Time back – Weeknote #275 – 7th June 2024

I spent most of the week working from home, it is exam time for some in the house, so I was around to provide lifts to early revision sessions, or to ensure functionality in case of delayed buses. I had intended to work in the office at least one day this week, but I was also expecting a call from the garage about my car, and it would have been easier to pick it up travelling from home, than from the office.

I am currently taking a leadership course at Jisc, and this week I completed some more units from the Institute of Leadership. I have extensive management and leadership experience, running teams of various sizes, complexity and geographically distributed. I have planned, designed, and delivered shared services for consortia and complex organisations. I have also managed multi-million pound budgets and projects. In addition I have delivered management and leadership training, both at Jisc, to universities, and was a Management and Business Studies lecturer back in the 1990s.

Having said all that there is still room to both learn new things and to update existing knowledge. I also want to affirm my understanding of leadership as well. The course has been useful for these things.

Image by Monoar Rahman Rony from Pixabay

Had a couple of internal meetings this week, they were scheduled for longer than they actually took. Though it’s nice to have time back, it would be even better if we had that time back before the meeting took place. Planning meetings takes time for the person planning the meeting but can save a lot more time for those participating in that meeting. Do they even need to be in that meeting?

I have written about meetings over my Technology Stuff blog.  Back in 2021 I reflected on an article by Atlassian on making meetings better, useful and interesting.

Running effective meetings isn’t simply a matter of doing the obvious things like sharing the agenda and starting on time. While those things are important, they’re just table stakes. The real key to running a great meeting is organizing and running them with a human touch – not like some corporate management automaton.

I also wrote about how “Meetings are a waste of time”

The perspective we can solve engagement issues by having meetings, and so we need to improve the online meetings, misses the key problem, which is the lack of engagement. This is a leadership and management challenge not just about improving online meetings. People have a personal responsibility to engage with corporate communication, give them choice, make it easier, but to think you solve it by having a meeting, is a similar thinking that people read all their e-mail.

I enjoyed reading this HEPI article on future scenarios for Higher Education.

The author, Professor Sir Chris Husbands, is the former vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University. He develops four plausible scenarios for the future of English higher education and looks at what they could mean for students, universities and government.

Scenario 1 considers what happens on the current funding trajectory.

Scenario 2 looks at what a higher education sector fully funded for high participation, research and innovation might look like.

Scenario 3 explores the implications of a tertiary system.

Scenario 4 considers what a more differentiated system might look like.

I have written some scenarios up as future visions as prompts for discussion. The HEPI visions are much more near-future (and probably more realistic) than my visions. However my future visions are not supposed to be accurate predictions of the future, more as discussion pieces to prompt thinking about how higher education can change.

Found this article on Wonkhe interesting on the future financial sustainability of higher education: Why I wouldn’t bet against a fee rise after the election.

It’s long been assumed that whatever the outcome of the coming general election, fees would remain stuck in the freezer for the time being. We’ve pored over Public First polling that has neatly demonstrated how unpopular raising fees would be and concluded that no political party could feasibly contemplate this. But the ground is now shifting beneath our feet and I think a modest but significant fee rise looks more likely than ever.

I think that may happen, as a last resort if there are real possibilities of universities failing, as well as declining international student recruitment, then the (next) government may need to raise fees to ensure that universities survive financially.

I continued to do some researching and then writing June Intelligent Campus newsletter. This is posted over on the Jiscmail mailing list for the Intelligent Campus.

I have been working on an Intelligent Campus Maturity Tool, this has required me to map out competency statements    that institutions would require to assess their current state of readiness in relation to smart and intelligent campus.

Wrote a section for our board report on the work I have been doing.

I planned, prepared and then cancelled my Senior Education and Student Experience group meeting. I have now been asked to attend UUK Round Table on the same date.

When it’s three o’clock in New York, it’s still 1938 in London – Weeknote #274 – 31st May 2024

Shorter week this week with the Bank Holiday. Decided to work in our London office this week and do some more field research into the Intelligent Campus.

Wrote a blog post on attendance after reading a Guardian article on the subject.

It would appear that the remote teaching during covid is continuing to have an impact on attendance at in-person teaching. Alongside the cost of living crisis, rising costs, the need to work, and interestingly a perception by students that attendance at in-person sessions was unlikely to benefit their learning and their grades.

I had to answer some clarification questions in relation to Invitation to tender we have out.

Undertook some preparation for Senior Education and Student Experience group meeting. I am probably going to repeat the session we did in March.

Continued with some leadership training I am doing.

Have been creating and writing out IC monthly newsletter for June.

