Let’s kill meetings

A very interesting article popped onto my daily alert from LinkeIn. Jeff Deneen, a partner at Bain & Co (Mitt Romney’s ex-employer, but don’t hold that against him!) has given some tips on evaluating the needfulness of meetings. Far be it from me to suggest that the HE sector could do with some tips!!

A couple of his best suggestions:

  • Meetings should have a purpose (Heaven forfend)

Have a purpose. If you don’t know why you’re meeting, don’t meet! Most valuable meetings have one of three purposes: inform, discuss or decide. Before calling a meeting, think about whether you could inform people through a different medium, or use a tool to reach a decision. And take most standing meetings off your calendar, because they breed poor habits. If a meeting is truly the best alternative, be clear on its purpose and desired outcome.

  • Think about the length of meetings (it can’t be a proper meeting unless it’s longer than your lunch break!?)

Change the default time. Not too long ago, most companies called 30-minute meetings. Now the typical default time has grown to 60 minutes, even though every additional minute generates a higher cost. How about a rule that says if a meeting lasts more than 90 minutes, it requires approval by an executive who is two levels above the convener?

  • Do we need to invite everyone and their neighbour (and their neighbour’s best friend, just in case!)

Manage the invite list. In many companies, it’s bad form not to invite lots of people to a meeting. What people don’t realize is that every additional attendee adds cost and gets in the way. Remember the Rule of 7, which states that every attendee over a total of 7 reduces the likelihood of making a good, quick, executable decision by 10 percent. Once you hit 16 or 17 people, your potential for decision effectiveness is close to zero.

CLICK HERE for the full article, it’s worth a read, and there’s a very good anecdote about how to test who should be attending your meeting!

HEFCE flexes its muscles

HEFCE (and HEFCW in Wales/DELNI in Northern Ireland) has placed itself firmly on the front foot today by announcing a review of quality assessment in UK higher education.

It’s surprising because normally such reviews are trailed widely and come at a particular time, such as when QAA is nearing the end of a cycle of audit or review. But this comes close to some very recent changes already made to review methods in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

While it’s true that QAA already operates under a contract with the funding bodies and this was due for renewal. The process has been a little more closed than this in the past. Mark Leach has given his take on wonkhe . I’m not sure I’m quite as ready to predict a game changer as Mark, but I think the style and manner of the announcement, accompanied by QAA’s slightly defensive response , suggest that HEFCE wants a to have a wide ranging debate about this.

It will be interesting to see where this goes, a few initial thoughts:

  • Should QAA join the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education  and compete with other agencies for the funding council contract or even compete for each HEI?
  • Should the funding councils provide a shopping list of review methods and agencies to choose from? (all adhering to a broad set of common principles, of course!)
  • If QAA were not to be the agency managing reviews, what would happen to the UK Quality Code?
  • Is this the first sign of break up in the UK Higher Education Sector? Note that the Scottish Funding Council are not part of this call.

Personally, I think QAA has established itself very well in the UK sector and has a strong and well deserved international reputation. It would be rash to throw that away.

Forget the election results, the public feel sorry for Ed Miliband. It’s over.

Election results are in and it’s a heyday for UKIP. Who knows what it means for the Newark by-election or next year’s general election. We’ll have to wait and see.

In the melee over the Council and European elections, I think something has been missed. A very quick moment passed by on Friday night, one of those moments that is so quick and could have been missed just as easily as I spotted it. On Friday’s episode of Have I Got News For You, all the party leaders were lined up for a ribbing from the panel. Ed Miliband’s turn came and one of the topics was his disastrous interview with BBC Radio Wiltshire. Have a look between 3m 55s and 5m 05s:

The Radio interview has been pored over and rightly mocked for the shambles it was. But, in one of those moments of clarity that can happen in a fraction of a second, I was struck by the way the HIGNFY audience reacted at the end of the radio clip being played (about 5m in on the show). They didn’t laugh heartily, the panel didn’t pile in with a load more jokes at his expense. The audience actually pitied him, they let out a desperate wail “awwww”.

