Tuesday, 31 January 2012

More thoughts on UCAS

Update: This post has been rewritten on 31/1/12 to clarify the point I was making and remove some inappropriate references to a named UUK colleague.

Is the Sutton Trust a force for good?

On Friday, the Sutton Trust announced a new, 'independent' commission to review the effect of tuition fee rises in England. I have very mixed feelings about the Sutton Trust. On the one hand I admire the success they have had in shaping the access agenda in HE, on the other I tend to think that the shaping they have done has been pernicious in pretty much every way possible. One of the disciplines I try to set myself on this blog is not to burden it with my political opinions. HE planning, regulation and funding are hardly fascinating subjects in themselves, but at least they have direct impact on students, jobs and other things that do matter. My personal politics don't. I think this post makes substantive points about HE admissions, social mobility and the like but consider this health warning before you read on: it may be a rant.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Yet more UCAS data

UCAS have published their data on applications as at the 15 January deadline. This is not the final deadline for all applications: applications continue until June and if institutions are desperate enough they will accept applications even after term has started in September, but it provides a good milestone for us to assess progress.

Friday, 27 January 2012

A couple of highlights from yesterday's Times Higher

The Times Higher is always a source of amusement. Particular gems this week are Alan Ryan's reporting from a parallel universe where university fees don't seem to exist and discriminating against poor people is laudable ethical practice:
As Stefan Collini of the University of Cambridge once observed, a university place is one of the few things in modern Britain that isn't for sale. Things that weight the odds in an applicant's favour include better schooling, a richer cultural environment, and a home where a child can study in peace. But at the point where an applicant is face to face with an admissions tutor, academic merit is all that counts. I'm not sure such fastidiousness will survive.
Then there is Steve Edwards reporting from a (presumably different) parallel universe in which the problem with UCAS is that it is too responsive to the needs of universities. I think it's fair to say that here on Earth Prime this is not how most of us universities feel about UCAS.

Finally I enjoyed David Shaw's attempt to argue that the fact he can't enter all his articles in the REF is an ethical weakness in the REF process. I think he is arguing that HEFCE is morally obliged to have a policy which favours his interests over those of less productive researchers: it would be really great to see that case made out at greater length.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The HEFCE Grant Letter

BIS have published their annual grant letter to HEFCE. This letter sets out not just the sums of money to be distributed by the Council, but also gives (increasingly precise) policy guidance about how those funds should be spent.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Dropping the HE Bill?

Via Mark Leach I discover that the Telegraph is reporting that the HE Bill is to be dropped. These kinds of rumours always circulate, but if Willetts is quoted as saying “There’s going to be a further discussion in Cabinet in the next couple of weeks. There’s no final decision either way yet.” then clearly there is something to this one.

Currently we are still being regulated by HEFCE under existing powers. This works for two reasons (1) because the non-public actors (whom HEFCE can't currently regulate) are such a minor part of the picture and (2) because we all still have very substantial HEFCE grant. HEFCE's only power is the power to set conditions on grants. As the grants diminish, so does the power. Currently, new entrants are not really clamouring to get in to the English sector so a delay in legislation will not be fatal, but the day is not far off (in fact it is a couple of years away) when a significant group of universities are not in receipt of enough HEFCE grant to make it worth their while to obey Student Number Control limits.When that happens, BIS will lose control of the HE budget.

So whatever discussions may happen in Cabinet, the Bill is coming and will have to come before too long. They can run, but they can't hide.

Update Guardian also now covering this story. If the Guardian and the Telegraph agree it must have legs...

Monday, 23 January 2012


Via Felix Salmon I discover the launch of a new online learning provider, Udacity. This is a project of Sebastian Thrun and others, based on Thrun's Artificial Intelligence experience at Stanford.

