domestic and foreign competitors, advances in technology that undermine traditional methods and social change that both values and then eschews "experts" and scholarship - normally against the measure of "value for money".

So, let us consider technology. What is possible is not always desirable.

Banks in developed economies, and some undeveloped ones where the leap to mobile telephony has bypassed years of gestation of plastic cards, ATMs etc, report that consumers flock to use pre-payment cards, mobile banking and remote delivery. Bank investment in these systems comes at a huge cost and allows competition but there are benefits of customer convenience and the certain knowledge that traditional delivery systems (cheques, branches, human beings) can be downsized and retired so that bank profits can be maintained or even increased.

For commercial banks that's probably a good thing as governments and consumers press for efficiency - a.k.a. low prices, empowerment - a.k.a. buyer beware and shareholders press for, let's be frank, more of everything every quarter.

For Universities, however, where the "product" is less transactional, the objectives less profit oriented and the learning partners ( note I did not call students "consumers") less empowered by so called "efficiencies" a proper balance must be struck.

Technology in the form of smart classrooms, VLEs, podcasts and voting systems, flipped lectures and on-line tests are great - in their place.  We need to understand the learning benefits rather than the shorter term reactions to cost cutting, "efficiency" and bowing to student demand simply to boost short-term ratings.  In that way investment can be targeted to promote teaching rather than purely financial strategies.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

TEF review published

In 2020 Dame Janet Harsh was asked by the then post Brexit, Rainbow Alliance party Education Secretary, Cynthia May-Johnson (6) to undetake a review of the Teaching Excellence Framework for Higher Education (TEF) following its introduction 4 years previously.


Dame Janet's recommendations were:

1: All teaching active staff should be returned in the TEF.

Thankfully, Professor V.Boring was pronounced dead during his last lecture and so can no longer be classed as "active".  Some doubt if that adjective could have been ascribed to him for the last 20 years anyway.

2: NSS and DEHLE outputs should be submitted at Unit of Assessment level with a set average number per FTE but with flexibility for some faculty members to submit more and others less than the average.

Thankfully, nobody really knew what this meant and so allowed different Universities to submit data based on a wide range of assumptions, making realistic comparisons with others almost impossible.

3: Outputs should not be portable.

Thankfully, Universities could continue to pursue a policy of not offering high salaries and other inducements to so called "Super Teachers", thus removing the motivation both to buy success or to become a "Teaching Tart".

So, that's all good then...

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Nurse it....don't milk it

In a recent Tripadvisor post based on a flight to Moscow I observed that the ONE small snack in a six hour period (I include here the pre-boarding wait, the flight and the expected delay in Moscow for visa clearance) was rather poor service for a flag carrier with a clear dominance in the UK to Moscow direct  scheduled route (other carriers include a delightful stop in either Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Paris or Schipol airports).  My advice to the airline was to nurse a dominant market position rather than milk it.

My advice to UK Universities fearing the approval of competitors in their most lucrative markets is just the same. Nurse the Business and Management sector, don't continue to milk it.

However well intentioned and focused History professors may be they sure aren't going to get the funding from commercial sources that becoming a private University or "alternative provider" requires.

So what should that mean in practice?

1. Universities need to reconsider the fee levels for undergraduate programmes. Why continue to charge a flat fee when the clear evidence persists that Businees Schools subsidise other subject areas?  Why should Business students pay for say, Drama students, to enjoy subsidised studies?

2. Staff Student ratios also need to be re-considered to be able to deliver the level of service and meet the expectations of Business students that relatively higher fees suggest.

3. Research Professors should be paid well in excess of standard Professorial rates of pay, regardless of their contribution to Business School revenues*

4. Business Schools should change their traditional model and actually deliver teaching that reflects what matters to business today - and in a way that responds to the needs of today's students.

Now, that's not too much to ask is it?

* point 3. excluded as this already appears to be happening.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

"Of course I can ride a horse...I've read the book"

Quite what do undergraduate or Masters degrees actually equip young people for? They are certainly not shorthand for intelligence or life skills - just ask employers who have to "re-train" graduate entrants and get them to forget all of the silliness academics have filled their heads with.

So why not design a degree in Common Sense?

