Friday, December 24, 2010

A Cultural Revolution starting in the higher education sector?

While the huge reductions planned in teaching grant and the significant proposed increases in the average level of tuition fees for universities has political significance, the mainstream media has missed some of the other fundamental changes in higher education this year.

Only last week Pearson announced plans to create a vocational degree offered in partnership with further education colleges. It was covered on the BBC’s Education website but I did not see it anywhere else.

In the US for-profit universities have had a bad press this year but it can only be a matter of time before they arrive on this side of the Atlantic on a significant scale. The private sector BPP university college is almost here.

With the media talking about the Maoism of the Coalition’s policies, they have not really recognised this Cultural Revolution starting in the universities.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Nine years of being a board member - lessons learnt

Yesterday was my last board meeting. I have learned many things by being on a board for nine years.

Here is some of what I have learned:

1) Boards need to focus on mission. Strategies should support mission rather than distract from it.

2) Board members need time to gain the knowledge and confidence to fully contribute. I think the first one or two years are a matter of finding your way even if you are given a good induction and commit to learning about the organisation and its environment. It is bewildering that some housing associations seek to rotate resident board members after three years – board renewal should not be about getting rid of new blood.

3) Boards need practitioners. I can say with confidence as a non-housing practitioner that housing associations need housing practitioners. I had worked as a consultant and as an auditor in the housing sector but recognised that having hands-on practitioners could bring something extra. They can re-balance the inevitable information asymmetry between full-time executive managers and part-time non-executive board members. (In my day job I have seen colleges how education practitioners are vital for adequate board level scrutiny at colleges.)

4) Boards can recruit excellent board members from a range of fields. If an organisation can afford board remuneration (and if it is legally allowed to pay it), it can be almost overwhelmed by interest. (I had not fully appreciated this when I was wary about board remuneration.) More recently I learned that social networks like LinkedIn can play a valuable role in attracting and identifying new talent.

5) Board members – however individually talented – need to be wielded into an excellent board. That is not automatic – it requires a chair to leverage in all the talents as well as encourage useful challenge and teamwork.

Apologies if some of that just sounds like common sense.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mortgages, misery and the happiness index

The Council of Mortgage Lenders has published a forecast that next year net mortgage lending will fall to the lowest level since 1980. It will be £6bn compared with £110bn in 2006. It could be worse - the CML are assuming there is no double-dip.

This will have implications for the housing market.

Yesterday I was reading the latest Research in Public Policy bulletin from the CMPO think tank at Bristol University. It included research on a link between house prices and well-being. The study found a correlation but explaining it is more tricky. The article suggested: "Perhaps the state of the housing market – and media coverage of the housing market – foster a ‘feel good factor’ when house prices perform well – and vice versa." That feel bad factor might be bad news for David Cameron's happiness index.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Public sector pensions as a business risk - no need to panic?

Tomorrow morning I am attending a briefing for colleges and other organisations who are part of one of the local government pension schemes (LGPS) in the north west. I suspect that the content on long-term developments may be a little vague as we await that final report from Lord Hutton.

How big a business risk is the LGPS now for colleges, transfer housing associations, etc? I do not often sound overly optimistic but I have started to wonder if the pension risk has started to recede.

While the viability of some weaker organisations will still be threatened by the costs of keeping promises, in general the shift to CPI indexing and the 3% pensions levy will have both lowered entitlements and shifted the costs towards employees. (It is worth noting that the indexation change will - according to Hutton's interim report - reduce entitlements by 15% - which disproportionately reduces the burden on employers as they are the ones who underwrite the scheme bar a degree of burden-sharing on life expectancy.)

When I recently suggested that the pensions risk may have slightly abated, the risk of industrial action was drawn to my attention. We have seen industrial action at the BBC - and we may see it elsewhere. But unions have accepted the CPI indexation surprisingly quietly even though it has taken away existing entitlements.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Elitism in the tuition fees debate: left, right and centre

Following the tuition fees debate in the media I have been a little disturbed by some of the implicit elitism at work.(I have no problem with elite universities – higher education finance needs to ensure we can compete globally. My issue is with elitism: The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favoured treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.

