Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Reflections of a Freshman, Part 2: Making it to Week 1

Posted by Jock Coats on December 21st, 2011

So, having navigated the uncertain waters of applying and getting accepted, I had to get here.  Not literally of course, since I’ve been here all along, but the amount of information, instructions and bureaucracy that followed made me wonder how those who have just finished school, waited for their results, and then had to start moving away from home make it in one piece.

I recall tweeting at one point that I thought I might have a hypertensive stroke with all the stuff I had to complete, bring along, organise and so on.

With the university’s faculty reorganisation in full swing, new induction teams in the new faculties and departments were busy preparing hard copy and online materials to supply us with as much information as we could handle.  But this period, between March when I accepted my unconditional place and September when semester started was really quite sparse in terms of stuff from the university.

I had one letter from accommodation office which I could not tell to start with was from Brookes as the sheet on headed paper was the second page when I opened the envelope with no easy indication that this was anything other than an unsolicited offer of accommodation.  I had another from the disability support service asking me if I wanted to be on the lists of people they circulate to interested groups about students with disabilities.  And then not until mid-late August, when the “Applicant PIP” details with enrolment instructions were sent out did we hear much else.

Now again, it is likely different if you are a school pupil in the middle of your A Levels – you have better things to do still to ensure you get into your university of choice – than for me, but I really wanted as soon as possible to see details of the modules I’d be on, their reading lists, perhaps even get to meet, electronically, some of the others who would be on my course.  On a purely practical level, if I am going to be expected to spend lots of money on books or materials I would like to know that as soon as possible so I can persuade people to use birthdays and Christmases to buy me expensive books and so on, let alone give me a decent chance of reading them.  For many people they simply did not have access to this information before they actually got here and collected hard copies of module handbooks.

Sure, there is The Student Room with its plethora of forums and so on, but I am sure the university could capitalise on this desire of potential students for more information,  Perhaps it could convert likely “insurance” places into “firm” places or whatever the terminology is.

The induction Wiki had lots of good information, particularly about enrolment week itself, but no interaction: despite valiant attempts by Faculty of Business induction coordinators to enable it, the bizarre system sends us an ID and password which, until you actually arrive, only gives you access to the online enrolment facility and little else.  When you do arrive, you get a new student number and an account you can actually use on other university systems.

If our soon to be arrivals had access to more of our systems earlier, I hope they would interact with each other before they get here, and be more familiar with their new surroundings, their new colleagues and so on before they get here.  This really needs work, and maybe with the new Virtual Learning Environment, Moodle, that is so much of my job to get implemented at the moment, we could find a way of “releasing” accepted applicants onto various areas of Moodle so they can explore and discuss with people in their halls, with the Students Union, with their future classmates and academic advisers without resorting to outside facilities like TSR or even the UCAS YouGo! social network which seemed next to useless to me.

In the next instalment, I finally “arrive” and find out what I am supposed to be learning!

Posted in Student Experience | 1 Comment »

Reflections of a Freshman, Part 1: the Applicant

Posted by Jock Coats on December 21st, 2011

So, it’s basically a year since I got my heart set on doing a degree and applied.  In fact, it was on the occasion of last year’s office Christmas do that I asked my then department director to do me a reference.  I had promised to keep a sort of a diary noting my “student experience” as things progressed.  Now that my first semester is complete, I ought to record that experience.

The first thing to say is that the application process was not entirely straightforward, and not entirely suited to non-traditional applicants.  It had been a quarter of a century since I was last in formal education, so I certainly didn’t have any teachers who might vouch for me in my UCAS reference.  So I dropped a note to the admissions tutor for the faculties my course covered to ask if it ought to be an employer, or perhaps one of my many academic friends who could vouch for my keenness and aptitude better than, say, a line manager.  But no, it had to be an employer.

Now that’s okay when you work for the university for which you are applying and your boss is the academically respected university librarian, and Helen clearly did a fantastic job of her reference as it got me a place.  But imagine for a second asking a boss at a struggling private sector firm in an economic downturn, ten months before you might want to arrange time off to study: “Of course you can have a reference, but maybe you’d prefer to leave next week to prepare for university if you don’t see your long term future with us.”

