Widening participation in universities: an interview with Kate Little

4 Apr

As I’m sure you’re all aware, Manchester announced it will be charging fees of £9000 p.a. from 2010. Surprise! In this context, widening participation in higher education is to become even more important than it is already. So if you’re new to WP, here’s an interview I completed for a student on the Manchester Leadership Programme. For more information I highly recommend NUS’ Project Participation report which is a fantastic read.

Widening participation: an interview with Kate Little (Academic Affairs Officer at University of Manchester Students’ Union)

Why do you think it such a big problem attracting students from lower-income backgrounds?

I think there are several reasons why students from non-traditional backgrounds do not come to university. The first reason is that state schools vary widely in their quality, and those in more deprived areas often do not provide education to a standard that would allow students to attain the required grades to enter into university. These schools may also provide little or no information, advice and guidance about study choices or career options, meaning that students may not be aware that they could or might want to go to university, or they may choose the wrong subjects for their course. A second reason is price, debt and the perception of the cost of university: the media reports the ever-increasing cost of being a student, at the same time as reporting that record numbers are applying. Students from lower income backgrounds may feel that HE is not worth the money. This links into the third (and most important) group of reasons, which are cultural. Students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to have parents who went to university, or to know someone who benefited from a university experience: university may simply be something they never thought about. Some parents actively discourage their children from going to university, putting pressure on them to get a job to help support the family. Many children from disadvantaged backgrounds feel that university is not a place for them: there aren’t people “like them” there, it’s full of posh people and stuffy academics. In most cases this is a misconception which could be tackled by improving outreach work such as that currently undertaken by AimHigher and providing these children with role models from an early age so that they aspire to go to university.

Do you think the recent rise in tuition fees will have a major impact on the number of students wanting to attend university?

Yes: I think the government is living in a fantasy world if it thinks that a sticker price of £9000 per year won’t put off students from poorer backgrounds. To many families this figure is simply unaffordable, and for families with no experience or knowledge of HE it would seem difficult to justify such an investment, especially when the graduate premium (the amount graduates earn compared to non-graduates over their lifetimes) is dropping because of the amount of people with degrees. The government claims that the fee is a “graduate tax” under another name, but this isn’t true: the fact that they name a price sticker, and the student will receive a scary letter from the Student Loans Company every year showing them how many thousands of pounds they haven’t paid off, makes it feel much more like a debt owed. Students from poorer backgrounds are likely to be debt-averse and therefore be put off university before even applying.

What needs to change to solve/address the problem of attracting students from lower-income backgrounds?

The main responsibility lies with schools: decisions are made at age 14 which can help or hinder a student’s chances of attending university. Aspiration has to be built before this age: students should be aware of their post-school options from the start of secondary school or even earlier so that they consider university as a real option. The government has a responsibility to improve the education provided at schools in deprived areas, and also the information, advice and guidance at these schools. Universities can also play a significant part through outreach work – visiting schools or bringing children into the university and showing them what it’s like to be a student, so that they start to consider university as a possibility. At the admissions stage, more universities (especially Russell Group institutions like Manchester) need to take more notice of contextual data. This means taking a student’s grades in the context of the schools they attended, and allowing students with the potential to achieve well at university to enter with slightly lower grades than their more advantaged counterparts. I also think that if universities are to take widening participation seriously, they need to look at retention activity for when the students are here: there’s no use attracting these students if they drop out through lack of support. Support in this sense means academic support and points of contact within the university, but also skills training to allow students to make up for any gap in their previous education.

I have identified you, the Academic Affairs Officer, as a ‘leader’ who can influence change with regards to this problem. What have you done so far, and how effective do you think you/your team has been?

I have worked with Students’ Union colleagues to present our thoughts on what the University should include in its 2012 Access Agreement, in a paper which went to Senate in March 2011. It included many of the above points as well as emphasising the importance of personalising students’ learning experiences and treating them as partners rather than anonymous consumers. The paper was well received, but we are awaiting the draft Access Agreement to see the extent to which our thoughts have been incorporated. I have also worked with NUS on their widening participation work and participated in their campaign to save AimHigher, which although unsuccessful so far has impressed on the HE sector the importance of regional coordination of outreach activity amongst universities and colleges.

In your role, what are the challenges you have faced/face when it comes to pressuring the government to reduce fees? (note: we put pressure on them not to increase fees, which is different).