Foundation modules in the first year could include:

16CS101 Introduction to hard work
16CS102 Studies in finding stuff out
16CS110 Exploring what stuff actually means
16CS112 Communicating sensible ideas to a variety of audiences
16CS150 Peering outside the box

To be followed in subsequent years by degree level studies in:

16CS201 The 20% of stuff you really need to know
16CS210 Intermediate reality
16CS220 Boosting your CV by working
16CS301 Advanced explaining
16CS350 Planning to do something relevant
16CS360 Final project (making a difference to somebody else's life)

No, it wouldn't really work would it? No real basis in research. Very little academic research is about common sense.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

"Out of Office" message

Summer is a time of year when many Universities appear deserted.
Undergraduates on traditional 3 or 4 year programmes have "gone down", whilst 1 year postgraduates disappear to London (or Edinburgh / Paris / Madrid / Rome) to "work on their dissertation".
University academics enjoy family holidays and lengthy "research" visits - except if they have been handed the role of "Admissions Tutor" as that will mean a fraught August and criticism for either undershooting or overshooting targets, keeping standards high or reducing them.  Administrators (on flexible / term time and partial contracts) are absent and professional staff, who find that there are no decision makers to interact with, take increasingly long lunches and early nights.
So, the ubiquitous "Out of Office" message gets pinged from multiple email accounts across the University to recipients across the globe.

Some "out of office" messages that have collected in my inbox are:




I hope that you enjoy the 2.5 days we British call "Summer".

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Lecture Capture-what's the problem?

In a short lived action research project this year I tested out the idea of Lecture Capture to support my teaching.
After gaining ethical clearance from the University Ethics Committee - since it was felt that the research might be upsetting for "vulnerable"  students - I set up my camera so that it pointed at the class of students for the entire lecture.

Following the lecture the footage was uploaded to the University VLE for access by all those registered on my module.  I repeated the experiment for four weeks until a complaint from the student representatives to the Dean resulted in the whole thing being shut down.
All was not lost, however, as I was able to download and analyse viewing statistics for the four weeks and benefit from a large amount of comment on my end of term feedback forms.
My findings were enlightening:

  1. Students overwhelmingly felt it an intrusion into their "privacy" to be recorded during a lecture session.
  2. Many  students felt that the images and sound recorded were of a low quality.
  3. Only 5% of students viewed the video after the lecture, mainly to "sample" fellow students and make YouTube compilations of their various behaviours (sleeping, Facebooking friends, texting).
  4. The resource required to "pixelate" 50% of the faces in each lecture (following requests to do so by students) was very, very costly.
  5. Few students felt that their Learning was enhanced simply through Lecture Capture. Engagement in the class was far more important.
  6. Most students reported that they understood why academics were reluctant to adopt Lecture Capture widely.

Since the action research project I have been approached separately by the Student Loans Company and the UK Visa Authorities for copies of the footage.  Unfortunately the footage was destroyed on instruction from my Dean.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Peer to Peer Student loans

Another in my series of HE learning from the banking world.  Today we explore Peer to Peer (P2P) lending and the rise of non-bank lenders, typically seeking a better return on their investment / savings than bank savings accounts can offer.

P2P lenders are not banks in the traditional sense as they do not offer true intermediation, by taking on the risk of loss from savers. However, they do try to match loan maturities, aggregate savings and are able to cover wide geographical areas via the Internet. They also provide reassurance to investors through use of credit scoring, due diligence reports in order to reduce perceived risk for the lenders and allow multiple lenders to bid for small trances of the loans to be funded thus spreading lending risk across a number of different borrowers.  Lenders can also sell their loan obligations on, if they can find a buyer.

But make no mistake.  If it all goes horribly wrong then it is not the P2P site that suffers loss - it is the individual lender.

So, Universities have students who require loans to study.  The terms and conditions of official student loans (and the quantum of funds provided) may not be to their liking and so they will seek other providers of finance.  International students who do not have access to educational loans may also benefit (and future EU students if the Brexit negotiations go against them).

Universities can be the (% fee taking) P2P platform, offering an academic due diligence report on each student or even bundling up loans of similar students into portfolios that can be "securitised" for additional liquidity needs.

