AUA Conference: it was 20 years ago today

The 1998 Association of University Administrators (AUA) Conference was held at the University of Birmingham.  It was a time of uncertainty; while the Dearing Committee had reported the year before, the new Labour Government’s Green Paper had raised a host of issues.  Meanwhile HEFCE were maturing their systems, migrating institutions’ funding to a common level.

Bob Fryer was the main speaker, in his role of Chair of a lifelong learning advisory body but, in effect, David Blunkett’s plenipotentiary to the post-16 education sectors.  Government had taken the learning society theme from Dearing, and were advancing a programme of lifelong learning for all – a point that he emphasised (no measly 50% target here).  Fryer explained to a packed hall the challenges that the Government saw in three damaging educational ‘values’: failure, exclusion and hierarchy.  This was to be an integrated policy, he was as concerned about the kids who’d disengaged at 12 as those choosing educational paths at 16 or 18.   Fryer spoke often in this period, blending theoretical stances from Beck’s Risk Society with the ambition of his political masters.

Michael Clark (PVC at Birmingham) took a different angle to the same questions, looking at the New Labour approach to the management of public services, and then threading in how higher education would fit.  The ‘Third Way’ would be important, and Clark warned that Blair would be more radical than people had given him credit for. He also said that political advisers would have an important role – my notes include ‘Most influential thinker on Ed is Ed Milliband!’

To emphasise the newness of the government, we heard from a new backbencher Stephen Twigg, seemingly still shocked to be MP for Enfield Southgate but known to the sector as a former NUS president. Noting the Government’s plans on £1000 fees, he sounded a caution about the removal of grants and the potential issues around mature students.

A more regular feature of AUA conferences is senior leaders providing their own takes while being open about the challenges facing their institutions.  Sandra Burlesden explained how MMU had responding to the changes in policy by holding a major strategic review.  Nick Andrew and Margaret Andrew (Registrars at Bradford and Huddersfield) focused on how a regional focus would help their universities and then addressed academic & administrative structures and how universities needed to do better to build career structures for their staff.

Souvenir, but also useful to make coffee in halls of residence

SUMS often offer a window into their recent practice at AUA, and I went to two sessions they supported.  Bernarde Hyde looked at changing administrative support structures, with modularisation (often the 1990s’ bugbear) and research selectivity driving a ‘search for excellence’ in structures.  John Haywood (with Fraser Woodburn) ran a session on ‘shaking up the administration’, with new mechanisms for support services’ accountability and value for money.

The best part of AUA conferences is colleagues sharing their practice – my last session was a comprehensive guide to creating an international recruitment strategy. Perhaps providers will be more reticent about sharing ideas that might be giving them a competitive edge, but the open sharing of ideas and processes is still at the heart of our professional body and its wonderful annual conference.


The Snowflake Monster

The University is threatened by a monster, the snowflake monster. This is not a monster made of snowflakes – that derogatory term that is used for sensitive students who won’t tolerate debate and who need trigger warnings. It is the monster that uses the term ‘snowflake’ and it lurks in our media, all over the world.

There is a spectacular example of its work in a ludicrous story published by The Sun (I’d not normally refer to this media source, but it’s necessary to confront it). The Sun has discovered there is a ‘snowflake’ reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Except, as attested by the professors cited in the article, this isn’t news, this is what the novel is about. Surely the journalists must know this, they’ve clearly read the introduction to the novel (from where this story seems to originate from) and anyone who has read the book would know where the terror lies. So assuming that the journalists are not stupid, the first concern is that they think their readers are stupid.

This story presents universities as places where strange theories are hatched, where monsters are empathised with and accorded human rights. This is anathema to a part of the media whose stock trade is monsters. How dare universities teach such stuff.

This is the backlash that paints liberal arts courses as useless, that sees legislators try to de-fund humanities research and attempts to de-legitimise the university itself. The very business of contesting truth, the heart of the university’s business, is ridiculed. Common sense tells you that Frankenstein is about a monster killing people, not about what it means to be human. Universities must be ridiculous places if they hold such notions.

