Closing the race attainment gap: a new report aims to help universities move forward

Image: Universities UK

On the face of it, the UK’s university sector is an international success story. UK universities attract global talent, valuable income and investment, produce world-leading research, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and improve people’s everyday lives in countless ways. Britain’s universities are also more racially and culturally diverse than ever before.

But a recent report has shone a spotlight on fundamental barriers to racial equality at UK universities, indicating that a student’s race and ethnicity can significantly affect their degree outcomes. The Universities UK (UUK) / National Union of Students (NUS) report highlights significant gaps in attainment between white students and their black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) peers, finding that 81% of white students graduated with first and upper second class honours in 2017/18, compared to just 68% of BAME students. That’s an attainment gap of 13%.

The report echoes findings from the Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator for higher education in England. Earlier this year, the OfS reported stark gaps in achievement for black students, and also found that higher numbers of BAME students were dropping out of university before completing their courses.

Why are BAME students not doing as well at university compared with their white counterparts?

The UUK/NUS research identified four factors that are contributing to the attainment gap:

  1. Varying degrees of satisfaction among different student groups with the higher education curricula, and with the user-friendliness of learning, teaching and assessment practices.
  2. Relationships between staff and students and among students: a sense of ‘belonging’ emerged as a key determinant of student outcomes.
  3. Recurring differences in how students experience higher education, how they network and how they draw on external support were noted. Students’ financial situations also affect their student experience and their engagement with learning.
  4. The extent to which students feel supported and encouraged in their daily interactions within their institutions and with staff members was found to be a key variable.

 How universities can improve outcomes

As part of its research, UUK and NUS engaged with students, the higher education sector and external organisations to identify the most significant steps needed for success in reducing attainment differentials:

  1. Strong leadership – university leaders and senior managers need to demonstrate a commitment to removing the BAME attainment gap and lead by example.
  2. Having conversations about race and changing the culture – universities and students need more opportunities to have open, meaningful and constructive conversations about race, racism and what is causing the attainment gap.
  3. Developing racially diverse and inclusive environments – A greater focus is needed from across the sector, working with their students, on ensuring that BAME students have a good sense of belonging at their university, and an understanding of how a poor sense of belonging might be contributing to low levels of engagement and progression to postgraduate study.
  4. Assess the existing mix of data and evidence used to understand the causes of the attainment gap – The sector needs to take a more scientific approach to tackling the attainment gap, gathering and scrutinising data in a far more comprehensive way than currently, in order to inform discussions among university leaders, academics, practitioners and students.

The report also provides a checklist to help university senior leaders to move forward with their own strategies. Among the actions on the checklist are:

  • consider whether coaching, development opportunities or programmes are needed to give leaders the confidence to talk about race and take a leading role in opening conversations.
  • consider mechanisms for recognising (and perhaps rewarding) staff and students who press for the removal of racial inequalities.
  • take responsibility for ensuring that appropriate resources are dedicated to removing the attainment gap, including for any appropriate tailored interventions, research and expertise in data analysis.

Learning from what works

Another important recommendation in the report is that universities should share and learn from evidence of what works and what does not. Case studies throughout the report demonstrate that higher education institutions across the country are trying to close the attainment gap:

The University of Manchester and the university’s students’ union have been working in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Birmingham to deliver a Diversity and Inclusion Student Ambassador Programme to tackle the causes of differential outcomes for BAME undergraduate students and those from low socio-economic groups. Key features include creation of safe spaces, where students and staff can engage in open dialogue on inclusive learning and teaching environments, academic support and well-being; and training student ambassadors to safely challenge racism, microaggressions and discrimination.

Intercultural awareness workshops have helped students at Glasgow Caledonian University to develop a better understanding of different cultural norms and values. The programme provides a baseline for first-year students to develop their understanding and recognise the unconscious bias that exists within global academic, social and working environments. It has already won a Student Engagement Award and been shortlisted for an NUS Scotland 2019 diversity award.

The University of Arts London has developed a data dashboard – the academic enhancement model (AEM) – which gives accessible information to course teams about all aspects of the student experience and differentials. The AEM is a cross-university approach to removing attainment differentials, based on agreed data thresholds for attainment and student satisfaction scores. Courses that fall below these thresholds work with AEM leads to create co-designed AEM support packages. The approach has contributed to UAL’s success in tackling attainment issues: in 2018, the university saw a 4.9% reduction in its BAME attainment gap.

Closing the gap, reaping the rewards

The report has united universities and students in highlighting the race attainment gap, understanding the reasons behind it and tackling the problem.

Baroness Amos, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), who co-led the report, said: “Our universities are racially and culturally diverse, compared to many other sectors, but we are failing a generation of students if we don’t act now to reduce the BAME attainment gap. Amatey Doku, NUS vice-president for higher education, added that for far too long universities had presided over significant gaps in attainment between BAME students and white students. “From decolonising the curriculum to more culturally competent support services, many students and students’ unions have been fighting and campaigning for action in this area for years.

Now that the issue has been raised, it’s up to universities to take action so that all students – whatever their background – are given every opportunity to reap the many rewards that higher education can bring.


If you’re interested in developments in higher education, take a look at our recent blog posts on the subject:

Digital Leaders Week: Closing the digital divide

Today, in our final Digital Leaders Week blog post, we’re looking at the issue of digital inclusion.

As you look around, it may seem as if everyone is online. In the street, on the bus, in cafes and shops, most people seem to be glued to their smartphones. But a number of articles on our blog have highlighted the digital divide in society, between those who have access to digital technologies and those who don’t.