One of the main challenges was the complete lack of support from university bodies and Vice Chancellors on the issue. Raising fees was only half of a devastating blow to the university sector: it was coupled with 80% cuts to teaching budgets, which university groups such as UniversitiesUK and the Russell Group accepted as they believed they could plug the gap with student fee income. The sector did not do nearly enough to defend its existence in the run-up to the Comprehensive Spending Review: NUS was left almost as a lone voice defending the intrinsic value of universities and making the case for them to be largely state-funded. When I and my NUS colleagues talked to MPs and ministers about this we were constantly faced with talk of the need to reduce the national deficit, and how the HE sector needed to take some of the cuts along with other public services. This argument was a fallacy, however: 80% cuts were not “sharing the pain”, it was an ambush. The fee proposals which were passed do not even tackle the deficit either: in the short term (which is when the government is looking at drastically reducing the deficit), the Treasury will have to pay out over three times as much as it is currently in student loans to cover the fees, and it won’t start to be repaid until at least 2015. Apparently the government are beginning to realise this and panic! The challenge at the time, however, before the vote, was that we were the only ones making this argument. The sector just rolled over and took it. We weren’t helped by the usual stories about lazy, drunken students in the media: the government was able to play off this public perception to give our arguments less weight, especially as we weren’t backed by the more respectable faces of vice chancellors and sector bodies.

The Government’s attitude towards its shambles of a tuition fee policy. “Yes, let’s allow universities to charge £9k and give OFFA no more powers to stop them, then budget for an average fee of £7.5k. That’ll work.”

10 Principles of Good Feedback…and tell us about your experience!

25 Feb

I have been officially terrible at updating this blog, for which I apologise profusely! Never a better time to make amends than the present, however, so I thought I’d use the research I’ve been putting together for a presentation to staff in the Faculty of Medical & Human Sciences. It’s on a topic close to my heart – I originally ran for election two whole years ago on a feedback manifesto, and I’ve spent nearly two years jabbering on about it in office!

Feedback is absolutely core to the learning experience, and whether you see students as consumers or as partners in a learning community, good feedback is a cornerstone of the academic-student relationship. From a consumer perspective, increased fees will lead to very high expectations of service delivery from students, and good quality feedback is part of the package students will expect as a bare minimum. If you see the relationship between academics and students as more nuanced than that of provider and customer, as I do, then the arguments for high quality feedback are even more compelling. If the purpose of higher education is to induct individuals into an academic community and develop them holistically, then feedback is crucial to this developmental process, for reasons I will go on to below.

UMSU are currently running a feedback survey asking you to tell us your experience of feedback and assessment. It only takes ten minutes – complete it here and tell your friends, so we can get the changes YOU need to see. (Yes, I may have a touch of election fever). Or read on to find out more about feedback, thanks to NUS! (Much of this is paraphrased from the excellent NUS Feedback & Assessment briefing, thanks to Kate Wicklow).

After conducting research with students from across the UK, NUS compiled a charter of 10 principles of good feedback.

1. Feedback should be for learning, not just of learning. This emphasises that feedback is central to the learning process and that it should be developmental in nature rather than simply describing or grading performance. This also puts the emphasis on formative feedback and the importance of constructive comments, not just grades.

2. Feedback should be a continuous event rather than a one-off event after assessment. Feedback should be seen as integral to a process of guided learning helping the student to develop and progress. This point also touches on the appropriateness of assessment mechanisms: in order to make sure the student is appropriately guided through all levels of their progression through HE, formative assessments need to be planned in order to give students feedback on the skills they need to work on in order to progress at the summative stage.

3. Feedback should be timely – it is very important that feedback is received in time to improve for the next assessment. It’s also important that the turnaround time is clearly communicated to students so that they have realistic expectations, and once these expectations are set it is very important that they are met.

4. Feedback should relate to clear criteria. Research has shown that it is common for students and tutors to have differing impressions about what is expected from assessments and how a student can get a high mark. Students shouldn’t have to guess or assume what they need to do to get a high mark, the should be told, preferably at the start of the course alongside exemplars of good and poor performance. Feedback should directly relate to these criteria to avoid the possibility of confusion.

5. Feedback should be constructive. I covered the effect that negative comments can have on students’ self-esteem: negative feedback can also discourage students from picking up their feedback in future, from talking to their tutor to find out where they went wrong, or even discourage them from acting on future feedback. Constructive feedback is concise, focused and meaningful to feed-forward, highlighting what is going well and what can be improved.

6. Feedback should be legible and clear – it seems simple but is enough of a problem to be worth restating. There are a few principles covered by this statement: obviously handwritten comments need to be readable by the student, but the principle also covers followup to written feedback to make sure students fully understand what the comments mean. It’s also important to avoid jargon or acronyms unless you are absolutely certain that the student will understand them.

