Friday, 31 July 2009

HE Scotland's Friday Round-Up (31/07/2009)

Notable stories appearing on the HE Scotland Twitter feed in the last seven days included...

In policy and funding news:
  • Lord Mandelson again made headlines, this time with his first major speech on higher education. He had some interesting things to say about universities and the economy and his hints about the possibility of lifting the cap on the fees English universities can charge students elicited a robust restatement of the Scottish Government's stance against fees. Read more in HE Scotland's blog post on the topic.
  • Glasgow Caledonian University attracted negative commentary from the UCU as well as coverage in The Herald and the Times Higher following news that a commercial joint venture to attract overseas students had lost over £200k.
  • With news that English universities' funding may be linked to their carbon emissions, St Andrews upped the stakes in Scotland with news of plans for its own wind farm.
  • A statement was released on Tuesday following a Universities UK seminar on the swine flu pandemic and The Guardian reported news of the sector's preparations.
  • In a report in the Times Higher an unnamed manager at Edinburgh Napier University claimed that merger with Queen Margaret University would be ' logical'.

In student news:

In research news:

  • University of Edinburgh researchers announced a breakthrough in predicting a woman's response to the breast cancer drug Herceptin, with coverage including pieces in The Scotsman and The Express.
  • In Dundee, the local SNP MSP called for tax breaks in order to support the video game research and the related industry clustered around the University of Abertay.
  • Researchers at the University of Edinburgh received widespread coverage with news of a new computer chip able to deliver faster processing while using significantly less power and space.
  • Elsewhere, the Scottish Agricultural College reported on the importance of researchers' understanding of the policy environment and the Glasgow School of Art launched an innovative PhD scholarship with the AHRB.

Slim pickings this week in the competition for the best sector media release title... at this rate, the trophy will be permanently residing at the University of Glasgow! It wins again with:

In the absence of any real sector competition for Glasgow's winner, the following sports headline in The Southern Reporter earns a guest mention in this category:

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Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Mandelson - universities 'are not factories for producing workers'

When Lord Mandelson made his first major speech on the topic of higher education at Birkbeck University on Monday, commentary understandably focused on hints that the limit on the cap on the level of tuition fees English universities can charge might be raised. Whilst the UCU suggested higher fees would be less popular than the poll tax, The Herald asked what such a move might mean for Scotland and reported the Scottish Government's continued line against fees.

Away from the headlines and in the context of the economic downturn, Mandelson said some interesting things about the role of Universities in relation to jobs and the economy:
I need to be clear that I do not believe that the function of a university is limited to – or even primarily about - economic outcomes. They are not factories for producing workers. Defining the skills that directly underwrite many skilled jobs in the UK is not the same as defining useful and necessary knowledge.
Despite his other responsibility - for business - he chose to emphasise this partial disconnect between universities and private sector employers and look for the positive within this. He went on to say:

The case for a higher education system that invests in everything from classics to quantum physics is a compelling one.

I say this not just because the utility in knowledge is often impossible to predict. It is because knowledge is an end in itself. Because historical awareness and critical thinking are part of the inventory of a rounded human being.

But also because character and economic competitiveness are actually rather hard to disentangle. If the modern economy is built on specialisms, it is also built on a raft of soft skills such as intellectual confidence, logical thinking, communication and working and collaborating in teams.

This is a considerably more subtle and more complex view of graduates' role in supporting economic growth than some others have attempted. It is not only more credible than the notion that all a degree should provide is a set of specialist skills which three, four, or five years later exactly match an employer's list of expectations, it is also a canny political move. It seems Mandelson is seeking to identify a narrative which in which business and higher education can perhaps agree more fully on the nature of their relationship than has necessarily always been the case hitherto. If by doing so he can avoid conflict between two potentially adversarial elements of of his sprawling ministerial portfolio, he will strengthen his already considerable departmental hand in the face of coming spending cuts.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the narrative about students, graduates and jobs has been less theoretical and struck a more practical note. The discussion moved on from recent positive news that students graduating from Scottish universities last year had more success finding jobs than their counterparts exiting English institutions. The focus instead turned to current students and to an NUS Scotland survey suggesting a lack of vacation employment opportunities and the Union's concern about the potential impact on indebtedness and, as a consequence, drop-out rates.
At the weekend The Observer had outlined some alternatives this year's graduates might turn to whilst the job market remains poor and the Westminster government announced more substantive help in an effort to address potentially significant levels of unemployment amongst young people, including recent graduates. Time and the publiation of employment statistics will tell but, at present, it seems even if universities were to be regarded as 'factories for producing workers' the demand for such workers may be limited in the short term.