In 2018, we focused on digital exclusion among young people:

“One of the biggest myths of modern times is that all children and young people are ‘digital natives’. That is, they have developed an understanding of digital technologies as they’ve grown up, rather than as adults. But this view has been heavily contested, with research highlighting that young people are not a “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

Our blog went on to highlight research by Carnegie Trust UK which found that as many as 300,000 young people in the UK lack basic digital skills.

Schools and local authorities have been tackling digital exclusion in a number of interesting initiatives. We’ve reported on a ‘bring your own device’ scheme in secondary schools in Inverclyde, where children were encouraged to work in pairs or groups to help with communication, partnership working and sharing of knowledge. Another project – BBC Micro: Bit gave children the opportunity to learn how to code.

Recently, a new project was launched to ensure young people have equal access to digital technologies. During 2019, Digital Access for All (DAFA) will be working on a series of pilots to test out different ways of improving digital access for children and young people.

As our blog underlined, addressing digital exclusion among young people is crucial for their future development.

“Failure to tackle the issues of integrating “digital” successfully into the curriculum, and digital exclusion in schools and at home could also have serious implications. If a significant portion of the next generation is digitally excluded this potentially puts them at a significant disadvantage in terms of employment and further education.

However, the digital divide is not confined to the younger generations. This month, new research has shown that one-fifth of the population do not have foundational digital skills, such as using an internet browser or connecting a device to a wi-fi network. Nearly one in ten of the population have zero digital skills.

There are good reasons why people dislike going online, such as concerns about security and affordability. But being “digitally disadvantaged” matters because it can exclude individuals from earnings, employability, communications and retail transactions benefits. As government moves increasingly towards a digital by default position, the need for everyone to improve their digital skills will become more important.

A lot of work is going on to address digital exclusion, including research into its causes, funding initiatives and training programmes. Local government is also playing its part.

In 2017, the London Borough of Croydon was named Digital Council of the Year at the Local Government Chronicle (LGC) Awards – a showcase event for sharing innovation and improvement in local government. Among the initiatives that impressed the judges was Go ON Croydon, which aimed to help people struggling with technology or lacking digital skills.

“The Go ON Croydon project was introduced to support the 85,000 people in Croydon who do not have basic digital skills. Reaching out to organisations such as community and faith groups, this year-long programme set out to highlight and promote the council’s digital skills initiatives. One scheme promoted by the project was digital zones.  Staffed by volunteer digital champions and located in banks or retail stores, these physical spaces provided places where people could go to have their questions answered and to improve their basic skills.”

The Go ON Croydon project clearly made an impact, with digital skills levels in Croydon increasing from 70% to 79% within one year.

Throughout this Digital Leaders Week, we’ve highlighted just some of the ways in which the public, private and third sectors are working to help people make the most of the tremendous opportunities presented by digital technologies.

Digital doesn’t have all the answers, but it does provide examples of good practice from which organisations, communities and individuals can learn. As we enter a new “fourth industrial revolution”, where artificial intelligence, automation and robotics become more commonplace, our blog will continue to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities presented by digital.


Some of our recent articles on digital technologies include:

To read more of our digital-themed blog posts, follow this link.

Digital Leaders Week: Digital government – looking beyond Britain

 

Image: Digital Leaders

This week, the Knowledge Exchange blog is marking Digital Leaders Week with a look back at some of our digital-themed blog posts from the past, and focusing on more recent digital developments.

Our blog has often taken an international view of digital transformation, looking for lessons that might be learned from cities and countries around the world that have been leading the way in making the most of digital technologies in society.

Singapore is one country that has been blazing a trail in digital readiness, and in October 2015, we reported on the city-state’s efforts to ensure that more and more government services could be delivered electronically.

Among the earliest innovations was eCitizen – a first-stop portal for government information and services:

“When the portal was first introduced it pioneered the concept of cross-agency, citizen-centric government services, where users transact with ‘one government’ (the ability to access several government services via the one website).”

That was impressive enough, but, as the Smart Nation website explains, Singapore has continued to explore how digital innovation can improve citizens’ lives. From assistive technology and robotics in healthcare and environmental news updates to autonomous vehicles and an app linking parents and schools, Singapore’s digital revolution is transforming the way its citizens live, work and play.

Closer to home, Estonia has been leading the way on digital government. Our blog post from August 2015 reported on the country’s pioneering approach:

“In Estonia, digital has become the norm, and most government services can now be completed online. They have managed to find a way of creating partnerships between the government, a very proactive ICT sector and the citizens of Estonia. As a result, the country of just 1.3 million people has become a leader in digital government.”

The article went on to highlight some of the key elements in Estonia’s approach to digital government:

  • An ID card (installed on a mobile phone), providing every citizen with secure and instant access to online services such as internet banking and public transport.
  • A national register providing a single unique identifier for all citizens and residents in Estonia.
  • Estonian government services, including verification of citizens’ identities, enabling them to vote in e-elections. Once a voter’s identity has been verified, the connecting digital signature is separated from the vote. This allows the vote to be anonymous.

In 2017, Wired magazine called Estonia “the most advanced digital society in the world.” And with good reason:

“Estonians have complete control over their personal data. The portal you can access with your identity card gives you a log of everyone who has accessed it. If you see something you do not like – a doctor other than your own looking at your medical records, for instance – you can click to report it to the data ombudsman. A civil servant then has to justify the intrusion. Meanwhile, parliament is designed to be paperless: laws are even signed into effect with a digital signature on the president’s tablet. And every draft law is available to the public to read online, at every stage of the legislative process; a complete breakdown of the substance and authorship of every change offers significant transparency over lobbying and potential corruption.”

Our blog noted that there were lessons for the UK to be learned from the Estonian experience:

“…it’s clear that when government, the private sector and citizens come together, it is possible to create a society that is digitally connected.”