7. Feedback should be provided on exams – in most disciplines the vast majority of a student’s marks are allocated through the use of exams. These often assess a certain skill set which is only assessed within the exam hall itself, so it makes sense from a developmental point of view to give feedback on exams. This is also a legal requirement, and embedded in the new university feedback policy. Interestingly, Schools which have allowed students to request to see their scripts, such as in Chemical Engineering, have seen a low take-up rate of around 10%, but the opportunity to have feedback is very important to the majority of students.

8. Feedback should include self-assessment and peer-to-peer feedback. This adds a reflective element to the idea of feedback and allows students to put themselves in the shoes of the marker. Peer-to-peer feedback allows for a discussion which may enable students to reevaluate their understanding of the learning objectives and look at how they approached the assignment compared to others, which is very helpful from a developmental perspective.

9. Feedback should be accessible to all students, whatever their mode of study or personal situation. This is especially relevant to MHS students, many of whom are away on placements, or may be mature students with caring responsibilities. Students who aren’t full-time, 18-21 year old campus-based students may have trouble collecting feedback in the traditional way, such as physically picking up a written feedback form, or having to visit a tutor between set hours. Technology can really help with this: if feedback is accessible online through Blackboard, or tutors are available for web discussions, it is easier for non-typical students to access it.

10. Feedback should be flexible and suited to students’ needs – students aren’t all the same, and their feedback needs are not one-size-fits-all. Students should be able to request feedback in various formats, within reason, as whilst written comments may be the best way for one student to access feedback, another may prefer a peer-review session.

If you’re not happy with the feedback you’re getting, or if you want to tell us about some particularly excellent feedback, please fill in the UMSU feedback survey!

Browne Review of Tuition Fees Reports: UMSU Initial Response

12 Oct

So…Lord Browne finally did it. After over a year of campaigning around and preparing for the Browne review, I’ve finally got the report in my greasy little mitts, and it doesn’t look good. Now I’m very tired after a day of running around like a headless chicken preparing press releases, talking to the media, lobbying MPs, putting stuff on the website and attempting to strategise how the Union would actually respond to all this! So if you’ll excuse me I’ll take the short cut and give you links to all the lovely work I’ve done today rather than rehash it. Hopefully I’ll write something a little more vitriolic when I’ve had some sleep…

Read more about the Browne recommendations in handy summary form here, along with stuff you can do today to help fight a rise in fees.

And here’s my lovely press release, so you can all see what we’re putting out there. Hopefully it will be coming to a local newspaper near you soon. That’s all from me for now, but rest assured, I’ll be back….



Students at the University of Manchester have reacted with anger to today’s release of a report on higher education funding by Lord Browne. The report, which recommends the complete removal of the current £3,290 cap on university tuition fees, was commissioned by the last government and has been criticised already by the National Union of Students.

“Creating a full-blown market in fees is the opposite of what the higher education sector needs”, said Kate Little, Academic Affairs Officer at the University of Manchester Students’ Union. “This is a report full of regressive proposals which would see poorer students priced out of higher education, and students choosing universities based on what they can afford rather than where they would most like to study.”

The report also abolishes bursaries for the poorest students, suggesting that universities spend money instead on “roadshows” and summer schools to encourage poorer students to apply. “Summer schools and roadshows will do nothing to encourage disadvantaged students to apply to university when they know they’ll be racking up over £30,000 of debt”, said Little. “Browne’s also recommended cutting the maximum loan available to the poorest students. All the recommendations point to universities becoming ivory towers for the rich.”

The Students’ Union also rejected the argument that higher fees are necessary to reduce the budget deficit. “It just makes no sense,” continued Little. “Universities can charge up to £6,000 without giving anything back to the Government. The Government will have to fund the extra loans for students, so in the short-term  Browne’s proposals actually worsen the country’s financial situation rather than plugging the deficit.”

The Students’ Union were pleased that Manchester Withington Lib Dem MP John Leech has agreed to rebel against the coalition government if necessary and vote against a rise in tuition fees. John said “”I signed the NUS pledge and supported our Manifesto which promised to vote against any rise in tuition fees. I am going to keep that promise. This is a political red line for me.”


UMSU Academic Affairs Officer Kate Little presented Manchester Withington Lib Dem MP John Leech with a thank-you card for his pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees. John has recently confirmed that he intends to uphold this pledge despite coalition proposals to raise fees to £7,000.



