Student approval ratings are abysmal – universities need effective regulation

Originally published in the Guardian, 10th April 2017

Imagine if a major car manufacturer released a new model that 25% of drivers couldn’t agree was “running smoothly” after three years of ownership. Or a major driving school where one in four customers said they had not received “sufficient advice and support” before their test – or where almost as many couldn’t bring themselves to agree that feedback on their driving “had helped them clarify things they didn’t understand”.

For any service sector with humility, these statistics would be a source of shame, and a reason for regulators to intervene. But in higher education, our funding council took the most recent National (final year) Student Survey and wrote that “this year’s survey remains very positive, demonstrating the commitment of all higher education providers to deliver high quality teaching and learning for their students”.

For taxpayers, students (and now the National Audit Office), this is about value for money. Back in 2013, the then higher education minister David Willetts said that “students will be asking what they are getting for a fee of £9,000. I answer that it is to pay for their teaching not to cross-subsidise research. I hope and expect to see a decline in the number of students with such low contact hours”. Yet rather than improving, student perceptions of “good value for money” have collapsed – from 53% in 2012 to just 37% today.

Seven years after the “battle of Millbank”, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the allocation of precious parliamentary time to a higher education bill by the government might fix some of the injustices involved in the purchasing of a university education – but you’d be wrong. For while we remain obsessed with a headline undergraduate fee level of £9,000, politicians appear to be unconcerned with what that pays for, where the money goes, and what happens when students don’t get what they were promised.

Whereas in press regulation the playbook for resisting reasonable regulation is to shout “press freedom”, in higher education the game of the lavishly rewarded vice-chancellor set is to cry “academic freedom” and “institutional autonomy”. It’s a right invoked to conjure up the image of brave academics challenging convention and standing up to tyrants, but then gets grubbily used by the great and the good for their own tyrannical purposes.

Want to challenge the mark you’ve been awarded by an overworked, stressed-out lecturer marking 200 scripts a night? You can’t challenge “academic judgment”, one of the only professions left where a blanket ban on challenges to “reasonable skill and care” still holds.

Want to find out the extent to which your tuition fees subsidise research? Want to know how much humanities subsidise Stem? Some 75% of students want more information about how their tuition fees are spent, but universities resist publishing data in comparable form, claiming “autonomy” to spend tuition fee income on other things.

Want to find out the social make-up of the university’s medical or accountancy students to ensure that pressure is on to diversify our top professions? Even the government’s own higher education access regulator can’t do that – prevented by law from intervening even at subject-cluster level to urge action because of “academic freedom”.

And don’t expect the government’s vaunted “teaching excellence framework” to come close to achieving its purpose of driving excellence in teaching. Its ragtag collection of proxy metrics doesn’t even include one on teaching, and its focus on institutional averages hides differences in performance between subjects and departments within universities that are so vast as to make the assessment meaningless for students choosing courses. Any suggestion of taking this down to the subject level? No. It’s been kicked into the long grass by vice-chancellors and lords.

There is a reasonable argument within higher education that regards students being seen as “consumers” as a problem. Educational outcomes aren’t bought and sold, they’re co-produced; and just as customers of the local gym have to turn up and pump some iron to get fit, so students have to take some responsibility for their own learning to get their qualification and progress their career.

But the essential nature of education as a service – and the personal debt now being piled on to those who enter higher education at 18 – also means that students and graduates need to have some say over what is provided. Higher education bill scrutiny in the upper house could have been used to compel universities to publish what students will get for their fees, or to prevent the government retrospectively changing student loans terms.

Instead, months after the Brexit damage has been done, the Lords has adopted the vice-chancellors’ phony war over international students’ inclusion in net migration figures – ringfencing the cash cows while doing nothing to stem the racism directed at migrants who aren’t in higher education.

Most of the UK’s higher education is good. Our research is world class, our teachers are talented and most people working in management mean well. But the misguided belief of the great and the good that their mere presence and attitude is enough to protect people at the margins of institutions from facing injustices when things go wrong is what regulation is supposed to correct.

Despite the proposal for an Office for Students, that the higher education bill will shortly complete its journey through parliament doing little more for students than legitimising a further increase in their fees tells us all we need to know about whose interests this government is prioritising.


Free speech instruction is a needless endorsement of the media’s culture wars

Originally published on

Universities told they must protect freedom of speech” says the headline in today’s Times.

Keen followers of the HE culture wars might have been surprised to read the Times’ take on Jo Johnson’s letter to UUK calling on universities to be responsible for freedom of speech mainly because universities have been required to “protect freedom of speech” since legislation was passed requiring them to do so when Johnson was fifteen.

“It’s a legal duty” notes the Times, to “ensure as far as practicable that freedom of speech is secured for members, students, employees and visiting speakers”. All university premises should not be “denied to any individual or body on any grounds connected with their beliefs or views, policy or objective”. He reminds them “it is important to note that the duty extends to both the premises of the university and premises occupied by the students’ unions, even when they are not part of the university premises.”

On the face of it this looks not dissimilar to Johnson’s letter to UUK on anti-Semitism last month; a “public reminder” to universities of their existing legal duties that preserve the prized autonomy of the HE sector while looking tough for his backbenchers in the papers. He reminds vice chancellors that freedom of speech codes of practice should not be allowed to “gather dust”- but having had to review their wording in light of Prevent legislation over the past few years, it’s monumentally unlikely that any vice chancellor or registrar in the UK is not already acutely aware of the legal duty.