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Good enough is not enough: International Making Place Conference

International Making Place Conference, Glasgow. Image: Jason Kimmings

There is now a growing body of evidence to indicate that our physical environment – the places where we live, work and socialise – affects our health and wellbeing and contributes to creating or reducing inequalities. But even without the research, it’s plain to see how a neighbourhood with lots of facilities for pedestrians and cyclists, a choice of shops and good public transport connections could benefit health in ways that one with an excess of pubs, fast food shops and car traffic would not.

The importance of place-based approaches to improving health and reducing inequalities was the theme of an international conference held in Glasgow last week.

The venue for the conference – Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket building – is a shining example of how a great place can be repurposed and reinvented. Originally a wholesale fruit market, the building has been reborn as a unique setting for cultural and business events, but has retained many of its original features, including a lofty vaulted roof and a cast iron balcony.

David Crichton, Chair NHS Scotland
Image: Jason Kimmings

Facing up to the challenge of place

In his introduction, David Crichton, Chair of NHS Scotland, pointed to the sobering statistics that throw the importance of place into sharp focus. He noted that while the health of Scotland’s population was generally improving, people living in 10% of the country’s poorest areas are four times more likely to die prematurely than those in more prosperous places. The city of Glasgow knows all too well about these stark health inequities. A person living in the deprived area of Calton has an average life expectancy of 54 years, while someone growing up in affluent Lenzie, just 12km away can expect to live to 82.

Glasgow Lord Provost Eva Bolander
Image: Jason Kimmings

Glasgow’s Lord Provost, Eva Bolander, acknowledged the challenges facing the city, but also noted that Glasgow is at the vanguard of place making. The city council’s Avenues Project aims to transform 17 key streets, prioritising space for cyclists and pedestrians, introducing sustainable green infrastructure and improving public transport connections. Glasgow is also investing £20m in its Community Hubs programme to bring multiple support services together in areas experiencing high levels of poverty.

Aileen Campbell, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, highlighted projects such as Clyde Gateway in Glasgow and the Bellsbank Initiative in East Ayrshire as successful examples of placemaking. Their success, said the minister, lies in focusing on what’s important to the people and communities of these areas, with the support of government and local authorities.

This international conference also heard from Monika Kosinska from the World Health Organisation, who noted that the problems facing Scotland are not unique. Around the world, countries and communities are experiencing the challenges associated with ageing populations and health inequalities. In this sense, she observed, all countries are developing countries.

Sir Harry Burns
Image: Jason Kimmings

A sense of coherence

The World Health Organisation’s assertion that health is a complete state of wellbeing, not merely the absence of disease, was at the heart of a powerful presentation delivered by Sir Harry Burns, Director of Global Public Health at the University of Strathclyde.

His research has underlined that poverty is not the result of bad choices. The real problem is that, without a sense of coherence and purpose, people are not in a position to make good choices.

As Sir Harry explained, a child experiencing chaotic early years (featuring parental substance abuse and/or domestic violence) is already on a path to mental health problems which can culminate in a loss of control and long periods of worklessness and poverty. But the implications can be even more serious: “The more adverse experiences you have as a child, the more likely you are to have a heart attack.”

A eureka moment for Sir Harry Burns occurred when he read a book by an American sociologist. Aaron Antonovsky spent the latter half of his career in Israel studying adults who as children had been in concentration camps. He found that the children who survived had developed what he termed a “sense of coherence” – a feeling of confidence that one has the internal resources to meet the challenges of life, and that these challenges are worth engaging with.

That sense of coherence, Sir Harry believes, lies in giving people in poverty greater control over their own resources: “People who have a sense of purpose, control and self esteem are more positive and secure about the places they live in, and a greater ability to make the right choices.”

He concluded that rather than being passive recipients of services, all of us have to be given the opportunity to become active agents in our own lives: “‘Ask people to take control of their lives, build their trust, and people can make choices that support their health. We must create places that do that’.

Woodside Health Centre
Image: Jason Kimmings

Placemaking in action

This theme of active engagement in placemaking was demonstrated during a site visit to a new health centre in Woodside, one of the most deprived parts of Glasgow. The aim of the new health centre is to reshape health services from the patient’s point of view, helping them to manage their own health and improve the care they receive. The new centre will bring together GP services, along with dental, pharmacy and physiotherapy services.

The health centre and its surroundings have been created by engaging with the local community. Using ideas from local people, the exterior of the building features designs reflecting the natural and industrial history of the area. Natural light from large windows in the roof floods the centre of the interior, giving a sense of brightness and tranquility, while wooden slats feature designs linking the centre with natural features nearby.

Claypits Local Nature Reserve. Image: Jason Kimmings

That connection with the natural environment will be reinforced with the development of a community green space close to the new health centre. The Forth and Clyde Canal is just a few minutes’ walk from the health centre, and a new foot and cycle bridge linking the centre to the local nature reserve is under construction. Other features will include new and improved pathways and new wildlife habitats. The natural space is already attracting walkers, joggers, families and cyclists, and local people report feeling they can now visit this area in greater safety than ever before.

Mark Beaumont and Glasgow Disability Alliance. Image: Jason Kimmings

The Place Standard

One of the threads running through this conference was the Place Standard, a practical tool developed in Scotland to help communities assess and redesign their own places.

For the final session of the afternoon, round-the-world cyclist Mark Beaumont introduced members of the Glasgow Disability Alliance (GDA) who shared results from their day as the Place Making Team using The Place Standard Tool. The results highlighted some of the elements of place that are important to people with disabilities – but also to others: lack of accessible toilets, poor transport links, networking events with no seating, inaccessible information, no social care support.