Each stupid piece, even if on the most stupid premise, chips away at universities. This nonsense in the Sun isn’t itself a big deal, it’s so obviously stupid. But it’s only one of today’s stories. That’s the bigger problem.

An Academic Registrar’s Challenges (Twenty Years ago)

1998 has many parallels with 2018, at least as far as higher education policy and practice goes.  I’ve had a look through my notebooks for the first term of the new year and we face some of the same issues, but there are some contrasts as well.  As a young academic registrar, there was a sense of precariousness, some of that connected with the issues facing the college but also the  sector acting on the Dearing Report, and a government starting to hit its stride.  There was tension about HEFCE’s new funding methodology, which would see institutions migrate to within 5% of a standard unit of resource measured by FTEs, which were controlled by the MASN.

Strategic Challenges

There were two specific challenges facing King Alfred’s College: the termination of its nursing contract and the conversion of the neighbouring La Sainte Union College into the New College of the University of Southampton.

The move of nursing education into universities is a fascinating story, and it should be told properly.  King Alfred’s had merged with its local nurse training providers and had a substantial number of students on nursing and midwifery programmes (I remember vividly my first midwifery validation event – which prepared me well for later encounters).  A bidding exercise had been run and many smaller providers had lost their contracts to offer nursing and midwifery courses, including King Alfred’s.  In early 1998 the college started to plan to phase out a third of its income.  The contract was taught out and a lasting memory is how the staff involved in the provision handled this situation with the utmost professionalism.

Another challenge came from the college’s validating partner: the University of Southampton had ‘merged’ with La Sainte Union College (LSU). LSU had succumbed to a second poor Ofsted inspection, it had not diversified sufficiently to survive without its teacher training contact and it was merging with its validating university: Southampton.  This was fine, but Southampton had come up with a new vision for LSU as ‘New College’, to act as a new access part of the university, combining with its adult education department.  For King Alfred’s, the potential revitalisation of LSU as a part of its validating university was a major concern.  It also forced a volte face on the part of Southampton who’d been looking to avoid ‘unhelpful competition’ between members of its validating ‘family’ but now found itself trying to compete.

Lifelong Learning

The Dearing report had positioned higher education firmly in a lifelong learning context – meeting the needs of the learning society.  The college had extensive CPD offering for teachers and a long established part-time evening degree, but was responding to HEFCE funding streams to engage adult learners.

Notes from a conference in March 1998 show that developing a culture of lifelong learning in the university was seen as the key challenge.  The Government were very enthusiastic but the sector would need to find ways of engaging as it developed its green paper into a framework for action.  Tessa Blackstone told the conference that universities should develop partnerships, have coherent strategies for access and develop plans for more adult lifelong learning.  Credit accumulation should be used to help students move between institutions.

At this stage the University for Industry was a key part of the government’s plans, with learning accounts enabling students to access short courses.  There was even mention of graduate apprenticeships.   Corporate learning would be important, and Geraldine Kenney-Wallace, the ‘vice-chancellor’ of the ‘BAE University’, provided information on their virtual university – part of their business strategy to enhance their international competitiveness, covering qualifications from HNDs to PhDs.

Working parties

If some have measured out their lives with coffee spoons, the life of an academic registrar is measured out by working parties.  In addition to the committees and standing groups, I appear to have attended specific groups on regulations, IT systems, graduation, continuing education, and tuition fees (we were still billing LEAs – but planning was underway for the new £1000 fees).

One set of working parties was concentrating on the future of the college, preparing a plan to deal with those strategic challenges, particularly focused on the prospect of applying for degree awarding powers.


Despite lots of efforts (including Bob Fryer who later headed it) Southampton’s New College never took off and the old LSU site was sold for housing.  BAE never developed their corporate university.  King Alfred’s got it’s degree awarding powers and is now the University of Winchester.

