Source: wikipedia

The annual HEPI-HEA Survey of over 15,000 full-time undergraduates is out

This year, the findings that caught my eye are:

The majority of students are satisfied with their course (85%). 

There is strong evidence that students equate contact hours with good value: 58% of students taking Medicine or Dentistry think they are getting good value for money compared to only 30% of students taking Technology, Social Sciences, Mass Communications and Documentation or European Languages. 

On average, full-time undergraduate students work for 33 hours a week, split between 12 contact hours, 15 hours of independent study and 6 hours undertaking off-campus course-related work (such as a placement).

57% of students say it is ‘very important’ for staff to have received training in how to teach but only 21% think their lecturers demonstrate this ‘a lot’. 

Conversely, while 26% of students think it is ‘very important’ for those who teach them to be active researchers, 38% think this is demonstrated ‘a lot’.

Plenty to ponder there for any growing research-intensive university.

Wise Words

BIS logo

One of the key provisions in King’s Royal Charter is this one:

“Staff employed by the College who are directly engaged in teaching and research shall have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges.”

And what is important for individual academics is also important for institutions, and the UK university sector as a whole.

So well done Jo Johnson, for the good news from HEFCE and BIS yesterday: that the freedom to communicate research findings to the public, Parliament and government will not be curbed by the new clause in government grants announced in February.

As HEFCE commented yesterday:

“We welcome the announcement by the Minister today, which made clear that English higher education institutions in receipt of HEFCE funding are not intended to be covered by the new clause in government grants announced in February.

“This is good news for researchers in England who will be able to continue to communicate their findings to the public, Parliament and government and to provide advice on evidence and implications of research to inform policy, legislation and regulatory action.”

And as Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson MP himself said:

“Our world-class research base is a source of great pride for this country, which is why the government is continuing to protect the science budget to the end of the decade.

The new clause in government grants is about ensuring that taxpayers’ money is properly spent on what was intended in the grant agreements. I am very aware of questions that have been raised about what this could mean for our research base and the principle of academic autonomy that is such a critical part of its strength.

I have been talking to the research community and working hard with colleagues in government to determine what clarification may be necessary to ensure that research is not adversely affected in any way.

I am happy to confirm that it is not our intention for the Research Councils, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) or the National Academies to be covered by the clause. We are continuing to talk to the research community and will outline more detail by 1 May, when this clause takes effect.”

Wise words all.



Robot Arm vs Octopus


Following on from last weekend’s extensive media coverage…

…I got to meet Kinba the robot receptionist at the Strand Campus on Monday. Camilla (just behind) is showing Kinba the ropes, but Kinba’s steadily ‘machine learning’ too.

There is so much going on in robotics at King’s. In a meeting on creating more space for it, this week, we all started laughing at the idea of ‘Robot Arm’ (of which we have a very large one) taking on ‘Octopus’ the ‘soft robot’ in a ‘Clash of the Lab Titans’ when everyone else has gone home.

We are currently rigging a room for ‘autonomous learning robots’ to do just that – be left to their own devices in an environment to learn for themselves (so long as they don’t bother Robot Arm and Octopus during their nightly arm wrestle next door).

Al Jazeera did a really nice interview (below) with some of our ‘soft’ Roboticists, who inspired by octopuses – and even goat hooves – are making softer robots which can do safer surgery, tread lightly in delicate mountain ecosystems and interact with humans without harm.

Here’s a link to King’s College CoRe Centre for Robotics Research site. It’s well worth a look – the future’s bright; the future’s soft… but Robot Arm and Octopus need to watch out for Metahand 3… Gripping stuff.

Re-Blog: Peacock or perish? Prestige and gender in academia

An excellent blog to mark #internationalwomensday

Women dominate higher education studies, enrolling in higher numbers at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Men and women are equally represented at lecturer level, but thereafter things start to get worse: women hold only one-third of senior lecturer and senior manager positions, a quarter of professorships and less than a fifth of VC jobs.

Why do women succeed in higher education—but only to a certain point? To explore this situation, we interviewed 30 mid-career academic women at universities in London, a project funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

What we found was prestige was key to promotions at the mid-career stage, and women felt that men accumulated prestige more easily and were more visible—and louder—in portraying it.

Communicating success

Academics have been marketised—you now have to sell yourself, your ‘brand’ and your work. Many women academics struggled with communicating their successes. To some it seemed like a game, others were too busy with students and teaching duties, while many felt it was not in their nature. The last point was particularly true for women from backgrounds where female modesty is praised and expected—in our study this included women with a Catholic upbringing, East Asian heritage and from working class families.