I can't see much information about the Udacity course on building a search engine, which is the only one they seem to have released so far. I doubt I have the pre-requisites for that (although the site isn't even clear on that to be frank - fair to say that the website is at an early stage of development). The AI programme used a mix of video content with online quizzes and exams. Students could discuss issues with each other via a bulletin board. What seems innovative about this model is primarily how much that might seem basic to the whole university experience has been edited out, as you can see from this FAQ:

Can online students interact with the professors?

Yes, but not directly. Students can submit questions to discussion page, which will be ranked and the top questions will be addressed by Professor Thrun and Professor Norvig weekly.

Will students receive a Stanford certificate or grade for completing the course?

Only students enrolled at Stanford and admitted to the course can receive Stanford credit. Online students will receive a statement of accomplishment signed by the instructors with their name and rank within the online class. See the course information for more details.
 If you take out the teaching and the certification, there isn't all that much of the traditional university offer left, but equally the marginal cost of delivery approaches zero. It isn't clear to me what the Udacity business model is. Somehow or another the staff are going to have to get paid. Perhaps a philanthropic funding source is out there for a relatively small-scale project, but since Udacity is offering stock options as part of the benefits package, that probably isn't the route they have in mind...

So two models leap to mind. One is the University of London International Programme where, as with Udacity, actual teaching is not part of the offer - you get a syllabus and examinations and you can pay others to help you learn if you want to. However accreditation is a key part of the offer here, which doesn't seem to be the case with Udacity, and fees amount to several hundred pounds a year.

My other mental model for this - one Udacity seems closer to - is the private training market, offering short, essentially unaccredited learning opportunities in specific skills areas. If that is the case, Udacity isn't really anywhere close to the existing HE market, but in carefully selected areas it could significantly undercut the current hotel-trainer-and-flipchart model that is still in pretty widespread use. What is less clear, though, is how this model really differs from a teach-yourself book.

So I conclude this development has little relevance to the future of Higher Education. Perhaps if I could see the business plan my lack of imagination would be cruelly exposed, but I suspect commercial confidentiality will spare my blushes for a little longer.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Core/Margin again: here is the core

Caroline Charlton at HEFCE emailed my Vice Chancellor this afternoon with a spreadsheet and covering letter setting out the core element of our core/margin Student Number Control. Anything we have won from the margin will be announced separately in a few days' time. Caroline is a former colleague of mine and a truly charming individual whom I wouldn't wish to offend, but I can't see any embargo or other restriction she has placed on her letter so I shall give you the highlights.
  • HEFCE has not yet had its letter of grant/guidance from BIS but felt constrained to issue SNC numbers now because of the stage the UCAS cycle has reached, so the numbers are provisional;
  • We expected a 20,000-place cut to create the margin, but HEFCE have imposed an additional 5,000 place cut (25,000 in all). The extra 5,000 places are simply to reduce the risk to Treasury if all institutions exactly hit their SNC limits;
  • Further reductions beyond this 5,000 may be required by Government when the HEFCE grant letter is published;
  • Institutions who have exceeded their SNC in 2011/12 (I have no idea who these might be) will have to reduce their recruitment of non-AABs in 2012/13 to avoid further grant adjustments/fines for over-recruitment, so if there are any institutions who have over-recruited this year and have significant AAB populations they will face a very challenging position come confirmation and clearing this August. In an extreme case, an institution which has greatly over-recruited and has many AABs could be required to reduce its non-AAB intake by more than its SNC which would only be possible by recruiting negative numbers of students.... HEFCE's reason for this is that if institution A reduces its AAB population then institution B can just recruit those AABs, so there is no saving to the public purse.
Looking at my own institution's data, it seems that HEFCE have been reasonably lenient in the view they formed of the proportion of students with unknown or incomplete entry qualifications who may be AAB+. That is a great relief and means that (after our expected margin allocation has been made) we can hope for a tiny element of growth in our Home FTUG intake. The extra 5,000 places cut are a shame, but overall not a bad result.

