Category Archives: weeknotes

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.

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.

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?

The challenge of time and space – Weeknote #268 – 19th April 2024

I was working on an invitation to tender this week. This took up most of my time with researching, reading, writing, reviewing, sharing, and then going back again…

Interesting article from Wonkhe this week on what keeps your estates manager awake at night?

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 brings to the Estates team.

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 design spaces that meet these new needs. What are those new kinds of spaces and how would we know?

The other 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.

Next week I am presenting at our directorate away day in Bristol on my work. I produced a presentation, which for me has a fair few words on it. I also developed the visions exercise I ran recently with our senior group; I turned the visions into handouts and created an activity that can be used with them.

Back in the office – Weeknote #267 – 12th April 2024

Back to a full week, after a couple of shorter weeks. It’s still school holidays in the West, so the roads were quieter as were the trains. Well there was a few issues with the trains, but not big issues.

As it was the holidays I was in the office every day this week. Some days the office was busy and noisy, and on other days it was quieter. Friday it was very quiet.

Most of the week was researching reading, thinking, and writing.

On Tuesday I attended the HEAnet Group Advisory Forum, which is a group which supports HEAnet in Ireland. I attend as an international expert.

There are numerous stories across the press now about the financial (and other) challenges that various universities are facing. The Guardian reports on The Goldsmiths crisis: how cuts and culture wars sent universities into a death spiral.

Arts education is essential – yet on both sides of the Atlantic, the humanities and critical thinking are under attack. With massive redundancies announced at this London institution, is it the canary in the coalmine?

The article notes how what is happening at Goldsmiths is reflecting what is happening elsewhere in the sector.

Yet in many ways, what’s happening at Goldsmiths is a vivid thumbnail sketch of the crises, both accidental and deliberately manufactured, hitting the entire sector, bar a very few stunningly well-funded universities from the high-profile Russell Group.

Despite the sector being very collaborative and mutually friendly, underneath there is a fierce competitive streak. Changes in how university education was funded exposed this. As the article notes when fees were set at £9000 per year.

…Andrew McGettigan, author of the Great University Gamble and expert in university funding and finance, says: “Suddenly classroom subjects were getting a lot more than the cost of delivering teaching, so you could fund research time in your department out of the money you were getting from your students.” You could also cross-subsidise more expensive subjects. This led to what he calls “a great sucking sound” as larger, more prestigious institutions pulled in humanities students because they were very lucrative. 

The sector is facing huge challenges, and they will need to change. What that change is and what it looks like, we don’t’ really know.

Spent some time discussing our away day which is happening later this month, I am doing a session on the challenges that the higher education sector is facing.

Taking the elevator – Weeknote #266 – 5th April 2024

Shorter week this week with Easter Monday. Headed to the office on Tuesday after the long weekend and did some writing and planning. In the end (with what it being school holidays) I was in the office every day this week. With many people in Jisc on leave this week, and the same can be said for much of higher education it was a rather quiet week, which gave me time to focus on getting some research, analysis and writing done.

I did write a blog post about lecture capture and how you could do things more creatively.

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.

Image by fancycrave1 from Pixabay

I have been thinking of using Jisc’s Digital Elevation Tool for FE in the Intelligent Campus space. So this week I started planning what needs to happen to make that happen. This involved looking at the scaffolding that the tool has and what would need to be in a campus version of the tool.

Made some suggestions for Connect More 2024.

A history of attempts – Weeknote #265 – 29th March 2024

Shorter week this week with Good Friday. I spent the start of the week working from home, I did eventually get to the office on Wednesday.

Some interesting articles from WonkHE on Monday, related to the work I am doing with optimising operations and data.

 There may be ways to make UK higher education cheaper to run

Is UK higher education really the world’s third most expensive way of getting a degree – and if it is, what might the alternatives look like?

One of the key questions that arises from different operating models, are higher education institutions prepared to change, and are they only going to change because they are forced to.

The other article was about shared services.

Are “back office services” really better together?

There’s a history of attempts to drive efficiency by sharing services – and precious little evidence of success.

When I started my work in this space, I came to similar conclusions that were in this article. However I do think just because that was the way things were, doesn’t mean that there isn’t opportunities in the future.

Did some analysis of various reports, articles, and links in relation to Optimising Operations and Data. I did a similar analysis of various reports, articles, and links in relation to Intelligent Campus.

I started the planning various reports in relation to Optimising Operations and Data.

I had a meeting about a proposed Intelligent Campus maturity framework.

I did some more field research on the Intelligent Campus.

Deck of Cards – Weeknote #264 – 22nd March 2024

A busy start to the week, I was attending HESCA 24 at the University of Loughborough. HESCA is the Higher Education Smart Card Association, primarily a membership organisation for vendors in the smart card and access card space.

There were some interesting talks and presentations. Some were from universities and others were from vendors. As the presentations were about fifteen minutes long, I didn’t make any sketch notes.

I was talking at the final session of the conference talking about the holistic approach to building a smart campus. Got some nice feedback from the session.

This week we also had our Senior Education and Student Experience Group Meeting. As a well as our usual what’s on your agenda discussion, we also looked at what the big challenge is for higher education and discussed two of the future visions I have been writing. Some interesting thoughts and commentary came out from that.

I had an initial discussion meeting with another university about a possible stakeholder workshop. I was also contacted by a colleague in Jisc about a different university for a conversation, who is also interested in this space. There is a lot of interest and demand in this area from universities across the UK.

I continued my work on optimising operations and data, undertaking further analysis of various reports, articles, and links. I did a similar thing with my work on the intelligent campus.

We had a team meeting, though meeting isn’t really the operative word here, much more a structured conversation and chat.

I was in the office on Friday which was quite busy, for a Friday, usually it is quite quiet.

I attended the Digital Elevation Model review meeting with colleagues from the FE side of Jisc.

It’s a secret – Weeknote #263 – 15th March 2024

I was away for the whole week, travelling to London and Edinburgh. On Monday I headed up to London and went to the Fetter Lane office for some meetings.

Tuesday I was off to WONKHE’s Secret Life of the Student Event. This is the third time I have attended the event. This is very much an event, more so a conference, and WONKHE certainly know how to create an engaging show. There was lots of interesting presentations, one feature of the event I liked was how they added a student voice for five minutes in between sessions.

This isn’t the most interactive conference I’ve attended, no workshop sessions, and usually very limited time for questions. However, I still thought it was an excellent conference. Others do as well, as even by the final session, most people are still there. It’s very popular as well, as they were packed out.

After the end of this conference, it was a walk over to Kings Cross (walking next to St Pancras) for a train to Edinburgh. I was quite impressed with the speed of the train, taking just four hours and twenty minutes from platform to platform.

I was up in Edinburgh for the UCISA Leadership Conference. Like the Secret Life this is my third time I have attended. The first conference was in Manchester. I said back then.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I kind of expected that this would be a highly technical conference, about how technology can deliver transformation and I can say that what I experienced was not what I was expecting.

Last year in Liverpool, I thought it was a good conference, I wrote back then.

I did enjoy the conference, not sure if I enjoyed it as much as the previous year, but it was still an excellent conference.

This year, I did enjoy the conference, however I didn’t feel it was as good and as useful as the conferences in Manchester and Liverpool. At the previous conferences I felt there was a good focus on leadership and strategy. This year in Edinburgh, I felt the focus had moved to the technology, notably AI.

Now I realise that I am not the target market for this conference, and they may have been responding to feedback from their core market. I may attend next year, but then again, I might not.

I flew home from Edinburgh.

This week I also had a preliminary planning meeting for Smart Campus workshop I am running in the next month or so.