Women felt men were on a constant PR exercise: “Hi how are you?” “I’m great, just got a £50K grant and two papers published”.


The confidence in self-promotion extended to going for promotion. Women felt men were more comfortable putting themselves forward for jobs, and fine with an ‘aspirational’ CV. The women we interviewed felt they should wait until they met all of the criteria for a post, and often expected their boss or head of department to put them forward for promotion. On a job application, one woman was given the advice: ‘don’t be too feminine about it’, referring to women’s habit of under-selling achievements.

If women did get the next job up the ladder, they rarely negotiated a higher salary or other perks, such as a reduced teaching load or research support. If they did not get the job, it felt like a personal attack and judgement. Women noticed when the same happened to men, they treated it like an injustice and were more likely to appeal.

Getting the job done

When it comes to doing the job, the same pattern continues. Women wrote research bids specifying precisely what could be achieved, whereas they felt men were more comfortable promising the moon, sun and stars, and delivering less. Within the institution, women felt that men prioritised their own research, and the women were left the bulk of the teaching, administrative and support roles. As prestige follows research, the men accrued more at the expense of others in the department.

We noticed a gendered ‘exchange rate’ of prestige, with more accruing more and less accruing less. A few prestige marks, such as sitting on high-profile panels, giving keynote speeches, holding editorial positions, leads to more and more. Conversely, investing time in teaching, being readily available to students and doing the grunt jobs to run a department lead to more of the same.

One woman, simultaneously building a strong international research career and burdened with childcare responsibilities, was told to turn up to more departmental drinks events and meetings to build her ‘local reputation’. This is key for getting plum roles and recommendations, but often happens outside of the 9-5. The ‘schmoosing’ and ‘PR games’ were also important as many large grants are by invitation to tender—you have to be known to able to get ahead.

What is valued

Women were not victims of the prestige cycle, rather many felt they prioritised what they felt was important—doing high-quality respectable research, supporting PhD students and junior staff and ensuring a functioning department. What they felt was skewed was what the institution valued—the bragging, the gloss and shine over substance. They also noted not all males succeeded either, particularly those who did not fit the loud, proud stereotype.

Rather than enter a gendered arms race for self-promotion, women academics felt that a greater valuing of the collective work done in a department and within the institution was needed. Acknowledging that managing large teaching programmes, running research labs and supporting students all had benefits for the institution—and rewarding those involved—would help balance things out. Greater recognition of all the work of the academic role, not only the high-profile peaks, in hiring and promotions is needed.

On an individual level, mentors and managers play a key role in supporting, nudging and pushing women academics to advance. One woman was coached by her mentor into saying ‘I’m going to be a prof’, which she felt would become a self-fulling prophecy. Although not all were comfortable with it, many felt social media offered new ways to share work and connect with others to build a profile. Some felt new modes of communication continued to promote those who shouted the loudest, or tweeted the most.

But for International Women’s Week, do a favour—share an article, tweet a link, post a blog, if not of your own work than that of another. Get out and celebrate the great women out there.

In support of International Women’s Day, Wonkhe is posting a series of blogs from 7-11th March to explore the issue of women in wonkery. Find them here

Hefty letter for HEFCE

 Rosetta Stone

According to the ever excellent WonkHE this morning, last week’s BIS letter to HEFCE ‘revives the art of letter writing.’ 

At 42 paragraphs, it was the longest grant letter since 2003. But good to see these three things:

  • HEFCE asked to protect, in real terms, the total amount of funding for STEM and other high cost subjects.
  • HEFCE asked to target Student Opportunity funding more effectively to support participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • HEFCE asked to take responsibility for the second year of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) towards a single coherent system for quality assessment and teaching excellence.

Three good things for UK HE, in my humble opinion.

Nudge – Behavioural Insight at King’s

It’s not always easy getting used to university life. I remember in my own day… rocking up with my parents, in a bad jumper and some even worse jeans, plus a strong Northern twang; and feeling a real fish out of water. Beaten by my older brother (hurrumph) I was only the second in our family ever to go to university. 

Sadly, stats show that students from less affluent or more diverse backgrounds often struggle in their first term; and some quit in the Christmas break. I remember one of my best early ‘Uni mates’ from Manchester did exactly that. He was bright, capable, well-liked but when January came he was gone. I was gutted.

To see what the art and science of ‘behavioural insight’ could do to help, the King’s Widening Participation team conducted six ‘Student Journey Workshops’ with new students: exploring the academic, social, financial and emotional journey they experienced in their first year. One key theme was that many students ‘have difficulty imagining their future’. For many, everything is experienced and lived ‘in the moment’; and that means when things go wrong, it feels all consuming.

