The Knowledge Exchange Blog

The official blog of The Knowledge Exchange from Idox

Teaching offenders to code: supporting digital skills and reducing reoffending among those leaving prison

Breaking the cycle of reoffending by teaching prisoners to code

In the UK, we have one of the highest numbers of adults in prison in western Europe, and of those who have been in prison, almost half will re-offend within a year of release. Reoffending in the UK is estimated to cost as much as £15bn each year. One of the major factors in reducing reoffending is finding and sustaining employment upon leaving prison, however, it has been suggested that the skills and training that offenders receive while in prison only prepares them in a limited way for life “on the outside”.

The importance of digital literacy and the disadvantage caused by a digital skills deficit

Whether it is applying for benefit payments, booking a doctor’s appointment, online shopping, paying council tax or word processing and data navigation in a wide range of today’s job roles, having a basic understanding of digital literacy is important. For many people these skills are acquired over time, sometimes even by accident as we come into contact with more and more digital services in our day to day lives, including in many of today’s jobs where word processing and email skills seem to be a given.

However, for people leaving prison, perhaps who have been away from the fast pace of digital development for a few years, the leaps and bounds in terms of technological change and how we use digital platforms for a range of tasks can be a daunting prospect. While there is some exposure to digital platforms inside prisons, there are increasing calls to ensure that in order to better reintegrate into society on release from prison, digital skills should be higher up the agenda for those prisoners being prepared for release.

Linking digital skill programmes to labour market need

While we raise concerns about digital literacy, it is also widely reported that the UK is facing a digital skills deficit, with job roles going unfilled because there are not enough skilled individuals to fill them. Why not then, supporters argue, align the two policies to meet a need within the skills market and better support offenders to be able to live a full, digitally literate life on their release from prison.

In his Ted talk on teaching coding in prisons, Michael Taylor highlights some of, what he sees as, the key issues with the current skills and training programme in prisons: it is mundane and repetitive, and it is not linked to skills or labour market need. Coding, he argues, in addition to being accessible, cheap to teach and not requiring any pre-requisite qualifications, is an easy way that prisoners can be equipped with high-level digital skills to help them find employment, and teach skills that employers want and need to employ.

He also argues that coding is a way to equip offenders with the basic tools to go into a range of careers or further training across a range of occupations, in a range of sectors doing a wide range of different jobs – giving the variety and scope for development that many offenders simply don’t get from current skills and training programmes. The benefits, he argues, go beyond just teaching the ins and outs of how to code, with digital skills having wider applicability around managing information, communicating, transacting, problem solving and creating as well as raising confidence and self esteem.

Learning from digital skill programmes in prisons elsewhere

The Last Mile programme in California is being used as a model to create a UK based coding programme for prisoners. The programme teaches digital skills, specifically coding, to allow offenders to find employment once they leave prison. The American programme is based out of San Quentin prison and has consistently shown positive outcomes for participants, with a recidivism rate for participants dropping from over 70% to 0 in the latest cohort of “graduates”. These positive and tangible outcomes are one of the reasons supporters have been so keen to roll out a similar scheme in the UK.

The UK Government has acknowledged this evidence and in March 2019 the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced it is investing in two pilot schemes, one at HMP Humber and one at HMP Holme House which will see a selection of “carefully vetted prisoners” participate in new digital skills programmes. Prisoners will learn CSS, HTML and JavaScript before moving on to more advanced coding techniques. They will then be invited to work for partner companies, eventually on day release, with a view to better preparing them for work when they are released from prison, while also helping employers manage perceived risks that come with hiring former offenders.

Final thoughts

Offenders leaving prison face a number of barriers to successful reintegration into the community, and preparing them fully to meet all of these challenges can be a difficult task in itself. However, by better equipping offenders with digital skills we will enable them to leave prison with knowledge employers are looking for. Coding programmes could be one route to developing skills for prisoners due for release which can help them adapt to life outside prison, give them purpose and options and, it is hoped, reduce the likelihood of reoffending in the future.


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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:

A road less travelled: celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month – part 2

June is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (GRTHM), which aims to raise awareness of and promote GRT history and culture.

It is widely recognised that raising awareness of different cultures is a key part of addressing prejudice and discrimination.

In this post – the second of two for GRTHM – we look at the inequalities and discrimination that GRT face across education, employment and health.  We also highlight work to address these inequalities and raise awareness of GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage.