Packaged into the piece in the Times is the usual collection of nonsensical culture wars tropes: students are the ‘victims’ of censorship; Germaine Greer; vicars and tarts parties; and the outlawing of the phrase ‘mankind’. “94 per cent of campuses have some restrictions on freedom of expression” it repeats, apparently not concerned that according to the pitiful ‘research’ it references, 6% of universities would appear to think it’s OK to sexually harass people in blackface whilst inciting terrorism.

Act, or we’ll regulate he warns. “[The government] could require providers that are subject to a public interest governance condition to include a principle about freedom of speech principles in their governance documents”. Strong stuff.

Of course, there is no prospect that either the 1986 Education Act or the current Bill’s public interest governance condition could end up stopping students’ unions from deciding not to stock The Sun or resolving to ban groping in their nightclub. There’s also no prospect of a change to charity law, where there’s a countervailing duty on students’ unions and universities to manage the risks associated with external speakers.

There is, as ever, no mention of the fact that it’s remarkably hard to find real evidence of speakers being actually banned anywhere. And there’s no mention at all of the expectation that universities are expected to heavily restrict the freedom of speech of anyone that’s Muslim and wants to question western values.

The prospect of the Higher Education and Research Bill’s “public interest governance condition” being souped up in this area is as intriguing as it is dispiriting. Johnson has already argued that the new condition on governing bodies shouldn’t be used to do innocuous things like cause governing bodies to respond to student concerns, allow proper scrutiny of sky high executive pay, or have students in membership of governing bodies – in order to protect “autonomy”.

Yet when it comes to a set of duties that universities have been actively wrestling with since he was fifteen, the sword of regulation is dangled over the head so the minister can look tough on the eve of the third reading in the Lords.

It’s perfectly possible to see the Johnson letter as a purely political move; a not-so-dead-cat on the table to convince Lords that the NSS doesn’t, in fact, lead to student demands for safe spaces being acquiesced to unthinkingly. But he should be careful what he wishes for.

Back in the mid-eighties, much of the outrage over freedom of speech came from student protests about pro-apartheid backbenchers. In the 90s, it was students that were banning the vile anti-seminism of Hizb Ut Tahrir, long before Prevent came on the scene. In the 00s students’ unions were giving “Zero Tolerance” to sexual harassment long before UUKs taskforce ambled round to it. And I’m pretty confident that in 20 years we’ll look back on the current era and wonder why on earth we were worried that students were debating and then outlawing transphobia, or bullying, or rich white people dressing up as poor black people.

Academic freedom is holding back fair access to the professions

Originally published on

Those of us advocating for users in the public policy space will be familiar with the concept of “provider capture”. It describes the way in which the interests of providers – and those that run them – come to be embodied in policy at the expense of users.

It’s a concept that will be hauntingly familiar to Sir Michael Barber, as he wrestles with an Office for Students that, despite its title, will be formed by legislation and a minister which barely seems to talk about students anymore. And it will also be familiar to Director for Fair Access Les Ebdon, whose organisation will soon be merged into the new OfS.

Having yanked money away from access initiatives in the last parliament, one of the things it’s possible to give the current government some credit for is its focus on social mobility, particularly in the Higher Education and Research Bill. OFFA will get powers to intervene beyond access and into student retention, achievement and employment. There’s a new statutory duty to publish application, offer, acceptance and completion rates by gender, ethnic background and socio-economic background.

And now Jo Johnson has announced further changes, tabling an amendment which will also require universities to publish attainment data broken down by these characteristics. If you believe (as I do) that the publication of this sort of data can help to drive change, it’s happy days.

Change is needed because the harsh reality is that a degree does not have the same value for all graduates. Even when institution and subject are accounted for, students from higher income families earn around 10% more than the average. Black African qualifiers are 14% less likely than their white peers to be in professional work six months after graduation. And there is a high social mobility penalty; those who make it from working class backgrounds into the professions are likely to be paid around £150 a week less than their counterparts who grew up in professional families. 80% of medical students come from households containing professionals or those in higher managerial roles, and more than a quarter from private schools.

The staff rooms of the UK’s big firms and professions remain stubbornly unrepresentative. In some law firms around 40% of staff were educated at fee-paying or selective schools, and as many as 70% in some elite accountancy firms, compared to 7% in the wider population. Their recruitment practices don’t help. Research conducted for the Social Mobility Commission in 2015 found that notions of talent at some top firms rely on class characteristics as much as objective measures of how good someone might be at a job.

Given this national disgrace, the man on the Clapham omnibus might be forgiven for assuming that the UK’s higher education access regulator is doing something about all of this, particularly when it comes to medicine, law, dentistry, pharmacy, veterinary studies and accountancy courses. Surely Les Ebdon looks at the stats and ensures that access agreements ensure improvements can be made in widening access to the professions through professional university courses?

Sadly not. Last summer I put this question to our access regulator at a conference, and he made clear that the law prevents him from analysing or regulating universities at a subject level on the grounds of ‘academic freedom’.

When OFFA was created in 2004, Universities UK successfully argued that lines should be written into legislation to stop government meddling in course choice, and this is now used to bat off any attempts to diversify the intake of subjects that lead into the top professions. Jo Johnson’s announcement that he’s backing Lord Stevenson’s amendment on institutional autonomy will compound the problem. Is this another abuse of the sector’s cherished ‘autonomy and freedom’?

