The Student Futures Commission

To mark the launch of the Student Futures Commission, the UPP Foundation, using Cibyl as a research partner, sent out a survey to 1.5 million students at over 140 institutions to understand their university experience during the pandemic. 2,147 students responded between 14th-19th May 2021. Like the rest of us, students miss face to face community. 

Students want universities to prioritise a return to in person teaching and are missing face-to-face interaction around their wider student experience, according to a major new survey.

Student Futures Commission

The key findings: 

  • The preferences for study structure next year: 
    • 45% mostly in-person with online teaching once or twice per week. 
    • 29% fully face to face
    • 21% mostly online
    • 6% fully online
  • The majority of students did not participate in any extracurricular activities this academic year
  • 63% believe the pandemic has negatively affected them academically
  • 48% do not believe they have missed any aspect of teaching despite disruptions to delivery
  • 72% are neutral or satisfied with changes to academic assessments
  • 65% believe their course will still help them find a job. 

The full data set can be downloaded from the UPP Foundation website.

Advanced HE’s flexible learning framework

Flexible learning is about student choice, putting learners at the centre of the learning experience and providing them with the flexibility to access learning opportunities around the different areas of their lives. To deliver this requires balanced pragmatism in delivery methods and institutional agility in the structures and systems used by the university to provide choice in an economically viable and sustainable way.

Flexible learning in higher education | Advance HE
Advanced HE Flexible learning framework

According to the HEA’s flexible learning framework, a choice should be offered to students in how, what, when, and where they learn through the pace, place, price, and mode of delivery.

“When well supported, this positively impacts recruitment, retention and progression; widens participation; and offers opportunities to learners of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities.”

Advanced HE

Pace

An undergraduate degree is 360 credits. A postgraduate degree is 180 credits. One credit is equivalent to ten notional learning hours; an undergraduate (UG) course should take a maximum of 3600 hours and a postgraduate taught (PGT) degree a maximum of 1800 hours. Current rules on the maximum duration of study for UG studies is eight years and five years for PGT; this means that the pace of study can be anywhere from 90 weeks to eight years at UG and 45 weeks to five years at PG based on a maximum 40-hour study week. Most university courses currently run off 32 weeks a year for institutional convenience, but the pace could be altered considerably to fit the student.

Place

The place where learning is delivered or received is becoming more flexible. Traditionally courses have been offered on-campus with students travelling to the lecturer and their facilities. The Univerity of London began offering courses by correspondence in 18, posting out study materials, and asking students to attend in-person for the exam only. More recently, these correspondence courses have been replaced with online learning. As work-based learning becomes essential and workplaces increasingly partner with universities for higher education, this provision is being delivered in the workplace or other facilities where specialist equipment or experiences are avalible. 

Price

Most mature students see higher education prices as the most significant barrier to enrollment. Changes to funding have seen considerable drops in part-time student numbers over the last ten years. The Augar report made suggestions to address this, and the Government is set to enact many of these, including a part-time postgraduate loan that allows students to study flexibly. Many part-time postgraduate courses have begun to offer flexible payment options, including per module, per term, or annually.

Mode

The OECD lists the mode of study as the student’s study load, whether full-time or part-time, but may also refer to distance, a mixture of on-campus access methods, or various work-based learning options. HESA, the higher education statistics agency, lists up to 16 different modes of study, categorised primarily for funding purposes, including: 

  • Full-time – according to funding council definitions or other
  • Sandwich – thick, thin, or other
  • Part-time – regular, released from employment, or not released from employment
  • Evening only
  • Open or distance learning
  • Writing-up – previously full-time
  • Continuous delivery

These modes aim to provide students with options to access study that fits their need and availability.

Sign up to view the full framework on the Advanced HE website.

Utilitarianism and skills

The FT published an interesting article yesterday on the current financial troubles facing universities by both tuition fee freezes and, more recently, the changes enforced by the pandemic.

The article ended with paraphrased comments from Professor Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor of Portsmouth university:

The bigger danger to universities was a “utilitarian” government view that they existed only to train workers in “skills the government decides are needed”. “Our broader role in producing well-rounded graduates . . . is being lost,” he said.