Universities also have alumni.  many alumni have done well for themselves and may be able to risk part of their capital in a venture that not only offers a reward better than bank rate but also allows them the warm feeling of helping future graduates to fulfil their potential.  It will make a change for alumni to be offered a possible return on their "donation" to their old University.

The logic here is that graduates from "good", lets say AAA rated Universities, would be offered lower interest rates, whilst BBB Universities' students may not get loans at all.

What could possibly go wrong?

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Perceived value in Teaching Qualifications

Six years ago my parents-in-law celebrated their Diamond Wedding Anniversery (60 years).  Our family arranged that The Queen (God Bless Her) sent a special card to them celebrating this marvellous milestone (cost £0).  The card, after a decent interval, was then placed in the care of an excellent frame-maker who returned it to them, mounted and displayed and it enjoys pride of place in their dining room.

Last year my parents-in-law celebrated their Blue Sapphire Wedding Anniversery (65 years).  Once again our family arranged that the Queen (God Bless Her) sent a special card to them celebrating this even rarer and even more marvellous milestone.  This time the Palace (I doubt it was Her Majesty herself) included in the package a flyer for  an official, Royal Standard imprinted, display frame (£59.40 inc. P&P).  In the five years since the Diamond Anniversery the Palace had discovered a revenue enhancing and value enhancing way in which to make the special occasion even more special.  The frame nestles next to the previous frame and has pride of place in their dining room.


In early 2015 I received news that I had successfully applied to become a "Diamond" Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (cost £400).  Next stop would be the "Blue Sapphire" Principal Fellow status (cost £500) - I cannot wait...

The notification of my success arrived from York with a clickable link to allow me to download and print my own certificate!!  Now, the HEA is not as well funded as The Palace and not as well as it once was and needs the revenues that the FHEA, SFHEA and PFHEA appplications bring and so this parsimony is well understood.

However, if the HEA and the Universities promoting Teaching Qualifications, in order to look good for the TEF metrics, value the actual accolade and qualification in this way then what value are we supposed to give them?

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Vote HExit?

The day has come for UK Higher Education Business Schools to consider remaining in a "controlling, sinister, largely unrepresentative bureaucracy" (A.N.Academic, 2016) albeit with the benefits of collegiality, fellow feeling, cheap beer at the Students' Union and "friendly relations" with "foreign" Schools on the same campus or to break free and vote HExit.

But what would HExit look like for Business Schools?

1. Business Schools could have a points based system for student admissions: 100 points for "can you pay the fee?", a further 50 for speaking enough English to get a certificate of proficiency from the London / Cambridge / Brighton School of Speak Good English.

2. Business Schools could stop paying the bureaucrats £millions each year of OUR earnings in order to prop up deficit Schools such as Greek Studies.  The "rebate" in terms of pensions, facilities, branding, cross fertilization of ideas could be sourced more economically from consultants and out-sourcing specialists - that's what Business Schools teach after all.

3. Business Schools could be in charge of their own destiny, not held back by the compromise and risk aversion of a distant Presidency.  Business Schools could be "Great" (not "Great again" as they have never earned that epithet).  For example, Business Schools could set their own standards for degrees and higher awards and their own progression rules and dispense with the burden of regulation, quality assurance, capped fees...What a USP that would be as attention focuses on the educational needs of BRI and not so much C countries' children of wealthy families.

4. Remaining in a cosy corporate system where University Presidents schmooze with industry leaders simply entrenches the idea that Business Schools exist for the social good, preparing young people for global careers in corporations and governments and that employment and employability are the key. This direction is dangerous and leads to the abyss.  Business Schools should focus all resources on research published in high ranking but little read journals. After all didn't Business School research forecast the 2007 credit crunch as far back as 2012?


Moral Hazard in Higher Education

Warming to my theme of Finance / Banking related concepts being useful in the consideration of Higher Education I turn, this week, to MORAL HAZARD - or the concept that risks can shift over time and that the provision of a "safety net", like an insurance policy, can actually increase the likelihood of risky behaviour.


Take, for example, the Moral Hazard set up in the run-up to the 2007/8 credit crunch.  The term "Too Big to Fail" hid an enormous Moral Hazard.  Reckless banks had gambled their depositors' money in ever risky and poorly understood ventures, safe in the knowledge that if their gambles did not pay off the government would bail them out, and so they did.

