Having been going on to anybody who would listen (and those who wouldn’t) about the Key Information Sets for the past year or so, I actually managed to forget today was the launch of the new unistats website. Once there was talk of the ‘information age’, but now we have an ‘information cult’. In the information cult, if there is enough information about things we can made good and right choices. Back in the 1980s there was an advert for a bank, which parodied their rivals—each time a customer asked a question the bank employee would reply, “Here is a leaflet about it”. The point about their bank was that they actually answered your questions in person.
With the internet we have a gigantic worldwide “leaflet about it”, whatever “it” is. With the right information we can apparently make choices about which school to send our children to, what hospital to have our operation at, what car insurance to buy and which company is the cheapest for electricity this week. The launch of the new unistats has been receiving a lot of coverage, mostly negative on the Times Higher Website. The KIS contains information on salary, % of assessment which is coursework and scores from the National Student Survey, among other things.
As Roger Brown pointed out some months back, this is actually a moral issue. The idea that this information empowers potential students to make reasoned choices is very troubling. And like anything which is measured, universities (and any other organisations), as Adam Child is quoted as saying in the article, will focus on the what is measured rather than making improvements which really matter. And where there are numbers there are league tables.
Some have suggested that choosing a university is becoming like buying car insurance a la Compare the Market. This is nonsense. You can change your car insurance company, you can move house, you can change your spouse and you can even your bank (allegedly we are more statistically more likely to change our spouse than our bank). The time and money expense of university means a wrong choice can be disastrous. Like a pawn move in chess it is made forever. In one of his books, Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comics talks about the confusopoly, an economic system sustained on the collective ability of service providers to confuse consumers with complex pricing structures, tariffs and performance measures. Perhaps that is what we are coming to here with universities.
NSS: National Student Survey. UK survey of final year undergraduate survey undergraduates conducted annually since 2005. Results are published at institutional and disciplinary level within institutions is minimum threshold of 23 students and 50% response rate is met. http://www.thestudentsurvey.com/
PTES: (Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey) and PRES: (Postgraduate Research Experience Survey). Annual surveys of finishing taught and research postgraduate students run by the Higher Education Academy, though not every institution participates every year. Findings are confidential to the individual institutions though overall reports are published. http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/student-experience-surveys
“Key Information Sets (KIS) are comparable sets of information about full or part time undergraduate courses and are designed to meet the information needs of prospective students. From September 2012 all KIS information will be published on the Unistats web-site and will also be accessed via a small advert, or ‘widget’, on the course web pages of universities and colleges. Prospective students will be able to compare all the KIS data for each course with data for other courses on the Unistats web-site.” Source: HEFCE http://www.hefce.ac.uk/whatwedo/lt/publicinfo/kis/
Canning, J. et al. (2011) Understanding the National Student Survey: Investigations in Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies. Southampton: Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies. Available from: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/197699/
Spent some time today trying to conceptualise the way potential (UK) students make decisions about where and what to study relative to the information available and advice they receive. Comments welcome. Been doing this is preparation for next week’s workshop for heads of department.
As part of my Fellowship of the Staff and Educational Development Association I have to write an annual review of what I have been doing and what I’ve learnt and what I plan to do for the future. We are then alloated 'triads' of other fellows and we will comment on each other's reports. I wanted to do something a bit different year as we don't have to submit as a written report. I couldn't think how I might do it differently, so I decided to make my report public, crowdsource my professional development I suppose.
This year has been the most challenging of my career so far. Last year the Higher Education Academy took the decision to withdraw funding from its 24 subject centres. The decision focused my mind somewhat. What had we achieved as a team in the lifetime of the subject centre? Where were we going to go from here? More crucially what had I achieved in the eight years I had been part of the team? Where was I going?
Subject centres, LLAS at least, was very much a we organisation. This was great on one level, but I had found it increasingly difficult to distinguish myself from subject centre. I have also learnt a lot about how people see subject centre staff, and I don’t always like it. In 2010 I wrote a short piece for the Teaching in Higher Education about the identity of subject centre staff in the educational development community. The anonymous referee was adamant that subject centre academic coordinators are essentially administrators though one or two do some good pedagogic work (we need adminstrators of course, but I sensed very negative undertones in the reviewer's use of the word). I wanted to raise awareness about the job I did and somebody seemed to be suggesting that I had misinterpreted my own job. The reviewer said that he/she was a member of a subject centre advisory board—my first response was that I hoped they weren’t on our advisory board. I have always wanted to be taken seriously as an academic. I'm not sure that I am.