Final thoughts

This conference provided some important ideas on what’s wrong with our places, and some examples of places that are getting it right. And even for those that are on the right track, everyone was left with a clear message: when it comes to placemaking, good enough is not enough!

Merchant City, Glasgow
Image: Jason Kimmings

Digital Leaders Week: Digital transformation in local government

Image: Digital Leaders

Today is the start of Digital Leaders Week, a celebration of the opportunities and challenges for the digital transformation of Britain’s businesses, public services and society.

Here at the Knowledge Exchange blog, we’ve been taking a keen interest in digital developments in both the public and private sector. To celebrate Digital Leaders Week, we’re revisiting some of our digital-themed blog posts from the past, and bringing you up to date on current developments.

Several articles on our blog have highlighted the potential of digital technologies as drivers of internal transformation and improved service delivery in local government.

In May 2016, we looked at the benefits of digital for local authorities, noting that research by Nesta and the Public Service Transformation Network had suggested local councils could save £14.7 billion by moving all transactional services online and digitising back office functions. This echoed the findings of Policy Exchange, which reported that £10 billion could be saved by councils making smarter use of data and technology.

But another article on our blog also pointed to some of the reasons why local government was struggling to develop digital strategies, including limited infrastructure, red tape and funding issues:

“In theory, providing technical solutions to local government services should provide long term efficiencies. Yet, in an era of constrained budgets, finding the initial capital for digital projects can be challenging. Leaders in councils trying to fund social care services and schools may not view digital as a priority.”

Further blog posts have indicated that some councils are overcoming the barriers to digital change:

“For example, Cambridge City Council have launched Cambridgeshire Insight, a shared research knowledge base which allows over 20 public and third sector organisations to publish their data and make it freely available. We have also seen 18 councils coming together to collaborate on a project which aims to keep electoral registers up-to-date, potentially saving £20 million a year.”

Today, more councils are embracing the challenges and opportunities of digital. A good example comes from Adur & Worthing Councils, which believes that digital inclusion can greatly improve the lives of local people. Among the digital services now offered by Adur & Worthing is an online payments facility. In addition, online access points enable residents to get up-to-date information on important issues such as council tax, recycling, public transport and cultural events.

Another example is Nottingham City Council’s workflow management app, introduced to replace an inefficient paper-based system:

“The new app allows staff from customer services, highway inspectors and response teams to enter faults, such as potholes or damaged street lights, directly into the system. It then automatically allocates the fault to the relevant inspector and, once the work is completed, digitally signs it off. The council has reported that the app has created £100,000 in savings in less than one year.”

However, we’ve also underlined that there’s more to digital transformation than getting the technical aspects right:

“With digital transformation, technology is less important than the vision and leadership provided by senior officials. Encouraging data sharing across organisations, empowering employees, and importantly, investing in digital services, are just some of the key ingredients.”

It’s clear that digital transformation is a journey, not a final destination, and we’ll continue to report on the ways in which local government is embracing digital technologies for the benefit of councils and citizens.

Our next Digital Leaders Week blog post, on Wednesday, looks at digital developments in Singapore and Estonia.


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Climate change: we can reclaim cities from the car without inconveniencing people

This guest blog was written by Richard Kingston, Professor of Urban Planning and GISc, University of Manchester and Ransford A. Acheampong, Presidential Academic Fellow in Future Cities, University of Manchester.

Since the 1920s, the car has revolutionised the way people travel; eliminating the constraints of distance while offering a personal, fast and convenient way to get from one place to another. Cities have been designed and built to make space for cars, and many cities which existed centuries before the advent of the car reshaped their streets to accommodate it.

The car, along with investments in major road infrastructure, has allowed people to live further away from city centres. The result has been that residential settlements can sprawl out over large areas – a perfect example is US surburbia. Yet people’s dependence on cars poses a major threat to public health and the environment.

It is estimated that there are more than a billion cars in the world. As well as driving up energy use, contributing to more than 70% of C0₂ emissions in the transport sector and reducing air quality, cars are also responsible for increasing obesity and chronic illnesses and killing more than 1.25m people around the globe every year in traffic accidents.

Cities around the world are taking steps to reduce the dominance of the car, to benefit residents and the environment. Of course, big changes in urban planning and individual behaviour are likely to take decades to accomplish. But while there’s no one plan which can work for every city, there are a few ways that authorities can reduce people’s dependence on cars, and reclaim space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.

1. Introduce car-free zones and charges

Car-free zones and charges are increasingly being adopted in cities around the world. These areas, which deter or restrict car use, can range in size and nature. In some cities, such as Copenhagen and Brussels, cars are entirely banned from parts of the city centre.

Other cities have instituted partial bans: for example, in Madrid, cars not belonging to residents are banned from the heart of the city. The entire city of Ghent, in Belgium, is car-free – but public transport, taxis and other permit holders may be allowed to drive through the city at up to five kilometres per hour. Elsewhere, like in central London, charges are applied to drivers entering during peak hours or using polluting vehicles.

To make these restrictions work, it’s crucial for city authorities to gain public support for them. The 2008 attempt to introduce what would have been the UK’s largest congestion zone in Greater Manchester was rejected in a referendum by 79% of voters on a 53.2% turnout. A number of opposition groups, involving businesses, residents and leaders of councils, mobilised to defeat the plan.

Many did not support the proposals in Manchester because they did not feel adequately consulted. Perhaps experimenting first at a much smaller scale, in the city centre, and gradually expanding to other parts of the city would also help people to accept the proposals.

