The Knowledge Exchange Blog

The official blog of The Knowledge Exchange from Idox

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:

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.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested in some of our previous posts:

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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?


Follow us on Twitter to discover which topics are interesting our research team. If you’re a researcher looking for funding opportunities, you might also be interested in our Research Connect Service. 

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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Co-location of researchers: challenges and opportunities before and after Brexit

“International collaboration and mobility is integral to life as an active researcher across all disciplines and at all career stages.” British Academy, 2017

Collaboration is a core part of the work of researchers. In recent decades, growing numbers of researchers have taken advantage of improved mobility and support from policymakers to travel and work with others in a variety of disciplines.

The benefits of co-location

So it was interesting to read a recent toolkit on co-location of researchers, published by What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, which looked at interventions that encourage the co-location of researchers, and considered the effectiveness of policies that specifically encourage co-location with the objective of increasing the quantity and quality of scientific output.

The toolkit’s review of evidence found that:

  • Co-location can raise the quality of research.
  • Spillovers may exist between researchers in different academic fields or commercial sectors, but the greatest positive effects of co-location occur for similar activities.
  • Science park co-location impacts positively on firm-level patenting of research, but spillover effects may die away rapidly with distance.
  • Temporary co-location (such as conferences and workshops) can also be effective in inducing collaboration and innovation.
  • Previously collaborating labs continue to work together, although the quality of research suffers with separations.

Co-location in practice

Co-location can occur within a national or international context. A good example of international research mobility in action has been highlighted in a paper published by RESEARCHconnect, which provides information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK research community.

Fifteen partners from thirteen countries, including the USA and Canada, have joined forces to improve the capacities for marine-based research in the ice-covered Arctic Ocean. The ARICE (Arctic Research Icebreaker Consortium) project aims to better coordinate the existing polar research fleet, to offer scientists access to six research icebreakers, and to collaborate closely with the maritime industry.

For researchers, project sponsors and hosts, the importance of face-to-face collaboration on projects such as ARICE cannot be overestimated. As Dr Chris Coey, Research Development Support Officer, Division of Research and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Salford, told RESEARCHconnect:

“The advantages of international mobility are, for researchers, access to prestige networks, resources and infrastructure not available at home. Reputations are burnished, arguably in part through mobility itself, collaborations are established or reinforced and, publications and other outputs are achieved. Metrics show that these international collaborations are higher profile and higher quality.”

Of course, arranging and managing co-location can be challenging, particularly when working across languages, cultures and disciplines. And although technology provides alternative ways of exchanging information, the evidence suggests that teleconferencing is no substitute for co-location. A 2017 study of the role of international collaboration and mobility in research noted that “travel was seen to be important in building international collaborations, by helping develop stronger relationships and a broader understanding of each other’s strengths and interests.”

Co-location after Brexit

But while collaboration – particularly international collaboration – has become a key aspect of research, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union is causing uncertainty in the research community. The EU has been a significant source of research funding, and Brexit is now forcing researchers to consider alternatives.

A 2017 report from Digital Science Consultancy for Universities UK explored the challenges and opportunities facing UK research in the post-Brexit landscape. The authors noted that international collaborative partnerships in research with other EU states make up the largest pool of collaborators with UK research:

“Research undertaken with EU partners like Germany and France is growing faster than with other countries – hence while it is vital that the UK takes every opportunity to be truly global in their outlook, the importance of collaboration with EU partners should not be underestimated.”

At the same time, the report suggested that the UK should be developing new networks and funding arrangements that support collaboration with major research powers outside of Europe.

Regardless of access to EU programmes, enhanced international collaboration could be facilitated by either agreeing partner funding or at least avoiding ‘double jeopardy’ through, for example, a coordinated application process at agency level.”

Speaking to RESEARCHConnect, Dr Chris Coey also highlighted UK sources that provide an alternative to EU funding for international research:

“…this isn’t just the Research Councils but also the larger and more prestigious charitable sources such as Wellcome and the British Academy.”

 Final thoughts

As the What Works toolkit explains, co-location is one of the methods used by policymakers to help encourage the generation and diffusion of new ideas. It enables researchers to share access to expensive equipment, forge links, or simply observe – and learn from – each other.

As the UK prepares to leave the EU, research bodies and researchers themselves will be looking anxiously at the impact of Brexit, while continuing to forge strong partnerships at home and overseas.


RESEARCHconnect is the Idox group’s funding service providing information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK and wider European research community. Focused on researchers at all levels of academia – from undergraduates to senior career researchers – and also including a spectrum of funding opportunities for universities and research institutes, the service offers a comprehensive one-stop-shop of funding information.

Open access is rapidly rising but is it succeeding?

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Image by PLoS via Creative Commons

In an increasingly digital world where accessibility is a common goal, it is no surprise that open access (OA) publishing is increasing at a rapid pace. For UK research, there has been particularly notable growth in OA adoption. In 2016, 37% of UK outputs (25% globally) were freely available immediately on publication, up from 20% in 2014. This figure reached 54% within 12 months of publication – the first time the 50% OA barrier has been breached for UK articles in the Scopus database (Elsevier’s peer-reviewed abstract and citation database).

These are among the findings of a recent report from Universities UK (UUK), Monitoring the transition to open access, which illustrates the growth in OA and its implications. While the advancement of OA is generally seen as a positive outcome, this transition is not without its challenges.

What is open access?