As the 2010-11 academic year drew to a close my angst increased. Our director did some good work in persuading the powers at be in Southampton that it was worth keeping LLAS work going as an independent unit—another opportunity though painful reflection was involved too. Who were we? Could we continue as we were? (How) would we have to change? The team, which had grown through Routes into Languages and Links into Languages would have to be much smaller. We had to reapply for our jobs. I was fortunate in this process, but lost a day of week of hours. We still had some funding from the HEA, but we needed to start charging for the sorts of activity which used to be free or low cost. And we had to start getting the funding in to keep going.
What have I done this year? What have I learnt?
The LLAS work
One of the challenges with the subject centre goings on has not been the changes which have taken place, but the continuity. As usual I organised and participated in workshops for Heads of Department, a workshop for new academic staff and a workshop on sustainable development in the humanities. I have received funding from the British Academy to produce an online statistics books for humanities students under the Academy’s Languages and Quantitative Skills Programme. I have long been dissatisfied with statistics textbooks. In my opinion they explain too little and assume that the reader will take concepts such as the normal distribution as an article of faith. The book uses the sorts of examples that humanities students will use such as historical and population data. I hope that by providing a more verbal resonating approach the book will help students (and academics) who find quantitative data difficult to deal with.
I edited two further editions of Debut: the undergraduate journal of languages, linguistics and area studies. In the latest issue my editorial reflects on the concept of publishing undergraduate research, how good it needs to be and how undergraduates journals help students to complete the research cycle. I am also part of LLAS’s EU-funded Sharing Practice in Enhancing and Assuring Quality(SPEAQ) project which, in my view at least, seeks to allow students and academics to reclaim ‘quality’ for themselves. I often feel that the term ‘quality’ has become increasingly associated with ‘tick-box’ approach to teaching which has little, if anything to do with the learning experience. We have developed a workshop to enable students, lecturers and quality managers to come together to reflect on the concept of quality.It has been interesting to learn about the experiences of academics from other countries who are our partners in the project.
I also headed up the organisation of the main LLAS biennial conference, the first of the post-HEA era. This year it was called 'Language Futures' and was held in Edinburgh.
One of my first tasks of the 2011-12 academic year was to provide maternity cover for my colleague Lisa who was coordinating the HEA’s Islamic Studies Network. As a non-expert in the field I knew this would be challenging, but with the closure of the subject centres most team members left the project too. Lisa was kind enough to draw up a plan of what had been done and what needed to be done. My main task was to begin the post-Islamic Studies Network (funding is about to end) sustainability plan. I drew up the consultation questionnaire over the Christmas period and we received over 50 responses. Now that Lisa is back this work is her capable hands and it looks likely some sort of scholarly association for Islamic Studies will be formed in the near future. I was fortunate to be able to draw on the wisdom and enthusiasm of the Advisory Board members.
Other University of Southampton work
I have been part of the University of Southampton’s participation in Green Academy, a scheme run by the Higher Education Academy to support institutions in embedding sustainability in the curriculum and overall life of the institution. One of the key achievements of our participation is that we have secured funding for full time programme assistant who is working on embedding sustainability into the CORE (curriculum, operations, research, experience) of the University of Southampton.
I will also be involved in teaching on a new Southampton-wide module: Sustainability in the Local and Global Environment. As in previous years I have also contributed sessions on employability and writing book reviews to the Faculty of Humanities Doctoral Training Programme.
The entrepreneurial John
I have used my 'non-working' time to develop skills in new areas. I have developed a website in Drupal called yazikopen a portal for open access research into learning and teaching modern languages. This has been a steep learning curve on the technical side of things as I do not have a background in web development. I am pleased that the website is functional, but I would like to work out ways to grow the website and see if there is any way enabling the website to generate revenue to cover its costs. I have also been being doing some freelance work and hope to develop further in this area.
Hope (Future plans)
At LLAS I am again organising a workshop for Heads of Department which will focus on the growing sources of public information about teaching in higher education (e.g. National Student Survey, Key Information Set etc.). I will also be putting in bids for various projects. I would like to continue development of the yazikopen website and will look for further freelancing opportunities.
I also hope to have a say in the open access debate. If true open access is to become a reality universities have a greater role to play in academic publishing.