FT

First, Is a utilitarian view a bad thing for a government to take on mass education? 

Utilitarianism: the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority. The doctrine that an action is right in so far as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct.

Oxford Languages

Second, how are the government deciding on the skills needed?

“The drive to place employers at the heart of the skills system comes as the Prime Minister launches a new Build Back Better Business Council. The new group will see business leaders work directly with government to fuel the Covid-19 economic recovery.”

Pioneering reforms to boost skills and jobs, Gov.UK

After years of government-supported rapid expansion, in part at the expense of cash-starved further education colleges, the university sector faces genuine challenges. According to the Office for National Statistics, university student numbers have almost doubled since 1992. Graduate numbers are now over 50%; informed by the Augar review, the government has moved its attention to the other 50%. 

Forward-looking universities are working with the government to deliver new qualification such as degree apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications. Both parties are working with businesses to address the genuine global, national, and regional skills gaps. Students, too, are looking for the promise of a more economically secure future and are voting with their feet towards attractive courses, reputable universities, and the perceived boost to career opportunities.

The solutions are far from perfect and often seem like two steps forward one step back, but they are transparent in their direction of travel and open to universities involvement in helping write how we get there. What is included in courses to make students well-rounded is still in the control of those delivering them and businesses are still keen on students that can think, solve problems, and be agile. Universities need to decide if they want to be small elite institutions that service a minority or mass centres of learning that prepare students for a better future.

The tricky thing about a free market in higher education is that it is democratic; the supply and demand have to respond to each other.   

Why equality, diversity, and inclusion matter

Equality is one of the central ideals of a liberal democratic society; Everyone is created free and equal and should be treated as such by law. Equality is also the route to prosperity and ensuring that every generation will be better off than their parents. It is about a universal commitment to individual dignity, an open market of ideas, and a belief in human progress brought about by debate and reform.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article one, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

There are significant problems in human society; extreme poverty and widening inequality, the need for universal health care and education, and a changing egology brought about by human industry. People need the freedom to choose how to live and a commitment to the common interest for these issues to be addressed.

A competitive meritocracy creates prosperity by ensuring that the best ideas win, but it is often closed to the poorest in society, and there are barriers to entry that need to be removed. Providing people with individual dignity and self-reliance generates sources of new thinking and better ideas. Society needs to value equality, diversity, and inclusion and understand that different perspectives are essential for progress.

Equality, diversity, and inclusion

The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out in 1948 lists thirty articles providing an international standard of equality. Within the UK, The Equality Act 2010 lists specific characteristics that are protected under law:

  • age
  • gender reassignment
  • being married or in a civil partnership
  • being pregnant or on maternity leave
  • disability
  • race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

Equality: the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities.

Oxford Languages 

Diversity:  the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.  

Oxford Languages

Inclusion: The practise or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of other minority groups.  

Oxford languages

A commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusion provides a fair society where everyone has the chance to create the life they want and have a positive impact on society. Institutions like universities must provide access to opportunities for anybody prepared to put in the hard work to create a better life. They also must provide society with a broad and diverse range of skilled individuals with unique ideas and perspectives to solve the complex problems we face. 

How many hours will you work in your career?

The website 80,000 hours, created by academics at Oxford University, provides a rough estimate of the average number of hours people will work in their lives:

80,000 hours of work in your career = 40 years x 50 weeks x 40 hours

But how does this relate to the reality for someone in the UK?

92,684 hours of work in a UK career = 47 years x 46.4 weeks x 42.5 hours

This number is considerable, but the equation is highly variable based on your work. If you take an academic working at an English university, the working years, weeks and hours contracted will be less, but actual hours might be greater. 

If you started paying into a pension before 2011, it might be possible to retire at 60, and you likely stayed in education through to a PhD so graduated at 26, giving just 34 years of ‘work’. A full-time academic ‘contracted’ hours might be 37 per week, and work 44.4 weeks with 38 days of leave, including bank holidays. 

This fictional academic could work just 55,855.2 hours in their career based on contracted hours. However, this is a romantic bare minimum, and self-reporting on working hours is much higher. 