For further information please contact Kate Little on 07841406222 or academic@umsu.manchester.ac.uk

Higher education cuts: preparing for the Comprehensive Spending Review

13 Sep

Guess who’s back from the summer break, feeling guilty about not having posted in a month? Yes, everything’s getting moving here at UMSU and I thought I should devote a post to the most pressing issue facing the higher education sector this year: deep government cuts to the HE budget predicted to be announced on 20th October as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Senior civil service sources have hinted that cuts could be as high as 35%, which would be a huge blow to the university sector and could fundamentally change the nature of British higher education. I’ll cover how the cuts could change the sector as a whole, then move on to the nitty-gritty of how everyday life could be altered for your average University of Manchester student, and finish up with a nice uplifting bit about stuff you can do to help stop this from happening. And a lolcat.

The national picture

Weird thing is, I can imagine George Osborne wielding this...

Cuts to university budgets mean, quite simply, that either the university has to try and make up the missing resources from elsewhere, it provides a substandard version of what it delivered under higher budgets, or it stops doing some things completely. Some universities will be unable to do any of these options, and may have to close or merge with other institutions to survive: this is especially likely for post-1992 and small universities who rely on government teaching grants for the bulk of their income. Most universities will drop subject areas that aren’t profitable, don’t do good research, or have poor student satisfaction, and this could have a huge impact on the breadth of subject choices available to applicants. I sincerely hope that universities begin to communicate with each other more and work together to ensure the survival of small and specialist courses (like Biblical Studies at Sheffield), but also begin to map out subject provision by region. Research carried out by the National Union of Students shows that 27% of students cite “close to home” as a key reason for choosing a university, with students from lower socio-economic backgrounds much more likely to choose based on this criterion. As university life gets more and more expensive and student demographics move away from the traditional 18-21 year old full-time model, it is crucial that students who cannot afford to live away from home are able to access a broad range of courses in their local area.

Another impact that cuts may have upon the national HE picture is a reduction in university places. Tuition fees don’t actually cover the cost of your degree: at least 60% (sometimes much higher depending on what you study) is provided by HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) to the university. If HEFCE cut the amount of teaching funding they give to a university, the university would have to cut places or take students on at a loss – which they’re not going to do! Couple this likely drop in the number of funded places with record numbers of applicants – over 150,000 applicants were left without a place this year – and we have a situation where not everyone who has the ability and aspiration to go to university is able to do so. Again, this is likely to disproportionately affect applicants from poorly-performing state schools and low socio-economic backgrounds, who are the very people who are currently underrepresented in higher education. Can Britain afford to perpetuate this class divide by denying these young people access to tertiary education? I say not in this day and age.

Life in a Northern University

So that’s the national picture – my version at least. Grim. But many of you will be thinking that’s all a bit philosophy-student pub-rant of me (sorry philosophers!), so I’ll outline how cuts could affect you as a Manchester student. Whilst Manchester is in a better financial position than most universities, with robust finances and a high percentage of income from research councils and other sources, the cuts will still hit us hard. Here are a few miserable scenarios that could occur:

  • The first thing to go when cuts hit is usually support services – counselling, nurseries, student services. Cutbacks in these areas will affect every single student, but especially the most vulnerable.
  • Degree programmes and even whole departments may be cut – your course may not exist in a couple of years’ time.
  • Staff job losses are likely, especially in axed departments: your favourite lecturer might have to leave, or admin staff in your School may go and it’d be really hard to get support when you need it.
  • Less staff means larger class sizes and fewer contact hours, leading to a poorer quality experience for you.
  • Spending on resources is likely to be slashed: even fewer books in the library, clapped-out computers won’t be replaced and aging lecture theatres won’t be refurbished.

None of this is a given – we’ll have to wait for the Comprehensive Spending Review and the university’s response to the cuts, but these scenarios are by no means impossible. The Students’ Union will be working closely with the University to try and minimise the impact of cuts on students’ everyday lives, but with the level of cuts predicted it is unlikely we will emerge unscathed.

So what can I do?

Now you know that cuts WILL affect you, it’s time to do something about it. UMSU has joined up with Man Met, Bolton and Salford Students’ Unions to form Greater Manchester Students’ Unions Against HE Funding Cuts (catchy name, I know). We’re working together to send a delegation of students to a national demonstration in London on 10th November, organised jointly by the National Union of Students and the lecturers’ union UCU. Join us with thousands of students, lecturers and support staff from across the country to tell the government we won’t stand for their cuts. Sign up to the national demo website for updates at http://www.demo2010.org. You can also follow the regional group on Facebook or Twitter, or check out our stall at the Student Fair next week. Stay tuned for updates: we’ll be organising lots of great events in the run-up to the demo, including a “teach-in” on 23rd October to give you more info about the issues.

If you’d like to be more involved in the campaign, maybe helping to publicise it to other students, please contact me at academic@umsu.manchester.ac.uk. As a well-known bloodsucking corporation says so well, every little helps!