The Commuting Universities Blues- the solution is song…

One of the greatest concerns for the modern universities was to gain acceptance from public opinion as true universities.  They had many disadvantages; they often taught vocational subjects, had a poor stock of buildings in unglamorous cities but the greatest concern was that their students were commuting and therefore there wasn’t the esprit de corps exhibited in the old universities.   The provision of residences became a high priority, enabling the modern universities to compete for students.

This was between the wars.

The Great War saw the foundation of the modern British university system, with the UGC distributing government grants, the CVCP co-ordinating universities and the NUS building an internationalist movement while arguing for improvements for students. The UGC and NUS agreed that the residential model was best.

Students’ Unions provided the common rooms, societies and sports in the new, non-collegiate, universities. The majority of students in the civic universities lived either at home or in digs, rather than in halls.


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One of the prominent activities was singing.  The Leeds University Song Book is an example of how those modern universities tried to build up their spirits.  The preface explains:

With the advent of the Song Book, the hope grows strong that our University may develop a corporate musical spirit well befitting such an institution.  Some of the songs in this book are very robust: in singing them it is hoped that students will feel the inspiration of comradeship…

The Committee commend the book, hopeful that ‘our University may at last become a University of Song’.  There are five sections: Patriotic and National Songs; Yorkshire Songs; General University Songs (including Departmental Songs); Students’ Songs and Hymns.  The oldest of the local songs dates from 1886. sung in the early days of the student association of the then Yorkshire College.

The committee notes the enthusiasm of Professor Garstang in writing songs, so we’ll start with his Boating Song (which although he wrote some music can also be sung to the Eton Boating Song).

Cambridge has her Granta
Oxford, Isis Fair,
Leeds, with an enchanter,
Still might row the Aire;
But until he comes, in spite of banter,
We must go elsewhere!
Until he comes, in spite of banter,
We must go elsewhere

As an example of a ‘departmental song’ here is the Song of the Fuel Department (by Allan C Monkhouse)

Now listen all ye students who gather round to hear
The song of the fuel Department, a name to us so dear
Its work is quite stupendous, and if you’ll come along,
We’ll tell you all about it in our departmental song.

From sim, dark, distant ages of palaeozoic life
To present day conditions with all their stress and strife,
Our fuels have been building up until this day they stand
As the power of the nations who have them in their land.

There are equivalent songs about the joys of Geology, History, Mining, Physics, Chemistry and Maths.   The songs show that the healthy inter-departmental rivalry that still plays out in calls for differential fees.  The ‘University Songs’ show their pride in their alma mater, but perhaps with that sense of their technological status and what Flexner would complain was the service-station model of higher education.

Do you yearn to know more of the Arts and the Sciences.
Icelandic verbs or textile appliances?
If in leather or medicine or steam your alliances,
Presto, you’re served while you wait, up –
Up, pup, pup, at the Varsity,
Hup, pup, Kumati, Kuamti, Grrr, Mah
Ha-gi, Hai Ha-gi,
Now for the last bit, Hurrah


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‘Ku-ma-ti’ is the ‘war-chant’ of the university.  Historians of the university are unsure exactly how it was adopted, but it appears to have a link to Maori.  Another song picks up the theme:

Tho’ some Varsities be older
Being establish’d long ago
By the glamour of antiquity surrounded;
Yet we’re just as proud in Yorkshire,
And have many things to show,
to prove to you our pride is fully grounded

So Ku-Ma-ti! For Leeds and its Varsity;
Its medicine, science, arts and law,
Its technicalities galore,
The students and the training corps,
So Ku-ma-ti for Leeds

So, perhaps one part of the answer for commuting students is a return to the song book.  It will combine pride in your university, however vocational its studies might be, and would come with helpful patriotic songs (having access to the words to Rule Britannia and Land of Hope of Glory must help with our new confident global status).