Listened to the THE Podcast, specifically the interview with Mark Thompson, professor of digital economy at the University of Exeter.

In this interview, conducted at the Digital Universities UK event at Exeter, Thompson shares his concern that the sector is drifting away from its true north of research, teaching and impact (he uses Jeff Bezos’ idea of “day one”), citing statistics that less than 40 per cent of university staff are academics. He suggests reasons for this and talks about the need for leadership at institutional and government level and the prisoner’s dilemma of whole-sector transformation.

It was an interesting interview, and there is a related article.

UK universities should rip up a lot of their “back-end nonsense”, tackle managerial bloat and stop shelling out for different versions of the same technology to allow them to return to their core missions and heavily invest in academic jobs, according to an influential professor who has helped to pioneer a new approach to digital infrastructure in the public sector.

This echoes much of my work in this space. I am not sure the sector could achieve the 20% saving, but I do think there is room for savings.

Should I stay or should I go….

It would appear that the remote teaching during covid is continuing to have an impact on attendance at in-person teaching. Alongside the cost of living crisis, rising costs, the need to work, and interestingly a perception by students that attendance at in-person sessions was unlikely to benefit their learning and their grades.

Scores of current UK students shared with the Guardian how they feel about attending university lectures and tutorials.

‘I see little point’: UK university students on why attendance has plummeted

About half of the students who got in touch said they were regularly skipping classes, with many saying they were hardly attending at all. A lot of students pointed to financial difficulties forcing them to prioritise paid work over studying, a lack of enthusiasm for the format of lectures, low motivation to get up and go in, and the perception that attending classes was unlikely to improve their grades.

We have to remember that many of these students would not have been at university during the lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. They would have been at school or college. Going forward there will be a continuing stream of new students who experienced remote teaching at school who will be attending university.

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian questioned in an opinion piece on university finances,

…why sixth-formers get so much more teaching time than university students at far lower cost.

The amount of in-person contact time that students have, is so much less than they experienced at college and school, that you have to ask, with less hours to attend than their previous educational experiences, they might value it more. It would appear that they value it less.

The financial imperative for work by students was also illustrated at the Wonkhe event, The Secret Life of Students.

The latest and most powerful insights on the student condition from Wonkhe and Cibyl’s Belong student survey platform and from across the HE sector.

I did a sketch note on that session.

There was a lot of things in there, about sleep, travel time, working, and time travelling to work.

A student also presented at that event and talked about how the need for work, would often trump attendance at lectures and classes. The student also questioned the value of attendance of in-person sessions which could be accessed through recordings later, or what needed to be learnt was learnt more effectively through resources and books.

Also see the original article that inspired the Guardian survey: Lectures in question as paid work pushes attendance even lower

Lecture attendance is now so low that some academics have started to openly question the future of the teaching method.

So what should universities do in light of this insight? What is the future of university teaching and how does it need to change? Also how does the university manage student expectations so that they stop seeing in-person teaching as a choice, and isn’t the optional extra of a university education.

Finally, and something I have been reflecting on this, what is the role of digital and technology in all this?

Calling it – Weeknote #273 – 24th May 2024

On Thursday the prime minister announced that there will be a general election on the 4th July.  We can expect lots of policy ideas and manifesto commitments being pushed out over the next six weeks. Will the higher education sector be top of the list, somehow I doubt it.

I planned out some blog posts I want to write in relation to the areas I am working on. Now I just need to write them…

I spent some time preparing for a briefing I was giving at the end of the week. This was on the optimisation work I have been doing this year.

Concerns about the financial viability of higher education continues with some ex-ministers warning UK universities will go bust without higher fees or funding

Vice-chancellors and former ministers are warning that the cash crisis facing universities is so serious that the next government will have to urgently raise tuition fees or increase funding to avoid bankruptcies within two years.

Even with a general election coming soon, it is unlikely that we will see increased funding for universities.

Wonkhe reported that despite the recommendations of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report the government is still looking to reduce the number of international students coming to the UK.

The sector’s eyes are on the Prime Minister this week as, following the conclusion of the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) that the Graduate route for international students should remain intact, there’s no indication the government plans to take the advice it asked for. All the latest signals from Number 10 suggest that Rishi Sunak is looking for ways to restrict international students further, potentially using a “best and brightest” formula to do so, despite the prospective damage to the economy and to universities, and the fundamental incoherence of the concept.

I am pretty sure that none of the international students coming to the UK arrive in small boats. Another situation where the political rhetoric doesn’t match reality.

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian notes that

But living within the incomes they can attract, universities may reconsider how they are organised: some will question why degrees need three years with such short terms, why vice-chancellors’ salaries, some higher than £500,000, are much higher than their European neighbours, why university teaching careers are so hard on beginners and why sixth-formers get so much more teaching time than university students at far lower cost.