OK it's tenuous...but cute!

NUS outlines 6 myths about Graduate Tax

10 Aug

All right, I admit: for this blog post I’m being very lazy and shamelessly plagiarising a National Union of Students briefing. It does, however, make for interesting reading and puts to rest many of the common misconceptions about the increasingly popular proposals to replace tuition fees with a graduate contribution linked to income.

6 “Big Myths” about Graduate Tax.

Since Vince Cable’s announcement on Graduate tax, a whole host of distortions have been released designed to scare off those who want to see a more progressive system. Below we reproduce our favourite six of the graduate tax lies.

1. Most graduates would pay much more than they do now.

This is nonsense. In the NUS proposal, earners in the lowest quintile would overall pay less than £500, those in the next quintile about half than now, and those in the middle quintile roughly the same as now- it’s only those who really benefit that would pay more. A graduate tax has also been described as “the student loan you never pay off”. This is also nonsense- in the NUS model there’s a 25 year limit and an overall maximum amount to ensure fairness.

2. The money would go to the state.

People would be right to worry about the money going to the Treasury- but that doesn’t mean the only other option is fees going to individual universities. In the NUS model, money collected would flow into a trust controlled by the higher education sector, which is legally independent of government and accountable to Parliament. This ensures hypothecation of resources to the higher education sector at a high level and ensures that overall control and shared responsibility lies within the sector.

3. Don’t we already have a form of graduate tax?

It’s true that the current system of fees and loans is paid back by graduates through the tax system- but “rebranding” the flawed system won’t fool anyone. The problems of a market in prices and prestige would remain- and as Vince says, “it can’t be fair that a teacher or care worker or research scientist is expected to pay the same graduate contribution as a top commercial lawyer or surgeon or City analyst whose graduate premium is so much bigger”.

4. It would starve universities of the money they need now because the returns come in down the line.

Vince Cable described this problem as “soluble”. He’s right. In our model the Higher Education trust would be empowered to issue bonds on the market, or to other investors, set against future revenues. It would also be empowered to operate an ‘opt-out’ scheme whereby the graduate contribution is waived where a student agrees to pay the ‘maximum’ amount to the trust in advance. These devices allow the money from graduate contributions to be ‘brought forward’, mitigating the risk of a gap in resources for institutions.

5. This is a huge threat to university autonomy who should receive the fees or contributions from their own graduates.

We prize academic freedom and autonomy in the UK, but to conflate these concepts with the student contribution system is dangerous and disingenuous. NUS wants to see a system where research is properly funded and excellence recognised, but that won’t be delivered through a market in prestige where the rich institutions get richer and vice versa.

6. A pure market in fees will make Universities more efficient and drive down prices.

There is no evidence from any other country that a market in Higher Education would work this way- and in fact most other countries’ evidence points to the opposite. The average annual tuition fee at a private university in the US currently stands at $26,273. That’s just tuition- before we add in books, living expenses etc. There is also no evidence at all that the “market” improves quality or that there is any link between the quality of teaching and the price paid. For a detailed look at the role of the “market” in HE, see http://www.nus.org.uk/PageFiles/3115/Brokeandbroken.pdf

What a “real” graduate tax would look like.

Following Vince Cable’s comments on a proposed “Graduate Tax” in July, a debate has emerged about what a “Graduate Tax” or “Graduate Contribution” scheme might look like. Some voices would like to see a mere ‘rebranding’ of the existing fee/loan regime; others want more developed structures including much more use of the private sector in providing student finance.

A truly progressive graduate contribution must meet, in our view, five tests. No system that lacks any of these five features can properly claim to be progressive, and may well represent a more basic reform of, or simply a new representation of, the current system.

As the body that first introduced the notion of a ‘progressive graduate contribution’ into the debate alongside a clear and fully costed proposal for how it could be put into practice, we thought it would be worthwhile to issue a statement defining the key characteristics of such as system.

The ‘five tests’:

1. End the market in course or university prices- it puts students off

There should be no ‘sticker price’ variation between institutions or courses, and direct price variation should be actively barred within the system. This ensures that students choose courses for the right reasons and ensures equality of opportunity at the point of use.

2. Ensure that graduates on low pay don’t pay; and set a maximum for high earners

There should be a lower threshold of earnings below which no payments are collected, balanced by an overall, single maximum amount that any person can pay in total. This ensures fair and proportionate treatment for both low and high earning graduates.

3. Only charge students a percentage of their earnings for a fixed period- it’s progressive

Payment should be made at a fixed percentage of earnings above a threshold1 for a fixed period. This ensures simplicity for users and also ensures that graduates with sustained high earnings pay the most overall, while those with sustained low earnings pay very little.