The question is, what will you do with the hours you have left? 

Retention vs Aquisition

The cost of attracting new customers in most sectors has been steadily rising for many years. The increasing Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) has been mirrored in the HE sector and significantly for online courses. This acquisition cost includes direct marketing such as digital advertising, staff salaries, marketing software, and other associated marketing and recruitment costs. 

Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) is the cost of winning a customer to purchase a product/service.

Wikipedia

A Guardian article in April 2019 lists the total marketing spends of several UK universities. The University of Central Lancashire spent £3.4 million on marketing in the 2017/18 academic year, the University of the West of England spent £3 million, and Middlesex spent 2.6 million. These figures only represent around 1.5-2% of total revenue but equivalent to between 370-280 students’ tuition fees. I could not find specific numbers for online courses but have observed in conference presentations that the marketing spend can be as high as 20% of the student fee, mainly due to a lack of scale.

Any rising cost in running a university has a significant effect. The student loan has been fixed since 2017 and does not rise with inflation. All things being equal, a fixed tuition fee loan means that each year universities need to grow or make cuts similar to inflation (1.6%) to break even. HESA data states that staffing costs represent 54.7% of university expenditure and has decreased by 6.54% over the last seven years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated before the pandemic that at least thirteen of the one hundred and sixty-seven institutions were financially at risk, and several high profile universities, including the University of Leicester, have announced large scale redundancies. 

Universities can start to address this freeze in tuition fee loans and increasing marketing costs by first focusing on customer retention and then on customer lifetime value.  

Customer retention is the collection of activities a business uses to increase the number of repeat customers and to increase the profitability of each existing customer.

Shopify

Customer lifetime value (CLV, or CLTV) is the metric that indicates the total revenue a business can reasonably expect from a single customer account throughout the business relationship.

Hubspot

The Guardian article calculated that the University of Bedfordshire spends £432 per enrolled student; if that student stays for a three-year undergraduate degree, it will provide a £27,750 return if the student drops out the first year, this return reduces to just £9,250. HESA data states that 6.3% (20,295) of first-year, full-time UK-based students in the 15/16 academic year did not continue to their second year. That 20,295 students not continuing their course represents almost £190 million lost in the sector for just year two of a degree and double that for losses going into the third year.

“Evaluating who your customers are and dedicating time and effort toward re-engaging them is not only essential, but often comes at the fraction of the cost of sourcing entirely new ones.”

Dynamic Yield

Student retention is not a simple thing, and some drop-outs may be unavoidable due to life circumstances. Still, this number can be reduced, especially for institutions with rates of 10% and above. The first step to retention is to collect data on why students are dropping out through exit interviews and use this to build an intervention process that can identify students before they pass the point of no return. A solid intervention process should set clear and high expectations, monitor against those expectations, and intervene when they are not met.

After addressing the most significant issues and with a solid tracking and intervention process, institutions can focus on personalising the student experience. Dynamic Yield, experts in online personalisation, suggest that loyalty and retention efforts should be data-driven and deliver captivating, tailored experiences. Retention efforts should be iterative to build on what works and lose what doesn’t.

The final piece of the puzzle is to focus on the lifetime relationship the student has with the institution. Most graduating students have loyalty to where they studied and will probably require significant upskilling throughout their careers. Universities should build on this relationship, and learning needs to provide ongoing qualifications for their alumni at critical stages of their working lives. Cross-selling comes at a significantly lower cost than acquiring new students allowing the courses to be more affordable or will enable more of the tuition fees to be spent on making the experience better.

Narrowing the digital divide

To learn online, you need a stable internet connection and an internet-enabled device such as laptops or smartphones. However, when the March 2020 lockdown hit in the UK and universities and schools moved online, 11% of households did not have access to the internet, according to the Office of Communications (OFCOM). One year later and that number was down to 6%.

A new OFCOM report on Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes published on the 28th of April states that “The pandemic had been the catalyst for a step-change in digital skills…” but warned that 1.5 million UK homes still do not have access to the internet. The research showed that 10% of users access the internet via a smartphone only, and 20% of children did not have constant access to a device for online learning during the lockdowns.