The Song Book is a reminder that we’ve been through many of our current anxieties before.   Of course, communal singing isn’t really going to be a solution.  Especially if its a series of songs about how hard study is in your department.

John Major and Academic Drift

The binary line was abolished in 1992.  A deliberate policy of having two sectors of higher education was ended and the universities and polytechnics were brought together under a single funding agency.  A part of that process was the agreement that polytechnics could apply for university title.  As I have noted before, somehow this is still controversial.  Papers in the National Archives show something of how that policy developed.

John Major became prime minister at the end of November 1990.  His first Education Secretary was Kenneth Clark who, after settling in, submitted a paper for discussion on long term issues in education policy responding to the PM’s own stated priorities.  This paper includes the following section on Higher Education.

The natural evolution of the reforms for Higher Education contained in the 1988 Act is to bring together the two Higher Education sectors – Universities, and Polytechnics and Colleges – under a single Funding Council. That will ensure that the system can continue to expand cost-effectively and without artificial barriers. It means the end of the so-called “binary line”. Most polytechnics will want to call themselves universities, and the time has come to allow that but we shall need to ensure that the diversity of provision in HE does not suffer as a result. I am quite sure that the change will not result in any diminution in standards in our excellent higher education system. We will need to ensure that by good quality assurance control arrangements and seek to preserve the diverse and distinctive contribution of the universities and polytechnics.

There are plenty of complications – there is an awkward Scotland/Wales/N.Ireland dimension. We shall have to insist on robust quality assurance arrangements. Research funding will have to be handled carefully. I expect to be able to circulate proposals on all these matters to colleagues for discussion in March, with a view to a White Paper in the early summer. This would be a topic for legislation early in the Parliament, a commitment to that effect would, I think, be widely welcomed.
(Clarke, 1991)

Clarke continued, with a theme that we would return to:

We could also use that opportunity to add privately funded tuition fees to my existing powers to make student loans available for maintenance. My opinion, however, is against that – you will remember how unpopular it was with our colleagues in the House of Commons when Keith Joseph first suggested it some 5 years ago. I do not believe that it is possible to set up a sensible and fair market in higher education tuition fees. I recognise that the alternative is the provision of more public funds to finance the further expansion of Higher Education
(Clarke 1991)

One of threats that the vice-chancellors had been using was to discuss top-up fees as a way of maintaining the unit of resource in the face of continued ‘efficiency gains’ from the government.

Academic Drift

By March 1991 the ramifications of uniting the sector were being worked through.  The briefing note for John Major before a meeting with Ken Clarke stated:

…then polytechnics will wish to take on university status. Though attractive to them, it is not necessarily advantageous in a wider sense. Courses could become more academically orientated. It is no means obvious that is best for the economy.
(Potter, 1991a)

The Civil Service had first worried about ‘academic drift’ in the early 1960s and had influenced Crosland to create the polytechnic sector in part to prevent it.  Now officials at No10 were concerned again.

After the meeting with Clarke, John Major’s Private Secretary wrote to the DES.

First, if Polytechnics are to be able to take on university status, it will be important to ensure that they cannot shift their course mix or research programme to favour more academic subjects. … the Prime Minister would be grateful for your Secretary of State’s specific assurance that the system in place will prevent an undesirable shift in the allocation of teaching or research resources.
(Potter, 1991b)

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The DES wrote back, with a ‘satisfactory response’ giving the appropriate assurances.  Interestingly the DES thought that student demand would prevent the polytechnics offering more academic courses (Ratcliff 1991).