So if student satisfaction and retention rates are used to measure University success in TEF there would be motivation by HE institutions to do everything possible to make life pleasing for students and make it difficult for them to fail.  Giving a safety net to students can easily drive down standards in a race to the bottom.

Now how can we possibly avoid that?

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

What will Higher Education look like in 20 years time?

Well, let's look at HE 20 years ago and see how far we have come and then extrapolate those trends with a few tweaks, say for the exponential advances in technology, for the next 20 years.  Yes, that should work....

20 years ago I would arrive at work as a junior lecturer in my Volvo. My office was rather Spartan but had its own PC which would take a time to fire up but on which I could draft emails, letters and reports and search a growing amount of data some fearless folk had mounted on something they called the World Wide Web. Research would typically be word processed by secretarial staff.  Some colleagues even dictated letters to them! My bookshelves housed a number of key textbooks and books published by conferences and research books and my filing cabinets overflowed with printed acetates, ready to be removed and used as the bi-weekly lecture was to be delivered. At lunchtime I would repair to the staff room to share gossip and observations with colleagues. Teaching would be easy. I spoke, students listened and took notes, I set an exam and the students either passed or failed.

Today, I arrive at work as a senior lecturer at the top of my pay scale on my bike. My office has hardly changed in all these years but the Laptop in my rucksack plugs into the desktop docking station and access to databases, online books and publications, powerful software and the now ubiquitous email and VLE are at my fingertips. There are books on my shelves but these largely act as "serious" wallpaper for podcast and webinar appearances. All research papers is self-typed with fairly mixed ressults.  I no longer have filing cabinets or much paper in my office and teaching materials are online, ready for me to drag them from the network in any of the lecture spaces I use.  Lunch is at the desk and gossip is confined to corridor conversations and toilet breaks. Teaching is challenging as students need to be engaged by the delivery and the material. Being lecture captured they can catch up later and concentrate on their Facebook conversations and so the classroom experience becomes a synthesis of entertainment and information.  Assessment is more varied.  Coursework and a shorter exams mean that frequent feedback and swift marking is vital.

In 20 years my successor will not leave home.  He or she will sit, in their leisure wear purchased in the 1 Euro shop in their own apartment and use their personal tablet with virtual 5D voice recognition and movement control to be in constant seamless conversations with students worldwide via synchronous chat room, vidmail, and working under a zero hours contract that determines pay on the basis of online time and recorded interaction. The materials taught have been prepared by "experts" and vidcast to students on demand as they follow courses at their own pace and according to their own timetables.
Research is confined to big data analysis of student databases as most academic research is now undertaken by a small number of spin out consultancies based in so called "top" universities.  Assessment of students is continuous as algorithms analyse the quality of their interactions after, first, verifying identity by bio data and online quizzes and peer assessed short text inputs complete the picture of achievement.

Happily I will not be taking much notice in 20 years time but my grandchildren will. What sort of future do we really want them to experience?

Monday, 13 June 2016

Keith's first law of change

Put very simply Keith's first law of change is:

Many times in my career I have encountered fixed opinions, unyielding ideas and entrenched positions - all held quite genuinely in the belief that the holder of the idea is absolutely correct.  The phrase "But we've always done it like that" is often heard but rarely followed up by " let's think about change".

Barriers can come in different forms: regulations, finance (lack of) and most often - people. People are afraid of change as it introduces risk and so they steadfastly defend the status quo.

Take, as an example, the "capture" of University lectures. Students believe that these are always good but  academics have other viewpoints. Available research shows a lack of clarity on learning benefit or even on the impact on lecture attendance but, used selectively, Lecture Capture (LC) can improve student engagement, support students with particular needs, and can even improve student satisfaction temporarily, until it is accepted as an expected norm.

Changing the paradigm is essential. LC as a part of a blended learning experience is a positive step forward. Simply capturing the current face to face lectures is not enough. We must also change the expectations of students and academics about how course materials are delivered.