It’s not just the professions where this is problematic for fairer and wider access. Wide disparities beneath institution’ averages hide all sorts of differences between subjects. Any higher education institution in the top end of the sector that holds its region’s nursing contract can prop up failures in widening participation elsewhere. Take those students away, and a whole chunk of their progress on poor postcodes, mature, and BME access disappears.

It is dispiriting that ‘autonomy’ clauses strengthened in the Bill might further prevent any real action here. The whole affair does give us clues as to why subject-level TEF is being skilfully talked down and long-grassed by sector representatives. Whole-institutional averages on all sorts of issues – including access, attainment, satisfaction, retention and graduate destinations – are pointless information for students if they hide pockets of poor performance at subject level. It’s a classic ‘category error‘. Yet Johnson has put back full implementation of subject-level TEF to 2019-20, with mutterings that this is the pre-cursor to a quiet dropping of subject-level interventions altogether.

The result is as familiar as it is miserable. At the behest of a legislature captured by the socially exclusive, the minister trying to save his Bill has backed down and guaranteed that those universities which supply the UK’s doctors, dentists, lawyers and accountants are never held accountable for the poor job that they do at recruiting disadvantaged students to those courses.

And so the cycle of capture continues.

Time for some quality conversations?

Originally published on changesu

There tends to be an underpinning assumption in SUs that officers talk to students and staff do the work. This has always felt odd to me- it did at NUS when I initiated a programme of NUS Staff getting out to SUs, and it did when I arrived at UEA to find a whole floor of staff which students weren’t even allowed to visit. This struck me as a fun sacred cow to try to slay.

A key tool in the box for great student representative is robust data, and back in 2015 like many Unions we were keen to augment the large annual survey work that HEFCE, the University and the union itself carried out with more detailed research on particular areas.

That year we had instituted a series of ‘Sixty Second Surveys’ which aimed to capture the viewpoint of students weekly- but despite initial positive response rates, it became apparent that this passive form of collection led to a dwindling take-up and a narrow field of student groups regularly giving their opinions, whilst other groups became increasingly silent.

Change one thing

That spring we held a large scale “Change One Thing” consultation where almost 1000 students provided their suggestions across an intense 2 day period. We had asked all SU staff (and I mean all career staff) to staff the stalls across the days, having actual conversations with students. When we reviewed the day, as well as looking at the data we looked at the experience of staff that had helped out:

  • Many were in non student facing roles and had almost no contact with students at all
  • Many were in customer facing roles but only spoke to students as a customer rather than someone with a real life
  • Many were in student facing roles and felt they carried an unreasonably large burden around as being the ‘people who talk to students’

We also reviewed the way we were talking to students:

  • Most of our intel came from impersonal surveys carried out online
  • When we spoke to students we asked them what they thought about us or the University, but not about them or their lives

Information from the 2015 SU Survey and the National Student Survey 2015 also clearly identified two areas of concern for the SU that we thought we ought to address directly:

  1. Students didn’t know enough about the SUs work in advocacy and bringing about change, and
  2. A perception that the SU spoke for students without listening to their opinions enough

At that stage in our new strategy we resolved to create a scheme called “Quality Conversations”. The idea was that all SU staff- and certainly not just “the officers”- should spend some time every week our talking to students.

By deploying staff, officers and volunteers into a proactive conversation and data collection role, information on the SUs work will be brought to students rather than them needing to seek it out and their views and concerns will be collected, listened to and acted upon much more regularly. Crucially, we thought that human interactions (which campus universities build a justifiable reputation on) would help us develop a genuine relationship with our members. And this method allowed us to gather data rapidly where an issue was bounced on us in a University Committee agenda.

Developing Capacity

Our target was 250 positive “quality” conversations a week. Whilst the number of conversations can appear high, in reality this meant up to eight conversations for staff. For staff, training was offered on how to approach conversations lead by our Campaigns and Policy team. Whilst for some members of staff this was “common sense” for others there was a need to upskill.

Alongside the involvement of permanent staff we deployed a 15 hour per week student staff member to act to plug gaps in our collection data if there were missing demographics, alongside aiding the inputting and low level analysis of information.

Collection and “front-end” processes

  • Questions are structured simply with 1–2 quantitative and 1 qualitative question each week on a theme. The conversation feel natural and be able to flow into tangents.
  • Alongside the set questions that change each week collection also includes demographic and contact information to ensure that samples are representative of the UEA population.
  • Students are prompted to raise anything else they feel strongly about. If they want they can indicate they’d like someone to follow up personally and that issue is them taken up by the right member of staff or officer internally.
  • There are two collection methods to allow for the variation in collection environments. Most commonly staff use tablets to enter information into a supplied Surveymonkey questionnaire. Alternatively paper copies are available with a requirement for the collector to input information into the central survey on return to an office. Heads of departments are responsible for ensuring teams hit targets.
  • Following on from conversations we follow up with an email to the student thanking them and letting them know what the next steps are in terms of their viewpoint being actioned.
  • A simple flash report is produced at the end of each week with lessons to present internally or to the University.

Lessons from year one

In year one we ran the scheme in all “term time” weeks other than welcome week and elections week. It wasn’t an overnight success- some staff attempted to opt out, many not having the confidence or skills to cold approach students. We also set strange targets for different categories of staff causing some resentment. So in year two we’ve made changes so that all staff go out in pairs (where they’re paired up from different departments) and all allocate an hour- so that by the end of the year everyone will have spent at least 24 hours talking to students as students.


