#bebettr , @anna_debenham , skills vs literacies and my shady past.

This post represents my personal opinions only, and does not reflect those of my employer or the programmes and projects I am responsible for. It is made available under a CC-BY license.

Not for the first time, I think @jukesie is on to something. #BeBettr was the bare bones of an event, simply a room to keep the rain off and some interesting people talking, both on the stage and from the floor. No tedious “conference dinner”, no dodgy buffet lunch, no reams of paper, no trailing through the bowels of an expensive venue finding the next break-out room. No wireless to lure you in to email and the backchannels. My suspicion is that we will see a lot more events like this in 2011, and a lot less multi-day quasi-academic conferences for edtech folk. This can only be a good thing.

When I go to a conference I expect to leave with my head spinning, and at least one blog post ‘twixt my teeth. I was especially keen (after very positive reports from #drumbeat) to see Anna Debenham speak and I was not disappointed (here’s her talk on similar themes given to London Web Standards). She’s a young, talented, web professional who feels she has been let down by formal ICT education, and provides example after terrifying example to back up her narrative. Academia and the world of education has simply failed to keep up with the changing face of web technology – teaching children how to lay out a web page using HTML tables, or design a site in PowerPoint helps no one, and although these examples are taken from current GCSE and A-level syllabi it has also been argued (Leslie Jensen-Inman, in A List Apart) that HE is not much better. Anna herself chose not to apply to university based on a poor impression of what courses were focused on, and has instead developed a successful freelance career.

I agree with her diagnosis, but was wary of her solutions – which were that ICT professionals should work to support the development of updated syllabi. I simply don’t think this is sustainable, as web technology and development practice are liable to keep changing at the same dizzying rate as they are currently. Will we still be teaching web design in a world dominated by platform specific applications drawing information down from the cloud, bypassing the web entirely?

My suspicion is that any course that purports to teach you how to do “x” is probably a waste of time if it talks about industry standard practice. It’s not education, it’s training – and thousands of commercial training providers are quite delighted that training becomes out-of-date very quickly as they sip champagne cocktails and cavort in pools of gold coins. 

Education isn’t training. Training shows you how, education supports you in understanding why, and in gaining the general principles and aptitudes that allow you to find out how for yourself in the future. (NB although this sounds pretty convincing, please remember that I am essentially a policy wonk that spent too long listening to experts, so I claim no special insights here).

Back in 2003, I taught Music Technology to a group of Foundation year (level 0) students at a University not unadjacent to Pontypridd. I’d graduated from what became a MusTech degree in 2000, and even three years later most of the practices I had learnt had become laughably outmoded. I had learnt how to programme the venerable Akai S1000 sampler as a cutting edge tool, I was now teaching on a platform where a plug-in was available which allowed you to play the S1000s vintage, grungy, low bandwidth samples.

However the students were expecting to learn the latest industry standard tools, and many of them were much, much better than me in using them. Clearly something had to give. So I didn’t teach any tools at all – I pointed students to newsgroups, websites and online tutorials… I showed them how to identify and use reliable advice. I talked about copyright, music publishing, composition, harmony, basic production principles and critical listening. I even did a seminar called “how to play keyboards – in 40 minutes”. I also (wonderfully) branched out of a critical listening session because of questions asking me to explain what a passing reference to “Marxism” meant – the response prompting one keen student to opine that this revolution of the proletariat stuff sounded brilliant and why hadn’t it happened already? Students used the tools they were comfortable with, supported others in developing their own skills and were supported experimenting with new ideas.

But still, when one student asked me if this course he had signed up for enthusiastically would prepare him for a career as a sound engineer, I had to say no. I explained (truthfully) it would make him a better sound engineer, a better musician, and give him the literacies he needed to work in a fast changing field… but he left the course the next week and became a sound engineer in a club in Cardiff. Fair play to him (and I hope he at least took on board the stuff about ear protection!)

We can’t teach skills in HE. We’re not set up to do it, we’re not very good at doing it and we need to stop selling ourselves as if we are. We shouldn’t run courses claiming to make people professional sound engineers, or professional web designers, or professional anything else. We give people the literacies they need in order to pursue these careers (or any other). The subject matter of a degree, I suspect in more cynical moments,  is largely a way of getting students to concentrate long enough to swallow the literacies pill.