Similarly with waiting for a decision.  I think it took eight weeks for a decision in my case.  Now that again is probably not too bad if you are a sixth former in a school where everyone is waiting for the same news and will be in education right until two months before they pack their bags for university.  But again, if you are a mature student, planning on transforming your life in a big way in nine month’s time to study, two months seems like a long time out of that planning period to have to wait to hear.  Again, fortunately for me living and working at the university this was no more than a little niggle, and not helped by the imposition at the same time of our OBIS restructuring which made everything a little more uncertain, but for others planning a big change this delay could be important.

So anyway, once I had had and responded to the decision, the next step was to work out whether I actually wanted to go part time (or apply for my new job as part time in my case owing to the restructure).  I just so happened, a short while before my interview for the new job, to look into what sort of student loan financing I might get if I wanted and whether it would allow me to go part time.  It was purely fortuitous that I tried before the end of May as the Student Loan Company said that it wanted applications by then, but I don’t ever remember having been told that, so it was just lucky that I looked when I did.

I had been led to believe the SLC was bureaucratic and inefficient and so, largely, did it prove to be, though not half as bad as the worst nightmare stories I’d heard.  Commercial banks can have money from loan applications in your account in fifteen minutes.  SLC wants four months to be “sure” of getting you the money before you need it at the beginning of the new academic year.  I had trouble because their website is not clear about what evidence you do and don’t need to send (again especially if you are a mature student basing everything on your own, rather than parents’ or partner’s incomes).

By the August Bank Holiday I still had not heard, then discovered they were waiting for my Birth Certificate (why, when your UCAS form has your NI number on it I don’t understand).  Suffice to say that a 44 year old birth certificate is often difficult to find.  Last time I saw it was when I started work here and it was wanted for my membership of the pension scheme.  Fortunately one area of government that seems quite efficient is the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages who got a copy of my certificate, at a cost, to me, next day.  But I still had to send it twice to SLC since they deemed the accompanying form wrong the first time (without explaining what was actually wrong with it).  Still, once that was solved, the money was quick to flow, so not half as bad as those I had heard about not getting their loans till the May after they had started and so on.

Anyway, not an entirely smooth ride, made easier for me as an employee of the university already, but a few bits and pieces perhaps worth considering about application processes and so on.  In my next post I want to look at the “post acceptance” interactions with the university before actually stepping into a lecture theatre

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A Paperless Degree?

Posted by Jock Coats on October 10th, 2011

One thing I am setting out to try and achieve in my studies is to get through as much of my degree as possible without producing or consuming paper.  Not out of any particular environmental concern (though not using scarce resources, for an economics student at least, must surely be a positive!) but just because in many situations electronic is now better than paper.

Unfortunately at the beginning of each module, and at various stages along the way, lecturers tend to hand out paper by the truck load, whether it be module handbooks, weekly lesson plans or question sheets for seminar work.  They also demand, generally, two paper copies of coursework, as well as one copy submitted electronically via TurnItIn, the anti-plagiarism system.

But apart from that, how well am I doing?  Well, I have two key gadgets – my iPad and my Kindle.  Sadly, most of the actual text books I need are only available in dead tree versions.  However much of the background reading is available in Kindle form.  But even with that, of the 26 books originally in my reading list before starting on the course, only ten were available on Kindle or, indeed, in any electronic format.

Brookes uses a Virtual Learning Environment called WebCT – though it will be one of my main jobs at work to move us to Moodle, linked to severa electronic resource databases like Equella and Mahara over the course of the next year.  But for now, most of the paper handed out in lectures and seminars is posted on the VLE as well.  File formats raise some issues: most are posted as MS Word documents.  I would certainly prefer PDFs, mainly because first, Word is a great big piece of bloatware that takes ages to open each time I want to refer to something and second, they are editable which I suspect is overall a recipe for some shenanigans later (maybe someone could claim the coursework deadline was different in their copy and so on).

I have worked out that if I open the Word versions, and, on my Mac at least, use the printing function to email a PDF to my address, I can get a reasonable quality of handbook etc onto my Kindle.  Some format better than others, so I ought to try and work out what works best and recommend module staff to use those techniques.  Also, if a lecturer posts a link to a web page for background reading, I have discovered I can send it to Instapaper and set up my Instapaper account to send a daily digest to my address as well.  This is great for general use to – effectively you can create your own daily newspaper from your RSS reader, say, and have it offline on your Kindle to enjoy at your leisure.