GRT communities experience many educational and health inequalities

The recent House of Commons report, ‘Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’, sets out a comprehensive review of the available evidence across a range of areas.

In education, Gypsy and Traveller children leave school at a much earlier age and have lower attainment levels than non-GRT children, and only a handful go on to university each year.  They also experience much higher rates of exclusions and non-attendance.

There are many reasons for this – from discrimination and bullying, to a lack of inclusion of GRT within the educational curriculum. There are also cultural issues to be addressed within the GRT community itself.

Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson has spoken about the discrimination he faced in school where a teacher refused to “waste resources” by marking his homework because he was a Traveller, who she assumed was “not going to do anything with his education anyway”.  He also discusses how many Travellers within his own community felt he was betraying his roots by attending university. This clearly illustrates the multi-faceted nature of the issue of supporting GRT children in education.  The Traveller Movement addresses this and other related issues in their recently published guide to supporting GRT children in education.

Health outcomes for GRT communities are also very poor compared to other ethnic groups.  Their life expectancy is 10 to 12 years less than that of the non-Traveller population.  Maternal health outcomes are even more shocking – with one in five Gypsy Traveller mothers experiencing the loss of a child, compared to one in 100 in the non-Traveller community.

Poor health outcomes can be partially attributed to the difficulties that many experiences when accessing or registering for healthcare services due to discrimination or language and literacy barriers.  There is also a lack of trust among GRT communities which can result in a lack of engagement with public health campaigns.

Historic fear of engagement with public services

Indeed, there is a historic wariness of public services among many in the GRT community.

In the 1800s, many Travellers had a well-placed fear of the ‘burkers’ – body-snatchers looking to provide the medical schools with bodies for dissection.  Travellers felt particularly at risk because they lived on the margins of society.  There are many Traveller stories about burkers that have been passed on from generation to generation.

Similarly, a fear of social services intervention also exists, following the forced removal of children from Traveller families.  Some were taken into care, and others were deported to be servants in Canada or Australia.

Being aware of these cultural issues, along with the historic criminalisation and continued discrimination that GRT communities face, can help health and social services to understand and empathise with the GRT community when reaching out to them.

Poor employment outcomes and a lack of target support

Gypsies and Travellers were an essential part of the economy in the 19th Century and early 20th Century.  Many were skilled tinsmiths, silversmiths, basketmakers or other crafters.  They also played an important role as seasonal agricultural workers – for example, in the berry fields of Blair and farms of the north east of Scotland.  They moved from place to place, and bringing news and selling and trading their wares.  In the days before roads and motor vehicles, they were a lifeline for rural crofting communities who may have been many days travel away from the nearest settlement.

Time has rendered many traditional Traveller occupations redundant, and today employment outcomes for GRT groups are generally poor.

While more likely to be self-employed than the general population, the 2011 England and Wales Census found that Gypsies and Irish Travellers were the ethnic groups with the lowest employment rates, highest levels of economic inactivity, as well as the highest rates of unemployment.

However, unlike other minority groups, there has been no explicit government policies that support Gypsies or Travellers to enter employment or to take up apprenticeships and/or other training opportunities.  Many Gypsies and Travellers have also reported being discriminated against by employers, making it more difficult for them to find and stay in work.

A lack of robust data

There is a lack of robust data about the different GRT groups in the UK – even something as seemingly simple as how many GRT people there are.

This is because most data collection exercises – including the Census and in the NHS – do not include distinct GRT categories.  If an option exists at all, often it conflates the different GRT ethnicities into one generic tickbox, with no way to differentiate between the different ethnic minorities.  This is an issue that is being increasingly addressed and there are plans to include a Roma category in the 2021 census.

However, there are also issues with under-reporting.  Many people from GRT communities are reluctant to disclose their ethnicity, even when that option is available to them.  This stems both from a lack of trust and the fear of discrimination.

So, while the 2011 Census recorded 58,000 people as Gypsy/Traveller in England and Wales, and a further 4,000 in Scotland, it is estimated that there are actually between 100,000 to 300,000 Gypsy/Traveller people and up to 200,000 Roma people living in the UK.

Raising awareness of GRT culture

While this all may make for some pretty depressing reading, there are some promising signs of progress.

From Corlinda Lee’s Victorian ‘Gypsy Balls’ – where the curious public could pay to come and see how a Gypsy lived and dressed, to Hamish Henderson catalysing the 1950s Scottish Folk Revival with the songs and stories of Scottish Travellers – there have been attempts to promote Gypsy and Traveller culture among the settled population.

Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller Movement, Friends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community.

The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making, and there is a wonderful Traveller’s exhibition – including two traditional bow tents – at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore.

There are even more events planned for GRTHM – including an exhibition of Travellers’ art and photography at the Scottish Parliament.

The hard work may be beginning to pay off – just last week, the government announced a new national strategy to tackle the inequalities faced by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.

Using knowledge to fight prejudice

While there is without doubt an urgent need for practical measures to address the inequalities that the GRT community face – such as an increase in the number of authorised sites available – addressing the fundamental lack of awareness and knowledge of GRT culture is a key step towards eradicating prejudice towards GRT communities.

As well as raising awareness among the general public, there is also a need to for people working in public services – from health and social services to education and even politics – to have a better awareness and understanding of Traveller culture and history, and how this affects their present day needs and experiences.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month is an ideal opportunity to address the huge gap that exists in society’s collective knowledge about the GRT way of life, their history, culture and contribution to society. All of which can help to combat the prejudice and discrimination that they continue to face.


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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:

Turning the tide on perceptions of value: what do students think value for money really means?

A little over a year and half since we last wrote about the value of higher education (HE), which highlighted a downward trend in perception of value, it would seem the tide may be turning.

As we previously highlighted, one of the headline findings of the Higher Education Policy Institute’s (HEPI’s) 2017 Student Academic Experience Survey was falling perceptions of value for money, with the percentage of students perceiving university not to be value for money almost doubling in the previous five years. But the 2018 survey highlights a distinct turnaround, with students reporting “statistically significant improvements in perceptions of value for money from their higher education experience.” Could this be the start of a new trend?

‘Promising upturn’

Among the main highlights of the 2018 survey, which describes a “promising upturn”, include:

  • 38% of students in the UK perceive ‘good or very good’ value from their HE course – an increase of three percentage points from last year’s survey, reversing a five-year downward trend
  • fewer students studying in the UK (32%) perceive ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ value, compared with 34% in 2017
  • there is a clear, statistically significant, improvement among students from England, representing the largest number of students, where 35% report ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value
  • there has been an improvement among students domiciled in Scotland (though not statistically significant) where 60% of students surveyed perceive ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value, continuing to report the most positive opinions overall, while students from Wales and EU students studying in the UK report similar perceptions of value as last year, 48% and 47% respectively. Perceptions of value in Northern Ireland remain in decline – albeit not statistically significant
  • Students at institutions which secured a Gold award in the Teaching Excellence Framework are more likely to perceive they have received good value, but there is no noticeable difference on this measure between Silver and Bronze-rated institutions

While it should not be forgotten that almost a third of students still perceive poor value, which remains a concern, this reversal of a five-year trend is undoubtedly encouraging. Moreover, what makes the latest HEPI survey particularly interesting is that for the first time, it includes evidence on what lies behind these perceptions.

What does value for money mean?

As our previous blog showed, the increasing cost of HE has contributed to the decline in perceived value for money as many believe the financial cost is not worth the career prospects. But it isn’t all about the financial element, although, as has been previously argued, perceptions of quality are not always clearly articulated. To help make things clearer, the latest survey incorporates new sections on: what factors relate to good or poor value, happiness with subject choice and experiences of different ethnic groups.

These new sections provide greater insight into just what students perceive as value for money. Interestingly, when asked about what factors influence their perceptions of value (chosen from a pre-defined, randomised list), 68% of students who felt they received ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value for money regard teaching quality as the most important factor behind this, followed closely by course content (67%) and facilities (62%).

None of the top five reasons for perceiving ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value related to financial cost, whereas price dominated the list for poor value where two out of the five most popular answers related to cost – tuition fees (62%) and cost of living (37%). The survey suggests that these findings indicate that cost and value are difficult to separate in the minds of students and that a perception of value for money can be difficult to attain given the level of current fees.

Career prospects and campus environment and university buildings were also cited as significant factors driving good value. This suggests that investment in the physical environment should be included among other priorities, given its status as a ‘major contributor’ to the student experience.

No time for complacency

Despite these promising findings about the student experience, there are still real concerns. Perhaps somewhat worrying is the finding that past gains in teaching quality have not been built upon, with students’ ratings of teaching staff down slightly on last year. Given the importance of teaching quality in perceptions of value, if this does not change it could very well contribute to a return to the downward trend in value perceptions.