Another perspective on why universities should be looking at their operating model, changing or optimising what they do, and becoming more efficient.

I started thinking about my objectives for next year. I say next year, our planning year runs from 1st August to 31st July, so there is a couple of months left to think about this.a

There may be mergers ahead – Weeknote #272 – 17th May 2024

bird screen

The news this week was dominated by the financial crisis that the university sector is facing in the UK.

Wonkhe said in their daily briefing

An increasing number of universities in England face a material risk of closure unless they significantly cut costs or merge. The Office for Students (OfS) 2024 financial sustainability report discusses a heavy reliance on international students due to declining domestic student fee income, and a “worst-case scenario” predicts that four out of five institutions will be in deficit by 2027 without changes.

With over optimistic views by universities about student numbers (domestic and international) the sector is facing a real financial challenge and with no real solutions in sight. There is no easy solution to this.

The OfS report was quite clear about the pressures facing the university sector.

Continuing decline in the real-terms value of income from UK undergraduates combined with inflationary and economic pressures on operating costs and the costs of developing buildings and facilities, as well as increasing employer contributions to some pension schemes.

They added the following key points in their report.

  • A recent apparent reduction in UK and international applications after years of strong growth, especially from international students.
  • A higher education financial model that has become reliant on fee income from international students, with a particular vulnerability where recruitment is predominantly from a single country.
  • The affordability of necessary estate maintenance and development and the significant cost of investment needed to reduce carbon emissions as part of providers’ commitments to achieve net zero.
  • Cost of living difficulties for students and staff, which challenge both student recruitment and the support needed by students during their time in higher education.

The report set out that universities may need to think differently to respond to the challenges they face.

Changes to a provider’s operating model can be a healthy response to financial challenge.  The sector as a whole has been in a relatively strong financial position for much of the past decade and has expanded its delivery to more UK and non-UK students. The financial challenges it is facing now could be a catalyst to drive positive change and innovation. Actions being taken by providers can result in more efficient operation, and could have benefits for students, including improved value for money.

This very much echoes the work I have been doing at Jisc on optimising operations and looking at collaboration and shared services.

The report also acknowledges that there may be mergers ahead.

We also expect that we might see some changes to the size and shape of the sector, for example, through mergers and acquisitions or increase specialisation.

As part of my work I wrote a vision about mergers and the formation of large university groups, but with the individual partners within that group retaining their local identity.

The first large university groups appeared following mergers forced by the regulator after financial pressures could have caused at least one higher education institution to fail. The new group recognised that though in theory they should have a new name, they also realised that the existing names were brands in their own right. As a result they formed The University Group™ but the individual university names were kept. Staff were employed by The University Group™ but students attended a named university. It was so successful that some smaller institutions asked to join the group but retain their identity. What was important to the group was that management and staff recognised that they were employed by The University Group™ and not the named university in which they worked (though some teaching staff worked across the group), from a student experience perspective the student was a student of the named university. They would be awarded their degree from that named university and would to all intents and purposes be a graduate of that named university.

This is a model we have seen in the Further Education sector, with large college groups and individual campuses having a separate brand and identity.

As well as facing financial challenges, the sector is also facing an unhappy cohort of students who are making more complaints.

Students complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) in England and Wales rose to 3,137 in 2023, the ombuds’ annual report reveals. This was a ten per cent increase from 2022, and OIA recommendations led to more than £580,000 paid out in financial compensation, in addition to almost £640,000 in settlements. Some 21 per cent of complaints were adjudged to be justified (two per cent) or partly justified (seven per cent) or were settled in favour of the student. 

Wonkhe reflects on a year of complaints received by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

I was in the office for a couple of days this week, but reflected I’ve not been out and about for a while. I was expecting to go out and do some visits and workshops in May, but these never materialised. I‘ve also not attended any recent events, I think I might have to do some travelling over the next few weeks.

I attended our regular catch up meeting with the OfS this week in our Bristol office, and we updated each other which what is happening and what this may mean.

Wrote a short thought piece on academic staff using ChatGPT for student feedback.

We know that students are using tools such as ChatGPT to support their assessment work. It looks like some staff are also using the tool to provide feedback.

Image by Florian Pircher from Pixabay

I have started a leadership development programme at Jisc. I am very much in the position in my career, where it is much less about what do I need to do to advance my career, but more about having achieved my career aspiration, what can I do for Jisc. I have extensive management and leadership experience, running teams of various sizes, complexity and geographically distributed. I have planned, designed, and delivered shared services for consortia and complex organisations. I have managed multi-million pound budgets and projects.