Parents are failing to keep up with their children's scientific knowledge

Says the BBC. Doubtless this spells the death-knell for that hoary old chestnut the grade-inflation story.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

HESA and the private providers (again)

I posted many months ago about HESA and the private providers, predicting an unsightly mess:

the UK Border Agency is obliging all private providers to be regulated by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which in turn is likely to mean in future that they will all have to return data to HESA. However HESA's idea of who is 'registering' the students is very different from UKBA's idea of who is 'sponsoring' the visa.... These technicalities are therefore likely to lead to an almighty brawl in the not-too-distant future simply because there isn't capacity for everyone to meet their obligations with the precision required to make the data add up
If you have been closely monitoring the news, you will have noted that this prediction of mine has (ahem) yet to come to pass. However I was at a HESA event yesterday where I learnt from colleagues that the first wave of private providers -about half a dozen institutions - are in very active discussions with HESA but have yet to make much progress because no-one has taken any decisions about what exactly they will be required to do. It seems cruel and inhumane to make them return the full dataset when many of the most challenging fields relate to HEFCE funding which they will never receive, but I suppose that no-one wants to set a precedent by asking for less either. The issue is not primarily one for HESA but for the statutory customers which - in England - really means HEFCE.

Apart from giving me a straw to clutch whilst I continue to believe that I'm not wrong on this issue (I just haven't been proven right yet), I also think it demonstrates the concern I have expressed before that HEFCE is struggling to come to terms with its new remit over private providers. The longer this drags on, the more abruptly it will have to be resolved when the time comes, and the more that will hurt.

Those who have experience of the breed will know that this ability to interpret any datum as fitting our pre-conceptions is very common amongst middle-to-senior managers in universities, and will reach for an appropriately-sized pinch of salt.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Is it open season for AABs?

Kim Catchside in the Guardian likens the AABs to Grouse on the Glorious 12th. Not, I confess, quite the language I would have used since -hopefully - being eagerly pursued by many prestigious HEIs will be more fun for the AABs than grouse shooting is for the grouse.

Kim makes a couple of mistakes in the piece. One isn't important in the context of her argument, but could confuse people thinking in a different context. She says:

The only reason that the Treasury allowed David Willetts to make AAB students off quota at a time of deficit reduction was that there are very few other qualifications that are equivalent to A-level performance at that level, so the bean counters could be fairly confident that the numbers wouldn't go above the 65,000 budgeted for.
 This isn't correct. HEFCE have defined the AAB equivalencies for this purpose out of whole cloth, not relating in any way to existing standards such as the UCAS Tariff. The issue is rather that at the very high qualification levels, almost everyone already goes straight into HE. There isn't scope for students who currently decide to go straight into the workforce to be tempted into HE instead, nor are there many mid-30 year old AABs who might fancy a degree and haven't got one yet. As you go lower down the grade scale, there are more and more people who opt - or have opted in the past - out of HE and might therefore be tempted back, thus costing the Treasury extra money.

This is a minor issue, though, because it doesn't really affect Kim's argument. Much more important is her judgement about who is at risk of having their AABs nicked.

The institutions most at risk of losing students who've done best in their A-levels are those in the bottom quarter of the league table for academic entry. They often have a hundred or more AAB students each year. These are often students who've actively rejected more elite universities for reasons of culture, geography or course, but this surely will be the richest hunting ground for academic expansionists touting generous merit-based bursaries.

This is completely wrong, and to understand why you need to know that some of the 'AAB equivalent' qualifications are things such as degrees. In consequence a minority of these 'AAB' students are completely unlike the rest. There is essentially no chance that someone with an existing English degree looking to retrain as a social worker will be tempted to do so at Cambridge. The real risk - as I have been saying since my SOAS post at least - is to some really pretty prestigious institutions which have many AAB+ students, but also many sub-AAB.