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The DES noted that if necessary the Secretary of State could require the funding councils to use those funding incentives.  The file contains letters from other ministries commenting on the developing white paper.  Michael Howard (Secretary of State for Employment) endorsed the approach, stating:

We are agreed that parity of esteem between vocational and academic forms of education is important; this is no less so for higher education than at lower levels.  Kenneth’s proposals, in aiming to give polytechnics equal status with universities, should help that objective.
(Howard, 1991)

David Mellor (Chief Secretary to the Treasury) noted that removing the binary line would open up the universities to the ‘full force of competition from the polytechnics and colleges’ but noting the concern  that the polytechnics could adopt ‘some of the less attractive features of the present universities’ and that must be resisted very strongly.  (Mellor, 1991)

Policy Outcomes 

These debates, early in a Prime Minister’s term of office (framed around the Classless Society), are still relevant today.  The issue of vocational vs academic and whether some institutions should pursue one or the other remains live.  So too does the role of competition – although it could be noted that the expansion of the old universities has now moved forward in the last few years as the temptation of £9000 fees without a student number cap kicked in.     There are signs that the government in 1991 thought that its new regulators, the higher education councils, would manage the sector through funding incentives – an option that is harder for government in 2018.   Funding, however, remains live.  Ken Clarke wasn’t convinced that a market in fees could work.  Clearly one of the issues for the ‘major review’ of tertiary funding will be differentiated fees; a major issue for our post-binary line sector.


Clarke K (1991) Education Policy – Long Term Minute 18 February 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294
Howard, M, (1991) Future Structure of UK Higher Education: The Binary Line Letter 28 March 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294
Mellor D (1991) White Paper: Higher Education Letter 20 May 1991 TNA PREM 19/3296
Potter B [BHP] (1991a) Bilateral with the Education Secretary Briefing 6 March 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294
Potter B, (1991b) EA Higher Education – The Binary Line Letter 26 March 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294
Ratcliff, J (1991) EA Higher Education – The Binary Line Letter 28 March 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294



Freedom of Speech: Back to the Past

The news that a Conservative MP has delivered a speech on campus, albeit with a bit of disruption, will keep alive the freedom of speech debate.  This looked like it might have settled down, but this will stoke it up again.

It is, of course, fabulously reminiscent of past debates, and past scuffles.  We have the long established legislation about freedom of speech from the Education Act 1986.

Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.

So, well done to UWE for meeting the requirements of the act.  The occasional attempts by people inside (or, as in the case of UWE, outside) the university to stop people from speaking can be fed into the investigation of the  Human Rights Committee.

The Committee is looking into Freedom of Speech in universities, and the evidence supplied to it is very illuminating.  Outside the responses from higher education providers and organisations, there are a range of particular issues raised.  These include: Abortion, Israel/Palestine, Islamophobia, and Gender & Sexual orientation.

The issues represented are familiar, certainly they formed a standard part of the political life of student unions as I knew them in the late 1980s and early 1990s.   These are ‘wicked’ problems; the ongoing discussion of issues that matter, and matter most to some people.  But these issues do matter.  Universities are a place in which these issues should be discussed and debated, but where tensions run the highest.  In 30 years the debate has moved; while many would see ‘progress’ on a number of key issues, they are not ‘solved’ or the debate concluded.

This is my picture of an OGM in 1991/92 in the Riley Smith Hall in the Union at Leeds. Whatever the vote is for, the RCP contingent is unimpressed.

What’s important is to distinguish these very important debates from other parts of the life of the university.  Firstly, Freedom of Speech is not the same thing as Academic Freedom.   Academic staff have the freedom within the law to ‘question and test received wisdom’, and to ‘put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions’ – but this generally placed within the bounds of the profession.  An historian might tease twitter about Oliver Cromwell and chocolate cake, but too many articles on the subject won’t be rewarded.  In the UK we haven’t had too many test cases of flat-earth geographers or creationist biologists to handle. 

The other issue is whether booking a room at a university confers upon someone an undue dignity which means that a higher standard should be applied.  Should UCL refuse to accept room bookings for people interested in eugenics?  How different is this from UCLU accepting a booking for an indifferent band?  

A student union officer contemplating room booking policy in 1991/92 

I want to see students unions and universities continue to be at the leading edge of these discussions.  I want to see successive generations debate the ‘wicked’ problems that we discussed, and I understand that tensions will flare.  Students are at the leading edge of change: track issues of immense social change through the 20th Century and you’ll find students at the heart of many things we now take for granted; starting with women’s suffrage.