However, it’s in note taking that the gadgets score.  Instead of the ubiquitous A4 block pad, I tend to use a mind mapping program called iThoughts on my iPad to take notes.  This, I think, is far and away better than paper.  My typing is way more legible than handwriting at speed, and more especially, I can reoganise each note wherever is most appropriate on the mind map.  If there is Wifi in the lecture or classroom I tend to upload my maps to my XMind account before I leave so it’s instantly available on any other device I want to review them on later (or, since I have for now uploaded them as public mind maps, to anyone else who stumbles across that account – if staff or the university would rather I did not do that, then let me know and I will change to making them private maps).

Studying economics, though, there are lots of occasions on which I need to do little graphs – you know, supply and demand curves and so on.  So at the weekend I found a couple of pretty good apps for the iPad, thanks to this little guide.  First, OmniGraphSketcer for iPad is a freehand tool for quickly drawing exactly the sort of stuff that economists like to bamboozle the rest of us with.  I’ve used other OmniGroup products before, and it is true that this is, as apps go, quite an expensive one at ten quid, but it has already proven its worth just today in a seminar group.  Then, in readiness for having to do some more complicated maths, I picked up PocketCAS Pro for iPad which solves and graphs quite complex equations.

So, so far so good.  What would help to make all this more feasible then?

Well first, universities ought to use their economic clout in recommending text books to pressure publishers to make more of them available in e-formats.  Not only are economics and politics texts books rather expensive at anywhere between about £30 and £50, but they all weigh a ton.  The more I can get into my 350g Kindle the better.  Economics and politics are popular subjects – most of my modules have at least 150 and often 250 attendees.  Repeat that across the sector (many of the books are pretty standard) and that’s a lot of buying power that could be brought to bear by academics, and many have regular new editions.  There should be no excuse for any new edition these days not to have an e-format version.  The sooner we get e-Textbooks available in the UK the better.  And the ultimate sanction ought to be to switch to using so called Open Learning Resources wherever possible.

Second, there could be more focus on consistency and choice in the format of electronic resources generated by the university.  PDFs of module handbooks, past exam papers, seminar handouts and so on should be mandatory.  Better still, the repository such things are stored in could handle conversion to several different standard formats and the individual could perhaps set their preferences in the VLE to default to a PDF, or a .mobi or a Word document or whatever the individual wants.

And third, if we have to submit work electronically, why bother with paper versions?  Let’s start marking the electronic copies, and if academics cannot manage that, then they, not the students, can arrange to print them (and maybe to scan in marked and annotated versions for sending back to students).  On most e-reading devices you can write notes – I have PDF Expert and iAnnotate for the iPad for example to allow me to annotate PDFs and of course you can write margin notes on the Kindle too.

Finally, I would like to be able to post or annotate online resources for others to use.  Social bookmarking is an essential part of a VLE nowadays.  And I hope to be able to build that in to our implementation of Moodle for next year.

But, does any of this matter I wonder?  Last week, in my Skills for Economic Enquiry class the market we had to comment on was “e-Reader” devices.  It certainly seemed that of the thirty or so people in my seminar group I was the only one to have one.  So may be all this is still a rarity.  I hope it becomes more mainstream though.

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Mutual funding for Higher Education

Posted by Jock Coats on April 20th, 2011

It has come as little surprise to me, given my prediction in December last year, that so many universities have chosen to charge the highest allowed fees of £9,000 a year under the government’s bugger’s muddle of an Higher Education funding system.  So for another little prediction – either the system will not see its way to implementation in the current form, or, if it does, it will have to be reviewed within a couple of years.  In other words, it’s not even going to be as stable as Dearing.

But, assuming it does come into effect, and assuming it, or something similar (perhaps without a cap at all) remains for the foreseeable future what can be done?  There has, after all, been much discussion about the notion that Higher Education is a “bubble” about to burst, particularly in the US, where student loan debt now outstrips the aggregate total balance of credit card debt.