So, I am not attending the programme to learn how to be a leader, but there is something about refreshing and updating your knowledge in this space. Also, it will be good to work with colleagues across the organisation as well.

Please provide feedback

Writing in a notebook
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

We know that students are using tools such as ChatGPT to support their assessment work. It looks like some staff are also using the tool to provide feedback.

Saw this tweet on the Twitter.

In one of the student discords I am a member of – someone explaining they had to write to their tutor to explain that it was clear that their feedback was from ChatGPT because they’d cut and pasted the prompt as well

Not much of a surprise that staff are using generative AI tools like ChatGPT for writing feedback for students to save time. There is a deeper question on whether this is not just ethical, but also if using the tool is providing useful feedback to the student.

We don’t know what the prompt was, but I suspect that if the prompt was left in as it was copied and pasted onto the student work, then it probably hadn’t even been read before being pasted.

I can see the potential for using tools such as ChatGPT to maybe tidy up feedback, but not to replace the entire process of creating feedback.

Accessible Maths – Weeknote #271 – 10th May 2024

Shorter week this week with the bank holiday.

Have been working on sub-themes for the proposed Intelligent Campus framework. This means taking the themes and breaking them down further.

This week was Connect More, I attended various Connect More sessions. Chaired a Connect More session on accessible maths, delivered by an old friend of mine, Lilian Joy. She described the challenges in teaching maths to the visually impaired. One insight was the use of tactile methods to teach maths, made easier due to the availability of cost effective 3D printing.

3D Printer
Image by Lutz Peter from Pixabay

Continuing my work on the report on how universities could support their organisational change through the optimisation of their operations.

We are now in quarter four, so I did my Q3 paperwork for my Q3 review. These weeknotes were useful in helping with that.

I attended a review meeting for the Digital Elevation Model. Though not directly reviewing the model, I am using the meetings to inform and influence my work on the Intelligent Campus framework.

Read the UCU report on Academic Freedom in the Digital University.

Immaturity Framing – Weeknote #270 – 3rd May 2024

Spent some time working on some draft themes for a possibly (maturity) framework for the intelligent campus.

I am a little but loathe to call it a maturity framework, as we really don’t confidently know what a mature intelligent campus looks like. However at this stage I don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about a name, when there is much more to do with the framework.

I am planning to use the FE Digital Elevation Tool as a starting point. The first stage is to identify the main themes. This is what I arrived at, reflecting on the work I have done in this space for the last eight years.

  • Vision
  • Campus
  • Data
  • Digital
  • Technology
  • People
  • Activity
  • Policy
  • Process
  • Security
  • Ethics
  • Energy
  • Community

A theme has many sub-themes, so we could take people and break it down into staff and students.

Each sub-theme has many competencies. Competency has three statements and there are four responses to each statement.

  • Completed
  • In progress
  • Not started
  • Not a priority

This will take some time to work on, but I am planning to run some community events around this.

I rebooted my monthly Intelligent Campus newsletter on the Jiscmail. You can subscribe to the mailing list here.

I wrote a blog post about a Wonkhe article I read.

Across the country there are a real variety of university campuses. No two campuses are alike, but all have similar challenges that the Estates team have to work with. There was an interesting article from Wonkhe a few weeks back on what keeps your estates manager awake at night? from the incoming AUDE chair.

I also published some thoughts about personalisation.

I have been looking at what we mean by personalisation in higher education. What I have discovered is that there isn’t really any clear idea or definition of what we mean by personalisation and across the sector there are varied views and opinions about what is personalisation, what can be personalised, and importantly why we would do this.

We had our monthly team meeting.

I am recognising that now as I no longer use Twitter, that I am missing some articles and news that would have been shared on Twitter. I would also use the postings (especially of links) I made to Twitter to inform the writing of these weeknotes. I need to reflect on what this means going forward and if there is some other kind of mechanism I can use. I really don’t want to go back to the Twitter.

Shorter week next week with the bank holiday. I am chairing a session at Jisc’s Connect More event next week, so attended a rehearsal on how to use the platform we are using.

Keeping you awake?

Across the country there are a real variety of university campuses. No two campuses are alike, but all have similar challenges that the Estates team have to work with. There was an interesting article from Wonkhe a few weeks back on what keeps your estates manager awake at night? from the incoming AUDE chair.

Estates Directors, by and large, are significant net spenders of university income. While we may also run aspects of our institution’s income-generating commercial services – conferencing and retail for instance – and we know our university built environment can be key in attracting research income, staff and students too, on the whole we sit on the expenditure side of the balance sheet, with buildings second only to people in terms of operating costs.

