The role of the university in city/regional development: a view from a Vice-Chancellor in Bristol

ericthomaspic1The entry has been kindly prepared for us by Professor Eric Thomas, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol.  Professor Thomas has been Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol since 2001.  Prior to that he was  Head of the School of Medicine, and later Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Health and Biological Sciences, University of Southampton.  Professor Thomas is currently a member of the Board of the South-West Regional Development Agency. He is Chair of the Research Policy Committee of Universities UK and a member of its Board.

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The United Kingdom is the classic high added-value, knowledge economy. We don’t dig anything out of the ground anymore and we don’t make anything in any great quantity anymore. Our economic success depends upon us providing high intellectual and creative skills, and on technological and service innovation.

Universities are at the heart of that in both providing the intellectual workforce and in technological innovation. It is said that in medieval times villages and towns were built around the manor house, in the Victorian era they were built around the factories and that, if we were building new towns and villages now, they would be built around universities. Certainly when the UK Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) put out a call for locations without higher education to apply for a new facility,  the 35 who applied would support the thesis.

I often compare the City of Bristol in 1961 with the City today. In 1961 Bristol was dominated by heavy engineering and manufacturing industry. The aerospace industry employed tens of thousands of people as did both tobacco and Fry’s chocolate. At that time, the University of Bristol had about 3000 students and 300 academic staff. It was a small consideration in the economy of Bristol and could exist, almost as an ivory tower, up the hill in Clifton and unengaged with the ambitions of the city.

bristol2If you now fast forward to 2009, all that industry except aerospace has gone. And yet, the University of Bristol is the largest independent employer in the city, responsible for 5500 jobs and a further 4500 from indirect employment. A study some years ago in the South West Region reported the economic impact of a university as 1.74 times turnover. A more recent study of London South Bank University by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which took into account the economic impact of the added value from the graduates through their lifetime, concluded that the impact was approximately six times turnover. Viewed like this, it would make the University of Bristol’s impact on the local and national economy in excess of £2 billion per year and higher education in general in the UK in the order of £100 billion per year or over 8% of GDP.

Of course, such figures will provoke dispute. However the general message of the importance of higher education to the local and national economies is now, I would argue, beyond question. How, therefore, does a university like Bristol respond to such a role which is relatively new?

The first important action is to ensure that working with the city is right at the center of your current public strategy. This is so for the current University Strategy, and will be strengthened in our Plan for 2009–2016.

Secondly the head of the institution must articulate that ambition clearly and become personally engaged with the city and region. For example, I am a member of the Partnership Board for the Bristol City Council which advises the Leader and Chief Executive. For six years I was a member of the Board of the South-West Regional Development Agency. I have been a trustee of an important local charity. Perhaps most importantly I assiduously attend all city social events and network with the other key players in the city and always articulate our desire to assist the city-region. I have also opened up the university for the use of many partners and organizations in the city.

More practically, we have a large Research and Enterprise Directorate which works closely with local businesses. Their aim is to ensure the most rapid transfer of knowledge and technology generated in the university and the easiest access possible for businesses to our skills and technical expertise. This is not only for big businesses. We have set up the Bristol Enterprise Network to assist knowledge transfer among the high tech, high growth SMEs in the Bristol sub-region. This currently has 1500 members. This not only provides networking opportunities but also news and information and training in business skills.

We need to work with key partners in the city particularly the National Health Service. The university provides nearly 200 medical staff for health care in the city and must work very closely with local health trusts, not only to ensure the best health care but also the best teaching and research opportunities for our professionals.

The university also provides most of the local teacher training and thus a very important set of professionals for the future of Bristol. Over a period of ten years or so, the University will have invested over £500 million in infrastructure which has knock-on effects in the local planning, architectural, building and legal services, to name but a few.

bristol11However it is not only in business that the university works with the city. Many of our staff are school governors or trustees of charities. We are working very closely on the development of a new school which opened in 2008,  Merchants’  Academy Withywood, in South Bristol. We have enormous numbers of cultural events and lectures which are open to the public. It is often overlooked that our academics travel all over the world. The people most commonly putting up Powerpoint presentations with the word ‘Bristol‘ in the title are the staff of the University.

Furthermore, our staff are massively networked internationally not only with other academics but also business and government. I get at least four “Google Alerts” a day about the University of Bristol from press all over the world. Stories about the University carry the name Bristol to all parts of the globe and all that PR and advertising comes free.

To some observers, the pressure on universities to increasingly be more global in ambition comes at a price.  However, I do not see any essential or intrinsic conflict,  between being an international, outward facing organization, and working to ensure that the local society gains as much as possible from its university. The two ambitions can be made to be completely compatible, though as I have argued above, both need to be championed and advanced together.