The recent Office for Students guidance paper found that around 30% of university students surveyed lacked good internet access, and 30% lacked a suitable study space. If the 30% from the survey translates to the whole 2.38 million UK student population, that is roughly 300,000 students with digital access issues. 

During a regular year, this would have been covered by on-campus facilities. The University I work at provides computers in study spaces across its campuses, includes a computer finder tool in the student app, and high-speed internet in all its accommodation. But with social distancing and full lockdowns, these facilities were in limited supply, halls become the primary social spaces as external spaces were forced to close, and many students found themselves returning home to shared devices, bandwidth, and workspaces with parents and siblings. 

The Gravity assist paper recommends that university providers make digital access a priority:

  • Appropriate hardware for students to access course content with parity of experience. 
  • Appropriate software for students to access course content
  • Robust technical infrastructure that works seamlessly and repaired promptly
  • Reliable access to the internet with sufficient bandwidth
  • A trained teacher or instructor equipt to deliver high-quality digital learning and teaching 
  • An appropriate study place that is quiet and consistently avalible

Most universities have adapted to the challenge, providing year-long laptop loans, broadband dongles, and technical support to those students that need it. Academics have rapidly upskilled with digital teaching practices and redesigning courses to adapt to the changing access to students. Software vendors like Microsoft and Virtual Learning Environment vendors like D2L have adapted too, rapidly releasing new tools and dramatically increasing infrastructure to handle the shift to online. 

Many of these fixes were put in place as short-term solutions, and universities, academics, and tech companies must now find long-term solutions that do not disadvantage this 30% of students. The Office for students suggests that institutions start to engage with students individually before their courses start. Universities should offer solutions where needed, such as loaning laptops, financial support, and creative study space solutions, in the same way other additional needs are currently handled.

Flexible learning should hold an advantage for students from the most deprived areas of the UK, allowing them to study around their many additional commitments caring responsibilities, part-time work, and commutes. Significant progress has been made over the last twelve months to provide equal access to higher education; we need to put the same level of planning into maintaining digital access for all.  

Phylagen Origin: track and trace using microbial DNA

I started my MBA with Quantic school of business and technology last week. My favourite part of studying at a university is the lecture series, and this evening I attended (virtually) my first guest lecture delivered by Jessica Green from Phylageny

All geographic locations have a unique microbial DNA signature. These genetic codes can be used to identify where a product or material has come from in the same way as DNA testing is used in criminology. The company uses the blockchain to store critical information for companies so that checks can be carried out along a supply chain and authenticate that the genetic markers such as the origin factory are as expected.

Phylagen Origin is a startup service that collects genetic material from locations worldwide and uses these to provide traceability. Examples include:

  • Verifying a ships log from dust particles on that boat.
  • Checking T-shirts come from a specific factory and not from outsourced factories with lower labour standards.
  • Checking medicines come from authorised materials. 
  • Tracing the origin or raw materials such as cotton, the product journey, and growing practices.

Phylagen collects DNA samples, generates the microbiome features, and then uses machine learning to distinguish features. Tracking cotton involves collecting cotton samples from around the world, logging their features, and then allowing machine learning to create a model of these features to use against future samples. When an unknown sample is tested, its genetic fingerprint is then crossreferenced to the model and a probability generated for its origin and any other characteristics modelled. 

The talk was fascinating and showed a glimpse of how new technologies such as microbiome testing, the blockchain, and machine learning can be used to solve genuine issues. It will be possible in the future to ensure a product you buy has not used slave labour at any stage of the supply chain, track pollution back to offending companies, or follow the spread of infectious diseases back to the source.  

I am happy to be back at University.

The English Indices of Deprivation 2019

The Indices of deprivation (IoD) is a collection of seven measures of deprivation used to relatively rank areas of England. The aim is to order the 32,844 small areas, with an average population of 1,500 or 650 households, from the least deprived to the least, and monitor changes in these ranks over time. The indices were introduced in the 1970s by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government to measure local deprivation across England. These neighbourhoods are officially called Lower-layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs).