The most exciting thing about the scheme is the impact it’s had both on our representation work and on the relationship between SU staff and members. This academic year we’ve run QC on a whole range of stuff- teaching rooms, non academic space, housing, welcome week, module evaluation and student costs- and in every case we’ve secured wins, reviews or changes off the back of the data in the hands and heads of our amazing sabbs.

Perhaps more importantly, there’s much more of a commitment to and culture of understanding our members across our staff. Previously this was seen as something that the data geeks or the officers did- now it’s a whole union commitment and I often overhear fascinating conversations from staff I’d never have expected to be engaged outraged at a bit of casework or poor treatment they’ve picked up on their QC hour.

Final Thoughts

I can’t promise that this scheme alone will deliver an amazing Q26 score and nor can I promise that every staff member employed in an SU will be thrilled at the prospect- however much training is on offer. I can promise that getting ourselves out of the lazy idea that researchers or elected officers are the ones that should be talking to students and gathering data can improve culture and tool our officers up with rapid insights that can set the agenda on the student experience.

You only get what you pay for. Or do you?

Originally published on wonkhe

For as long as students have been paying (at least in part and/or in arrears) for their university education, an entire cadre of sector types have been arguing that when students are seen as consumers, bad things happen.

The news that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) had a regulatory role to play in higher education was met with deep suspicion. Won’t inappropriate intervention from this uncouth bunch of washing machine regulators ruin the essential nature of co-produced education? Won’t bossy bureaucrats from the CMA meddle with the academic freedom of autonomous universities?

Last week here at UEA, the CMA intervened after the university made significant changes to the content of a course by introducing compulsory modules (limiting students’ choice of optional modules) and not properly informing prospective students who had received course offers about the changes. UEA regarded the changes as ‘minor’- letting itself off the hook on proper consultation and information – but both the students and the CMA have taken a different view, viewing them as ‘substantial’.

It’s a fascinating case because it opens up a real regulatory dichotomy for students. When students argue that they’ve been treated unfairly, the sector’s regulator, OIA, has to consider whether a higher education provider has followed its own internal rules. But then having not upheld a complaint, the CMA can come in and make clear that the rules weren’t fair.

This is hardly a satisfactory set of arrangements for students, and it makes Baroness Wolf and Baroness Brown’s proposed amendment (number 429) to the Higher Education and Research Bill to get CMA out of higher education altogether look decidedly dodgy.

These sorts of stories – as students get better at challenging unfairness – are not going to go away. Last year it emerged that a graduate from Oxford has decided to sue his university for £1 million, claiming that “appallingly bad” tuition cost him his first-class degree and therefore prevented him from having a successful career. The press ran with the usual cries of spoilt millennials. But in cases like this, it’s easy to see that students might have a point: that they do have a right to seek redress on teaching quality and quantity, or in consumer terms, ‘get what they’ve paid for’.

Translucent at best

Something interesting is going on in students’ unions this year. A whole clutch of unions are running campaigns around value for money concerning universities’ fees and finances. That they are having to do this is shameful, and a reflection on the abject failure of HEFCE’s long since abandoned nudge in this direction a couple of years ago. It is also one of the reasons why the shift from funder (HEFCE) to regulator (OfS) needs to mean more than just a logo change.

In November, Universities UK attempted to deliver some of this much-needed transparency by releasing an interactive explainer” showing “how universities in England spend their money, and how all of this ultimately benefits the paying student”. This was partly a response to last year’s HEPI/HEA Student Engagement Survey, which found that 75% of students “did not feel they have enough information on what universities spend their money on”. Yet UUK’s efforts managed to snatch opaque defeat from the jaws of transparency victory through a series of unpleasant distortions. “We spend £1.3 billion on student accommodation” it trumpets, burying the circa £2 billion that students pay for it in an already inflated housing market.

The clamour for financial transparency is a symptom of a wider problem that is the focus of the aforementioned court case at Oxford: more and more students feel that they are not getting what are paying for. The HEPI/HEA survey found that perceptions of ‘good value for money’ are falling everywhere, with strong evidence that students equate contact hours with good value. Students are particularly miffed that their money is used to cross-subsidise – both for research and for courses that are expensive to teach – yet the sector responds with ever more ridiculous attempts to confuse services with benefits as if doing so will help.

Delivering a service

While students are happy to argue that ‘tuition’ fees are probably paying for ‘tuition’, the ongoing debate about contact hours reached new heights of preposterousness in the aftermath of the HEPI/HEA study. The report reasonably concluded that students develop skills better through independent study rather than lectures or seminars, prompting a series of commentators to suggest that students’ ‘obsession’ with contact hours was somehow misplaced.

I go to the cinema to relax. I could probably derive more relaxation from reading a book in my house. That doesn’t mean that my local Odeon gets to take my ticket money, berate me for my obsession with films and send me off with a book and a mug of Horlicks instead.

I go to the gym to get fit. I would probably be fitter if I ate and drank less and did more walking. That doesn’t mean that my local Virgin Active gets to take my money, berate me for my ‘obsession’ with gym equipment, and send me off with a map and flask of Slimfast instead.

While some students do want skills from their degree experience, they reserve the right to want other things. Some want knowledge. Some want specialist skills and some more generic skills. Some derive emotional or social benefits from higher education. Some do not.