Other concerns highlighted by the survey, include  perceptions of the wellbeing of students, which remain relatively low and continue to fall. In addition, some ethnic minorities tend to experience barriers and have lower perceptions of value.

As highlighted by Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI and a co-author of the report, the survey “exposes the areas where improvements are needed.” He also argues that “institutions have to work harder to ensure all students are catered for in full.”

Nevertheless, the survey emphasises that the fact the student experience remains positive should be recognised, particularly given the level of financial burden that students take on and the widening range of alternative routes available. Hopefully, the next survey will reveal a continuation of the upward trend in perceptions of value.


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How can the UK Government support our rural entrepreneurs?

Rural Wales, house by a river

By Steven McGinty

Rural businesses play a significant role in the UK economy. Yet, policymakers often overlook their contribution and, as such, have failed to realise the economic opportunities in many of our rural areas.

Last year, University of Essex researcher Anupriya Misra presented an insightful webinar (register to hear a recording of the webinar) outlining some of the key challenges facing rural entrepreneurs, as well as the likely drivers of growth.

The make-up of the rural economy

Research by the House of Lords Library shows that the rural economy accounts for approximately 20% of England’s total economic activity, an estimated £229 billion.

Unsurprisingly, one of the key differences between city and rural economies is the size of the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sectors. In England, they amount to 2% of the Gross Value Added (GVA) of the rural economy. However, in rural areas classed as ‘sparsely populated’ this figure significantly increases, with these industries accounting for 32% of registered local businesses.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, agriculture, forestry, and fishing play a more prominent role in the rural economy. In Scotland, 13 out of its 32 local authorities have more than 50% of their population living in rural areas, with these councils contributing 20.6% of Scotland’s GVA. In Northern Ireland, 25% of VAT registered businesses are involved in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, and outside of Belfast, it’s the largest industry in each local authority area.

The challenges for rural entrepreneurs

Many rural businesses have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and the products they sell make up a significant proportion of UK exports. For example, 25% of Britain’s goods exporters are registered in rural areas. Nevertheless, these rural entrepreneurs can face barriers their counterparts living in cities are far less likely to experience. This includes:

  • Slow broadband – Online rural businesses can be particularly affected by slow broadband speeds. In addition, businesses involved in the tourism industry are affected, as free wi-fi is becoming an increasingly important part of the visitor experience.
  • Skills shortages – Rural businesses in sparsely populated areas can struggle to recruit the right staff, and their existing staff can experience challenges accessing training and development opportunities.
  • Poor transport infrastructure – Poor infrastructure can make it challenging for rural businesses to recruit, as well as connect to suppliers and customers in larger urban centres.
  • Difficulty accessing finance – Lower land values in rural areas can also limit a business’s ability to provide collateral for loans.

Why do some rural areas do better than others?

An interesting question raised by webinar presenter Anupriya Misra is why do some rural areas outperform others? In her view, a mixture of supply and demand factors impact on an area’s economic performance. For instance, having access to high skilled labour, good transport links to cities, beneficial planning laws, and business support are very important for supporting rural economic growth.

Additionally, rural areas which have a wealthy local population or have products with strong global demand are also likely to be high performing.

Business advice and networking

A key theme to emerge from the webinar was the important role business advice and networking plays for rural entrepreneurs. Fledgling rural businesses will often need a range of support, including help to develop their business management skills (such as basic accountancy skills), legal advice, as well as guidance on grant writing and the funding opportunities available to them.

Entrepreneurs looking to grow their business, will need other forms of support, from help to develop an online marketing strategy to advice on providing great customer service. Informal networks, and opportunities to connect with other business owners, can also be an invaluable resource.

In 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) set up the Rural Growth Network (RGN) Pilot Initiative to help rural areas overcome the barriers they faced.  This included projects in Cumbria, Heart of the South West (HotSW), North East, Swindon and Wiltshire, and Warwickshire. In practice, this involved creating a network of ‘enterprise hubs’, offering rural businesses a mix of premises, business, and infrastructure support.

An evaluation of the initiative highlighted that introducing enterprise hubs brought several benefits to rural entrepreneurs. 70% of start-up founders surveyed reported an improvement in their business skills and half reported that they improved their networking with other firms. In financial terms, the net economic impact of the RGN pilots, in terms of Gross Value Added (GVA), was estimated to be around £16.5 million, with £56.6 million expected over a further three years. And, for every £1 invested by Defra, £1.50 was created in net GVA.