What does it matter if you studied English Literature, Music Technology, Pharmacy, Modern History, Software Engineering or Horticulture? The important things are that you learnt how to find information yourself, make decisions about it’s validity and usefulness, use the information to gain new knowledge, capability and expertise – write and argue persuasively, use sources and quotation to back yourself up, use technology to better express yourself, and had the confidence in your analysis to stand by it in the face of contrasting opinions. These are the graduate skills that most people end up using  – as web designers, sound engineers, sales managers, doctors and business analysts – we need to be a little more open about them at the start of the journey.

How to read a funding council grant letter (and how to constrain government financial exposure)

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of current or former employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY-SA license.

“There will, of course, be an overriding need to manage within public expenditure constraints, given that the student finance regime will continue to be subsidised from public funds. This will require developing a new approach to constraining Government financial exposure at the sector level, without restricting student choice of institutions. Lord Browne offered one imaginative solution; we are considering other possibilities and will say more in the White Paper. Meanwhile, we would welcome the Council’s active engagement and ideas for how our policy goal can be achieved in 2012/13 and beyond.”


(Paragraph 16, Grant Letter from BIS to HEFCE, December 2010)


When I first went to work at HEFCE in 2003, my Dad sent me an amazing present: The Complete “Yes, Minister”. I still would (and do) recommend this to anyone working in policy in whatever field or whatever level.

Many of you will have spotted why I thought of Yes Minister when reading the above paragraph of the recent HEFCE grant letter, and may be wondering precisely how far Lord Browne’s stock must have sunk to have an idea described as “imaginative” in a public document! At least they didn’t say “courageous”…

Anyway, for both Sir Humphrey and HEFCE, all the power is in the drafting. I don’t think anyone outside the organisation appreciates quite how much drafting goes on; but in order to understand any of what is published it is vitally important that you understand what isn’t. Something like a funding circular will have at least 10 drafts behind it before it sees the light of day, if you are looking at a policy document, at the very least double that. It’s a very “old school” civil service way of working, and it leads to very strange documents indeed.

I’m increasingly beginning to believe that such documents are not written to be read; rather, they are written to have been written. When you read a HEFCE document, the sound of the words in your head is not important. Imagine it instead as a series of quotes in a news item.

“HEFCE have said that…”
“HEFCE maintain that…”
“HEFCE are in favour of…”

and so on. Thought of like this, every word and phrase count because they can all be used in a variety of contexts. Like an x factor finalist, HEFCE are almost touchingly aware of their own media profile. The individual words and phrases in a funding council document are far more important than the overall sense of the document.

So why am I writing about HEFCE documents in a post about a letter they got from BIS? Well, it’s a pretty open secret that HEFCE will have seen this document a long time before any of us did. They’ve been involved in the drafting of the letter for weeks, if not months. So every word, every phrase, every inference of the letter is in there very, very deliberately. And some of the odder things may be evidence of discussion and compromise between BIS and HEFCE.

Let’s take an example, from paragraph 16, note “we are considering other possibilities and will say more in the White Paper. Meanwhile, we would welcome the Council’s active engagement […]” and compare:

paragraph 3: “We will set out our overall thinking and plans for HE in more detail in a White Paper, and will value your advice in preparing it.”

paragraph 18 “We will say more in the White Paper about our priorities for targeted funding and would welcome the Council’s advice

At first glance, these three quotes seem to be saying the same thing. BIS are writing a White Paper, they would like HEFCE’s input. But if you look deeper, there is more in there.

Paragraphs 3 and 18 use the “we will say more in the White Paper” construction. This implies that HEFCE will be told more about the governments plans for those particular areas of policy in the White Paper, and that in the meantime they will be asked for advice when needed. Given that we are expecting a White Paper in January you would hope that BIS have already sought all or most of the advice they need from HEFCE by this point. But the words are important – BIS are actively “setting out their thinking”, HEFCE are passively giving “advice”.

In paragraph 16 both participants are actively engaged, HEFCE emphatically so! This is the paragraph regarding how to constrain the overall government cash exposure to a market-based system. Clearly, BIS are much keener to get advice here, quite possibly because they haven’t got a clue how they are going to do it. So, this particular hot potato has landed in HEFCE’s court, as Jim Hacker may have said.

But Government departments don’t ask quangos for advice unless they are pretty sure what they want to hear. What other clues are in paragraph 16?