If you look around the American Higher Education scene, many of those institutions that were around in the depression have student housing co-operatives, credit unions and so on attached.  These arose as a mutual self-help response to the challenges of funding Higher Education in the Depression, and perhaps they point the way to a possible future for helping fund UK students through what will now be a significantly higher investment in themselves than previously.

There are, indeed, all sorts of possible answers.  In Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman posited the idea of selling shares in yourself in return for investment, with the idea that you would slowly buy back the shares as your income grew as a result of the investment.  This idea is taken to extremes in the recent “libertarian” science fiction books The Unincorporated Man and the Unincorporated War.

Friedman has a more fundamental point that the government’s proposed system does not take into account, and without which it will inevitably create more perverse incentives.  Because, in our case, student funding will come from the government up front, it is not competing with investment in other kinds of capital.  The normal way of telling whether an investment is worth making is its predicted rate of return against better or worse competing potential returns from other investments you might make with it.

But, since they’ve messed around with the graduate contribution terms so it does not look like any normal kind of a loan, and since the money is, if you will, a separate pot that cannot be used for alternative investments, these signals will not be apparent.  And that lack, at least as much as the general current lack of low cost competition for universities, means there are no real signals as to whether individual institutions have got their prices right from the perspective of the customer.

Anyhow, one thing we could do is look to find ways of bypassing the new state backed financing system.  Now sure, in the US, one of the big problems about student loan debt is that big chunks of it is borrowed from distinctly dodgy lenders; preying on the bubble mentality of people desperate to get a degree in case they lose out for the rest of their lives, some of these are more akin to loan sharks or sub-prime mortgage providers than investors in peoples’ futures.  And this points back to the mutual institutions established to help people get through higher education in the Depression, the university credit unions.

I did actually propose this idea a decade ago now, as a way of enticing and retaining graduates’ financial involvement in the university.  Accepting that not many alumni are capable or willing to make large monetary donations, I wondered if they could be enticed into putting some of their savings into a university credit union, earning interest, whilst at the same time assisting subsequent students with low cost financial aid.

In the intervening years I’ve been introduced to different possible mechanisms, such as the JAK Members Bank in Sweden, and the idea of using Open Capital Partnerships as a less “toxic” equivalent of Friedman’s incorporation idea mentioned above.  Here in Oxford, a small city with two large higher education institutions in many ways dominating the local economy we could fold these ideas into a local currency as well – after all, I’ll bet between the two universities here we spend a significant mount of money purely within the local economy.  Perhaps some of the money from student fees could provide the “value backing” for such a complementary currency.

With the JAK (pronounced, appropriately, “Jock” with a sort of a “J/Y” thing going on) system, you would expect incoming students to have saved a little bit of money in the system being run by their chosen university (or perhaps a bigger one covering several universities), they then apply to borrow sufficient to pay their fees, their living costs, or whatever part of it they want to do this way.  All the while they pay a membership subscription, but once they graduate and are earning they start to “save” again within the scheme, eventually wiping out their debt and having a positive balance which within the system is used for new borrowers (or, after a stipulated time, for them to withdraw and end their relationship with the system).  It is interest free, but the membership fees and the lack of interest on positive balances do represent a sort of hidden opportunity cost.  So the JAK system is roughly a credit union with fees rather than interest.

The Open Capital Partnership would be more akin to Friedman’s idea of investing in individuals as shareholders in an incorporated business.  Except that using a limited liability partnership type structure you can remove the notion of an investor “owning” the “investee” and instead think of it more as the investor having a stake in the additional “profit” (i.e. income) after graduation the student makes until they buy out the investor partner.  I think this one is the more attractive solution, both for investors and investees, as investors do get a positive return whilst investees get potentially a greater say in how and when they buy their investor out.

I would do the math at this stage, to see how it works out against the government proposed system, but that would be to give the entire game away.  If you like the idea and want help working it out, I shall do a bit more work on it.  But for now, it’s just an idea, a vague notion.

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The Big Society University

Posted by Jock Coats on February 14th, 2011

Way back in oh I don’t know when, I suggested that there was a strong case for universities becoming hubs of social enterprise and the Big Society for their local hinterlands.  Now I see the government has caught up, sort of, suggesting that there might be a “big society university” (though why just one I have no idea – a “really big society university” perhaps rather than local ones.  First again!  Feel free to call i you want any advice Cam!