Poverty is a lack of financial resources, whereas deprivation includes multiple aspects of individuals living conditions to measure a lack of resources. There are 39 indicators organised into seven domains combined using weightings that value income and employment more heavily than other forms of deprivation such as health or risk of crime. As a relative measure, there is no threshold where an area is considered deprived, but rather it is used to measure the relative deprivation between local areas.

The seven measures that make up the IoD are:

  • Income (22.5%)*: Measures the proportion of the population experiencing deprivation relating to low income
  • Employment (22.5): Measures the proportion of the working-age population in an area involuntarily excluded from the labour market
  • Education (13.5%): Measures the lack of attainment and skills in the local population
  • Health (13.5%): Measures the risk of premature death and the impairment of quality of life through poor physical or mental health
  • Crime (9.3%): Measures the risk of personal and material victimisation at local level
  • Barriers to housing and services (9.3%): Measures the physical and financial accessibility of housing and local services
  • Living environment (9.3%): Measures the quality of both the ‘indoor’ and ‘outdoor’ local environment

*Percentages represent weighting used when combining the domains

The latest data was collected in 2015 and 2019. Deprivation is distributed across England, with 61% of local authorities having at least one of the highest deprivation areas. The most deprived areas of the country tend to be concentrated in cities, particularly those that used to have heavy industry, including Birmingham, Nottingham, and Hartlepool, coastal towns, and parts of east London. Blackpool is considered the most deprived area of England, with eight of the ten most deprived neighbourhoods in the indices.

The indices can be used to compare neighbourhoods across England, identify the most deprived small areas, and compare larger regions based on the relative deprivation within the LSOAs, such as the number of areas in the bottom 20% of the indices. The data can also be used to explore individual domains such as levels of education, health, or crime in particular areas. Movements in the relative rank of a given area can be used as evidence of the effectiveness of development programmes or targeted interventions. 

The Indices of Deprivation is becoming more critical for Universities. The Office for Students puts pressure on higher education institutions to narrow gaps in access, progression, attainment, and outcomes between different groups of students. Gaps in the four areas existing between those that come from regions ranking lower than those that rank higher. Universities must make sure they are narrowing the gaps by seeking to recruit students from areas of high deprivation, putting in place interventions to help these students stay at university and achieve a good degree, and support them to find a graduate-level job once they leave.

Being aware of the indices is essential, first to understand that deprivation is not just about income, and secondly that you can use it over time to measure the impact of your work. You can read the complete reports and access the data on the UK Government website

Creative Arts funding: What is really going on.

My Twitter feed over the last week has been full of comments like ‘disgusting’, ‘an absolute disgrace’, ‘shortsighted’, and ‘damaging’. The words have been attached to articles with titles including: ‘Plans for 50% funding cuts to arts subjects at universities catastrophic‘ from the Guardian, ‘Arts figures criticise plan to cut university funding for creative subjects‘ by the BBC, and ‘Office For Students consults on 49% cuts to HE arts courses‘ by the Cultural Learning Alliance. 

As a Music Production graduate who spent much of my career teaching in or managing Creative Arts departments, these headlines come as quite shocking. The creative industries are a vital area of the UK economy and one in which we are world-leading. The subjects that feed the sector with talented graduates are expensive to deliver, requiring specialist equipment, and provide a route for students that are less academic and primarily from lower-income backgrounds.  

These articles and comments have come in response to a consultation the Office for students and the Department of Education have been carrying out into redirecting a particular type of Higher Education funding. To understand what is going on, you first have to look at how university courses are funded.

How courses are funded

In England, university students pay up to £9,250 per year in tuition fees. The money is usually paid by student loans directly to the university. It is also common for individual courses to require students to pay materials fees or compulsory field trips at enrolment. If a course recruits thirty students per year, the course would then have £277,500 (30 x £9,250) per year to run that course.

 In a typical university, up to 70% of the student fee would go to staff costs, leaving £83,250 to pay for facilities and resources for our example course. This might sound a lot, but once you have factored in the buildings and heating, security, marketing and recruitment, student union extracurricular activities, and general running costs, it does not leave much to buy the specialist equipment required to prepare students for world-leading industries. 