I’ve never been a fan of Ed Miliband, my gut feeling was that Labour had just handed over at least 10 years in Government to the Conservatives when they elected him. But I have some good friends who think he’s just what the country needs, so I’ve tried to lay off.

The electorate can dismiss a leader for being too mean spirited and ideological (Michael Howard), too ‘single issue’ and right-wing (William Hague), too dreadful (Gordon Brown), but to reach a stage where you just pity and feel sorry for a leader is pretty damning. How do you return to credibility from that? I fear that the HIGNFY audience reflect a wider sense in the British public; Ed Miliband is well meaning, genuine, clever and also not cut out for the top job! They will vote as such next May, unless Labour find a way out, quickly!

This Miliband/Axelrod photo shows up something that’s gone wrong with politics

David Axelrod dropped an extra ‘l’ into Ed Miliband’s surname. Easy mistake. That silly story has covered up something else that occurred to me immediately when I saw the press released photos of Axelrod in a meeting of the Labour Shadow Cabinet. Here are some:




So each one shows the Leader of Labour Party looking on in awe and admiration as the great David Axelrod holds forth. The dynamic is completely wrong. Axelrod should be supporting and looking on at the leader as he sets out the terms of how Labour is going to win. Have you ever seen a publicity photo of Barack Oboma staring adoringly at Axelrod?!

I think this betrays a well known and obvious weakness in Miliband. It’s often commented that he’s obsessed by American politics and the West Wing, and this is obvious in these photos. But their system is different to ours, and no matter how brilliant the West Wing is (and it truly is), it is a work of fiction!

It also, I think, highlights a weakness that in politics currently for the showy manipulator. Each party is doing it, the Conservatives with Lynton Crosby, the Lib Dems Ryan Coetzee and now Axelrod for Labour are the headlines, but there are others too. Every time one of these campaign organisers is announced, they are almost always from overseas where the political system is different to ours, so their insight is questionable. But worse than that, they bring a narrative of manipulation to the political debate, a sense that all you need to do is emulate Obama’s negative campaigning and ground force of activists and you’ll be able to squeak a win, or that Lynton Crosby can use his dogwhistle to help the Conservatives like he did John Howard in Australia.

Truth is, it’s not these guys that won the electorate over, it’s the candidates. Obama wowed America with his rhetoric and sense of hope in the future after a pretty bleak few years. John Howard just hit the right message at the right time for an Australia that wanted to make a mark in the world and ruthlessly exploit it’s economic advantages. The campaign managers just helped get them over the line, they did not magic up a victory. Why do the media and the political parties pretend as though they can in the UK?

Fat cats and bureaucrats

Blimey, somebody’s managed to miff off Alice Thompson, one of the Times’ most seasoned commentators, and recognised spokeswoman for the middles classes!

Here she is in yesterday’s paper (£) ripping in to University Vice-Chancellors:

Few vice-chancellors have to prove their worth. Often their pay increases are decided over a glass of sherry with the chairman of the governing body (“I’d rather like another £20,000. You know I am running a £300 million business here. I could get far more if I forsook these dusty corridors for the City”).
It would be excusable if the universities were awash with money. Yet, at the same time, they refused to give their academics more than a 1 per cent pay increase and kept many of their researchers on temporary, low-paid contracts. Most students have no idea who their vice-chancellor is, and they don’t care as long as their university is run efficiently. They want inspirational lecturers and tutors to engage them.

Ouch. Of course, I can confidently assert that our Vice-Chancellor at Exeter did not accept a pay rise or any of his bonus this year, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

But, she doesn’t stop there, she aims her real fire at the bureaucrats:

In Britain, it’s the administrative staff who are often being paid most. . . if we continue to reward form-filling administrators above inspirational teachers, innovative researchers and great thinkers we will become a nation of accountants.