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Gubernatorial gubbins

Posted by Jock Coats on February 10th, 2011

So, my term as governor is over, and today sees the first board meeting at which the two new staff governors, Pete Toomer of the student accommodation office in Estates and Facilities Management from the non-teaching staff and Megan Crawford of the Westminster Institute of Education from the teaching staff, will take their places.  Congratulations to them on their election and commiserations to all those (and there were a fair few) who stood in the elections and were not successful this time.

Pete Toomer, new non-teaching staff elected governor

Megan Crawford, new teaching staff elected governor

I have very much enjoyed my time as a governor, and have learned a lot.  But I am hoping that by this time next year I will be in my second semester as an undergraduate student, on the new Economics, Politics and International Relations course being introduced by the School of Business.  With my long interest in housing issues, I shall particularly regret not being on the board with Lesley Morphy, a newly appointed governor and Chief Executive of the Crisis housing charity.

There is lots going on in the university, with the fees debate moving ahead (of which more later no doubt), the building work now getting up to full speed, and, or so it seems, staff reorganisations everywhere, including my own department in what is now “Oxford Brookes Information Solutions”.

I hope also over the next few weeks then to start to bring together ideas for the Brookes Staff Association to try and create a social focus for staff especially now that many may begin to feel a little dislocated through such reorganisations.  This will not – repeat NOT – be an alternative to the trades unions, and I am fully committed to being a UNISON member in any case, but more like, say, the Oxford University Club but without a multi-million pound clubhouse, or any physical location at all in fact.

So, as far as governors are concerned it is, as someone used to say “goodbye from him” and I wish these two well in what will no doubt prove to be a difficult time for the university and UK Higher Education as a whole.

Posted in Brookes, HE management | Comments Off on Gubernatorial gubbins

“Magical and revolutionary” – Does Apple’s iPad live up to its hype?

Posted by Jock Coats on November 22nd, 2010

Here’s a little review I wrote for the Learning Resources Newsletter:

It appears that the now six month or so old Apple iPad has quickly become a “Marmite” device: one you will either love or hate.  Having had one of the most basic models to evaluate for a few months now I fall firmly in the “love” camp.

When Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, introduced this sleek, flat, touchscreen tablet to the world back in January, he described it as “magical and revolutionary”.  I wouldn’t go so heavy on the supernatural, but I certainly think that it is revolutionary: potentially the beginning of a whole new model of computing and information transmission and retrieval.

Some will tell you that it’s “just a big iPhone”; others that it’s “only half a laptop”: and they’d both be right, as far as it goes.  Even as an enthusiastic user of all kinds of applications on my own iPhone it is too small to be usable for anything other than short bursts; and a laptop with as large and clear a screen area as the iPad is still quite a bulky object that will likely come with a bag, power cable, a fold down the middle which makes its centre of gravity such that you really need to use it on a flat stable surface, uses multiple input devices like the mouse/trackpad and the keyboard making it difficult to use one handed even if you could hold it easily with the other.

The iPad, by contrast, is a one handed device, on which you are manipulating objects directly on the screen with your fingers – no looking out for the mouse pointer and so on.  In wide screen mode it gives an onscreen keyboard that is basically the same size as a full sized laptop keyboard that is very comfortable to touch type with while the machine is propped on one knee – where your typing maintains the balance of the machine very naturally – or perched on the edge of a lecture theatre note taking table.  Even though laptop manufacturers have been looking for this “holy grail” for years, the iPad is truly instant-on when you just need to look something up in a hurry standing up, wherever you are.

So far so good, but is it a corporate machine, or a personal toy?  Well, of course, Apple want to sell as many of these as they can.  Marketing is definitely aimed at the personal “gadgeteer” market so far.  But these are the people who will get one, and then want to see what they can do with it at work.  They’re the ones who will want to show off that they don’t need to take a paper notepad to a meeting, nor screen themselves off from other participants by furiously typing away behind their laptop screen.

And we are seeing a trickle of people within Brookes asking us to get them one:  the Vice-Chancellor is already using one; the University Alliance are going to impress in important meetings with several; and others are talking about using them to replace the mountain of university committee paperwork.  When you want to go to a meeting, or a lecture, would you take your entire collection of ring-binders, the back of a fag packet, or a convenient pad of paper and a pen.  The iPad is the latter.