It noted the challenge that costs are rising, and budgets are being cut, and the challenges that this budgetary nightmare brings to the Estates team. There are things they can cut, things they can spend less on, and then there are the statutory requirements that have to be met and paid for. In addition the way in which campuses are been used are changing.

The issue of both students and staff using the campus differently now, post covid, and their hybrid use of space for studying and working. We know that space designed for the way we would use those spaces pre-covid, aren’t necessarily now the kinds of spaces that we need post-covid. Easy to say, actually quite challenging to think about and design spaces that meet these new needs. What are those new kinds of spaces and how would we know?

Most universities I have discussed this with reinforce the importance of the university space, a place for people to come together for education and research. There is an expectation that staff and students will be physically travelling to and using the university buildings and spaces.

Even so with hybrid working and studying the norm these days, spaces have to be flexible to allow for in-person working and studying, as well as allowing for online interactions to take place on campus as well. Just because a meeting or a lecture is online this doesn’t automatically mean that the person participating is going to be off campus. Are there spaces on the campus that can be used for these online activities.

Another challenge isn’t just space, but also time. You can already see that more people are coming into the office for two or three days a week, and those days are usually in the middle of the week. The challenge that anyone has in managing space is how do you provide the capacity needed for two or three days, knowing that for the rest of the week it will be underutilised. How do you incentivise people to spread their in-person working (and studying) patterns across the week, to ensure space is being used efficiently.

With people working at home for part of the week, what I am seeing in our own spaces, and hearing about on university campuses, and also seeing in the office work environment; is that without some kind of intervention, people are creating their own working patterns based on the patterns that benefits them individually and aren’t necessarily the most efficient mechanism for space utilisation across a working space. There is a default to mid-week in-person working, resulting in less utilisation on the extremities of the week. Should spaces be closed one day a week to allow for this?

Might it be more efficient to spread utilisation across the week, and then reduce the size of the space required? How then do you encourage and incentivise people to work on the less popular days of the week?

Whatever decisions are made by estates teams in relation to the campus, it is understandable why it might be keeping them awake at night.

Play Away – Weeknote #269 – 26th April 2024

The beginning of the week was our directorate away day in Bristol, well it was a lunchtime to lunchtime away day. Always nice to get together the directorate in-person and discuss key issues and challenges. I delivered a presentation, which for me has a fair few words on it about my work on optimising operations and data.

Read this article, ‘Give academics studios’ to record lectures that engage students

Blended learning will not truly take off until lecturers have access to recording studios and video editing services that will allow them to create high-quality online lectures, an e-learning expert has warned.

A colleague of mine noted that lecture capture became embedded in many institutions during the pandemic, and asked the question, has the level of use sustained?

video recording
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

I was reminded that I wrote these posts at the height of the pandemic in May 2020.

Lost in translation: the television programme

Lost in translation: the radio programme

I also remember a year or so back that Durham University have put in self-service TV studios for staff. I did think that the technology was only part of the solution, what about the creative, production, and presentation skills, that would be needed. Recording high quality video content, is significantly different to capturing a lecture.

Also Leeds Business School had done something similar pre-pandemic

They were using some clever glass technology that made their content more engaging.

As it happened, I wrote this earlier this month, The idea of capturing a lecture…

The idea of capturing a lecture isn’t new. Even before the advent of dedicated lecture capture systems being installed across the campus some lecturers (and some students) would record the lecture onto cassette tape.

I read the HEPI policy note, ‘Dropouts or stopouts or comebackers or potential completers?’: Non-continuation of students in the UK.

…the UK has had the lowest drop-out rate among developed countries, with Ireland in second place; the UK’s strong performance arises in part from the historic levels of academic selection at the point of entry to higher education as well as the relatively short length of undergraduate degrees, which provides less scope for life events to intervene and disrupt study;

I did wonder though, if this was the main reason. Across Europe, many young people who go to university go to their local university, they’re not moving away from a family home for the university experience. Once studying maybe family issues disrupt study, or employment opportunities come around.

However the report concludes:

‘The UK’s problem is not high drop-out rates across the entire higher education sector. It is the relatively low attendance rate in the compulsory stage of education since the pandemic lessened, insufficient support for sub-degree provision, high drop-out rates among a minority of institutions, courses and students (including degree apprenticeships) and people being unable to make the most of their student experience because they have not got enough money and have to undertake a high number of hours of paid work – even during term time when their studies should be their main priority.’

They recognise how jobs and paid work are not intruding on that student experience, will the drop-out rates start to increase?

news and views on e-learning, TEL and learning stuff in general…