Researcher Anupriya Misra concluded the seminar by suggesting that the rural economy could be improved by following Defra’s evidence and creating a new network of rural enterprise hubs, which provide business skills and support that meets the needs of local communities.


Follow us on Twitter to find out which topics are interesting our policy research team.

You may also be interested in Research Online, a valuable resource for research and analysis, covering topics such as entrepreneurship, employment, learning and skills, and careers education. 

UK slipping to third place in international higher education – are UK universities losing their competitive edge?

Two guys taking a selfie at graduation.

By Steven McGinty

Last year, Professor Simon Marginson published a report that would have worried university chiefs more than a BBC investigation into their eye-watering salaries.

The concern? That UK universities are no longer able to compete with the world’s elite universities and have slipped from second to third in the international higher education rankings.

The Marginson report

For many years, the UK has sat comfortably behind the United States as the second most popular destination for international students.

However, Professor Marginson’s analysis of the data shows that since 2012 there has been moderate growth in the numbers studying at British universities. Interestingly, this is also the year the UK Government cancelled the post-study work visa, which allowed non-EU students to stay and work in the UK for up to two years after graduation, and replaced it with the right to stay for four months after graduation.

In contrast, the research shows Australia has seen a surge of international students studying at their universities, rising from 249,868 in 2012 to 335,512 in 2016. This is still fewer than were studying in the UK in 2015 (430,687). However, Australian government figures show that student numbers increased by 14.7% in 2017, with this high growth continuing into 2018.

And, Professor Marginson predicts that when the full data becomes available the UK will only be slightly ahead of Australia, or that Australia may have already climbed into second place. In either scenario – and with Brexit on the horizon – this news will be undoubtedly worrying for universities, who have a long tradition of welcoming students and academics from across the globe.

Times Higher Education (THE) World Reputation Rankings

Although UK universities are respected internationally, this is not the first piece of evidence to suggest international students might be tempted elsewhere.

In 2018, the Times Higher Education (THE) World Reputation Rankings, which scores universities based on the quality of their research and teaching, highlighted that British universities either stayed the same or fell down the international league table. In particular, Durham University has lost its place amongst the top 100 universities in the world, whilst University College London and Imperial College London have dropped down the rankings.

Phil Baty, THE’s editorial director of global rankings, argues that the UK’s elite universities cannot take their international reputation for granted and suggests the findings should “give pause for serious thought as the country seeks to champion its status as ‘global Britain’ in a post-Brexit world.”

The competition

Although recent immigration changes and uncertainty over Brexit present challenges for British universities, the policies adopted by other countries have also impacted on their competitiveness.

In the US, President Barak Obama’s liberal approach to immigration resulted in a 26% increase in international students between 2011-2015 – this is significantly higher than the UK’s 2.6% growth rate for the same period. However, more recently, President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has led to the tightening of the student visa system and increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. In turn, the US has experienced a decline in international student numbers, particularly from Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Canada.

Canadian universities have attempted to capitalise on these political changes by marketing themselves as a more tolerant North American alternative. For example, the University of Montreal has set up a travel fund to help international students attend US conferences, as some may face difficulties entering the country. Policies, such as these, are likely to have led to a 20% increase in international students accepting places in the Autumn of 2017.

In Australia, there has been a dramatic change in direction. In 2009, violence against Indian international students ignited protests in the streets of Melbourne and Sydney. In response, the Australian Government made a significant diplomatic effort to salvage Australia’s reputation as a welcoming place for international students, including by relaxing the regulatory and financial requirements for study.

How can the UK foster competitiveness?

Education Insight founder, Janet Ilieva, suggests that the UK Government should work with higher education institutions to coordinate their international marketing efforts, as well as provide post study work opportunities.

Similarly, Universities UK, have stressed the importance of bringing back work visas for overseas graduates. They highlight that competitors such as the United States and Canada allow students to stay and work for three years after graduating, and four in the case of Australia.

To mitigate against Brexit, the Economist has discovered that some universities are considering setting up a European campus in order to avoid immigration restrictions.

Policy reforms and practical support, such as those highlighted above, would certainly improve British universities’ ability to compete with up-and-coming international student destinations. However, the real question is, is there enough political will to make this happen?