Though students want benefits from higher education, they are paying for a service. They are paying for the star teachers sold to them on open days, for the glittering libraries not to be full in the run-up to exams, for computers to work, for the optional modules to be available, assessment to be carried out with care and returned on time, and for labs and equipment that are fit for purpose.

That doesn’t mean that most students are arrogant enough to assume that merely paying £9k entitles them to a degree. But it does mean that as they sign up for a lifetime of debt repayments, the least universities can do is deliver what is promised, explain where their money has gone honestly and transparently, and support rather than berate them when they ‘obsess’ over not getting what was sold to them in a brochure.

Of course, teaching quality is just as important as quantity – HEFCE research demonstrates that “information about teaching qualifications has been identified as important to students”, and “is seen as an indicator of individual and institutional commitment to teaching and learning”. But quality and quantity are not always a trade off. Students feel that they’ve been sold some actual contact with actual people. And if they’re sold module choices and then don’t get them, that’s not academic freedom: it’s misselling.

Ultimately, for most students, “going to university is an expensive, once-in-a-lifetime event and they should enjoy the best possible experience. So it’s important that prospective students have accurate and up-to-date information when choosing their course and existing students are given timely information about any substantial changes that are made to their course”. That this is a quote from the CMA – a regulator outside of the sector rather than one from one of the myriad of agencies within it – is proof enough that treating students like consumers is occasionally much more valuable than the some of the more hysterical objections it causes.

Lessons from the A47 (and the university bubble)

Originally published on wonkhe

As a new year gets underway, it’s hard not to feel that English higher education is in trouble. Financially it’s stood on the edge of a collective cliff, recklessly kidding itself that expansion is the answer when all the indicators suggest that contraction is inevitable. Worse still, the sector’s values, financial support and very existence sit within a liberal consensus across the West that is being repeatedly shattered by unexpected and unwelcome results of elections and plebiscites.

This political realignment has little to do with ‘left versus right’ but more a nasty nationalism that harnesses the experience of almost permanent inequality as a weapon against those of us that might worry about it, but don’t really feel it.

For years now, I’ve been doing the same presentation on change. I argue that in the face of it, the easiest thing to do is just to retreat. It’s the classic experience of reading a sociology textbook, or of sitting in a university committee meeting: detailed analysis and theory with almost no action. Being radical in thought but conservative in deed is perhaps the most dispiriting thing about the culture of working at a university, and it’s why I try to leave as often as possible.

Reflections from the coast road

I work away from home, so when I’m not in Watford, I spend my days in Norwich and my nights in Great Yarmouth. Almost without exception, this revelation is greeted with amusement, derision or horror as if I’m being transported of an evening to a far-off mythical land, instead of the 20-mile bus ride along the A47.

I began these nights in Yarmouth hiding away in B&Bs bashing away at the laptop, but given the only person I was lying to about being too busy to interact with the town was myself, I eventually started hanging out. Guest house owners, publicans, KFC staff and the other people who ride the X1 to and from Norwich: I’ve talked to people I don’t know for hours. And sure, we’ve talked about UEA, and Norwich, and Brexit, and Trump. But we’ve mainly talked about life, jobs, education and class.

The concept of the filter bubble, described vividly in Eli Pariser’s book of the same name in 2011, describes “a world where all the news you see is defined by your salary, where you live, and who your friends are”. It’s an idea that hit its imperial phase the morning after the Brexit vote, where the grim reality of the difference between our social feeds and that of the wider country hit home. HE is a big bubble at the best of times, but it’s made much worse on a campus like UEA. As is true for so many of the sixties academic theme parks, it’s imagined as a simulacrum of an idealised city. It has its own map, its own shopping centre, its own culture and its own values. But that attractiveness to the parents who fall in love with its air of contained safety is simultaneously its downside. Cut off from the realities even of remote Norfolk; it exists as a gleaming, concrete complex of elitist liberal values: a University of East Anglia that is barely a University for East Anglia.

A life of contrasts

In the Cringleford area where the university’s famous Broad sits, almost 6 in 10 young people go to university. Two-thirds of residents are ‘ABC1s’, living in properties worth double the asking price of 1996. Wage growth is real, crime is preposterously low, and council tax receipts are high. And, unlike the rest of Norfolk, Norwich itself voted Remain by quite a margin.

In the area where I stay at night, things are quite different. UKIP controls the council. The local economy is broken. Wages are in free fall. Over 70% voted Leave. Just 13% of young people will go on to higher education, and far fewer will ever attain the grades to access a place like UEA. This might be because of things that my filter bubble suggests – like university admissions policies, a lack of ‘aspiration’ or a fear of debt – but it’s more likely to be because the area is ranked 19th out of 8,414 in the index of multiple deprivation. This kind of biting economic inequality is barely discussed in my UEA bubble. We can’t see it, we don’t discuss it, and when we even visit it, we mock each other for doing so. It’s not hard to see why former Labour voters in the town have turned to English nationalism. “You talk about Equal Opportunities you lot”, said one man in Wetherspoons, “but you don’t mean for us”.

Great Yarmouth may only be a bus ride away, but Norwich and its UEA feels so very distant out on the coast. Great Yarmouth’s attitudes to work, relationships, money and popular culture are not so different to my own, but its residents assume that I can’t, don’t, or won’t understand. Only when I go for the high score on Working Class Hero from Walsall does the conversation open up. “It’s another world up there”, said one old couple to me, “and once they go up there they don’t come back”. The occasional ‘Golden Ticket’ might go to a Yarmouth resident, but ownership of the Chocolate Factory doesn’t flow back. “And we hear what them students say about us when they come to visit”, said another. “They really look down on us. They don’t understand us”.