4. Don’t given the money to the state- ringfence it in a trust

Money collected should flow into a trust or other body that is controlled by the higher education sector, which is legally independent of government and accountable to Parliament. The trust or other body should itself determine the rules for distributing its funds to institutions. This ensures hypothecation of resources to the higher education sector at a high level2 and ensures that overall control and shared responsibility lies within the sector.

5. Issue bonds to ensure that universities get the cash they need now

The trust or other body should be empowered to issue bonds on the market, or to other investors, set against future revenues3. It should be empowered to operate an ‘opt-out’ scheme whereby the graduate contribution is waived where a student agrees to pay the ‘maximum’ amount to the trust in advance. These devices allow the money from graduate contributions to be ‘brought forward’, mitigating the risk of a gap in resources for institutions.


1. That is, above a threshold as per point 3; i.e. the contribution rate itself is fixed but the contribution as a proportion of all earnings is variable.

2. There is considerable suspicion about hypothecation of resources within the sector, and we recognise that hypothecation can never be guaranteed absolutely, as even structures set out in statute law may be changed. The structure we propose would be no more or less hypothecated than the resource flows involved in the BBC or the Child Support Agency.

3. The ideal investors in such a bond would be pension schemes in either the private or public sector (these schemes require investments that are long-term, stable and secure, with predictable resource flows, over and above large returns). This raises interesting possibilities for ‘inter-generational equity’ between graduates and pensioners.

Tragic loss of former VC Prof Alan Gilbert

28 Jul

I was very sad to hear about the death of the University of Manchester’s inaugural President and Vice Chancellor, Professor Alan Gilbert, yesterday, less than a month into his retirement. I worked closely with Alan over the past year and I was impressed by the genuine commitment he showed to improving students’ lives, and how ready he was to listen to and work with the Students’ Union on a range of issues. My most enduring memory of him is from the landmark Senate meeting he chaired in February, where the controversial (and very student-friendly) feedback policy was introduced: despite clearly being unwell, he chaired the meeting with his trademark iron fist and ensured all sides got their say (particularly the Students’ Union, for which I was grateful and took full and outspoken advantage)! What’s more, he brooked no nonsense from certain factions at Senate trying to delay a policy created by and for students on a technicality, and stood up as strongly for students as myself and Gabriel did.

The student body and Professor Gilbert had their ups and downs: the initial post-merger focus on research over teaching caused some upset amongst students, well symbolised by the occupation of the Arthur Lewis building in 2007, but Alan also introduced his President’s Review of Undergraduate Education in 2007 and rewrote the University’s strategic plan to place the student experience on an equal footing with research. It was Alan’s vision that made the feedback policy possible, and Alan’s voice calling for a more personalised learning experience, i.e. smaller group teaching and actually having academics who know your name. As well as driving Manchester’s reputation up and up the league tables, Alan Gilbert should be remembered by the students of Manchester as someone who listened to students and expended huge amounts of personal energy to spearhead a culture change to ensure that students receive the best quality education they can. Culture change is a long-term goal, and we’ve had some quick wins already (feedback, academic advisers), but Alan Gilbert’s legacy will stay with us for years to come and his vision will be especially important to keep in focus in testing financial times.

On behalf of the Students’ Union, I’d like to offer our sincere condolences to Professor Gilbert’s family, and pay tribute to him for the work he did at the University of Manchester to improve students’ lives.

The "Feedback Senate" in February 2010

New Vice-Chancellor continues pro-student agenda

8 Jul
The best bit of Crewe

The nicer part of Crewe

I know, it’s been a while since I posted a blog. Bad form, Kate, bad form. I have a legitimate excuse, though: since the last blog I’ve relocated to south Cheshire (a pleasant-sounding euphemism for Crewe, renowned for its train museum and high rate of teenage pregnancy) and completed handover to the new Union Executive team, so life’s fairly exciting for me at the moment. We’re also entering exciting times for the University of Manchester, with new Vice Chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell taking over last week to steer the university through increasingly challenging financial waters. Nancy’s been Deputy VC for three years, and has been actively interested and engaged with the previous VC Alan Gilbert’s efforts to improve the student experience, despite having a research-focused remit at the time.