However, I would say that the role of the university in its local city and sub-region is one of the most enjoyable parts of leading a great university in 2009.

Eric Thomas

University institutional performance: HEFCE, UK universities and the media

deem11 This entry has been kindly prepared by Rosemary Deem, Professor of Sociology of Education, University of Bristol, UK. Rosemary’s expertise and research interests are in the area of higher education, managerialism, governance, globalization, and organizational cultures (student and staff).

Prior to her appointment at Bristol, Rosemary was Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Lancaster. Rosemary has served as a member of ESRC Grants Board 1999-2003, and Panel Member of the Education Research Assessment Exercise 1996, 2001, 2008.

GlobalHigherEd invited Rosemary to respond to one of the themes (understanding institutional performance) in the UK’s Higher Education Debate aired by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills  (DIUS) over 2008.

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Institutional performance of universities and their academic staff and students is a very topical issue in many countries, for potential students and their families and sponsors, governments and businesses. As well as numerous national rankings, two annual international league tables in particular, the Shanghai Jiao Tong,  developed for the Chinese government to benchmark its own universities and the commercial Times Higher top international universities listings, are the focus of much government and institutional  interest,  as  universities vie with each other to appear in the top rankings of so-called world-class universities, even though the quest for world-class status has negative as well as positive consequences for national higher education systems (see here).

International league tables often build on metrics that are themselves international (e.g publication citation indexes) or use proxies for quality such as the proportions of international students or staff/student ratios, whereas national league tables tend to develop their own criteria, as the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) has done and as its planned replacement, the Research Excellence Framework is intended to do. deem2

In March 2008, John Denham, Secretary of State for (the Department of) Innovation, Universities and Skills (or DIUS) commissioned the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to give some advice on measuring institutional performance. Other themes  on which the Minister commissioned advice, and which will be reviewed on GlobalHigherEd over the next few months, were On-Line Higher Education Learning, Intellectual Property and research benefits; Demographic challenge facing higher education; Research Careers; Teaching and the Student Experience; Part-time studies and Higher Education; Academia and public policy making; and International issues in Higher Education.

Denham identified five policy areas for the report on ‘measuring institutional performance’ that is the concern of this entry, namely: research, enabling business to innovate and engagement in knowledge transfer activity, high quality teaching, improving work force skills and widening participation.

This list could be seen as a predictable one since it relates to current UK government policies on universities and strongly emphasizes the role of higher education in producing employable graduates and relating its research and teaching to business and the ‘knowledge economy’.

Additionally, HEFCE already has quality and success measures and also surveys, such as the National Student Survey of all final year undergraduates for everything except workforce development.  The five areas are a powerful indicator of what government thinks the purposes of universities are, which is part of a much wider debate (see here and here).

On the other hand, the list is interesting for what it leaves out – higher education institutions and their local communities (which is not just about servicing business), or universities’ provision for supporting the learning of their own staff (since they are major employers in their localities) or the relationship between teaching and research

The report makes clear that HEFCE wants to “add value whilst minimising the unintended consequences”, (p. 2), would like to introduce a code of practice for the use of performance measures and does not want to introduce more official league tables in the five policy areas.  There is also a discussion about why performance is measured: it may be for funding purposes, to evaluate new policies, inform universities so they can make decisions about their strategic direction, improve performance or to inform the operation of markets. The disadvantages of performance measures, the tendency for some measures to be proxies (which will be a significant issue if plans to use metrics and bibliometrics  as proxies for research quality in  the new Research Excellence Framework are adopted) and the tendency to measure activity and volume but not impact are also considered in the report.

However, what is not emphasized enough are that the consequences once a performance measure is made public are not within anyone’s control.  Both the internet and the media ensure that this is a significant challenge.  It is no good saying that “Newspaper league tables do not provide an accurate picture of the higher education sector” (p 7) but then taking action which invalidates this point.

Thus in the RAE 2008, detailed cross-institutional results were made available by HEFCE to the media before they are available to the universities themselves last week, just so that newspaper league tables can be constructed.

Now isn’t this an example of the tail wagging the dog, and being helped by HEFCE to do so? Furthermore, market and policy incentives may conflict with each other.  If an institution’s student market is led by middle-class students with excellent exam grades, then urging them to engage in widening participation can fall on deaf ears.   Also, whilst UK universities are still in receipt of significant public funding, many also generate substantial private funding too and some institutional heads are increasingly irritated by tight government controls over what they do and how they do it.

Two other significant issues are considered in the report. One is value-added measures, which HEFCE feels it is not yet ready to pronounce on.  Constructing these for schools has been controversial and the question of over what period should value added measures be collected is problematic, since HEFCE measures would look only at what is added to recent graduates, not what happens to them over the life course as a whole.