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“For many children we are the first point of contact”: supporting children’s mental health in schools

A 2018 evidence review from Public Health England reported that one in 10 young people have some form of diagnosable mental health condition. This, the report suggests, equates to as many as 850,000 children and young people with a diagnosable mental health disorder in the UK. It also reported that half of all mental health problems emerge before the age of 14, and children with persistent mental health problems face unequal chances in life.

Research has also highlighted the impact of “key factors” like poverty and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including emotional trauma, abuse or neglect (which people living in higher areas of deprivation are more likely to experience) on an individual’s chance of developing a mental illness. However, an additional factor often cited in surveys around child mental health and wellbeing is the impact of school, including exam stress, and bullying. Mental ill health has also been found to have an impact on attainment, behaviour and a child’s ability to learn. As a result, teachers are often part of the front line of supporting adults for children who are suffering from mental ill health, with increasing pressure being placed on teachers and schools to identify and signpost children to other services.

Schools, as well as teachers,  are increasingly becoming a focus for the delivery of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in their community. Often schools are at the centre of their local community, so it is logistically convenient to coordinate services there; it can for some be a less intimidating or stigmatising environment than attending a clinic at a GP surgery, for example. School is the primary developmental space that children encounter after their family, and children’s learning and development and their mental health are often interrelated, so it makes sense for teachers to take an interest in terms of attainment and progress in learning. In December 2017, the Department of Health and Department for Education (DfE) published the Green Paper Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision which highlighted the role of schools as key in promoting a positive message about mental health and wellbeing among school age children and young people.

Good work is already being done, but how can we do more?

Research has shown that there is already a lot of good and effective practice being done in schools around children’s mental health. Many schools already work in partnership with local health teams to provide in house CAMHS support in the form of mental health nurses and social workers who are posted on site for children to access. One of the major recommendations in a 2018 Audit Scotland report on child mental health in Scotland was to encourage more of this type of partnership working. The report stressed the importance of joint working between public services if child mental health is to be improved, and where possible to include as wide a spectrum of public services in the delivery of CAMHS support, including criminal justice and housing practitioners, as well as health and social care and education staff.

In some schools senior pupils and designated members of staff are being offered mental health first aid training, and wear lanyards to help students identify them should they ever need to talk to someone. While it is important – particularly for students who participate in mental health first aid programmes – to be made aware of the challenges the role may entail, it can be a rewarding experience for young people to participate in and can also be a vital in-road to support for some students who would otherwise feel uncomfortable talking to a member of staff.

Other programmes like those developed by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, Centre for Mental Health and the ICE PACK and Kitbag tools (which have been used widely in UK schools) look at resilience building  and promoting coping mechanisms among young people, as well as encouraging the creation of trusting relationships which focus on nurturing and normalising mental illness to encourage children and young people to feel comfortable discussing their feelings and thoughts. These programmes also integrate early intervention and prevention approaches, hoping to identify children and young people who are suffering from mental illness as early as possible and signpost them to appropriate support.

The specific role of teachers

Teachers need to remember that they are not health or social care professionals and that – as much as they would like to completely solve all of the problems of their students – they can only do what they can, and that is enough.

It is also very important for teachers to practise what they preach in as much as teacher self-care is as important as signposting children and young people who are struggling with mental health issues. A 2016 survey by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) found almost half of teachers had sought help from their doctor for stress-related condition. Teacher stress and burnout and those leaving the profession due to conditions like stress do not help to create an environment that is supportive of good mental health in the classroom. Teacher wellbeing is so important and building their own resilience is one way that teachers can start to embed good mental health in their practice. If you are doing it yourself it will be easier to help and show children how to do it if they come to you for advice!

Teachers simply being there and offering a safe space and first point of contact for many children is important. Listening and signposting can be so valuable for those pupils taking the first step and teachers should not be put off by any personal perception of a lack of expertise in mental health – a small amount of knowledge or understanding of what to do next is more than enough. In some respects, teachers should feel almost privileged that a student has chosen to come to them, someone they feel they can trust and talk to.

A poll conducted as part of a webinar held for educational practitioners found that rather than requiring more information about mental illness, what teachers actually wanted was more practical examples of how to apply support in the classroom and how to embed mental health into their teaching and the learning of their students.