Friday, 24 July 2009

HE Scotland's Friday Round-Up (24/07/2009)

Notable stories appearing on the HE Scotland Twitter feed in the last seven days included...

In policy and funding news:
In student news:
In research news:
  • The University of Glasgow made a significant splash in the media by announcing news of researchers' findings about a girl with near perfect vision, despite having been born with just half a brain.
  • The University of Aberdeen's emeritus Professor, Hugh Pennington, was ubiquitous in commenting on the swine flu epidemic and, at the time of writing, had notched up some seventeen name checks on Twitter in just seven days.
  • There was news of two significant funding awards for the University of Dundee, which picked up £2m for its role leading a research consortium looking into off-grid electricity and was awarded a further £1.7m as the leader of a study looking into the delivery of drugs to treat cancer.
And finally,the nod for this week's best sector media release title goes to one of last week's joint winners, the University of Glasgow:
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Tuesday, 21 July 2009

10,000 additional places in England - will Scotland follow Mandelson's lead?

Peter Mandelson yesterday announced an additional 10,000 places for full-time undergraduate students studying at English universities this autumn. A "good news" announcement, it would seem, particularly as it hasn't required additional cash, but has been financed by "re-prioritising existing budgets." The reaction of the sector, however, makes very clear that the devil is most definitely in the detail.

A BBC article described the additional places as "part-funded: universities will get students' tuition fees but not grants for teaching and other support." It's this "part-funding" that is the key to understanding the sector's less than ecstatic reaction. The fact that these places are to be focused on science, technology and maths (STEM) subjects, will mean the "part-funding" received in student fees will, in most cases, very definitely be the smaller part: the HEFCE grant funding universities would normally receive for many STEM students is significantly greater than the £3,145 tuition fee the students themselves pay. Under yesterday's announcement English universities will miss out on this larger element of their normal income per student and only receive the annual fees paid directly by the student for the duration of their course.

This absence of the larger slice of the funding per student, plus the need to still find funds to offer bursaries to many taking up these extra places, is what lies behind the lack of enthusiasm for Lord Mandelson's announcement. Whilst Million+ welcomed the news as a campaign victory, they must surely have hoped for more than this in making the sector's case. The Russell Group, the 1994 Group and the UCU were all far less up-beat and variously voiced concerns about the impact education "on the cheap" might have on the quality of the student experience, on staff workloads and on the long term financial health of universities. Student Groups were similar non-plussed,. The NUS noted that "thousands of people who have applied to study non-STEM subjects are still going to be without a place in the summer" and expressed disappointment that the student loan “repayment holiday” will be reduced to two years as part of the re-prioritisation to find funding for these extra places.

But what might this announcement mean for Scotland? Back in February, UCU called for additional funding for the Scottish higher education sector in recognition of the increased numbers of university applicants resulting from the economic downturn. Can we now expect Fiona Hyslop to accede to the Union's demands and follow Lord Mandelson's lead?

Last month, the Scottish Government announced investment of £16.1 million in places at Scotland's Colleges, along with a further £12 million investment to improve the institution's estates infrastructure. In light of this, it might be that the Scottish Government has made its move, and chosen to spend its money to alleviate demand caused by the downturn by supporting Scotland's colleges, rather than its universities.