The resentment is palpable, and visceral, yet reasonable. For the older residents, I can argue about immigration figures and life expectancy figures all I like, yet the cynicism towards me and my ilk is easily justified by the realities of inequality. But it’s the wide-eyed optimism of the college kids that’s heartbreaking: these kids know what university can do, but without contextual admissions, it’s only ever Nursing or Midwifery that will give them a ticket to UEA once they work out how expensive it is to live away from home. Worst of all, those that do become the backbone of the NHS will now take out a loan they’ll never pay back, and their inclusion in institutional statistics will mask and distort the rest of the university’s failure to offer its treasures to Norfolk’s poor. And so the cycle of resentment will continue, because while Great Yarmouth’s kids lack the grades, they’re not stupid.

Resolute responses

There are of course the traditional new year’s resolutions for the HE sector. Campaigning to remove students from the net migration target. Lobbying to protect the freedom of movement around Europe for our academics and students. Demanding that the government replaces EU funding with UK funding. These are things that we should do, and do well. But while all of this work is important, I do worry that it sounds awfully like a retreat: cries of a self-interested bubble making very clear that we’re only prepared to mind what’s going on around us as long as it doesn’t affect us.

So as well as these important goals, I have a few additional ones I’m going to try to stick to in 2017. The first is that I will suggest to my student officers that we campaign for a University for East Anglia. As well as maintaining league table positions and TEF scores, we should use the university’s immense capacity to solve the social and economic problems of the region. We should enter into partnerships with schools and colleges not just to steal away the brightest from the region, but to get the overall no- qualifications rate of school leavers olds down within the region. We should admit people from the area with low grades but high potential, and work hard to improve the economic prospects of our region rather than just our research departments. That we work to really justify our status as educational charities.

The second is that we should talk to each other more. We can all help to burst these bubbles: encouraging international students to mix with home students, encouraging academics to talk to administrators, exhorting the old to talk to the young and creating real incentives for staff and students to spend time in the community. And in pursuit of employability, we should be wary of creating more people like ‘us’, lest we lose all connection with people like ‘them’.

The third is about class. I’m immensely proud of the work that UEASU, NUS and countless other students’ unions have done in the past few years to make acts of sexual harassment dramatically less socially acceptable. It builds on anti-discrimination work that students have led on for decades – work that is always mocked at the time but that tackles unpleasant behaviours that flood nostalgic clip shows a decade later. Bluntly, we should make it really uncool in our bubbles to mock other people based on their locality or their social or economic circumstances.

It’s not that identity politics has gone ‘too far’. It’s just that it’s not gone far enough, and would do all us all some good if it could travel that bus ride along the A47 and do some levelling up in Great Yarmouth too.

Looking back to look ahead

Originally published on changesu

Look. Compared to the “real world”, working in Students’ Unions seems rewarding and fun. It always has, but more so as we enter 2017. There are after all real reasons to be cheerful. Block grants are up. Finances have stablilised. Just twelve months ago the Government had aligned SUs with Trade Unions and challenged us on our transparency and accountability- but that threat looks gone too, for now.

Yet I also feel strangely flat. The alternative to the frog plunged into the pan of hot water is the frog in the cold pan with the heat turned up slowly, and my own view is that we are in a strange pan of managed decline- a sub sector of a wider HE sector in a similar state.

English Higher Education is in trouble. Financially it’s stood on the edge of a collective cliff, recklessly kidding itself that expansion is the answer when all the indicators suggest that a contraction is inevitable. The reasons are different, but HE finances are in a similar parlous state round the nations. Worse still the sector’s values, financial support and very existence sit within a liberal consensus across the West being repeatedly shattered by results of elections and plebiscites that have little to do with left versus right and everything to do with a nasty nationalism that harnesses the experience of almost permanent inequality and hurls it towards those of us that might worry about it, but don’t really feel it.

For years now I’ve been doing the same presentation on change. I argue that in the face of it, the easiest thing to do is to just retreat. It’s the classic experience of reading a sociology text book or of sitting in a University committee meeting- detailed analysis and theory with almost no action. To be radical in thought but conservative in deed is perhaps the most dispiriting thing about working at a University, and it’s why for all my career I’ve always spent at least part of my week challenging conventional wisdom and going against the established grain in order to tackle the issues of the day.

There are real challenges.

  • Students’ Unions remain at the centre of “culture wars” with large parts of the press branding us as illiberal, ban happy fools. The Spiked! rankings are out again in January, yet again we don’t seem to have a plan.
  • Bullying of our officers and of students generally on social media is rife. We don’t really understand the true scale and nature of the problem, and we don’t really know what to do about it.
  • 66 of our HEIs run undergraduate nursing courses. Without fail drop out rates are above the average and NSS scores below. We’re not fixing it- at least not visibly.
  • In almost every HE membership research report we discover that PGR students think SUs are useless and that they are desperately, dangerously lonely. Again, we neither seem to know why nor know what to do about it.
  • Most of us have gone through a full cycle of initial external trustee recruitment and now are struggling to attract good people. We have a similar problem with “core” career roles in SUs. Yet we don’t have a proper collective plan on recruitment and retention and support for our people.
  • The HE reform agenda lays out a much more sophisticated set of measures around Graduate Employability and graduate income research. Yet we still don’t know the educational impact of our own activities, let along their impact on employability- and we have no plan to both prove it and improve it.
  • Whilst most HE SUs have “Zero Tolerance” and anti sexual harassment policies, most of us have poor implementation of real action.
  • And HE reforms embody a change to the HE quality system that is fundamentally shifting away from hard fought for quality systems to a metrics regime where students’ contributions won’t be valued and student representation will be unimportant. This is a massive challenge to the SU funding model of the past few years as almost all SUs have been funded for voice. We barely seem to have collectively recognised this, let alone have a plan to address this.