But they are difficult to support, at the moment, as corporate devices.  There are, literally, hundreds of thousands of “Apps” (as in “there’s an App for that”) available for them, so you will find dozens of tools, some better than others, for doing any particular task.  And it is difficult (make that impossible at the moment other than by some kind of promise on the part of the user) to enforce a standard set of Apps for instance to ensure that everyone is reading their committee papers the same way, say.

Apps are not generally expensive – even Apple’s own cut down versions of their iWork MS-Office competitor suite are only a fiver each, and most probably come in at between 59 pence and a fiver, just as with the iPhone (indeed many Apps simply transfer from one to the other without additional cost if you already have some favourites on your iPhone).  But there’s no way, again, of making a corporate purchase and installing something on everyone’s in the same way we support desktop or laptop PCs – each owner would need an Apple AppStore account and possibly some new mechanism of claiming expenditure on your iPad back if it were for corporate use.  But I have certainly not found any task that I have wanted to do so far for which I cannot find a passable App, and if the iPhone App-store is anything to go by, the range available will only increase.

But as more and more corporate data type applications are made available through the web (Web 2.0 and beyond) these devices will come into their own.  If you don’t need to type so much to get an answer – if you literally point at a field and select some value – why carry around the additional, and redundant, keyboard of a laptop to do so?

And in an educational environment, I can see these or their near competitors (which I hope we will also get a chance to evaluate), being used for collaborative group work – rather than everyone crowding around a PC keyboard for example – for instantaneously passing learning resources around a room without people having to stop and boot up their laptops or whatever and for giving quick, easy, one handed access to knowledge from wherever you happen to be when you think of it.

So, there are considerable hurdles to contend with in making the iPad a really useful corporate device.  Questions remain for example, about data encryption, which is pretty well a deal breaker for anyone wanting to use corporate data on a machine not tied down to a desk, and the management of the machines to any kind of corporate standard.  But unlike some others, I do think this is a revolutionary type of product and that the iPad and its competitors will usher in a very different way of viewing ubiquitous, instant information in the years to come.

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Posted by Jock Coats on June 4th, 2010

Imagine some green valley, most of the year covered in cows and things, that for a long weekend in summer turns into a mini city, with a hundred thousand campers having fun in the sun, or perhaps the mud.  There are all sorts of activities laid on – classes in environmental issues, alternative therapy tents and food and drink of every description, but the top billing acts are not the Gorillaz or U2.

Image taken from geeklawyer's photostream under an attribution-non-commercial-share-alike Creative Commons License from

Prof Brian Cox explaining some astro-physics?

At this festival those honours would go to the likes of Niall Ferguson on the pyramid stage, Marianne Talbot’s giving her “Romp through Philosophy” on the other stage and over in some corner there Marcus du Sautoy rambling on about zeta functions.  The international arena has, I dunno, a lecture series by Elinor Ostrom, interspersed with fun with Elizabeth Blackburn talking about chromosomes.  Think Glastonbury on Ritalin, TED with tents, the WEA wired.

Welcome to “Glastonversity” – one possible vision of where some parts of higher education may be going – one in which global superstar academics do tours of a festival circuit, lecturing to thousands of, well, screaming fans maybe, at a time…

One of the rare pleasures of being a governor is that occasionally you get invited to events to hear the great and the good of the university sector speak.  Last night was one such where a number of governors and SMT had dinner with David Eastwood, currently Vice-Chancellor at Birmingham University and a member of the Browne Commission into the funding of Higher Education and previously Chief Executive of HEFCH the funing body through which government money, and the attached strings are channeled to English universities.

He had been asked along to Brookes to be one of the external people on the interview panel for today’s balloon debate that will decide which of five current deans is throw out of the Executive Dean basket and so he came down last night so a group of us could grill him on more strategic issues for higher education more widely.  It was certainly not, overall anyway, good news.  The “good years” are over for HE, expect very significant cuts in the level of public funding coming to all universities, and tougher times for institutions that make wrong strategic decisions and so on.