Roger Brown is spot on with his recent Guardian article “Student choice is a myth - and it's immoral”. He starts off with a reference to the Key Information Set (KIS), something I have written about on previous occasions. Most of the information in the KIS is meaningless and is subject to manipulation by institutions in any case— if you start judging organisations by certain figures, the leaders of these organisations are apt to focus on improving the figures, even if they are totally irrelevant to quality. I’m yet to be convinced that any aspect of the KIS will be useful in informing student choice. I suspect that it will inform student choice, but in the same way that Mystic Meg informs people of which lottery numbers to choose.
What interested me most about Professor Brown’s article was this comment:
…the emphasis on student choice is actually immoral. It loads upon immature participants all the responsibility and risks of making the wrong choice, a choice that is hard to unravel once made.
I wrote a blog post in December which responded to an article comparing higher education choice to buying car insurance.
I said it there and I'll say it again. The two things are not alike. If my car insurance company treats me badly or put its prices up I’ll go elsewhere next year. I can replace my car if it dies on me, though I will be annoyed. If my house fell down I could find somewhere else to live. In North America graduates often refer to their college as their alma mater (that is a “nourishing mother”) – a sense of the great esteem in which one’s university is held. Despite all the emphasis on the rights of parents to choose a school for their children, research seems to suggest that a child’s life outcomes are influenced much more by what happens at home than by what happens at school. Is a poor or regretted choice of university course as damaging as an uncaring parent? Is blaming an 18 year-old for making a poor decision in the choice of university like blaming a child living in poverty for choosing parents who don’t have much money?
The (US) Chronicle has just run an article about a graduate student called Monica Johnston who has an $88,000 debt. Part of the reason for her debt was that she spent $40,000 attending an institution with a great reputation, which turned out not to be right for one reason or another. Some of those commenting on the article suggest that much of this debt is her own fault for spending a year at an unsuitable college and failing to graduate. I know nothing about the college Ms Johnston dropped out of or the one she is at now, but the choice to go to that expensive college obviously seemed like a good idea at one point. It was not the right choice and it has substantially increased her debts. I’m not sure that a KIS or anything like it would have prevented her from going there. It may have actually led her to being more even more unsuitable choices.
A friend asked for my advice on applying for undergraduate courses last year. I was able to give some help, but I was shocked at how little help I was really able to give despite having spent the last 17 odd years studying and working in higher education. There are so many variables in play, different course content and combinations, reputation, distance from family and friends, and career possibilities (for someone who like many young people is not fully sure what she wants to do afterwards). The KIS would have been worse than useless and league tables are no use. In fact we could have ended up in conversations with me explaining that just because Course X has a graduate employment rate of 73% and Course Y of 75% does not necessarily make Course Y the better choice. But students will make choices on this sort of basis.
My worst fear is not that students will ignore the KIS. My fear is that it could become the sacred text of university applications.
The Key Information Set (KIS) gets another (deserved) bashing in the late edition of Times Higher Education this time from Richard Partington at Churchill College Cambridge, opening with an analogy of a car insurance price comparison website. He acknowledges that this is a limited analogy.
Nonetheless, car insurance is fairly straightforward; and although we all wince at its cost, policies are far cheaper, simpler and easier to compare than the complexity of UK university courses.
Another factor about insurance of course is that you only really know if it is any good when something goes wrong and you need to make a claim. In contrast higher education is an expensive, long term and one-off investment. If you don’t like the degree you have you can’t change your alma mater to a different one next year. I suppose you would do another degree but that isn’t a plausible or sensible option for the vast majority of graduates.
Of the KIS he writes:
The result will surely be deterioration in an already problematic reality. As it is, students flee in the face of a plethora of information they struggle to understand, instead choosing on the basis of word of mouth. Consider two excellent Midlands universities. These seem to me essentially indistinguishable on substantive grounds. Yet one receives many more undergraduate applications than the other because it has a better "reputation". So far as I can tell, this has very little to do with anything that should matter to an undergraduate.
I mostly agree with Mr Partington up until his last sentence. Reputation is the currency of higher education—it matters greatly to undergraduates because it matters to their teachers, their friends and their potential employers. Oxford and Cambridge stand alone – I can’t see them worrying about their reputation anytime soon. But the rest of us seek a better reputation than our competitors, (however it is we define reputation).
Even in today’s consumerist higher education environment the proverb rings true- A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold. (Proverbs 22 v1, NIV) or could that be “A good name is more desirable than high contact hours; to be esteemed is better than high graduate salaries”.