Finances, Universities

Bums on Seats: Regulating the UK Higher Education Sector

Gold Leaf carries out a great deal of research in and around universities, both in the UK and in many other places in the world.  An issue that several of its recent research projects has highlighted is the heightened competition to which the HE sector is now being subjected globally.  In the UK, this was largely caused by the decision taken by recent governments – of both main political persuasions –  to create a ‘market’ within the HE sector; unfortunately, in the minds of students and their parents, it has also become linked with the rapid hike in fees that took place at around the same time.  This has had the unforeseen (and presumably unwanted by the government) effect of causing some students to believe that they are ‘paying for’ their degrees – i.e., paying for the actual grades they are awarded, not just the tuition fees.

It is perhaps unfortunate that during the same period the activities of HEFCE [Higher Education Funding Council for England] were wound down, as HEFCE was replaced by the OfS [Office for Students].  A certain hiatus resulted, as the OfS seemed to be relatively slow in getting into gear and for a while little regulatory work seemed to be being carried out in the sector.

This has now changed.  The OfS has flexed its muscles by publishing a series of important reports and directives, one of the most recent of which is entitled Financial Sustainability of Higher Education Providers in England.   The report states that, as part of the registration and ongoing monitoring process, all higher education providers are now required to demonstrate to the OfS that they are financially viable and sustainable. 

Some Vice-Chancellors of even well-known and very well-established universities may have quailed at learning this, as their seeming failure to be able to balance the books has frequently been dissected by the Press over the last two or three years.  The OfS doesn’t explain its methods, however – there are many kinds of capital, for example, not all of them tangible, and it doesn’t say which kinds are acceptable in boosting universities’ perceived solvency – but it does say “our analysis suggests that the sector overall is currently in reasonable financial health”.   Better news than might have been thought, then. But, sounding a greater note of caution immediately afterwards, the OfS adds that “the general picture masks considerable variations in financial performance between individual providers”.  Not really a surprise, but perhaps some Vice-Chancellors should start quaking, after all.

Although some providers are predicted to do less well next year than initially expected, the OfS says that this is mainly because the forecast growth in student numbers has been over-optimistic in the short term; but apparently universities’ student recruitment ambitions now stand a greater chance of being realised.  Of the 183 registered UK HE providers, 122 are assuming growth in student numbers of more than 5% – the students are expected to come from the “UK, EU and overseas” – in the next four years.   The OfS notes that most of these providers are not reliant on this projected growth to reduce their projected costs (i.e., their calculations are not based on what economists call ‘margin’) if their student recruitment ambitions are not met, so the OfS will continue to monitor them closely for financial stability.  Good news for students and their parents, then.  Vice-Chancellors still under pressure!

However: “Collectively, providers forecast the number of overseas students to increase by approximately 56,000 full-time equivalent (FTE)(20.7 per cent). Fee income from overseas students is projected to rise by £1.7 billion (37.9 per cent), suggesting an anticipated increase in the average fee charged to overseas students. The government’s recently announced international education strategy aims to support the sector to increase the number of overseas students.”  Is this a cunning element of the government’s Brexit plans?

Almost as an afterthought, the report acknowledges that the higher education sector continues to face uncertainties, “including the UK’s future relationship with the EU; potential changes in government policy following the review of post-18 education funding; and as a consequence of student choice following a continuing decline in the 18-year-old UK population to 2020.” 

Aside from the fact that the last statement appears to blame the decline in 18-year olds by 2020 on “student choice” (were the first-borns so obnoxious that they deterred their parents from providing siblings?), the report fails to inspire confidence.  The cautious optimism it demonstrates in the face of almost certain adversity seems almost reckless.        

Nevertheless, it is an interesting document: it produces some useful financial detail about where the university sector in the UK is heading, and as it is only 23 pages long, offers both information and entertainment (infotainment?) at the expense of not too great an outlay in time. 

The report may be found at https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/cf54b6ee-714e-45c3-ade9-56bc685b861d/report-on-financial-sustainability-of-higher-education-providers-in-england.pdf

Pedagogical Resources, Pedagogical trends, Universities

Flipped Learning and OERs

Of the pedagogical trends identified by the research (commissioned in partnership with SAGE Publishing), by far the most prominent were research-led teaching and flipped learning – the latter often mentioned in conjunction with technologically-enhanced resources. 

Flipped learning, which was practised in schools for some time before it took hold in universities, promotes dynamic learning by encouraging the student to take more responsibility for study.  There is no single accepted definition of what it entails, but as well as technological innovation it often involves pre-class prep by students; more targeted use of lecturer contact hours; and the use of (often online) assessment to enable lecturers to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses (with the intent of enabling them to focus on the latter).  It may be delivered as a form of blended learning; and some of the most successful practitioners combine its use with more traditional pedagogical methods.  Despite the fact that one of the reasons for its development was to enable lecturers to cope with large cohorts of students, there is some evidence that it is more effective with relatively small groups.