A unique opportunity

Schools and teachers are on the front line of public services and have a unique opportunity through regular contact with children to help to build and promote resilience among pupils, and embedding this within the whole school can be an effective way of ensuring pupils feel the benefit without being singled out. Taking nurturing approaches to learning and teaching, and promoting the creation of trusting relationships is key to some of the already effective practice going on in schools. Sharing the learning and best practice that is already happening will be vital to ensuring that support for children suffering from mental ill health improves and adapts to changing needs in the future.


If you liked this article, you may also be interested in reading:

Writing and recovery: creative writing as a response to mental ill health

Addressing social mobility through education – is it enough?

The Changing Room Initiative: tackling the stigma of poor mental health in men through sport

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Reeling in the year: a look back at 2018

It’s been another busy year for The Knowledge Exchange Blog. We’ve covered a variety of subjects, from housing and the environment to education and planning. So as the year draws to a close, now’s a good time to reflect on some of the subjects we’ve been blogging about during 2018.

Bibliotheraphy, walkability and family learning

We started the year with health and wellbeing in mind. Our first blog post of 2018 highlighted the increasing application of “bibliotherapy”:

“The Reading Agency’s Books on Prescription scheme has been running nationally in England since 2013 and since it started has been expanded to cover Books on Prescription for common mental health conditions, Books on Prescription for dementia, Reading Well for young people and Reading Well for long term conditions. 635,000 people are estimated to have benefited from the schemes.”

In February, we blogged about family learning, where parents engage in learning activities with their children. This can involve organised programmes such as Booksmart, but activities such as reading to children or singing with them can also be described as family learning:

Research from the National Literacy Trust, suggests that “parental involvement in their child’s reading has been found to be the most important determinant of language and emergent literacy”.

In recent years, growing numbers of cities and towns have introduced “shared spaces”, where pedestrians, cyclists and drivers share the same, deregulated space. As we reported in March, the practice has proved divisive, with supporters claiming that shared spaces can improve the urban environment, revitalise town centres, and reduce congestion, while opponents believe that shared space schemes – particularly the removal of kerbs and crossings – are dangerous and exclusionary for vulnerable groups of pedestrians, people with disabilities and those with reduced mobility.

In April, we took the opportunity to promote the Idox Information Service, highlighting a selection of the hundreds of items added to our database since the beginning of 2018. All members of the Idox Information Service have access to the Idox database, which contains thousands of reports and journal articles on public and social policy.

Voters, apprentices and city trees

Local elections in May prompted us to blog about the voting rights of those with age related degenerative mental conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“Many people with dementia still hold strong political feelings, and know their own opinion when it comes to voting for political parties or in a referendum. However, the process of voting can often present them with specific challenges. It is up to local authority teams and their election partners to make the process as transparent and easy for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s as possible. Specific challenges include not spoiling the ballot, and the ability to write/ see the ballot paper and process the information quickly enough.”

A year after the launch of the government’s Apprenticeship Levy in June, we highlighted a report from the Reform think tank which suggested that significant reforms were needed to improve England’s apprenticeship system. Among the recommended changes were a renewed focus on quality over quantity, removal of the 10% employer co-investment requirement and making Ofqual the sole quality assurance body for maintaining apprenticeship standards.

The shortage of affordable housing continues to exercise the minds of policy makers, and in July we blogged about its impact on the private rented sector:

“In many cases people view the private rented sector as being a stop gap for those not able to get social housing, and not able to afford a deposit for a mortgage. Although in many instances they may be right, the demographic of those renting privately now is changing, and becoming more and more varied year on year, with many young professionals and families with children now renting privately.”

The long, hot summer of 2018 was one to remember, but its effect on air quality in urban areas underlined the need to combat the pollution in our air. In August, we blogged about an innovation that could help to clear the air:

“Designed by a German startup, a City Tree is a “living wall” of irrigated mosses with the pollution-absorbing power of almost 300 trees. A rainwater-collection unit is built into the City Tree, as well as a nutrient tank and irrigation system, allowing the assembly to water itself.”

Planning, polarisation and liveable cities

September saw another highly successful Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference. It opened with a thought-provoking presentation by Greg Lloyd, professor Emeritus at Ulster University, and visiting professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who challenged delegates to consider what might happen if the current planning system were to be abolished altogether, to clear the way for a new and more fit-for-purpose planning system.

In October, we focused on the ever-increasing job polarisation affecting the labour market:

In the EU, data shows that between 2002-2014 medium skilled routine jobs declined by 8.9%, whilst high skilled roles rose by 5.4%, and low skilled jobs grew marginally (0.1%). As a consequence, wage inequalities have grown.”