As the form filler in chief at the University of Exeter, I must take exception. I won’t enter the argument about pay scales. But the suggestion that administrators are paid more, and are more highly regarded than staff doing the teaching and research is palpably absurd! As Universities have grown, they have taken on additional responsibilities for providing support such as accommodation and employability advice to students; they have grown family support and sports centres for staff and student (interestingly Alice Thompson is a determined advocate of family friendly and wellbeing policies in the workplace, but doesn’t give any credit for this!). All this obviously means that the non-academic staff population grows too, but it doesn’t have to mean that it is to the detriment of teaching and research, in fact it is all put in place to ensure that academic staff are able to get on with their teaching and research unimpeded.

This last nugget is a good one though:

At universities such as Cambridge, teaching staff devote only 22 per cent of their time, on average, to teaching; at Oxford it is 25 per cent, according to information supplied by the universities to the Higher Education Funding Council.

. I’m not sure what her point is here? But it is asserted as though it is a killer fact in need of no further explanation. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, this is not really anything new. In 1966, Professors reported that they spent 26% of their time teaching!! Plus ca change!

How to get ahead in academia . . .

20140125-225447.jpgMy Exeter colleague Francesca Stavrakopoulou tweeted a top 10 list yesterday of how to get ahead in academia. I couldn’t resist retweeting and think it’s worth blogging.

1 – Ignore the competition
2 – Don’t worry about the poshies or the rich. Any nepotism *should* evaporate once you’ve got into uni
3 – Learn how to listen to other people’s views with respect and generosity. You can put them right in persuasive academic writing
4 – Don’t feel you need to adopt an academic uniform – especially if you’re a woman. Power dressing muffles your voice
5 – Read well beyond your field, and read fiction. Imagination is central to thinking about alternative worlds
6 – Do lots of dancing. In public or private. Dancing keeps you happy
7 – Be gobby when you need to be, and don’t wait to be invited for promotion; put yourself forward because few others will do it for you
8 – Only write about stuff that really interests you. It’ll lack heart – and be unconvincing – otherwise
9 – Never let go of the feeling that you’re a fraud or that you’re not clever enough
10 – Share your learning with those outside the ivory tower. There’s *nothing* better than passing on the privilege.

‘Faking it’ on Social Media

20140119-154237.jpg I read this blog post by Jamie Bartlett on the Telegraph at the weekend.

Some really interesting statistics in there. For example, when Facebook announced that it had achieved 1 billion users, it couldn’t confirm whether 100 million of them were human! Or Twitter can only confirm that of it’s 950million (or so) account holders, only 25% (230million’ish) are active once a month or more , and of those only 40% actually use it to tweet (about 92 million) with the rest just snooping around in the background reading the goings on in other people’s lives.

Jamie Bartlett argues that this is a nightmare for advertisers who like to know whether the numbers of viewers/potential customers they are told about are real. Understandable.

Does this burst the bubble or the myth of social media? I don’t think so, just adds a bit of balance. For Facebook, 900million worldwide users is pretty phenomenal, even Twitter’s 230million active users and snoopers is mind-bogglingly impressive.

50 years since Robbins


Late last year, I was invited to attend a seminar hosted by SGH Martineu (the University’s Solicitors), on the topic ‘Re-writing Robbins – Ensuring an HE system fit for the 21st century’. There was a good line up of speakers who were well briefed and entertaining and they shares some illuminating and thought provoking content. All the slides are available here.

There was a fair bit of “blimey wasn’t everything just fantastic before Willetts/Gove/Brown/Blair/Thatcher (insert bogeyman/woman of choice) ruined everything”, but the theme that struck me most was how much hasn’t changed in the 50 years since the report was published and how Lord Robbins’ report is still highly relevant today.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Lord Robbins chaired the Committee on Higher Education, commissioned by Harold Macmillan’s Governement to advise on the principles that should be applied to the long term development of higher education and any changes required to put those principles into practice; it contained 178 recommendations and was thoroughly evidenced. The report is most famous, and probably rightly so, for triggering the process for establishing a batch of new Universities that have since made a significant mark on UK HE (e.g. Bath, York, Warwick), but it is worth revisiting the contents because the report grapples with some issues that are still debated today. I’ll pick out three just to illustrate my point:

1) Bureaucratic burden
“We’re all going to hell in handcart, Universities have become tied up in red tape, the QAA is killing everything!! Everything was great 10/15/25/40 years ago before all this administration took up everyone’s time.” Right?! Wrong. Have a look at this table contained in the report, it is based on a survey of academic staff working in HE at the time.