This in turn tells you something about the dynamic in the AAB system. If the rules were going to strip a few hundred students away from each or the bottom-25 institutions in the league tables, no-one (I mean no-one who counts at Westminster) would much mind that. If it rips many hundreds of students away from a small group of really rather well-regarded places which Ministers' children might be likely to attend, that will be a different issue. The AAB threshold cannot stay where it is. It either has to come down, so that the institutions currently cut in half at AAB can be entirely above the line, and start putting effective pressure on those below them, or the whole policy will have to be abandoned.

But if the AAB threshold comes down, then there is a big risk to the Government funding and Kim's other mistake becomes relevant again. This isn't an issue of equivalencies which could be subject to some technical fix. This is why the evidence that Government has started to move the level of the average fee was so important. If that comes down, then the AAB threshold can come down too, and - for good or ill - the current dispensation stands a chance of lasting.  If not, then not.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Cambridge Admissions: Bureaucracy in action.

The Guardian published a piece on Cambridge admissions yesterday. It is tempting to do no more than poke fun. This, in particular, reaches a remarkably high standard of naivety:

Although a candidate's ethnicity is generally evident from his or her name and the photograph in their file, there is never any overt discussion of race. This seems surprising when both Oxford  and Cambridge have been accused of being racially as well as socially exclusive.

But just this once, I can resist that temptation because what really strikes me about this piece is the immense power of bureaucracy as an organisational form, and the way it shields the bureaucrats from feeling responsibility for their decisions. Consideration is given to a candidate of obvious ability from a disadvantaged background.

The rapid pace of Cambridge would "kill her", one of the academics says. Another agrees: "I would really like to give her a place, but for her own sanity, she's much better going to one of the other redbrick, Russell Group universities, and just taking her time."
Partington says: "If we gave her a chance she would do what everybody else would do, and think: 'I'll probably be all right' and she will probably be wrong."
There is a despairing consensus around the table that the university cannot repair the gaps in this candidate's knowledge. A damning line from the school's reference – which lays bare its inability to teach the candidate – is read aloud by a tutor who raises outstretched hands in exasperation. The candidate's file goes back into the trolley with a clang.

Why is there a consensus amongst this group that Cambridge - one of the best resourced educational institutions in the world - 'cannot' fill the gaps in this candidate's knowledge? The reason is that Cambridge has chosen not to when it decided to structure its programme in a particular way. The programme could take longer, or start slower and speed up later, or an optional additional year could be tacked on the front. But the beauty of bureaucracy is that when the programme is designed and validated, that happens in a different room at a different time - perhaps even some of the people are different. By the time any individual admissions case comes up for consideration, the design and structure of the course - chosen by Cambridge - has become a hard constraint in the face of which fair-minded individuals are helpless. A group of bureaucrats get to sit in Cambridge perpetuating systems of inequality, and feeling like decent people while they do it.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

More UCAS data

UCAS published data on applications as at 19 December earlier this week. This time, the spin is about a 'late surge', although I can't see much surging in this chart myself.

An even newer University Challenge

You may have seen via the BBC that David Willetts has announced a Government ambition to create more universities. The text of his speech is here, and the critical paragraphs are these ones:

Globalisation is still at its early stages when it comes to Higher Education. The next round of new institutions may well link existing British universities with international partners. The surge in international investment in science and technology would make this a key part of the mission of a new foundation. It might be that today’s institutions propose a new campus or a new international partnership. Or it might be new providers wanting to enter with different models. Today I can announce therefore that the Coalition is inviting proposals for a new type of university with a focus on science and technology and on postgraduates. Local economic partnerships, universities, businesses and international partners can come together to put forward proposals for new institutions.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Citation metrics

Here in the UK, we are sometimes inclined to blame the RAE for setting off fierce competition between universities for research 'stars' and their citations. I suppose it is normal and natural for the British to see themselves as the centres of the universe, and therefore to ascribe international outcomes to national causes, but it isn't very well informed.