However, even though the additional places in England are cash-neutral, some additional funding may yet come the way of the Scottish Government via the Barnett formula which is used to allocate funding to the devolved nations. If this is the case, then Universities Scotland will almost certainly look to lay claim to any such funds in order to assist the sector with the increased level of undergraduate applications. However, as was the case in England, any available funds may have to be stretched much more thinly than institutions might like if the government is to be able to announce an additional number of places which looks newsworthy and appears to go a reasonable way towards meeting the significantly increased demand.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Jobs, Cats, Bats, & Robotic Monsters of the Deep: The Friday Round-Up (17/07/2009)

Notable stories appearing on the HE Scotland Twitter feed in the last seven days included:

In policy and funding news:

  • The results of the annual Business & Community Interaction Survey were released with related commentary from the SFC, HEFCE and an interesting summary of Scottish HEIs' performance from the Scottish Government. HE Scotland's blog post on the results comments on the Scottish sector's strong relative performance and the backdrop of expected changes to SFC knowledge exchange funding
  • UCU claimed job cuts at Stirling and Strathclyde universities threatened the Scottish HE sector's "proud reputation as a global leader in higher education." Responding in a BBC report, the Scottish Government pointed to its "£5.24bn investment in universities and colleges over three years"
  • Exhortations calling for the UK higher education sector to model itself more closely on the US and develop an equivalent of the Ivy League featured in The Herald and the THE
  • Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an announcement of additional places for University entry in 2009, but did not provide figures, nor clarify whether this would be a UK-wide measure. UCU gave a qualified welcome to the news - expect further developments and commentary on what this may mean for Scotland as details emerge over the coming days
In student news:

In research news:

There were significant medical breakthroughs reported in relation to
e-coli genetics (University of Dundee), a link between a low IQ and heart disease (Glasgow & Edinburgh universities), the relationship between obesity and complications during pregnancy (University of Edinburgh) and the DNA 'Swiss army knife' (University of Dundee).

When it wasn't the medics, it was the vets, with animals featuring prominently. More specifically, cats and bats both featured in research stories with Scottish links:

Finally, the inaugural HE Scotland award for the best sector media release title of the last seven days saw a dead heat between the University of Glasgow and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama:
Follow HE Scotland on Twitter to keep pace with Scottish higher education news as it happens, or to register for e-mail alerts about future editions of the Friday Round-Up, simply e-mail "Subscribe" to - your details will NOT be shared with third parties.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Scottish Knowledge Exchange: Strong Performance, But Funding Reforms Anticipated

Scottish universities performed well in figures released yesterday in the HE Business & Communication Interaction (HE-BCI) Survey summary results for Scottish universities. Despite a decline in income under the "regeneration" and "IP income" headings (not to mention the absence of data from one institution), Scottish institutions increased their total relevant income by some 7% in 2007-08. This increase of £19.1M delivered an overall Scottish total of £341.4m and a 4% real terms growth rate.

The Scottish rate of growth is not only slightly ahead of the rest of the UK, but comparative data shows that Scotland outperforming comparators across a range of areas. The statistics indicate that Scotland's universities make considerably more patent applications per million of population than those in Canada and the rest of the UK. Similarly, spin offs from Scottish HEIs have, on average, a higher turnover than those from the rest of the UK and Scotland's universities have consistently achieved a higher rate of spin-offs per million of population than their peers in Canada, the rest of the UK and the USA.

Whilst this strong performance may be cause for celebration, the funding stream used to incentivise knowledge exchange in Scotland looks set to change. Writing in November last year, Cabinet Secretary for Education & Lifelong Learning, Fiona Hyslop, asked that the Funding Council (SFC) "ensure that Scotland increases the demand side ‘pull’ for new knowledge created in universities and delivers knowledge into the Scottish economy which creates additional wealth." As a result of this direction, the SFC has stated that it plans to review the metrics used for the allocation of the £21m Knowledge Transfer Grant (KTG) during 2009.

The KTG funding was included in the SFC's new 'Horizon Fund for Universities' the details of which were announced as part of a major overhaul of the SFC's approach to funding in March. The new Fund is specifically intended to drive the government's policy priorities and the inclusion of KTG within this stream, coupled with the emphasis the November letter placed on SME's and the need to address demand, suggests that the consultation may propose some radical reforms.

Whether or not radical reform is proposed, the forthcoming consultation is certain to be particularly closely scrutinsed in the universities of Glasgow, Dundee, Strathclyde, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. The HE-BCI survey shows these five institutions account for some 82% of the total value of "contract research" income in the Scottish sector. The same five will also together share some £14.64m, or 70%, of the current KTG grant for 2009-10.

Friday, 10 July 2009


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