Like so many others in contemporary society, these are issues with overlapping and deep-seated causes; not just problems, but what clever people call wicked problems— a series of messes. We can’t “solve” these messes- we have to approach them with humility and respect for their beastliness and complexity. Trying things we know won’t “fix” them can teach us more about the problem’s wickedness. That’s progress. Realising that no one is an expert in the problem helps, because it means that good ideas can come from anywhere.

Strategy in this wicked context requires a different approach than the one we’re used to, where we pay to have someone at the front tell us that it’s all going to be OK. It means small, experimental projects. It means taking research data, analysing it with insight and seeking to involve each other in creating, planning and experimenting with responses. Those responses can be short or long; involve collaboration or direct national intervention; and can see national organisations adopting one of a range of roles (advisor, facilitator, etc etc) depending on the problem.

Yet our structures for collaboration and leadership- needed more than ever for these problems- are trapped in previous paradigms, strutting around offering expertise and action where neither will suffice.

Perhaps the biggest wicked elephant in the room is “Question 26”. A late save when we’d all but disappeared in the mileu of HE reform, the national satisfaction metric that maintains our relevance (and arguably our funding) is likely to simultaneously embarrass us deeply this year. Some will continue the argument they’ve started already- that it measures the wrong thing. Others will argue that all measurement is pointless anyway. Some of us will work out how to market ourselves better to improve the perception if not the reality. Most of us should reflect.

I’ve always been a fan of looking back to look forward, and so my discovery over Christmas that I have on an old hard drive the bulk of the archive of the spiritual predecessor to ChangeSU (old copies of AMSU’s Agenda Magazine) was a real treat. Like tidying my bedroom as a child only to be buried in old Argos catalogues, I quickly disappeared down a wormhole, devouring scribblings from giants upon whose shoulders we now stand on and revelling in both similarity and difference to today. I’ve uploaded what I have on the tab above.

The archive is well worth a trawl for an afternoon. So many of the articles reflect a different age- worries about barrelage or volunteering funding reflecting particular concerns of the time. But many are timeless- concerns about purpose, legitimacy, involvement and effectiveness pepper the pages. That there is not a coherent community of practice and exchange today (beyond regional meetings and a national annual event) should be both a cause of regret and a spur to action for us in 2017.

Arguably the all time classic Agenda article (at least insofar as it is still used in officer training today) was written by my old General Manager back when I was an officer at UWE in the 90s. Innocuously entitled “Looking Forward”, Peter Cadogan deployed three matrices to examine the relationships between types of actors Students’ Unions- arguing that the growth in service provision and student development of the previous decade had pushed students’ unions (and their officers) away from their representative function- and that they would do well to refocus on it.

“Refocusing on representation brings with it the potential of generating a virtuous circle whereby students’ unions become more relevant to their members, generating increased involvement, making for a stronger union able to better represent its members leading to it becoming even more relevant to the members and so on”

In the mid 70’s, then NUS President Digby Jacks (in one of the only books on the UK student movement) had written:

“Representation must never be seen, except in strategic and practical terms, as an end in itself. Too many student representatives see it as a question of communication and merely sitting on the appropriate committee. The purpose of representation is to secure educational and social change”.

This clarion call was in part a response to a period in the 70s of arguing for student representation for its own sake; and has arguably been repeated every so often ever since. The late 80s version involved securing “student development” funding for student representation. Cadogan’s 90s version inspired a period of incorporating the student voice into HE Quality processes- with another of my old GMs (now QAA CEO Douglas Blackstock) at the centre of developments.

The mid 00s then saw a coupling of a lack of progress in this area with a need for NUS reform, leading to a period of innovation in SU service delivery and the role of officers which ditched Treasurers, abandoned General Meetings and formalised a policy advisory role for SU staff.

Given these developments, you’d think there should be cause for significant optimism over Q26, but I can’t detect it. Internal pre-polling in Union after Union suggests we’re in for a tricky summer. Almost ten years ago at AMSU Conference, former SU CEO turned consultant Nick Berg offered his own view as to the state of affairs:

  • An over-emphasis on processes & inputs- mainly about system not results
  • Mainly about course reps not students
  • Important visible student issues aren’t resolved e.g. poorly taught modules, poor treatment if students on specific courses, high drop-out
  • Important student experiences not brought to the surface
  • There is an acceptance of how university defines HE, quality, problem solving etc
  • Focus on university processes not students actual experiences & journeys
  • Appreciated by students more for principle than results
  • No real measurement of results
  • Very low public visibility of representation function
  • We don’t look like student representative organisations!
  • Lack of public education policy or goals
  • Lack of resources & time for student representation
  • Limited use of existing research & data, under-development research functions
  • Lack of transparency re fees paid and teaching & facilities provided in return
  • Much of students learning benefits hidden from them and not defined & taught by departments
  • Wide variation between faculties & departments – lottery

So has anything changed? My assertion is that whilst the picture is better, it’s still not good enough. I argued a decade ago that there’s a theoretical basis for this. Crouch (1982) argues that “Some writers see two sorts of trade-union goals: substantive or money goals, which seek to improve the workers’ living and working conditions; and participation goals which aim to gain control over different aspects of the [organisation]. Members and leaders develop conflicting interests” which is one way to explain things. Others emphasize the inate pleasure of service delivery and administration over representation and campaigning- “at least you achieve something”.