2. Provide public transport alternatives

Many people living in suburbs or on the outskirts of cities might view restrictions on cars negatively, as a source of inconvenience or even a loss of freedom. An obvious way to address these concerns is to provide people with reliable, flexible and cost-effective public transit.

Adequate investments in public transit today will provide benefits in the long term. For example, evidence shows that there is an overall decreasing trend in car use in many cities across Europe, the US and Australia. A number of factors explain this trend, including the provision of public transit, having more older people who tend to drive less and the rise in fuel prices.

What’s more, young people today – especially young men – are delaying learning to drive and are less likely to own a car, compared to the generation before them. If fewer people are going to drive, then the public transport of the future needs to be affordable and accessible for both young and old.

3. Reshape the city

Significant progress towards reducing car use will be made by addressing underlying factors through urban planning. We need to build high density, mixed-use developments with affordable housing and excellent green spaces. We need to offer people the opportunity to live closer to shops, employment and recreation, thereby promoting “active” travel such as walking and cycling.

There are examples of planned and ongoing urban developments across the globe, including Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates and The Great City in China prioritising walking and public transit over cars, as well as experimenting with electric and driverless vehicles. These new developments are aiming to provide basic services within walking distance, create safe spaces for people to walk and provide public transit that uses clean energy.

Cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Malmo and Utrecht are reallocating road space from motorised to non-motorised transport and investing in new cycling infrastructure. It should not be unthinkable to have protected cycle highways connecting suburban communities to their city centres, as has been the case for cars for many decades.

So, there are a number of ways by which cities could significantly reduce car dependence and ultimately become car-free. But such policies must aim to change behaviours, as well as reshape the built environment. Both inner city and suburban residents must be able to access reliable public transport.

Above all, people want to be heard and involved in designing interventions that directly affect them. If people can own the vision and understand the benefits of the car-free city, then nothing will stand in the way of reclaiming the city from the car.


Guest post written by Richard Kingston, Professor of Urban Planning and GISc, University of Manchester and Ransford A. Acheampong, Presidential Academic Fellow in Future Cities, University of Manchester.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Five challenges facing the people who make elections happen

They’ve been called “the unsung heroes of democracy”, and in the past few years the UK’s electoral administrators have been facing unprecedented challenges that have imposed enormous strains on our voting system.

Multiple general and local elections, a new system of electoral registration, and referendums on Scottish independence and UK membership of the European Union have stretched – almost to breaking point – the resources of the country’s electoral administrators. And this year, their efforts to continue providing electoral services to the high standard they always strive for has been tested further.

Here are just five of the major challenges facing the people who deliver democracy.

1. The European Parliament Elections

It’s the poll that UK voters weren’t expecting to be part of. But because Brexit didn’t happen as planned, the UK was obliged to take part in the elections to the European Parliament.

Making elections happen is no small matter, involving months of planning and many different agencies, including central and local authorities, non-statutory bodies, partners and contractors, such as the police and postal services. Printing of ballot papers, arrangements for postal voting, booking polling stations and arranging venues for election counts are just some of the elements that need to be confirmed well in advance of polling day.

When the government confirmed in April that the UK would take part in the European Parliament elections on 23 May, this left electoral administrators with just a few weeks to organise a poll that would usually take months to prepare. Things were further complicated by unpredictable factors. Would enough staff be available to count the votes on a bank holiday weekend? And with forecasts of a higher than expected turnout, would extra ballot boxes be needed?

Initially, it looked as if the elections would be delivered smoothly. However, on Thursday morning, reports began to emerge of citizens from other EU countries being denied the right to vote. Thousands took to social media under the hashtag #deniedmyvote to complain that they had either been turned away from polling stations or barred from voting because of delays in registering them.

The Electoral Commission, which oversees UK elections, acknowledged the problems, and said the very short notice of the UK’s participation in the EU elections had significantly affected election administrators’ ability to inform and register citizens of other EU states intending to vote in the UK.

Cat Smith, the shadow minister for voter engagement highlighted the difficulties facing electoral services teams:

“This has caused havoc for electoral administrators tasked with delivering a national poll with extremely short notice.”

The Electoral Commission has promised to review the process, but its chief executive, Bob Posner, has indicated that there are broader lessons to learn:

 “We have argued for some time that the failure of governments and parliament to properly maintain and update electoral law, and to address the pressures on local authorities, has built up significant risks for well-run elections. It is time that these warnings are properly heard and acted upon.”

2. Trialling voter ID

In 2018, five areas in England piloted identity checks at polling stations. The trial followed a 2016 government-sponsored review of electoral fraud which recommended ID checks to prevent vote stealing.

Earlier this month, further pilots took place during local elections, involving 10 areas of England, including Derby, Mid Sussex, North West Leicestershire and Pendle. The trials required voters to show different types of photo ID and/or non-photo ID in order to be given a ballot paper.

The pilot schemes involved additional work for electoral administrators. Voters had to be informed well in advance of polling day about which forms of identification were valid in each area, and staff required additional training on delivering the identification requirements. In three areas voters could apply for local identification cards, while two areas used technology to scan QR codes on voters’ polling cards. Before the 2019 pilots began, two councils pulled out of the trial, with one believing it was too much work on top of a boundary review, and another expressing concerns about the time needed to inform the electorate about the changes.

Although an evaluation of the 2018 trials found that Returning Officers and their staff in polling stations were able to run the new processes without any significant problems, the Electoral Commission was not able to draw definitive conclusions on how a voter identification requirement would operate in the future across the country, or at polls with higher levels of turnout.

The authors of the report also found it impossible to say whether the requirements actually prevented attempts to commit electoral fraud at elections. Critics of Voter ID say the relatively low levels of fraud in UK elections mean identification is unnecessary, and could put some voters off – particularly the elderly, homeless and people with disabilities – if they do not have the necessary documentation.

