Highlights from the ABT Conference 2019

The ABT Conference 2019 was held in Kenilworth on 9th and 10th May.  It was chaired by Louis Coiffait, the newly-appointed Head of Policy at London Metropolitan University.

Louis Coiffait

Louis also gave the opening keynote talk, which, like his address at the 2018 conference, was entitled The Shipping News (capturing many changes that have taken place in HE over the intervening 12 months).

Before giving his presentation, Louis introduced Lynne O’Neill, the current (but, sadly, outgoing) chair of ABT.  Lynne said that although publishers and booksellers appear to operate by different rules, they are pursuing the same goals, and do need to work together.  The long-term prospects for both industries are encouraging, although in the short term Brexit brings with it continuing uncertainty.  UK Higher Education institutions retain their high reputation, but UK researchers are being excluded from EU projects; and the question needs to be asked whether we can still demonstrate the benefits of a university education to the young. 

Louis said that students were now truly at the heart of the system: the Office for Students [OfS] puts students first, whereas its predecessor, HEFCE, acted as something of a buffer for universities.  There have been many reviews and reports: Augar is just the latest of a long line.  There is a big risk that universities will get pulled in two directions: teaching vs research.  What does the government want from universities?  Economic growth, to take the UK to the OECD average; HE “market choice” – new providers, more competition; and “fair” value for money, for both taxpayers and students.

Jackie Labbe, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at de Montfort University, talked about Subject-level TEF and How it Works.  She said that, like TEF itself, subject-level TEF is still metrics-driven, but the reports are more narrative-based.  The key to success for universities is just to present the facts as they are: “Don’t rationalise; don’t justify; don’t argue”.  At de Montfort, most of the subject-level TEF activity took place centrally and was led by senior management.  De Montfort was one of a handful of universities to pilot subject level TEF, beginning in the academic year 2017 – 2018.   In the first year, the pilot experimented with 2 models: Model A, by exception, which looked at 12 – 13 subjects that didn’t achieve Gold status in the general TEF; and Model B, which took all subjects offered at the university aggregated to 7 subject areas.  Along with most of the other pilot institutions, de Montfort felt that neither model was particularly successful.  In the second year, more local expertise was introduced, in the shape of course leaders.  Model C was added – this involves a 5-page narrative statement based on 9 metrics.  It was agreed this worked better.  Many challenges still remain, including mapping ‘hybrid’ subjects to specific courses or programmes; obtaining engagement, especially from students; reconciling competing demands within the university; and measuring student outcomes – i.e., understanding what success looks like.  Jackie concluded “Some form of subject TEF will survive, but probably not Model A, B or C.”

Jackie Labbe

Becky Roberts, Customer Insights Manager at Cambridge University Press, and Stuart Webster and Dr Andrew Ashwin, respectively Digital Solutions Manager and Head of Publishing at Cengage, shared with the audience some of their recent work in Changing Pedagogies: the Challenge of Developing the Right Resource Materials.  All concluded that understanding pedagogical needs in a rapidly changing HE environment was a complex process.  Not least among the challenges is the need to partner with third parties.  The traditional textbook publisher provided core, curated content with little outside input; now change is the name of the game and publishers must work with ‘Ed Tech’ and ‘Learning Science’ companies.

Becky Roberts

Sofie Wennström, Managing Editor, Stockholm University Press and Analyst, Stockholm University Library, gave as the title of her talk The Deal-Maker and the Content-Creator: the Academic Library as Transformative Agent for OA.  She said that in both roles she had developed a user-centric approach, delivering to users what they need when they need it. Sweden, which is one of the leaders of Open Access in Europe with its BIBSAM project, takes many of its publishing goals from the EU.  These include making everything available on EOSC; adopting creative commons licensing to preserve author rights; working towards no embargo periods and 100% OA; and updating electronic platforms and formats to allow TDM.  When implementing these initiatives, there is a definite bias towards STM subjects and the article format.  Open Access for journals articles in the sciences is common and accepted.  It is more difficult to engage with AHSS subjects because they don’t get the research funding to support OA; and then there is the question of monographs.  Sofie said the change to OA monographs would be much slower for the Stockholm University Press; but there are other players who already have a good track record here: for example, UCL Press and the University of Amsterdam Press.

Sofie Wennström

Linda Bennett of Gold Leaf, who has been the conference’s programme director for the past eighteen years, offered key points from the Sage / Gold Leaf Pedagogical Report and said this would be her farewell to the conference in an official capacity.  More details about the report can be found here.

At the Academic Book Trade Awards ceremony which followed the conference dinner, Oxford University Press won Ingram Publisher of the Year and Blackwell brought home all three Macmillan Study Skills awards for booksellers: Chain Bookseller of the Year, Academic Bookshop of the Year (Blackwell, South Bridge, Edinburgh) and Bookseller of the Year (Clare Pepper of Blackwell University of Kent in Canterbury). The Ingram Rep of the Year award went to Lucy Pink of Taylor & Francis, and “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari (published by Vintage) was awarded Academic Book Week Book of the Year. 
The BA’s outgoing CEO Tim Godfray was given the Outstanding Contribution Award for his career of over 30 years working in, with and representing the bookselling community.
The after-dinner speaker was Bec Evans, who talked about the techniques of making ideas happen and how to learn from failure which are the topic of her most recent book, “How to have a happy hustle” (published by Icon Books).

Andy Stephens, FCA, Director of Finance at Loughborough University, took as his subject University Finances … on the Brink?  He explained how the finances of a medium-sized UK university work.  Loughborough – which was awarded Gold in the TEF last year and is the Sunday Times University of the Year this year – has a turnover of £320m, 18,000 students and 3,800 staff.  He said that, contrary to popular belief, the university sector operates on a very small margin, despite which this is getting tighter; among all universities there is an increasing reliance on tuition fees as the government withdraws funding; and it is a false assumption that university income is supplemented by research, as most research money has to be spent on the project it is intended for. Furthermore, any increase in the student population will “massively dilute the student experience”.  There is also a 5% decrease in the home student demographic, but as a country “we haven’t exactly put out the Welcome mat for overseas students”.  The upshot is that some universities will grow at the expense of others; and some will be hobbled by debt, the result of unwise past investment decisions.  However, the current climate offers universities the chance to take stock; to examine and challenge the way they do things; and to diversify and explore new ways of attracting income.

The overall themes of the conference were collaboration – between different stakeholders – and efficacy – the perennial holy grail to prove the link between academic resources and academic achievement.

Please look out for the next post, which will summarise what was said at the conference workshops.

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