The other issue is about whether understanding and measuring different dimensions of institutional performance could help to support diversity in the sector.  It is not clear how this would work for the following three reasons:

  1. Institutions will tend to do what they think is valued and has money attached, so if the quality of research is more highly valued and better funded than quality of teaching, then every institution will want to do research.
  2. University missions and ‘brands’ are driven by a whole multitude of factors and importantly by articulating the values and visions of staff and students and possibly very little by ‘performance’ measures; they are often appealing to an international as well as a national audience and perfect markets with detailed reliable consumer knowledge do not exist in higher education.
  3. As the HEFCE report points out, there is a complex relationship between research, knowledge transfer, teaching, CPD and workforce development in terms of economic impact (and surely social and cultural impact too?). Given that this is the case, it is not evident that encouraging HEIs to focus on only one or two policy areas would be helpful.

There is a suggestion in the report that web-based spidergrams based on an seemingly agreed (set of performance indicators might be developed which would allow users to drill down into more detail if they wished). Whilst this might well be useful, it will not replace or address the media’s current dominance in compiling league tables based on a whole variety of official and unofficial performance measures and proxies. Nor will it really address the ways in which the “high value of the UK higher education ‘brand’ nationally and internationally” is sustained.

Internationally, the web and word of mouth are more critical than what now look like rather old-fashioned performance measures and indicators.  In addition, the economic downturn and the state of the UK’s economy and sterling are likely to be far more influential in this than anything HEFCE does about institutional performance.

The report, whilst making some important points, is essentially introspective, fails to sufficiently grasp how some of its own measures and activities are distorted by the media, does not really engage with the kinds of new technologies students and potential students are now using (mobile devices, blogs, wikis, social networking sites, etc) and focuses far more on national understandings of institutional performance than on how to improve the global impact and understanding of UK higher education.

Rosemary Deem

Another ‘Alice in Wonderland moment’ with the further round of overseas scholarship funding cuts for UK universities?

This week I found myself experiencing another ‘Alice in Wonderland’ moment when news was circulated that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) would completely withdraw , by 2011, an important source of funding to English universities for scholarships for overseas students – the Overseas Research Students Award Scheme (ORSAS). Currently HEFCE contributes £13 million to this scheme in England, and £15 million overall (including Scotland and Wales).

This comes on top of an announcement in March of this year when UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, announced to the Parliament that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was terminating its 50 year old commitment made to the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. In essence this decision would cut funding to the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan – so that scholarships would only be available to developing countries. This funding, however, would not be available for doctoral studies.

Now, the recommendations of the report published in July 2008 by the UK Higher Education International Unit (ironically funded by HEFCE and UUK), The UK’s competitive advantage: The Market for International Research Students (see Executive Summary here), were that if the UK wanted to remain a global leader:

  • UK universities must develop a clear and attractive doctoral brand with emphasis on quality and innovation;
  • Initiatives that offset the cost of fees and living in the UK must be developed; and that
  • More needed to be done to illustrate the benefits of a British doctorate to an international audience and to counter the belief that Britain is an expensive place in which to study.

The Report notes that the UK’s key competitor countries, North America, Europe and Australasia, are all developing recruitment strategies aimed at the post graduate market, contributing to a declining share for the UK.

Given this Report; given, too, that demographic changes mean that by 2020 there will be 16% fewer 18 year olds coming through the university system; and given the stepping up of initiatives in other emerging countries around the globe, [for instance this week the Korean government announced that it not only planned to attract 100,000 foreign students to the country by 2010, but that it would double the number of scholarships available to foreign students by 2012 (currently 1,500) as well as loosen visa restrictions on work], it is difficult not to feel as if this is something of an Alice in Wonderland moment – that things in the UK higher education policy sector are getting ‘curiouser and curiouser’!

Alice, of course, was watching her body extend out like a large telescope, while her feet disappeared almost from sight – a distinctly odd sensation and sight. Musing over her almost disappearing feet and how she might have to send shoes and socks as presents to them to keep them going in the direction she wanted to go, Alice remarked: “Oh dear…What nonsense I’m talking!”

Watching the equally ‘odd’ reshaping of the UK overseas scholarship funding regime in the face of advice – that we should be funding more not less overseas doctoral scholarships, contributes to the distinctly odd sensation – of a kind of ‘policy-autism’ amongst the UK higher education’s research, advice and policymaking units with the result that we seem to be seeing and talking policy nonsense!

Unless, of course, things aren’t quite what they seem!

Susan Robertson

UBV celebrates 5 years of “education revolution”

The Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV) – which refers to itself as the “House of Knowledges” – is celebrating its first five years, as the Bolivarian News Agency ABN reports. According to the report, the UBV is key to the revolutionary commitment of “constructing a Venezuela for all Venezuelans, in which social justice and equality rules”. The democratisation of higher education is envisaged as being achieved through the strategy of municipalisation, which means that the state-funded university is operating in all 335 municipalities, as well as in prisons and factories, to facilitate equal access opportunities.