It’s still too early to assess the impact of the 2019 trials, but a Local Government Chronicle analysis of the pilots found that almost 700 people were turned away from polling stations operating voter ID pilots and did not return.

3. Funding elections

“Administering elections requires ample resources. Administering them well requires even more”
Benjamin Highton: Political Science and Politics, January 2006

Funding arrangements for elections in the UK are highly complex, with separate personnel and operational costs for electoral registration and elections / referenda, and funding coming from local and central government. But there is surprisingly little information available about the cost of electoral services.

A 2017 University of East Anglia (UEA) study has underlined the difficulties in collecting accurate data about the budgets and spending of electoral organisations. However, the UEA survey found that, while budgets for electoral services have been rising, so too has the cost of managing these services. The authors found “strong evidence of many electoral services being financially stretched.”

Local elections and registration are funded from local authority budgets, and since 2010 they have been significantly affected by the financial restraints imposed by austerity cutbacks. At the same time, election administrators’ resources have been stretched by additional polls, as well as the introduction of a new electoral registration system.

In 2010, the Association of Electoral Administrators called on the UK government to undertake a thorough review of funding and resources required to deliver electoral services. The AEA repeated this call in 2015 and again in 2017, when it described the existing funding model as flawed:

“We remain disappointed that, despite recognising in its response to our 2015 report that general funding arrangements are an ongoing issue, the Government has failed to give any further thought as to how to address it.”

Does this matter? For those who believe elections just happen, their funding might seem of marginal importance. But when lack of resources leads to electoral mismanagement, the consequences for public confidence in democracy could be grave.

4. Improving communications about elections

The past week has underlined the importance of spreading the word to voters in order to ensure that they know when, where and how to vote in forthcoming polls.

The issue of elections communications was put in the spotlight earlier this year in a Local Government information Unit (LGiU) report.

The report focused on local elections, and expressed concern about falling turnout, suggesting that factors may include voters being unaware about candidates and their policies, difficulties in finding out local election results and a sense that local democracy is somehow “lesser democracy”.

The report went on to provide councils with tips on improving elections communications. The advice included simple guidance, such as:

  • providing photographs of preparations for elections and of the count
  • posting the results of elections on council websites
  • using social media to raise awareness about registration, voting information and other election-related information

In addition, websites such as Where Do I Vote and Who Can I Vote For can deploy council-supplied information to raise awareness about local elections and candidates – some councils are also highlighting these sites on their own websites.

The report highlighted examples of good practice. These include efforts by Kirklees Council to convey the many different aspects of delivering local democracy, and the inventive use of infographics by Coventry City Council to display election results quickly and clearly.

These techniques are all helpful in raising awareness about the opportunity to take part in decisions that could affect the way we are governed at local and national levels. As the LGiU report concludes:

“Proactive, open and transparent communication about elections does not guarantee active engagement with local government, but it is the essential base on which we build democratic involvement.”

5. Enabling blind / partially sighted people to vote

A functioning democracy is one where anyone entitled to vote is able to vote – and that includes people with disabilities.

Earlier this year, a High Court decision highlighted the difficulties facing blind and partially-sighted people when they enter a polling station.

The ruling concerned a tactile voting device (TVD), a transparent plastic overlay that fits on top of the ballot paper, with cut-out sections for the voter to mark their vote. However, even with the device, blind or partially sighted voters still require assistance to read the names on the ballots. The High Court ruling, delivered earlier this month, said the provision of a TVD “does not in any realistic sense enable that person to vote”, and described it as “a parody of the electoral process”.

The challenge is to find and implement a solution that allows blind people to vote independently, while maintaining the secrecy of the ballot. Elsewhere, new technology has been used, such as a telephone dictation system in New Zealand and a combination of audio and braille systems in Germany.

Perhaps the most effective solution would be a web-based system, enabling all voters to cast their votes online. But the UK government has been reluctant to introduce electronic voting because of concerns about fraud and security.

In the meantime, 350,000 people in the UK who are blind or partially sighted are waiting for the day when they can vote independently and in secret, just like the rest of the electorate.

Final thoughts

Former prime minister Harold Wilson once observed that a week is a long time in politics. The truth of that statement has been brought home in the past seven days, which has seen another attempt to break the Brexit deadlock in parliament, significant results in the European Parliament elections, and the announcement of the current prime minister’s resignation.

Interesting times lie ahead, and it’s not out of the question that the UK’s electoral administrators could soon be called upon once again to help voters play their part in shaping the country’s political future. Unsung heroes they may be, but our democracy depends on them.


Idox Elections is one of the premier election service providers in the UK, providing outstanding expertise and knowledge across all areas of election management. Find out more here.

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Out of the classroom and into the world: the changing face of teaching in higher education

Since 2017, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) has assessed the quality of undergraduate teaching in England’s higher education providers. The TEF rates universities as Gold, Silver or Bronze, and was introduced by the government which felt that universities were too focused on research.

It’s still too soon to say what the impact of the TEF will be on universities or student choice. One commentator believes it will “…lead to distorted results, misleading rankings and a system which lacks validity and is unnecessarily vulnerable to being gamed.” Others see TEF as the opportunity to drive a culture shift in teaching, resulting in “…innovative ways of teaching, more workshops and closer relationships with industry and the communities in which they were based.”

In any case, TEF may prompt universities to rethink their approach to teaching, adopting new ideas on everything from flipped learning to the learning space itself.

Powerhouses for the knowledge economy

“Higher education, is faced with the challenge of preparing itself to fulfill its mission adequately in a world in transformation and to meet the needs and requirements of 21st century society, which will be a society of knowledge, information technology and education”.