Those of us with long memories of Brookes might think back to a series of discussions facilitated by the then new Chancellor Helena Kennedy.  I can never remember the title, but it was a look at what Brookes and higher education in general might look like I think in 2005, though it might have bee about 2015.  There was lots of talk about technology and distance learning and what might have seemed fanciful notions such as degree structures that would not involve students being here for more than a few intensive weeks at a time and so on.

But there’s a saying amongst future-gazers that the impact of big systemic changes are often over-estimated at two years out and under-estimated at ten years.  The growth of the internet itself is a classic example – lots of investment went into the “dot com” companies in the late nineties expecting that to be the take-off of mass penetration, in which everyone would do everything on line from then on.  It proved a flop and caused a min-reciession on its own, but now ten years later we take so much of what was anticipated in that bubble for granted.

With the prospect of really quite deep cuts prompting the most innovative institutions to look at other ways of generating income or doing things better for the same or less cost, I suspect we are now closer to that ten years point in higher education.  Think about a world in which “blended learning” is not about whether you do some bits face to face, some bits online, some bits from home and so on, but about whether you get taught by these emerging global superstars whilst attending, perhaps, but not necessarily, your local institution that is a part of a network including the superstars’ host institutions.

David had a lot to say last night about how if we are entering a period where market based decisions, and innovation to stay ahead of the competition it might lead institutions into broader, deeper sorts of collaboration with others – perhaps a better known institution taking over a less well known one that is faltering for lack of public funding for taught students, perhaps mergers of equals to capitalise on their joint portfolio of “academic superstars”, perhaps, yes, it has to be said what with Apollo’s take-over last year of BPP, perhaps for-profit corporations taking over some institutions.

But my vision was of world leading institutions entering overseas (to them) markets by building networks of collaborating institutions that feed each other students, network their academics, share their back offices, collaborate on research – so perhaps Yale wants to have a real European partners – could they put some of their huge resources (their endowment is bigger than the UK’s annual government spend on Higher Education – I know, stocks and flows and all that but it puts it into some perspective -or to put it another way, their annual operating budget is something like twenty times that of ours for a similar number of students) into a joint venture with, say, the likes of Brookes.

And in the middle of that maybe comes the summer academic festival – maybe “Global Gathering of Minds” would be a better name. What do you think?  Where do you think higher education might be heading?  One thing is for sure, institutions that stand still, or try to defend old ways of working just because they have history in their favour, are not going to go anywhere, and may not survive.

[I know, you probably all think I’m barking, but I can make some good futurology calls – if Blackwell’s had listened to me in 1994 the biggest online retailer in the world might not now be named after a South American river for example, natch!]

[Image taken from geeklawyer’s photostream under an attribution-non-commercial-share-alike Creative Commons License from]

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Universities and the Big Society

Posted by Jock Coats on May 21st, 2010

Whatever else happens under this new government, we can be sure that they will pursue the Conservative manifesto idea of the “Big Society”.  Even if it was only first unleashed on an unsuspecting electorate two months ago, and not terribly well explained at that, it was seen by the Conservative leadership at east as a key priority in their redistribution of power away from Westminster and other government institutions and into the hands of free acting groups in neighbourhoods and communities.

I have written elsewhere of how sceptical I am about both the “Big Society” as a political policy and of the “Big Society Network” mega-mutual that underpins the idea, and about the place of mutuals in delivering on state set policy priorities.  But whether we like it or not, it is likely to become increasingly prominent in both political discourse and in the ways they seek to deliver what are currently public services and build capacity in our communities to take on more home-grown projects.

So I have been thinking about what it might mean for universities in general and for Brookes in particular.  There’s an early Cabinet Office briefing paper on the Big Society (a .pdf file) idea available on their website:

We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want. We want society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever before. Only when people and communities are given more power and take more responsibility can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all.

This is all very motherhood and apple pie stuff.  Governments for decades have talked about giving away power.  One wonders whether the idea that what might turn out to be the “local busybody” is merely a way of doing what the state does through local amateurs whose job will effectively be as lay agents of the state in every street, “nudging” local people in the direction the great big network suggests they should.  And so it is surely incumbent on those of us who believe otherwise – believe that social action is about seizing power from the state, not about delivering state set policies – to try to ensure that the outcome is not a lot of petty local tyrannies of the “usual suspects”.