[Table 48]

On average staff spent 21% of their time (a full day a week) on administration and other University work, as you move up the seniority, Professorial staff used to spend as much as 38% of their time for some! I’m the kind of administration and ‘other university work’ has changed, but the proportions of time are strikingly similar.

2) Contact hours
“We’re all going to hell in a handcart! Students don’t receive wall to wall tuition any more, dastardly universities are gobbling up student fees and spending it all on something else (not sure what else, but definitely something else!!). Everything was great in the good old days . . .” Here’s another table from the Robbins report

[Table 49]

An average of 10 hours contact per week in HASS and 19 in STEM, the vast majority of teaching delivered in lectures not small classes. Cripes! Have tings changed very much?

3) Student Engagement
“We’re all going to hell in a handcart! Students are paying fees and might think they are consumers, simply passive recipients of educations. This is a new challenge, never faced by HE before . . .” Here’s a quote from the Robbins report:

A passive student is a contradiction in terms; and if it is true that a good teacher makes good students it is also true that good students make good teachers. Higher education should attract, and in some measure create, students who will make demands upon their teachers, and teachers who can both satisfy those demands and stimulate further curiosity and intellectual energy.

[paragraph 519, page 170]

So the challenge was there, back then. I’ve argued before that the new fees regime has not created a new paradigm, it has only added another layer to the complex relationship between students and their universities. (For more on this, do feel free to take a look at this excellent new book that has just been published)

I think the most interesting comment though is this

responsibility for success in any joint enterprise must always rest more heavily on the senior partner, the responsibility is not his alone.

[as above]

Absolutely right, we talk about students as partners, quite right too, but they are not the senior partner, the burden of making the partnership work should always fall on the senior partner (University).

Where next for the NSS?


Late last year the Higher Education Funding Council for England put out a call for feedback from the sector about the National Student Survey. It was a combination of request for feedback on the existing NSS and ideas for the future.

The two key proposals for the future hinted at in the call did not come as much of a surprise, namely that the NSS should extend its remit to all elements of the student experience, not just the academic experience (i.e. to include accommodation, sports, students’ union etc.) and that the NSS questions should shift to focus on student engagement rather than satisfaction.

I’d like to blow a big raspberry at both proposals.

The first is quite easy to dismiss. Good intentions are behind this I’m sure, but extending the remit of the NSS like this would introduce a bias that would be unacceptable. Some Universities have far greater flexibility and freedom to provide and improve these extra-academic experiences for students. For example, London Universities have virtually no freedom to affect or control the accommodation experience of students, smaller Universities can barely offer sporting facilities etc. Also, it would make the whole survey unfocussed and blur its impact.

The second is trickier, but should be more adamantly dismissed. I have built a substantial part of my career on student engagement and spent most of my working life seeking to advance and improve the role students can play in their academic community. So, at first sight I would have assumed that a national survey of student engagement was a good thing. But then a number of things have become clearer to me over time.

1) Student engagement is something you do, not something you measure.
Student engagement is first an foremost about getting into a mindset where you consider students to be peers who have something valuable to offer the academic community, whether in decision making structure, shaping the research environment or delivering and improving learning and teaching. What students have to offer is different to what academics have to offer and different to what professional service staff have to offer but it is valid and valuable. The only way to tap into is by involving them.

2) Student engagement with their academic study is already being measured constantly.
The NSS does not measure the extent to which students have engaged with their programme of study. This is true, the NSS only asks students to comment on how satisfied they are with how they have been taught and supported to learn. However, undergraduate students are constantly being tested on their academic engagement. Every single module they study is assessed in one way or another, this is how you ascertain student engagement with academic study. If they have thrown themselves into the course, taken up the opportunities afforded to them, paid attention in lectures, done the reading for seminars, looked up items on the reading list, worked with their peers to prepare presentations etc. then they will do well! If they haven’t done any of that, then they are less likely to do well. Why is asking survey questions a better proxy than this?