When those words first appeared, twenty-one years ago, in a UNESCO conference report, we were only beginning to get an inkling of the dramatic changes that were about to transform the face of higher education.

Since then, the knowledge economy has mushroomed, powered by a new wave of digital technologies. Automation, robotics, digital technology, the internet of things and artificial intelligence are now driving what’s known as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Some have suggested that the impact of these changes on universities may be as profound as the effect of printing on medieval monasteries.

In many ways, higher education has risen to the challenges of the knowledge economy, and has often been at the cutting edge of technological innovations. But for many universities, the traditional model of campus-based teaching has not altered since the 19th century, and there are now calls for higher education to adapt its teaching and learning models for the new age.

New routes to higher education

Even before the dawn of the high tech era, higher education was making efforts to change the way we learn. The Open University (OU), this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, was one of the first to offer alternatives to the traditional classroom-based teaching format. The OU brought higher education into people’s living rooms via late-night programmes on television. Its summer schools and local seminars gave students opportunities to exchange ideas and enjoy the full experience of a university education. And the OU quickly embraced the possibilities offered by the internet for interactive learning. Since its establishment, the OU has enabled more than two million people worldwide to achieve their study goals – many of whom didn’t have the opportunity, flexibility or the funds to reach their potential in the traditional world of higher education.

The MOOC moves in

But time has not stood still, and the OU is now one of many providers of online education courses. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – many of them free, or cheaper than university tuition fees – provide an affordable and flexible way for people around the world to learn new skills. The range of MOOCs has grown rapidly, taking in almost every subject, from environmental engineering to English as a second language, computer science to business and management.

And MOOCs have been moving in to compete for students who might otherwise have studied at a traditional university. For example the University of California, San Diego offers a micromasters course in data science that promises to equip students with the skills that form the basis of data science. The course is fee-paying, but the university underlines the long-term value of the course, highlighting the thousands of job vacancies in data science. The course website also includes endorsements from companies pledging that applications from individuals who have completed the course will have definite advantages over rival candidates. Students can take the course at their own pace, completing it whenever they choose, and located almost anywhere in the world. In addition, the course offers a pathway to Rochester Institute of Technology’s Master of Science degree in Data Science.

The advent of MOOCs has proved extremely popular, and today distinguished universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with more than 800 institutes of higher education around the world, now offer their own MOOCs.

Partnership approaches to skills development

As knowledge becomes the main driver of economic growth, employers are demanding higher level skills. A 2018 report published by Universities UK argued that universities are extremely well placed to help business and the wider economy to meet these challenges. But the report also acknowledged the need to change and adapt:

“The linear model of education–employment–career will no longer be sufficient. The pace of change is accelerating, necessitating more flexible partnerships, quicker responses, different modes of delivery and new combinations of skills and experience. Educators and employers need to collaborate more closely, and develop new and innovative partnerships and flexible learning approaches.”

In many cases, this is already happening. The University of East Anglia, for example is promoting entrepreneurialism through its in-house enterprise centre. The centre is home to several SMEs, and provides a space for students to collaborate with commercial firms, and to discover, develop and apply their entrepreneurial skills.

Another good example of university-employer partnerships is Coventry University’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering. This hi-tech production facility is a collaboration between the university and Unipart Manufacturing Group, which manufactures exhausts and other car components. It also provides training for students, with their time spent working on campus, as well as in workshops and at the manufacturing facility. In addition, this ‘faculty on the factory floor’ provides jobs – many students go straight from their degree courses to being full-time employees.

The changing face of teaching

Universities are central to knowledge creation and exchange, and we’ll be relying on them to be the engines of the knowledge economy. New approaches to teaching can ensure they rise to the challenge.


Read more from our blog on higher education:

Ugly veg: supermarkets aren’t the biggest food wasters – you are

Image via The Conversation, Amophoto_au/Shutterstock

This guest blog was written by Miriam C. Dobson, NPhD Researcher in Urban Agriculture, University of Sheffield and Jill L. Edmondson, EPSRC Living with Environmental Change Research Fellow, University of Sheffield.

“Ugly” or “wonky” veg were blamed for up to 40% of wasted fruit and vegetables in 2013, as produce was discarded for failing to meet retailer appearance standards. About 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted worldwide every year and, of this, fruit and vegetables have the highest wastage rates of any food type. But just how much of that is due to “ugly veg” being tossed by farms and supermarkets? The biggest culprit for food waste may be closer to home than we’d like to admit.

“Ugliness” is just one reason among many for why food is wasted at some point from farm to fork – there’s also overproduction, improper storage and disease. But the problem of “wonky veg” caught the public’s attention.

A report published in 2017 suggested that sales of “wonky veg” have risen in recent years as retailers have acknowledged the problem with wasting edible food, but it’s estimated that up to 25% of apples, 20% of onions and 13% of potatoes grown in the UK are still wasted on cosmetic grounds.

Morrisons reported that consumers had begun to buy more misshapen food, whereas Sainsbury’s and Tesco both report including “wonky veg” in their recipe boxes, juices, smoothies and soups.

Not all ugly veg is wasted at the retail point of the supply chain however. WRAP, a charity who have been working with governments on food waste since 2000, have investigated food waste on farms and their initial findings suggest a major cause of fruit waste is due to produce failing aesthetic standards. For example, strawberries are often discarded if they’re the wrong size for supermarkets.

The National Farmers Union also reported in 2014 that around 20% of Gala apples were being wasted prior to leaving the farm gate as they weren’t at least 50% red in colour.