Because Professor Gilbert was ill for much of last year, Dame Nancy filled in for him on many of his visits to Schools. Every year the VC goes round to Schools and talks to the staff, to find out what’s going on on the ground, and this year she met with students as well. I think this is a great idea and I hope it continues: not only does Nancy get a feel for what ordinary students think, but it shows a willingness to listen to and engage with students in a way that university senior managements (is that the correct plural? It is now) are only learning to do. Here’s what Nancy said about her meetings with students in the most recent Senate, the University’s highest academic decision-making body:

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell

“Without exception I have been impressed by the maturity of the students that we have met and how constructive they have been in suggesting improvements for the future. They have made a number of very positive comments about their School in general and often go out of their way to praise the personal commitments of individual staff members. However, the meetings with students confirm that there is still some way to go and in some places students have related wholly unacceptable practices…students want to know that they are listened to and that the staff care about them and their progression. They do not have unreasonable expectations.”

You can also watch a webcast of her open meeting with staff here (begins around 7 and a half minutes in). A great quote which really sums up the shift in the culture of the University is around 23 minutes in:

“I will not tolerate the acceptance that teaching is unimportant or of lesser importance than research. And I would even go so far as to say, even if there are outstanding researchers in the University who do not feel they want to be, or should have any association with students, then I suggest that they might be better working in a research institute.”

Those of you who know Manchester’s history may know that from its creation in 2004 from the ashes of the Victoria University of Manchester and UMIST, the University’s main strategic focus was research. For several years, teaching, learning and the student experience were secondary to the research output of the University. This has changed recently, however, as more emphasis has been put upon student satisfaction ratings like the National Student Survey, in which Manchester performs poorly; as well as the introduction of top-up fees shifting the bulk of universities’ income towards teaching-related activity. Alan Gilbert began his President’s Review of Undergraduate Education in 2007, and since then the quality of the student experience has been pushed higher and higher up the University’s agenda (although it is worth noting that it is Goal 2 in the University’s Strategic Plan, behind research). It is encouraging to see such a smooth transition between Vice Chancellors, and I am glad that Nancy has put the same emphasis on teaching quality, personalised learning and student support that Alan did in his last few years here. Some rather cynical colleagues at other Unions speculate that UMSU’s good relationship with senior management will start to ebb after the QAA’s audit visit in April (they come every six years to audit each university’s teaching provision), but I hope that the Union and the University’s most senior staff will continue to work together as critical friends to achieve great things for students for many years to come.

Our new and enthusiastic General Secretary

Finally, a quick plug for our new General Secretary, Sarah Wakefield: her weekly blog gives you an overview of issues facing the Union generally, as well as a taste of what life is like as a busy sabbatical officer! It’s not education-focused but it may be of interest to all you Union hacks…;)


Until next time…

Which one's Nancy and which one's me or Sarah is up to you!

Vote for Students: Tuition Fees and the General Election

4 Jun
The NUS  Pledge

The NUS Pledge

In the dark days of Labour government, before the General Election brought the shiny new coalition into office, the National Union of Students ran a huge campaign called “Vote for Students“. I hope some of you will have heard about it – I sent enough annoying emails and Facebook invites round! The campaign linked the issue of tuition fees to the General Election, asking prospective MPs to sign a pledge saying they would vote against any rise in fees, and asking students to sign up to vote for candidates who signed the pledge. It was very successful: over 1500 parliamentary candidates signed the pledge, and tens of thousands of students were notified on polling day which of their local candidates had agreed to vote against a rise in fees.

Now there are over 150 MPs in Parliament, including all 57 Liberal Democrat MPs, who have expressed their opposition to higher tuition fees and, crucially, have promised to do something about it. Now we have to keep the pressure on: we need to make sure MPs that signed the pledge actually stick to it, and we should try to get as many who haven’t yet signed to do so. Lord Browne’s review of university funding is due to report in the autumn and is expected to recommend higher fees, so we need to act now if we want to stop students being forced to bear even more debt than the average £23,500 they graduate with now.

There are many reasons why raising tuition fees should not be the answer Lord Browne comes up with in October. Forcing students into massive debt would undoubtedly discourage poorer students from applying, effectively pricing the poor out of education. A more marketised system would also create “tiers” of universities, with those perceived as “elite” able to charge much more than, say, former polytechnics. This means that Oxbridge and the Russell Group (including the University of Manchester) would become even more exclusive of poorer students than they already are, and universities would serve to broaden class divides rather than to create a more fair and just society. Britain also spends much less on higher education as a percentage of GDP than comparator countries such as France and the US: we spend 1.1% compared to America’s 2.9%. Also, an increase in student fees would have to be matched by a huge increase in government-subsidised loans which would take decades to see any return from: not only is raising fees socially unjust, but it would put a massive strain on higher education budgets in a time of recession and cutbacks, and seems to make no economic sense. We need these arguments to be made in the Houses of Parliament, and you can help me and NUS to get them heard.