Whatever the theory, most students can still doubtless cite timetabling, complaints and appeals, teaching quality, facilities and learning resources as issues on their course. I should know- me and every one of our career staff at UEASU spend at least an hour talking to real students every week. Yet students are often unlikely to identify the union as being a body that can, will or even should tackle these issues- either with them for them. So if we are to truly deserve a good Q26 score, I think there are some things we should try.

  • More of us should do more real research into students. I exempt from this assertion market research, testing students’ opinions on us- I mean understanding their lives, understanding their programmes and knowing about the barriers to their success- so we can act on them with authority.
  • More of us should have an agenda for the student experience beyond that which we provide. It is still the case that so many of us strategically plan our own service provision yet leave the complexity of changing the institution itself to a couple of officers and a handful of junior staff.
  • We should try to nail ‘policy’. Facilitating the process by which students determine that which is in their interests seems an urgent task in the face of the failure of wider political structures, yet all we have to offer is painful meetings or novelty, bargain basement, Dragons Den style ideas polling.
  • More of us should know what our course reps have secured for students- so we tell others. We should know what our officers are winning- so we can tell their successors. We should know what eachother is securing (or fending off) and our national collaborative structures should know too- so they can tell us.
  • The jewel in our crown- individual advocacy– should be celebrated, funded and regarded as a crown jewel. It should be discussed nationally, it should be noticed as being something missing from FE (and emergent private HE) and, and we should work together to turn its findings and experiences and statistics into preventative action.
  • At the institutional level, our support for student officers sat in endless hours of committees remains woeful. They don’t know what the University is talking about, and nor do we, so they don’t know what they themselves are talking about either. And to the limited extent to which they are effective at representing and securing interests- the student body would never know. If a sabbatical officer persuades a Vice Chancellor not to do something in a forest and no one is around to hear it, did they make a sound?
  • Our students are desperate for us to act as a consumer champion, yet we blindly resist from an ideological glass box that looks lonelier by the day when we talk to students. We should embrace the role wholeheartedly and unapologetically. Students are literally being saddled with a lifetime of personal debt yet we have nothing to say about deriving promised value or even output from that debt.
  • When we do talk about education, we talk about how it’s funded- but barely about how it’s taught, or what is taught, or for how many hours it’s taught. We should have more to say on the tightening geographical distribution of subject access, lots to say on the denigration of nursing education away from degree level, and a proper strategy to serve degree level apprentices.

In that AMSU session, Nick went on to identify ways in which unions could take representation- the “Cinderella of students’ unions”- and turn her into the belle of the ball. The notes were fascinating- his advice ranges from “move from single staff model to multiple staff model” to “invest in both original research and interpretation of research”; from “emphasise public campaigning goals  & policy in a meaningful & tangible way for students” to “more sabbs who have served a representative apprenticeship rather than come through student staff, student activities or student politics”; from “less obsessing about course reps handbooks to my all time favourite- “more debate about the nature of education & its aspects with reps and students”.

So as we enter 2017 of course we should respond- not merely react- to students’ repeated calls for us to address their employment prospects. It’s crucial that we look hard at mental health, fend off attacks from those that wish to tarnish a generation with the snowflake tag, think carefully about the coming student cost of living crisis and provide space for students to rebuild for their generation a renewed liberal consensus in the face of rampant nastiness, nationalism and nihilism.

But as well as all of this, it seems to me that as well as embracing our coming failure on Q26, we should respond by focussing not on representation, or the student experience, or marketing- but on our members’ education. We ought to have both local and national strategies that secure students’ academic interests not just because of Question 26, but because… we just should. I’m not fully clear on what that might mean or look like just yet. But an era of Students’ Unionism defined by a relentless, unapologetic focus on the very thing that institutions are for and the reason our charitable status exists would, it seems to me, serve both us and our members well.

A selection of possible campaigning goals that unions could adopt

  • We will increase contact time for all students by at least 1 hour per week
  • We will ensure that the personal tutor system works for every student & that students have clear entitlement
  • We will ensure all teaching staff have recognised teaching qualifications, requisite language & others skills and that poor teaching is addressed rapidly
  • We will ensure that support services are accessible to all students including part-time students
  • All students to receive face-to-face feedback for at least their first assignment
  • All Hidden course costs to be calculated & published before the start of the year
  • We will ensure all courses use some variety of assessment methods and that students have choice in assessment method
  • We will ensure that students are treated with respect by all university staff and reduce lecturer lateness & cancellations
  • We will set up a website aimed directly at supporting & advising students considering dropping out
  • We will ensure that students are fully aware of options for early course transfer
  • We will improve the service received by students who are unhappy with their initial halls provision including social factors
  • We will increase the support and contact with students in the period between application acceptance & arrival at university
  • We will produce summary information for each faculty showing what students fees, & other university income is spent
  • We will campaign to see that excellent teachers are supported, recognised & rewarded

Adapted from Nick Berg’s AMSU Conference Session on Student Representation, July 2009