More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, presenting significant challenges to local authorities who have to try and make their cities work for everyone. In November, we reported from The Liveable City conference in Edinburgh, which showcased ideas from the UK and Denmark on how to make cities more attractive for residents and visitors:

“A great example of the reinvention of a post-industrial area came from Ian Manson, Chief Executive of Clyde Gateway, Scotland’s biggest and most ambitious regeneration programme. When it comes to recovering from the demise of old industries, the East End of Glasgow has seen many false dawns. As Ian explained, when Clyde Gateway was launched ten years ago, the local community were sceptical about the programme’s ambitions. But they were also ready to engage with the project. A decade on, the area has undergone significant physical generation, but more importantly this has taken place in partnership with the local people.”

Although much has been made of the government’s claim that austerity is coming to an end, many local authorities are still struggling to provide services within tight financial constraints. One of our final blogs this year reported on local councils that are selling their assets to generate revenue:

“In a bid to increase affordable housing supply, for example, Leicester City Council has sold council land worth more than £5m for less than £10 as part of deals with housing associations.”

Brexit means….

Overshadowing much of public policy in 2018 has been the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Our blog posts have reflected the uncertainties posed by Brexit with regard to science and technology, local authority funding and academic research.

As we enter 2019, those uncertainties remain, and what actually happens is still impossible to predict. As always, we’ll continue to blog about public policy and practice, and try to make sense of the important issues, based on evidence, facts and research.

To all our readers, a very happy Christmas, and our best wishes for a peaceful and prosperous new year.

Gender pay gap at universities could get even worse – here’s why

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This guest blog was written by Nisreen Ameen, Lecturer at Queen Mary University London.

Britain has one of the largest gender pay gaps in the European Union, with women earning roughly 21% less than men. This means that women in UK universities today are still earning less than their male colleagues. So although laws on equal pay have been in place for more than 40 years, there is still a large gender pay gap in UK universities.

The difference in hourly pay between men and women is 15% in top UK universities and 37% in other universities. What’s more, men have most of the top jobs in UK universities, while women have more of the lower-paid jobs.

And this “gender pay gap” may keep getting wider if women aren’t supported to develop their digital skills. This is because women tend to have less advanced digital skills than men – skills that are increasingly in demand for university lecturer roles. And as universities around rely more extensively on digital technology, they need employees who have creative digital skills – which means women are more likely to miss out on jobs, promotions and pay increases.

Wanted: technical talent

The use of technology is now just part of the day job for anyone involved in teaching and learning in universities. Universities use technology to teach and communicate with students online – which can help to improve a student’s learning experience. Staff are also expected to use online learning and mobile learning platforms to teach, assess and talk to students in a virtual environment.

Universities also plan to use more advanced technology. Gamification is on the rise in universities. This is where universities personalise a student’s learning, using game design thinking in non-game applications. Wearable devices, such as an Apple Watch or Google Glass, can also encourage learners to get more involved in the subject. This type of technology will most likely be used more in universities over the coming years.

And as women in higher education are generally less likely to be skilled in using these technologies, they may well be left behind – widening the gender pay gap in higher education – while also making it harder for women to progress in their careers.

Digital skills divide

Our research which looks at the gender gap in smartphone adoption and use in Arab countries shows there is a wide gap in the way men and women use technology in some parts of the world. And we found similar patterns in the UK. Men have more advanced digital skills than women, and women are underrepresented in the technology sector, specifically in the digital sector in education.

This “digital divide” begins at a very early age in school. It continues into higher education – in the UK there is one of the highest gender gaps in technology-related courses among all university courses in the world.

Technology is advancing quickly, so academics and others working in higher education constantly have to update their skills. Without these skills, women in the sector are at a disadvantage when it comes to promotion and pay rises. So it’s more important than ever for universities to provide training and other programmes that help women develop their digital skills.

Closing the gender gap in digital skills would remove one factor contributing to the gender pay gap in UK universities. It would increase the chances of women being employed in the sector and make it easier for them to develop their careers. Tapping into female talent in technology would bring huge benefits to universities.

And above all, it would help to close the digital skills gap – while helping to build a more equal and fairer society.The Conversation


Nisreen Ameen, Lecturer in Information Technology Management, Queen Mary University of London

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

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