I see this as an ongoing tension, but not one that is worse in 2018 than it was in 1988 or 1968 or 1938.  However the immediacy of information and the need for instant responses makes this much harder than it was 30, 50 or 80 years ago.

I also know that as important as this is,  for many it does not represent much to do with the day-to-day life of the University.  Tens of thousands of students will pass through most universities between occurrences of incidents of free speech that affect a tiny number of students.  We must keep this in proportion: important, but not such a problem as to dominate.  It certainly must not distract either.

‘Grade Inflation’ – a straw man argument

The Higher Education sector needs to explain what’s going on with this trend we’re calling ‘grade inflation’. HESA data show that the pattern of achievement in honours degrees is now very different to how it was a generation ago. This plays into a narrative about university education that’s really unhelpful.

We need arguments and explanations of what’s going on. Here’s Liz Morrish offering a cogent perspective on the change last summer in this post. Graham Virgo offered some of these arguments to the Telegraph (note that his explanations become downgraded to ‘claims’).

Inevitably the Telegraph turns to Professor Alan Smithers, the Eeyore of academic standards, for a view. He’s not impressed. He says:

“It sounds to me like a narrative designed to bat away criticism of what is an obvious problem,”

“It is possible to come up with an accepted grade distribution. Within the sector you could say that in any university a set proportion would get a first or 2:1.”

This is absolutely not the answer to ‘grade inflation’.

Higher education uses criterion referenced assessment. We grade students’ assessment according to criteria – setting out our expectations and seeing if they meet them. Our criteria have changed as assessment has changed and as courses have changed – we mustn’t pretend they haven’t- but that doesn’t mean they are ‘easier’. Crucially, as Morrish points out, we are all better, staff and students, at understanding those criteria and more students are getting marks in those higher grades. This is where the explanation must focus.

What Alan Smithers is proposing is norm referenced assessment. This fixes a grade distribution and then plots students against it. Our national examination system is predicated on it; in addition to knowing whether a student had met a set of learning outcomes, we learn whether they are in a band of achievement for all kids.

I’d be happier if we stuck to criterion- referenced assessment for national exams, but the logic does work at this level. It is useful to know which students are performing best. So Ofqual has a formula, because it wants the new grade 9 GCSE to be scarce, it is capped:

Percentage of those achieving at least a grade 7 who will be awarded a grade 9 = 7% + 0.5 × (percentage of students awarded grade 7 and above)

So, if every entrant in Maths is taking broadly the same exam, you can, as Smithers says, set the proportion getting a 9. Obviously, as Smithers knows, every university student is not taking the same exam. Their assessment is run by autonomous universities running different courses with different assessment. That’s the strength of our system. A national curriculum in HE would be a disaster, so you cannot possibly fix a national assessment. So autonomous universities must continue to do their own assessment.

So, how could you possibly norm-reference thousands of different courses in over a hundred universities? This would turn into a quota system, but because we are a rather hierarchical system, this too would be monstrous. What if firsts were only to be awarded to the ‘best’ 10% of students in a university? Is that on each course, or across the university? Tough on you if your cohort of 20 in your year had two outstanding students – they’re getting those firsts however good you are. But if it’s across the university, then tough on the historians because the physicists are going to get ‘better’ marks and take more of the 10%.

Roll that argument out to universities. Should Oxford and Buckingham each only award 10% firsts? Or will the norm-referencing agency allocate differential numbers of firsts to different universities on a pre-calculated basis?

This is a series of straw man arguments, of course, but they are offered because people like Alan Smithers offer a glib response to a complex question that they must know is utterly unworkable and would be monstrously unfair. Let’s talk about how students meet our criteria, let’s accept that the classified honours degree is problematic, but let’s not pretend you could do a grade distribution system.