Universities have got around this shortfall in two ways; the first is scale, the second is a government top-up called the Higher Education Teaching Grant (T-Grant). Most universities are large organisations with many thousands of students and take advantage of economies of scale by pooling fees for the non-staff costs like computers and buildings. Many courses can be run for under £9,250 per year, and so institutions charge the top rate to all students and then take a top-slice from all courses, creating a fund that can be bid for when subject areas require specialist facilities or resources. 

To support the HE sector in resource-heavy subjects, The Department of Education has the T-Grant fund that provides high-cost subject funding allocated to these areas based on the higher costs. The new ‘Allocation of the Higher Education teaching grant funding in the 2021-22 Financial Year‘ consultation looks at how this fund might be used differently. 

High-cost subject funding — supporting strategically important subjects. High-cost subject funding is currently allocated simply based on higher costs of provision, with little strategic prioritisation. The OfS should reprioritise funding towards providing high-cost, high-value subjects that support the NHS and wider healthcare policy, high-cost STEM subjects and/or specific labour market needs.

Gavin Williamson CBE MP

The proposal suggests 50% of the T-Grant for subjects including performing arts, creative arts, and media studies are removed for the 21/22 academic year and reallocated to high need areas such as those supporting the NHS, STEM subjects, and other areas with skills shortages. This proposal is in part a response to the Auger report but also part of the Government’s broader strategy to address the skills mismatch. It is worth noting that the DfS has identified eleven smaller specialist institutions that will retain the full T-Grant for these subjects.

The proposed courses eligible for the high-cost funding are:

  • Clinical Medicine
  • Clinical Dentistry/Dental Hygiene and Therapy
  • Veterinary science 
  • Nursing and allied health professions (pre-registration courses) 
  • Anatomy and Physiology, Pharmacy and Pharmacology
  • Sciences (Agriculture, Forestry and Food Science; Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences; Biosciences; Chemistry; Physics) 
  • Engineering subjects 
  • Information Technology

Impact

There are three primary reasons I can see why this is a problem for the sector and students. First is the timing; even if you ignore the impact of the pandemic, these changes are proposed for the next academic year, starting in four months. If approved, it will not leave long for the universities to react, finding funding that may already have been allocated for infrastructure projects or recruiting students to courses incentivised by the T-Grant. 

Second, most universities work on overall budgets, so although the funding is being reallocated rather than removed, it will benefit some universities but significantly hurt others. Some universities that already teach both the high-cost subjects and the new strategically important subjects will offset the cuts in the creative arts with the increase in funding in other areas. Other smaller institutions that do not teach the new strategically important subjects will not offset the cuts, which means significant reductions to budgets that will most likely lead to redundancies. 

Finally, and most importantly, the subjects facing 50% reductions in the T-Grant are the types of subjects that tend to attract students with lower grades and from disadvantaged backgrounds. My teaching career is full of stories of kids coming from deprived backgrounds that have found a passion for creative arts, studied hard, and then gone on to prosperous careers. If we are disincentivising universities away from delivering these courses by removing the needed additional funding for the required resources, will these kids instead choose to study engineering?

The Government has been clear, with 50% of people in the UK getting a degree by the age of thirty but with 8% of employers not able to recruit to positions due to a lack of skills and 13% having internal issues with skills, something needs to be done to address the mismatch. The Apprenticeships levy was the first grand step, and Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQ) is the next big move. Degree Apprenticeships and HTQs moving forward should help provide funding to give students the skills they need for work. 

It is unclear how much the pandemic and lockdowns have accelerated this proposal and if it will be rushed through for the September cohorts. It is clear that if they are introduced, they will represent a reduction of the T-Grant of around £17 million for universities delivering creative arts courses. These might not be the same institutions providing the courses that the funding is redirected towards. I do not believe the reporting I have read has been fairly presented and does not consider the governments broader strategy and increased funding for skills. Still, the timing is poor and has the potential to impact those that most need support. 

I would love to hear your views in the comments, on Twitter, or on Linkedin.