I sent letters today to the MPs for Manchester Central, Gorton and Withington, where the majority of our students live, asking to meet them to discuss higher education funding. John Leech MP (Lib Dem, Withington) and Sir Gerald Kaufman (Lab, Gorton) signed the pledge before the election. Tony Lloyd (Lab, Central) did not sign the pledge. If your MP signed the pledge, write to them and urge them to uphold it. If they didn’t, ask them to consider signing it. You can find out who your MP is and contact them easily at http://www.writetothem.com/. If you need any resources or a bit more background, check out the NUS website or drop me an email at academic@umsu.manchester.ac.uk.

Oh, and to continue the lolcat theme: here’s one I made earlier.

Welcome to Education@Manchester!

1 Jun

It's me!


Welcome to the new Education@Manchester blog, which aims to do what it says on the tin and give you news, updates and opinions from me, your elected representative, on a broad range of issues concerning your education here at the University of Manchester. I’m Kate Little, the Academic Affairs Officer at the Students’ Union, and my full-time job is to represent all students at the University on anything education-related. Drop me an email at academic@umsu.manchester.ac.uk.

First, a slap on the wrist for your Academic Affairs Officer…

Dental School podcast...something to get your teeth into

Throughout the past year, I’ve sat on innumerable review panels looking in detail at what Schools within the University of Manchester are doing for their students. Some recommendations I’ve made have been very specific to the School I’m scrutinising at the time, but others seem to have a much broader application. One recommendation I’ve made in nearly every review meeting in the last year has been the importance of communicating with students. I’ve often pointed well-meaning staff in the direction of Nick Grey, the former Head of Dentistry (now moving on and up to better things as Associate Dean in his Faculty), whose use of technology to communicate with dental students has been groundbreaking within the University. (You can check out his blog here: Dick & Nick’s podcast is especially good).

So for a year I’ve been advising assorted academics about the benefits of blogging, whilst not actually doing so myself. Naughty Kate. I’ve decided to practice what I preach, put my money where my mouth is, walk the talk and pile on the cliches by starting what I hope will be an informative, thought-provoking and (dare I say it) even occasionally entertaining regular blog about education at the University of Manchester.

So what’s going to be in it, then?

Well, I can’t predict the future: what’s in this blog entirely depends upon what happens over the next year. I hope to cover issues specifically relevant to students at the University of Manchester, possibly with spotlights on certain Schools or certin topics, e.g. feedback, guidance on appeals, academic advisers, contact time, etc. This year is, however, a crucial one for higher education nationally: where and how the new coalition government places its cuts will impact directly on students; applications to university are at their highest level to date, and how this is dealt with will be of great concern to many students; and of course Lord Browne’s review of tuition fees and university funding is due to report in autumn 2010 so you can expect a fair amount of coverage of that sort of thing. I’ll try and keep a healthy mix of national and local topics, and try even harder not to bore you with the details of my three-hour committee meetings and 80-page reports to read!

And some food for thought…

John Stuart Mill, liberal legend

This article in the New Statesman takes a good look at the purpose of higher education and quotes one of my liberal heroes, John Stuart Mill (yes, I’m a political philosophy geek). In England we’ve never much gone for the idea of a “broad liberal education”: we’ve stuck with mostly single subject courses, often leading into a specific career. This notion of a very subject-specific education ties in well with the increasing emphasis upon education for employability’s sake, as outlined by (Dark) Lord Mandelson in Higher Ambitions, but could be said to ignore the original purpose of higher education as outlined by Schwarz (2003) – that of “making Britain a more open, more just and fairer place to live”. In order to achieve this, it would seem that everybody should study a little philosophy, a drop of ethics, a pinch of social theory, a touch of economics, a bit of history –  in order to put their own subject in the context of the world in which they live.

Our soon-to-be-retired Vice Chancellor, Alan Gilbert, endorsed this view of higher education as more than simply a means to an end and wanted to introduce some elements of a broad liberal education into every Manchester degree. Sadly, ill health prevented him from pursuing this concept, but I’m sure the topic will be raised again. To chuck in my own two cents, I’m aware that over 50% of university applicants cite improving their employability as the main factor behind applying (NUS/HSBC Student Experience Report 2008) so HE must be seen at least in part as instrumental to getting a better job; however I do feel that the original purpose of ensuring a fair, just and open society should be given more credence than it currently is. Let’s hope that the Liberal Democrats in the new coalition remember their liberal roots when looking at how to fund higher education.

Oh, and p.s.: my housemate said this was too long not to include a lolcat. Have a topical, higher education related one, and remember:

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