3) Stop trying to shift the blame!
I know that the current NSS asks ‘service oriented questions’, it only reflects the level of satisfaction with what a student has received, not what they have put in. I have been a lifelong advocate, and remain one, of students putting in as much as they get out; but isn’t it right that students who are paying £9,000 should be afforded the opportunity to provide feedback on their experience? It would be devastating if we were to create a survey that just shifted the blame for poor experiences onto students. It would only be a matter of time before somebody was saying “Well my programmes is outstanding, but only 40% of students said they used the reading list so it’s their own fault they don’t learn”.

4) The current NSS questions aren’t perfect, but they empower students.
When else are students given an unambiguous opportunity to tell their University and the rest of the world what their experience has really been like? They don’t. Students are assessed on their academic performance throughout their time at a University (quite right too) and told directly how they are doing, why shouldn’t they have an opportunity to do the same back?

5) The current questions are actionable!
Some of the current NSS questions are a bit out of date (q. 17) or a little obtuse (q’s 19-21) but on the whole they ask direct questions, about the right sorts of things, in the right sort of way. If you receive 40% satisfaction on q. 2 “Staff have made the subject interesting”, then you know there is a disconnect between the teaching practice and the students. There can be all sorts of reason for this and all sorts of solutions, but the problem is clear. If 97% of students are satisfied on q. 16 “The library resources and services are good enough for my needs” then something has been done very well and should be scooped up as good practice to share elsewhere in the University. But what if we ask “During the current academic year how often have you asked another student to help you understand course material?” and the response is “once”, what do you do? What does it mean? Is that good because the student hasn’t needed help, or bad because the student isn’t talking to his/her peers? If it’s considered a bad thing, what do you do about it? And what is a prospective student meant to do with that information?

I might be wrong, these surveys of student engagement have done good business in the States and in Australia, so there is probably more to it than I am seeing.

I’m looking forward to seeing the outcome of the consultation.

Introducing ‘The Student Engagement Handbook’


I received a very heavy package last week that contained the culmination of about two years hard slog. The Student Engagement Handbook is an edited volume of 40 chapters by authors from around the world focussed, unsurprisingly, on the many facets and features of student engagement in higher education.

Liz Dunne, my colleague from the University of Exeter, and I have been working on this for the past two years but for both of us it feels like a culmination of many years of research into and involvement with student engagement in higher education. We were approached by the publishers (Emerald) to write a book on student engagement and we didn’t really have to think twice about it. At first we thought we would write the entire thing together, perhaps focussing on 8 or 9 areas of interest and expertise to us both. However, we soon found ourselves coming up with lists of 45 to 50 facets of student engagement that could be covered and thought we would push our luck with the publishers and propose a more comprehensive volume of edited chapters by many authors. We were pleasantly surprised when they offered their full support and told us to get on with it (in the nicest possible way).

The next concern was to approach all the potential chapter authors we had assumed would be interested in writing for us. We had a list of 60 or so who could author or co-author about 35 chapters and so we started to get in touch. We were trying to be realistic, so were expecting only about 20 or so to respond and be able to give up the time needed, but again we were pleasantly surprised by the number of yeses we received. Indeed both Liz and I are extremely grateful to the authors for their hard work and patience, working through various drafts, responding to our comments and accepting editorial decisions with good grace.

Liz and I were determined from the outset that we wanted to produce something that would be of practical use to people working in higher education anywhere in the world. We have authors from Universities around the world, writing about academic practice that can be applied anywhere, in any context.

For me, it has been a very challenging learning experience. I haven’t done any academic writing since I was at University, and that was nothing like this! But I’ve found the whole thing very fulfilling, especially finally having the opportunity to put some of my own thoughts, experiences and theories to paper and have them seriously challenged by peers.

There are some themes and issues falling out from the book that I’m hoping to blog about over the next few weeks. But for those of you who just can’t wait, get on to amazon straight away, it’s available in hardback or kindle versions, I’m sure the University library could do with a couple on their shelves.