There will, of course, be an overriding need to manage within public expenditure constraints, given that the student finance regime will continue to be subsidised from public funds. This will require developing a new approach to constraining Government financial exposure at the sector level, without restricting student choice of institutions”

Notice what is not being said here: student numbers. The government can’t afford to be seen to be calling for constraints on student numbers – the whole idea of the market system is to let the market decide the size and shape of the sector. So we get the euphemistic “constraining Government financial exposure”, with a little extra tag on the end making sure we know that this isn’t restricting student choice (I’ll come back to “of institutions” presently).

There would only really be one way of doing this… setting an upper limit to the total government cash commitment to HE, and bringing in some kind of a system to keep spending under this cap.

Here’s one way of constructing such a system (which won’t work): allocate funding to institutions in respect of students sequentially from the cheapest to the most expensive, firstly for “core” numbers (based on current intake) and then for “additional” numbers (new intake)

So if you charge lower fees you are more likely to get all the students that you want to enroll, if you have more expensive courses may be subject to not getting all of the students they’d like. The positive side effect of this is that it would drive prices down, the negative would be the perception that the most able students (applying to “the best”/most expensive) universities) would be less likely to get places than students with less good A-level grades. It’s pretty rough, but you could sort it out into something tidier fairly easily, maybe adding regional or subject elements.

[I’ll work this out further in future blog posts if anyone would be interested. If HEFCE are interested, I’ll work this out in a research report for £50,000 :-)]

But “of institutions” is the killer – one of the most out-of-place aspects of the Browne Report was the idea that no institution should go out of business… even though everything else in the report seems designed to make exactly this happen. HEFCE even got the promise of a small budget to prevent this from happening (“The Council will have powers to provide targeted funding to prevent institutional failure from taking place“, Browne, p47) which greatly upset the poor darlings as they felt they were doing an excellent job of this anyway (they are, as it happens). So HEFCE, is here, for the first time, instructed to work against the effects of the shiny new market – not to support wider subject choice, or a choice of mode of delivery, but to protect actual institutions.

At least some heartening news for an increasingly bleak midwinder.

[This is my last post this year, I’d like to end by saying thanks all for reading, commenting, retweeting and disagreeing, so:

“I wonder if I might crave your momentary indulgence in order to discharge a by no means disagreeable obligation which has, over the years, become more or less established practice in government service as we approach the terminal period of the year — calendar, of course, not financial — in fact, not to put too fine a point on it, Week Fifty-One — and submit to you, with all appropriate deference, for your consideration at a convenient juncture, a sincere and sanguine expectation — indeed confidence — indeed one might go so far as to say hope — that the aforementioned period may be, at the end of the day, when all relevant factors have been taken into consideration, susceptible to being deemed to be such as to merit a final verdict of having been by no means unsatisfactory in its overall outcome and, in the final analysis, to give grounds for being judged, on mature reflection, to have been conducive to generating a degree of gratification which will be seen in retrospect to have been significantly higher than the general average.”

Thanks, Sir Humphrey]

My favourite part of the HEFCE teaching funding method, and how screwed we are if we lose it

This post represents my personal opinions only, and not those of my employer, or of programmes or projects I am responsible for. It is made available under a CC0 (Public Domain) license.

The current HEFCE funding model has a number of quite marvellous features which I would be happy to expound upon at great length, but my personal favourite must be the “tolerance band”.

This is technically defined as an allowance for the difference between the standard resource (the funding available for the number of students enrolled on particular courses that the institution has indicated to HEFCE each year) and the assumed resource (which is the funding available for the students that have actually enrolled on particular courses each year). Because HEFCE is wise and noble it allows a 5% difference either way between these amounts before it starts either clawing back funds or reducing student numbers for the following year.

This 10% band of tolerance is the thing that keeps institutions stable. It allows for fluctuations in student numbers, and permits an institution to receive an expected amount of funding every year, allowing for an accurate budget and long term planning.


Under the new funding model, the majority of the financial support (80%+) that used to come from HEFCE will come from a new organisation, Student Finance. This allocates funds based directly on student choice, and – crucially – does not include a compensatory function. So the stability of funding levels, year-on-year, is lost.


The graph above shows what would happen if the fluctuations in student number are uncompensated, assuming the rate of fluctuation linked to student choice remains similar to what we see currently. Already, you can see that a reliable level of funding is not possible, and that an institution must take a lower level of funding as it’s basis for budgeting.

But, of course, other factors come in to play in a purer market, the most significant of these being the enhanced importance of marketing and communications for institutions. Though marketing can offer great recruitment gains if done well, it must be remembered that there are multiple actors in the market, all of which will be engineering their own enhancements. You could imagine one-year-only cut-price deals, collusion and horse-trading, marketing “blitzes” on priority areas. (There’s a whole other post coming on how cool it is going to be to work in university marketing over the next few years.)