On the left (or at least centre-left) we have blogger Marko Attila Hoare commenting:

the simultaneous expansion and dumbing down of higher education over the past two decades, and to the proliferation of Mickey Mouse courses and institutions, where third-rate students could take courses on East Enders Studies or Football Studies or whatever

In the middle at the Independent Mary Dejevsky asks:

Everything else is being cut, so why not student numbers?

I think I caught a Liberal Democrat MP suggest on Radio Four's World at One that fewer students would be better than higher fees.

On the right flank the Daily Telegraph reports that Conservative MP David Davis opposing the Coalition's fees plans as believes that the answer to higher education funding problems is a reduction in the number of universities and people attending them.

Whatever we think of the Coalition’s proposals, it is a pity that there is not a stronger recognition of the vital role that higher education can and should play in promoting social mobility. It is disappointing that a higher proportion of young people are now getting a degree in Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic than the UK. It is even more depressing than so many opinion-formers favour an even lower proportion here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Winners and losers from changes in higher education funding

Today’s media coverage of the University and College Union’s report on the future financial health has helpfully broadened the current debate. The report (pdf available) warns that More than a third of England's universities may be forced to close or merge as a result of changes in higher education finance. (I do feel sorry for the four institutions which have been flagged up as particularly vulnerable – they are even more so today.)

There can be some scope for debate over the report’s methodology. For example, the report gives a higher risk score where the university admits significant numbers of disadvantaged students. Research commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council (pdf available) shows that in the past the introduction of fees has not substantially affected access to universities for disadvantaged students. (Of course, as Coalition spokespeople point out as often as possible: the increased fees will be paid by graduates rather than students on entry.)

Maybe the most badly affected universities will be those who fail to offer their customers value for money. Newer universities and further education colleges may be well placed to offer students a focus on teaching and vocationally orientated qualifications – as well as the savings and convenience (for young people!) of studying while living at home.

There will certainly be significant turbulence in the universities sector from higher fees and reductions by about three-quarters in teaching grants. However, the winners and losers are likely to be different from those identified by the University and College Union report.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

U-turns and Big Bangs – councils and academies

It is interesting to see that Richmond is proposing that all its primary and secondary schools become academies. I can see a big bang might be more convenient for the local authority to cope with than a slow withering on the vine of maintained schools as they leave council control. It is not clear whether the local head teachers and governing bodies have bought into the plan.

It should be noted that Surrey County Council was planning something similar – and then announced a change of mind. Even more strangely, at almost the same time as the county-wide plan was revealed, the Conservative leader of Surrey Council said that he saw "little benefit" in schools there becoming an academy.

The LGiU blog suggested yesterday that the current rate of progressing in local authority applying for academy status and applications being processed means that it could take 140 years for all schools to convert to academy status. I suspect things will quicken up. It is a major decision for head teachers and governors. Moreover, it’s scary being an early mover. While academies are a priority, the Department for Education has a lot on its plate.

What is clear is that the academy conversion process and the emergence of free schools will pose practical challenges to local authorities when they already face many other constraints and difficulties. A harbinger of this could be seen back in January the Conservative leader of Kent County Council indicated that the authority’s enthusiasm for academies had waned because the council lost money needed for “crucial support services for all its schools”.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Pluralism in education - enter the humanist free school?

In the current issue of New Humanist Francis Beckett - author of The Great City Academy Fraud - suggests "co-operating with an objectionable and reactionary educational policy" and setting up a humanist free school. He suggests that this is "a one-off chance to show that real secular state education works".

It would be broadly tolerant, liberal but firm. The boundaries would be drawn widely, but they would be fixed. Cross that boundary and the sky falls in on you. Our staff would have better things to worry about than the length of their pupils’ hair, and there would be no uniform. But any form of bullying or abuse would not be tolerated. And neither would boring lessons. We can’t divorce ourselves from the target culture, but we can make sure it doesn’t ruin the lives and the learning experience of our pupils.

(It all sounds a bit like the liberal Kunskapskolan schools opening as part of the academies programme.)

The magazine’s website has an online poll on the issue. When I last looked almost three-quarters of those voting said that they would support the establishment of an avowedly atheist and humanist state school.

As someone who works with faith schools and colleges, I hope the humanist free school project gets off the ground. The project will contribute to the diversity and innovation created by academies and free schools.