Open Education Resources (OERs) have enjoyed quite a lot of media exposure recently and are often favoured by senior university administrators, because they help to fulfil the promise that students won’t have to pay extra for resources; and also serve to highlight the uniqueness of the individual university’s offering.  In addition, they win Brownie points by showing support in principle for the Open Access movement. Some academics are enthusiastic about developing them and there have been several serious experiments with OERs at UK universities; but they come with drawbacks.  From the academic’s point of view, chief among these is the time they take to develop, and even more, to keep updated, when academics’ schedules are already being squeezed to fit in teaching, research and administration. 

From the purist’s point of view, an OER is not really an OER if the university is not prepared to make it available to other institutions and students not enrolled in its own institution – an attitude which many adopt now that HE is promoted by the government as a ‘market’ and universities are in competition with each other.  (Such OERs may be contrasted with MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – which by definition are Open Access.)

However, an OER doesn’t have to be a full-length book or comprehensive study programme: much smaller units of teaching and learning resource can qualify, such as individual ‘repurposable’ units of knowledge; quizzes and notes placed by lecturers on the VLE; academics’ own podcasts and video clips; and Lecture Capture, but again only if made available to a wider audience than the university’s own students.

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Once the report is available online, we will post the link here. So, just subscribe to our blog and you won’t miss the release.

Digital Publishing, Pedagogical Resources, Universities

It’s all in the metrics: Reading List Software and other measures

So, how are libraries measuring the success of a resource?

That’s a tricky question, and all the libraries we talked to used a mixture of “hard” metrics such as usage statistics and “soft” ones like student and user surveys. Even though most online resources provide usage statistics, these often are not particularly user-friendly, and don’t necessarily measure the effectiveness of a resource. Reading List Software can give a much better picture, with metrics providing a better understanding of resource use.  It is being used at all the universities we worked with. However, often academics do not engage with the software; it’s not a seldom occurrence for them to refuse using it because they say it’s not user-friendly or they don’t have time to get their heads round it. In most cases, it’s the Library that administers the software and provides the training – and often actually uploads the titles into the system on behalf of the academics.

There is a wide divergence of opinion about how long a reading list should be, and how much new material it should contain.  In some instances librarians use the software to steer academics and students to resources already held by the Library, rather than investing in new ones.

Overall, the evidence shows librarians have a much bigger impact on resource choice and use than they think. They tend to under-estimate their powers of influence: more academics agree than don’t agree that librarians influence reading list choices.

‘Virtuous circle’ of Librarian Influence, (c) Gold Leaf, 2019

For the last post about key findings of the study “How Are Students and Academics Using Pedagogical Resources Today?” (in partnership with SAGE Publishing), please come back to our blog tomorrow, when we will talk about Flipped Learning and OERs.

Pedagogical Resources, Universities

Teaching, Learning and Resources: How Russell Group Universities differ from others (or not)

Are there any differences between Russell Group and non-Russell Group universities?
In terms of teaching and learning resources, the answer would probably be: not really.

The differences we found were not as marked as we had expected. The most notable differences affected the Reading Lists: whilst both long and short reading lists were in use at both types of universities (it does depend heavily on the lecturer), on average the Russell Group Universities saw the reading lists more as a starting point for students to then do their own research into resources, whilst reading lists at non-Russell Group Universities tended to be more often seen as a comprehensive list of material about one subject. The non-Russell Group reading lists did on average contain a much greater range of kinds of resources (blog posts, web sites, government reports, podcasts, videos etc.) whilst Russell Group reading lists seemed to focus more on the traditional book chapters and journals articles.
Though there were exceptions to this rule, Russell Group students seemed to be more committed to reading, while (or maybe because?) traditional teaching methods more often dominated the teaching at those universities. As expected the tension and pressures for academics to meet both TEF and REF requirements were bigger at Russell Group universities, and Learner Analytics as a metric played a bigger role.

It was notable that there was a difference in reliance on digital textbooks: the non-Russell Group used digital textbooks a lot more. This was linked to the fact that students at non-Russell Group universities are more often not expected to pay themselves for resources (non-Russell Group universities were more likely to promote a “no hidden cost” policy), and therefore the libraries relied on digital textbooks to provide access to all students at an affordable price, while students at Russell Group universities were more openly expected (and willing) to buy key textbooks themselves.

However, in a climate of high tuition fees and universities competing for students, the question of who pays this has become quite a pollical topic. The “institution pays” model, where all students are being provided with copies for their textbooks at the beginning of the year, has not gained the traction that was expected when the model was first started. Even though most academics and librarians agreed that students should not be expected to pay for their resources, a “mixed economy” model was the rule at the vast majority of institutions (Russell Group as well as non-Russell Group).

For more key findings of the study “How Are Students and Academics Using Pedagogical Resources Today?” (in partnership with SAGE Publishing), please come back to our blog tomorrow, when we will talk about metrics and Reading List software, and the influence librarians have.