So something with much higher peaks and deeper troughs would be expected, meaning that the “base” level of institutional resource is substantially lower, and that the institution must be capable of quickly scaling particular courses substantially up or down depending on recruitment.

This is a similar scenario to seasonal changes for demand in manufacturing, and manufacturing companies have responded to these pressures in one main way.

The casualisation of labour.

Rather than keep enough staff permanently on their books to meet peak demand, it is more likely that a factory would keep only the staff that they would need for periods of low demand, and draw on a pool of casualised (short-term contract, hourly pay, semi-skilled or unskilled) labour to cope with peaks.

Universities are already starting to do the same thing. Staff on “atypical contracts” (a lovely HESA euphemism) already make up more than a third of university staff – and return accuracy for this category of staff is notably poor – it is likely to be far, far higher.


The new model of funding only makes this situation for staff more likely. It may be that the age of the “career academic”, of tenure and of teaching plus research contracts is dead.

It is possible that this is simply an unintended consequence of a policy that has been notoriously poorly conceived and understood. But (and I am moving into tin foil hat territory here) we have already seen how the new model costs the taxpayer more than it saves, adds a significant extra burden to students, and (at best) offers institutions a similar amount of funding to what they get currently. So what is it for?

Is it this? A straight-ahead attack on the academic profession? A new world of casual, teaching-only, HE tutors, juggling multiple short-term contracts just to stay afloat? I dunno. But if it quacks like a duck…



An open letter to David Cameron.

The views expressed below are either my own, or exaggerated for the purpose of my argument. They are not the views of my employer, or of any projects or programmes I have responsibility for. This text is available under a CC0 (Public Domain) license.


>Dear David, 

You may wonder why I’m writing to you, why I’m not bothering Nick Clegg like every other student and academic in the country seems to be. Surely I don’t think I can appeal to your better nature, or sense of social justice? 

Well the thing is, I can kind of understand where you are coming from. Primarily, you want to save money to reduce the deficit. It’s likely you also want to bribe the vice-chancellors of famous universities to take the fee increase and not care about anything else, and let the private sector compete directly with publicly funded provision. You pretty obviously couldn’t care less about lecturers or students – I comprehend that position, even though I (obviously) disagree with you. 

>With Nick – bless him and his little hangdog face and the dead eyes – I don’t know what he wants, other than (apparently) to lose his seat in 2015. So I can’t make a cogent argument to him and have any idea of how he’ll respond to it. He’s not making any sense at the moment, so I can’t use sense to argue with him. 

Anyway, David, this reform of the funding of Higher Education thing. You’ve always been keen to link it to deficit and debt reduction. On 11 November 2010, in China, you said (during an interview on student fees where you condemned students doing to CCHQ what the Bullingdon Club have done to countless Oxfordshire restaurants): 

I think the will of the public was expressed at the time of the election when they rejected debt and deficit and putting off these difficult decisions under Labour, and they chose a new approach and we’ve got to be true to that and stick to that“ 

I want to hold you to that promise. To work to reduce the deficit. I’d like you to comment on my new proposal for higher education funding that will save you at least £5bn within this parliament on what you are currently proposing. Remembering the commitment of your Chancellor to “eliminate the bulk of the structural current budget deficit over a parliament” (24 Feb 2010). 

The proposal is this: leave things exactly how they are. Don’t change anything.

And that’s at least an extra £5bn in the coffers, helping you hit your deficit target. It also has the pleasing side effects of keeping students and academic staff happy, making the university sector more sustainable, offering them fiancial stability and ending nearly a month of civil unrest. But forget about all that hoodie-hugging liberal stuff (you already have? excellent.) – it saves the country money. Keep hold of that idea. 

You’ve linked the new proposals to the deficit so often you may be in danger of starting to believe your own spin. But in retreating from your policy you would be following the advice of the independent Office for Budgetary Responsibility, who note:


“For the November forecast the OBR has scrutinised and certified estimates of the additional loans [the loans in respect of increased student fees] that have been produced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) for England. As the table shows, the impact on the CGNCR [Central Government Net Cash Requirement] is estimated to reach £5.6 billion by 2015-16, cumulatively adding £13 billion to PSND [Public Sector Net Debt] over the forecast period.” (pp123-124, in “Box 4.3”)