So, let's not simply expand LC, let's change way we teach and go around the objections many staff raise as barriers.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Credit scoring for HE dummies

Credit scoring is a fine art - evidence based and statistically sound it is used by banks and other finance providers to limit the risk of bad debts to accord with the risk appetite of the lender.  It is possible to pre-authorise and instantly sanction loans for individuals based on public information, information volunteered on application forms and so called "behavioural" data that banks and finance providers share with each other (number of credit cards held, repayment record etc.)  For some basic guidance on credit scoring look HERE.

Credit scoring does not work well where there is a lack of information about individuals - such as countries without robust registers of births, marriages, deaths, passport issuance, electoral eligibility etc.  Nor does it work well where the banking system is mainly cash based.

But where it can mine good quality information it can support risk judgements and credit availability with a high degree of precision.  Credit scoring is also predictive - it is future performance of loans that banks are interested in after all.

So, let's think of applying this principle to another area where there is robust and plentiful information about individuals, where reputations and even financial solvency can depend on making the correct decisions - Higher Education.

The following is a suggestion for a basic credit scoring template for undergraduate students:

HE institutions are increasingly measured via metrics that purport to reflect "satisfaction" or "quality" and the media gleefully put institutions into league tables.  Well, here's a way to ensure that the key metrics embraced by TEF such as Student satisfaction via NSS and DHELE data on "graduate destinations" are incorporated into a system that predicts graduate outcomes at the point of admission and afterwards.

HE institutions can set their own acceptable "score" - the maximum on the above illustration is 500 points - so Oxford and Cambridge could accept  400 points on entry, whilst Top 10 Universities could accept 350 - 399 etc.  Scores would change as the "behavioural" data on attendance and extra curricular activity were available and could be made available to employers (for a fee, of course) the media etc.

I asked in a previous blog whether HE institutions could borrow the principles espoused by the private sector - it appears that they can...

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Neither a Borrower nor a Lender be...

In 1604 William Shakespeare wrote "Neither a borrower nor a Lender be..."  There's more to the quote but the bard would not have made a good banker by failing to lend money at all!
Modern day bankers do borrow and lend and, often, do it rather well so that they do not lose much at all (one of Shakespeare's reasons for not lending).  That's just as well because banks lend other peoples' money, not their own.
In the consumer market lending decisions are often made using credit analytics - creating an index of creditworthiness built from information and data about an individual both from public records, such as the voters' roll, the bankruptcy register and court judgment records and private information such as credit card usage, provided by banks and other lenders.  Credit scoring, as it is known, is statistically consistent, reliable in that it delivers a lower level of default than old fashioned human judgement and can be controlled for different levels of risk, depending on the banker's risk appetite.  At a micro level it can grade likelihood of default and can help to price risk (interest charged reflecting the likelihood of loss).
Couple this with the wealth of information that banks have on day to day transactions on our credit and debit cards whereby they can spot potential fraud by tracking odd payments behaviour and you have a relatively successful business model based on the analysis of available information, where losses are managed and high risks avoided.
But credit scoring is not without its flaws. It can only really capture available information and uses history to predict the future. It can commit both type 1 and type 2 errors and does , rather, reduce personal relationships to binary code, distancing bankers from their customers.  This can add risk of a different kind as institutional trust built through long relationships is replaced with institutional distrust, bankers are replaced by robots, machines and computers - and all in the pursuit of profit for shareholders.
So, as I said.  An excellent business model IF the working assumption is that the overriding aim is to improve profitability in the short term.

Now, is that an assumption that can be applied to British Universities?

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Corporate University

Consider the apparent oxymoron - "Corporate University".  Yes, we all know what it means and it's useful shorthand recognising that the corporate world can, sometimes, lose patience with "proper" Universities and create an institution more focused on their needs.
Why sponsor degree programmes or students who then fail to "repay" the investment by taking up graduate positions? 
Why not wait until a compliant government sets the scene for "competition" in the University "market" and set up your own institution?
Now I'm not knocking A.P.Grayling or genuine niche providers and there should be proper recognition of serious alternatives to mainstream Universities.
But setting the scene for purely commercial ventures, focused on a return on investment is a slippery slope.

Hang on....

Re-wind all of that.

What a splendid idea.  Making Universities focus on money, the generation of surpluses and revenues and the reduction of costs.  That will surely ensure that Universities that attract more students are, obviously, the better ones.

Now, if only there was a sensible way to measure how good a University is...