To help with this, we piloted ‘King’s Tips’ over Christmas. This first trial is aiming to decrease drop-out rates and improve exam attendance and outcomes. In the first intervention a group of 1577 students received a text as their Christmas holidays began:


They then received two more texts, encouraging them to use the range of student services available to them upon their return, and wishing them well for their exams. We know similar interventions have worked in the college and further education sector, so we are optimistic this will also be a success at King’s – it seem to have worked for Harvard.

And it’s built on a strong partnership. King’s Widening Participation team is working with the King’s Policy Institute and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) from the Cabinet Office, to test whether ‘nudges’ and behavioural insights can be used to improve the outcomes of non-traditional students in a university context. We hope this will be ground-breaking stuff; helping our students in small but potentially important ways.

Watch this space for more…

OECD: University challenges; creating a world of opportunity…

HEPI Lunch

A week last Monday, I had the good fortune to listen to Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education at the OECD at a lunch HEPI co-hosted with King’s. Andreas (above) is sitting next to our Principal Ed Byrne, looking across Peter Horrocks of the OU and listening intently to Baroness Wolf.

He presented highlights from the OECD’s new Education at a Glance 2015 publication, with a particular focus on how the UK performs against other states. And the answer is very nicely thank you. We combine quality, fairness and good outcomes and overall have the second strongest university system in the world – second only (of course) to the USA.

But more interesting than this were three things the data suggest (but don’t prove) that one might not know:

1) Graduates command a very clear lifetime premium over non-graduates – but this is potentially at least as much to do with the social and cultural capital acquired at (or perhaps more perniciously often needed to get to) university as it is to do with specific skills. Highly paid apprenticeships may not yield more financially for people over a lifetime than a university education does… and that’s before you add the social capital and cultural value universities give you access to.

2) Not everything is getting better… In the USA and some other major developed economies, university systems are now turning out a less skilled cohort than a generation ago – meaning the skills-base in some developed countries is actually shrinking compared to the era of current students’ parents and grandparents.

3) Give more children and young people the chance – Key choices or directions of travel for young people are determined in some countries very early. Andreas pointed out that in Germany, the vocational route is chosen far earlier for children and young people than in the UK. We sometimes feel this is a problem, but the UK turns out a more highly-skilled graduate workforce than the media and public opinion suggest – and because we decide our higher and further educational options later, there is more chance for social mobility. Overall though school education and acquiring social and cultural capital are big big drivers of life chances – and they’re not fairly distributed; which ultimately costs us all.

Tantalising clues to what is happening, but in Scottish law they’d be ‘not proven’; not strong enough to close the case. But the one finding which is, and this one we should shout from the hilltops, is everyone, and I mean everyone – students, employers, the exchequer and the whole economy – benefits from a strong HE sector.

And the UK has one.

You can see Andreas’s PREZI here pages 88 onwards have the labour market and social outcomes.


Nurse knows best?

Having worked a good few years in central government – and also in the “arm’s length” cultural sector – I don’t naturally start a ‘Mexican wave’ at idea that politicians should more closely shape day-to-day research funding…

Sir Paul Nurse is seeking to make the case in this week’s much anticipated review. UK Politicians are ‘grown ups’ and the UK’s scientists and researchers will be robust in their arguments, he says. He argues (or is reported; which of course isn’t always the same thing) that taking the debate on research priorities to the heart of government will bolster not bias good decisions.

A few years back I heard exactly the same debate at a Party Conference on Arts funding – the deliberately provocative, amusing and somewhat pejorative argument was put: without regular ‘political’ input the Arts Council would still be funding ‘Italianate gardening’ and ‘tapestry’ (although I’m pretty sure it never did).

There is no doubt that a deep ‘top table’ understanding of science and technology – and quantitative methods, evidence and research – is a laudable goal.

But if you want my honest opinion it’s perhaps an unrealisable one. In my experience the very real pressures Ministers and Civil Servants face, every single day, are too immediate and force ‘fast thinking’. I think government works best when it sets a framework and allows others some space and time for ‘slow thinking’, and careful deliberation – which is so hard to find the time for in the corridors of power.

The “arm’s length principle” is a peculiarly British invention which works remarkably well for this. The truth is “arm’s length bodies” are very alive to and aware of Government and are responsive to it – but a bit of distance from the ‘white heat’ of day-to-day policy and politics sometimes helps to think more broadly, more long term and over the sweep of history – as well as back the odd risky and unpopular thing which is terribly hard in central government.

We all want our politicians to thoroughly understand and weigh things wisely – but there are only so many hours in the day and the 24/7 media cycle never lets them rest; I’d share the burden of governance and leave some important decisions in our national life at “arms length”.