Home is where the waste is

Attitudes seem to be changing on “ugly veg” at least. Morissons ran a campaign to promote its “ugly veg” produce aisle, and other supermarkets are stocking similar items. Despite this, household waste Love Food Hate Waste for food waste in the UK. Just under 5m tonnes of food wasted in the UK occurs in households – a staggering 70% of all post-farm gate food waste.

A further million tonnes is wasted in the hospitality sector, with the latest government report blaming overly generous portion sizes. This suggests that perhaps – despite the best effort of campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste – farms and retailers have been unfairly targeted by the “wonky veg” campaigns at the expense of focusing on where food waste really hits home. The 2013 Global Food Security Report put the figure for household and hospitality waste at 50% of total UK food waste.

There are some signs we’re getting better at least. WRAP’s 2015 research showed that, at the household level, people now waste 1m tonnes of food per year less than they did in 2007. This is a staggering £3.4 billion per year saved simply by throwing less edible produce away.

As climate change and its influence on extreme weather intensifies, reducing waste from precious food harvests will only become more important. Knowing exactly where the majority of waste occurs, rather than focusing too much on “wonky veg” in farms and supermarkets, is an important step towards making sure everyone has enough affordable and nutritious food to live on.

During the UK’s “Dig for Victory” campaign in World War II, a large proportion of the population had to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Now the majority of people live in cities and towns – typically detached from primary food production. In the UK, the MYHarvest project has started to uncover how much “own-growing” contributes to the national diet and it seems demand for land to grow-your-own is increasing.

Research in Italy and Germany found that people who grow their own food waste the least. One way to fight food waste at home then – whether for “wonky” fruit and vegetables or otherwise – may be to replace the farm-to-fork supply chain with a garden-to-plate approach.


Guest blog written by Miriam C. Dobson, NPhD Researcher in Urban Agriculture, University of Sheffield and Jill L. Edmondson, EPSRC Living with Environmental Change Research Fellow, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Putting the brakes on rent rises: will London adopt rent controls?

Earlier this year, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan revealed that he plans to include the introduction of rent controls on private rented residential properties in the capital as one of his manifesto promises in the 2020 mayoral election:

“The housing crisis is now having such an effect on a generation of Londoners that the arguments in favour of rent stabilisation and control are becoming overwhelming.”

Research published in 2018, found that for the third consecutive year London was the most expensive city in Europe for renting accommodation. The Mayor is concerned about rent increases, particularly by unscrupulous buy-to-let landlords. He now seems set to call on the government to grant him new powers on rent stabilisation.

The case against controls

Opponents of rent restrictions believe that landlords finding their rental income reduced would be unable to maintain properties, leading to poorer housing standards. Some might choose to sell their properties rather than put up with controls on their income, adding to London’s already acute shortage of accommodation to rent.

There is also concern that rent controls could strangle London’s fledgling build to rent (BTR) market. Across the UK, the number of BTR homes has soared – a 30% increase was reported in 2018 – and growth has been particularly strong in London. But some fear that rent controls could scare investors away from BTR, resulting in a fall in properties available to rent.

German lessons

Concern about rising rents is by no means confined to London, and if the capital does adopt rent controls, it will be following an international trend towards putting the brakes on rent rises in the private sector.

Germany introduced legislation in 2015 specifying that landlords taking on new tenants could only raise rents by up to 10% above the local average for similar properties. One of the first cities to use the new powers was Berlin, where rapidly rising population numbers have been putting greater strains on the city’s housing market. Hamburg and Munich were among the more than 300 cities that followed Berlin’s example.

Overall, the impact of Germany’s rent controls has not been as positive as intended. A study by the German Institute for Economic Research found that, while the rent controls had worked in areas affected by the most dramatic rent rises, such as parts of Berlin, in other areas it had not had the same effect. In contrast to the UK, more than 50% of Germans rent their homes, but rent controls have benefitted only a tiny proportion of that number.

The reasons for the failure of rent controls in Germany were set out by The Economist, which reported that landlords have used loopholes to circumvent the controls for newly renovated properties and accommodation being rented out for the first time. In addition, there are no sanctions against landlords who flout the rules. But the article also pointed out the law’s “fatal flaw”:

Landlords are not obliged to disclose a property’s previous rental price; rather, the renters must ask for it before agreeing a new price and signing a contract. In practice, this means that many renters wary of jeopardising their chances of striking a deal end up keeping mum. And a landlord can then add a few euros to the price above that permitted by the brake.

Across the water

In Ireland, rent controls were introduced at the start of 2017, limiting annual rent rises to 2%, but so far the measures have not proved successful. In the first quarter of 2019, rent prices in Dublin rose by 7%.

The reasons mirror the situation in Germany, with a large number of exemptions to the controls,  landlords charging much higher rents for new rental properties, and no sanctions for offending landlords.

The Scottish approach

In 2016, the Scottish Parliament passed regulations intended to strengthen the rights of people renting private accommodation. Among the provisions was a measure enabling local authorities to apply to Scottish ministers for permission to cap rent increases in designated areas. If local councils can prove that rents are rising too much in these “rent pressure zones” (RPZs), a maximum limit will be set on how much rents are allowed to increase for existing tenants each year in that area.

As of yet, no RPZs have been designated in Scotland. Some opponents of the measure have pointed to the difficulties local authorities face in making RPZs work, while others have branded them a failure, and called for them to replaced by nationwide rent controls.

Final thoughts

It remains to be seen whether Sadiq Khan does include rent controls in his election manifesto. If he does, and if he goes on to be re-elected, he will then have to persuade the UK government to grant him the necessary powers. After that, the question is whether London can make a success of rent controls where others have stumbled.


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