A related article cites Education Minister, Héctor Navarro, stating the Venezuela has already achieved the Millennium Development Goals with respect to education, as well as Venezuela being one of the countries with the highest participation in higher education relative to its population. UBV’s teaching body is currently participating in an integral programme for the “education of educators”, which is centred around the politico-ethical education of the teacher in the construction of the new subjectivity, radical pedagogy, critical epistemology, and strategic planning. UBV’s director Yadira Córdova is quoted saying:

Making revolution in a university that takes pride in being revolutionary implies constructing the revolutionary subject, a political subject capable of taking up the project of this university as part of the national revolutionary project. As part of the Latin American transformation project, as part of the project of the liberation of the oppressed peoples of the world.

Indeed, there appears to be some reason to share the Venezuelan optimism. The graphs shown here, produced from data obtained from the World Bank and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), confirm that under Chávez, participation at all educational levels has substantially increased (including nursery, not displayed in the graphs).

Source: Produced from Education Trends and Comparisons, at http://go.worldbank.org/JVXVANWYY0 (accessed 20/05/2008).

Source: Produced from Social Indicators and Statistics (BADEINSO). Last accessed 20/05/2008, http://websie.eclac.cl/sisgen/ConsultaIntegrada.asp

Nevertheless, there is reason for concern with respect to justice and equality. While under the Bolivarian government all social strata have gained in access to higher education, the very large gap between the poorer and wealthier sectors remains wider than in the early 1980s. One conclusion, then, that we might draw is that the wealthy, in fact, remain the absolute winners of the past decades.

Thomas Muhr

Ministers of Education and fora for thinking beyond the nation

One of the features of the globalization of higher education and research is the bringing together of ministers of education from various countries to think beyond the nation at regional, inter-regional, and global scales, as well as in a comparative sense. Thus we are seeing the nation-state creating internal competencies for statecraft via extra-territorial fora.

This is, of course, nothing new in some ways: ministries of trade and industry, or ministries of immigration, have done this for decades. But this is really the first era when ministers of education have become much more involved in strategizing about how to adjust education systems, especially the higher education and research elements, so as to engage with broader shifts in economy and society.

Here are links to some recent meetings, with associated reports:

Let me know if you know of any more that I should include – I am happy to add them to the list above.

Scaling up need not only work at the regional or interregional scale. In Latin America, for example, five higher education ministers from Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Nicaragua, Venezuela signed the Cochabamba Declaration to further ALBA – the “Bolivarian Alternative for the peoples of Our America”, a regional intergration initiative that is anti-capitalist in nature, for the most part.

Or in Canada, the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada (CMEC), made up on all provincial ministers of education (as education, including higher education, is a provincial responsibility), frames its international activities along a variety of other regional, interregional, and multilateral axes:

CMEC’s international activities have traditionally involved three major international organizations, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the Commonwealth. While other partnerships have been formed with the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO), the Council of Europe, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Education Forum, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Summit of the Americas process, both OECD and UNESCO, as well as the Commonwealth, continue to play a prominent role.

Assessments of the efficacy of such fora in facilitating new ways of thinking, innovative forms of statecraft, and extended networks of support, are lacking.  Yet it is clear that some, such as the biannual Bologna Process summit (the London 2007 event is pictured to the left), are effective in facilitating action.

In conclusion, we are seeing, via the lens of such fora:

  1. Enhanced extra-territorial agendas and networks being built up by ministries that have not traditionally been so interested, nor obligated, in thinking beyond the nation, nor even beyond the province/state scale, in some countries.
  2. Meeting agendas and joint concluding statements that are framed around adjusting education systems to mediate and especially advance economic interdependence.
  3. Evidence of the enhanced intertwining of higher education with regional and interregional R&D strategies (especially with respect to science and technology).
  4. The desire to continue advancing longstanding social and cultural agendas (given the core nation-building function of higher education), though these socio-cultural agendas brush up against economic and international migration dynamics.
  5. The inclusion of some associated voices in the ministerial-centred deliberations, and the exclusion, by design or accident, of others that have clearly not started to think beyond the nation. On this point I see the voices of some students (e.g., the European Students’ Union) included, but faculty voices (via associations, unions, etc), are remarkably absent.

In the end, it is uncertain how far these initiatives will go. The addition of new mandates is perhaps to be expected in these globalizing times, but the challenges of thinking beyond the nation for the nation (and the region) is not a simple one to face, conceptually nor organizationally. This said, these are noteworthy events, and well worth engaging with on a number of levels.

Kris Olds