So why do I think universities have a part to play in all this.  Well, we are, after all, social enterprises in our own right.  Multi-disciplinary social enterprises both at an academic level and because we have support functions that could be of use to a plethora of little local social enterprises who may lack the capacity for running back office functions such as finance, human resources and IT and marketing services.  We are not government, but are usually prominent, leading economic actors in our communities.  And of course, in many cases, we actually teach many of the skills and disciplines community groups will need.  And we have often underused facilities, especially at times, such as evenings, when these community enterprises will want to use them.

We are, as with Brookes, sometimes seen as imposing ourselves in some way on the communities within which we operate, but are often essential to the economic success of those areas even if our neighbours do not always appreciate that.  So it is good “PR” to be offering our services and facilities to this new breed of community project.

If, as with Brookes, we are also in the business of teaching the professionals that are then engaged in public sector delivery, such as health and education professionals, we will be affected – how will our teacher training offer for example need to evolve to cater for the “free schools” where curriculum and pedagogical style may be set less by the whitehall department and more by local sentiment and the opinions of those parent groups running those schools?  And, on the other side of that same coin, how can our academic professionals assist in the running of these services when they are devolved, in a similar way to our sponsorship of the Oxford Academy.

Our 2020 strategy, quoting John Henry Brookes himself says we aim to “graduate students to lead lives of consequence” and as part of that we are developing a set of “graduate attributes” over and above the academic requirements of their courses that we hope will set them apart when approaching employers.  But a constant theme amongst some of our local detractors in particular is that they are not committed to the community they are a part of while they are at university, with such phrases as “temporary residents” used disparagingly about students, especially those living out in private accommodation.

From the day they arrive at university; no, perhaps even from the day they choose this university as their preferred university, our students become a part of our, and therefore our neighbouring, communities.  If the future of leadership and political action is to be through participation in locally devolved enterprises, then we should seek to get them involved in these form the start.  This means active community building in halls of residence both to impart community organising skills to them as soon as they arrive, but also as evidence that the university takes this aspect of its students’ commitment to Oxford seriously.

Some of you will know that I have long harboured the notion that as probably the biggest “social enterprise” is any one area, universities are the natural home for social enterprise hubs for their region/sub-region/county.  At a time of austerity in public sector budgets too this could help us keep our income up, especially in non-teaching services where we could perhaps develop a bureau service to assist these new ventures with management functions leaving them to get on with delivering their aims.  The biggest point of failure and the biggest gripe of both SMEs and social enterprise is the back office stuff, the compliance with regulations, tax and PAYE systems, HR requirements and so on.  We could operate such a bureau on a “break even” basis for members of a social enterprise hub and on a for profit basis for local SMEs.

Such involvement could also help to establish our “impact” – if our research and innovation and our academics conducting such are able to use their new knowledge directly to benefit community action, increasing perhaps the community competitiveness of Oxfordshire as against other areas centred on other universities our academic standing is enhanced too.

There are certainly lots of possible opportunities to be grasped in this new localisation agenda; things that I think are better focussed on non-governmental institutions, and to me, it seems a “no brainer” that the “local university” fits the bill admirably.

Just as a final thought though, here’s one of the bullet points from the Cabinet Office document that really interests me:

We will give public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver. This will empower millions of public sector workers to become their own boss and help them to deliver better services.

Ten years ago, when we were developing our last university strategy I submitted a paper to the then Vice-Chancellor Graham Upton and to the Academic Board, entitled a “Manifesto for a Mutual University” which envisaged the university arranged as a series of primary and secondary co-operatives.  Maybe that idea was only a decade early!

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Brookes alumni in General Election successes

Posted by Jock Coats on May 14th, 2010

Whether you think the outcome of the General Election was what you wished it to be or not, it has led to an increase in the number of Brookes alumni now in parliament, and one is now in government:

Chris Kelly was elected MP for Dudley South, Justin Tomlinson for Swindon North and Jonathan Djanogly, who took over John Major’s seat of Huntingdon in 2001 has been appointed a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice.  All are Conservatives, Chris and Justin were prominent Conservative Society members when they were here, and I think probably graduated in 1999.

UPDATE: On the Lib Dem side it looks as though another Brookes alumna has been appointed to the government, in the form of Lynne Featherstone at the Home Office in charge of Equalities.

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