OA is fundamentally about making research outputs freely accessible to all with limited restrictions with regard to reuse.

There are two main routes to OA, as highlighted in the UUK report:

  • Gold or immediate OA – this refers to articles published in an OA form in a journal, allowing immediate access to everyone electronically and free of charge. Publishers can recoup their costs in various ways, including through payments from authors called article processing charges (APCs), or through advertising, donations or other subsidies.
  • Green OA – this refers to the posting of a version of the published article so that it is accessible via a website, institutional or subject repository, scholarly collaboration network or other service. Access to the publication can either be granted immediately or after an agreed embargo period.

OA articles can also be published in hybrid journals which are subscription-based but provide some articles as OA, usually for a fee. According to the UUK report, more than half of UK articles in 2016 were published in hybrid journals, the proportion of which were published on immediate Gold OA terms was 28% – up from just 6% in 2012.

Growth

The numbers and proportions of both OA and hybrid journals have continued to rise, while the proportion of subscription-only journals has fallen. The number of articles published on immediate Gold OA terms is also rising, with a high level of take-up in the UK of hybrid OA options. Particularly notable findings from the report include:

  • the proportion of titles published globally offering immediate OA rose from under 50% in 2012 to just over 60% in 2016; and to nearly 70% for journals in which UK authors have published;
  • the proportion of UK-authored articles published on immediate Gold OA terms rose from 12% in 2012 to 30% in 2016, an annual growth rate of over 30% sustained throughout the period;
  • the global proportion of subscription-based articles accessible in some version, on Green OA terms, within 24 months of publication via a non-publisher website, repository or elsewhere, rose from 19% in 2014 to 38% in 2016, while the UK proportion rose from 23% to 48%;
  • OA articles are downloaded on average between twice and four times as much as non-OA articles; and in the UK, where the numbers of full-text articles in UK repositories increased by more than 60% between 2014 and 2016, the number of article downloads more than doubled from 6 to 12 million.

The rapid rate of growth in the UK appears to demonstrate the effects of policies to promote and support OA. The government has long been committed to the transition to OA, particularly since the Finch Report, and these figures show that the UK is world leading in “a significant global movement which is fundamentally changing the way that research is conceived, conducted, disseminated and rewarded.” (UUK)

Rising costs

Most would argue such growth is a positive outcome but the rise in OA has also contributed to other issues, such as the transitional costs to universities and research funders. The findings show that costs are also rising, and at a rate significantly above inflation. The mean average APC payment rose by 16% between 2013 and 2016, compared with a rise of 5% in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

And the number of APCs paid has grown rapidly, with the ratio between subscription and hybrid APC expenditure falling from roughly 19:1 in 2013 to 6:1 by 2016. There is evidence of various offsetting deals, although these vary significantly and can be complex. The majority of known funding for APCs has however been provided by UK funders. Therefore tools that help universities identify and manage funding, such as RESEARCHconnect, could become even more important.

Concerns have also been raised around the financial implications for learned societies that publish academic journals. Although the findings show that publishing revenues have risen steadily over the period (18%), publishing expenditure has risen by 27%, resulting in falling margins.

A mixed picture is highlighted in terms of societies’ overall financial health, with a sharp rise in the number reporting a loss, although some of the most recent losses arose from strategic decisions or exceptional items. Of course, OA is not the only factor and the wider economic and political uncertainties are recognised as particular risks.

To mitigate the financial risks, societies are diversifying their income streams which could strengthen their role. But despite publishing margins being under increasing pressure, the report identified no evidence of systemic risk to UK learned societies or their broader financial sustainability from OA.

Final thoughts

In terms of the aim of policy in the UK to achieve a shift towards OA, the fast-paced growth can be considered a success. However, as the UUK report shows, there are still a number of challenges that need to be addressed.

According to the Chair of the UUK Open Access Coordination Group, the continued engagement of all stakeholders will be important “to ensure that the transition to open access is maintained, is financially sustainable, and that the benefits to research and to society are maximised.”


RESEARCHconnect is Idox’s latest funding service which provides information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK research community. It supports universities, research institutions and research-intensive companies across Europe in identifying and disseminating R&D funding. In the current economic climate, there is increasing pressure to exploit alternative funding sources and RESEARCHconnect ensures that global funding opportunities will not be missed. Find out more.

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University challenges: excellence, inclusion and the race to win more funding

In May last year, Manchester University announced plans to make 171 staff redundant. Cost savings were among the reasons for the staff cutbacks, but the university also highlighted other factors, including the need for improvements in the quality of its research and student experience to ensure financial sustainability, and to achieve its ambition to be a world leading institution.

Although Manchester was able to achieve its staff reductions through voluntary severance, other universities have also had to announce staff cutbacks,  including Portsmouth, Liverpool, Heriot-Watt and Southampton. And these institutions are not alone in facing such demanding challenges.

Higher education institutions across the UK are competing against each other and against international rivals to attract funding and students. At the same time, universities, particularly among the prestigious Russell Group institutions, are under pressure to increase participation by more black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. All of this is set against a background of debates about value for money in higher education, and concerns about Brexit. It’s no surprise that many universities are worried about their future.

Competition: national…

Recent changes to the higher education sector, such as the removal of the cap on student numbers, the entry of private sector providers, and the introduction of a teaching excellence framework have driven universities to become more competitive. Some have built new facilities, or joined forces with business to create technology parks, while others have closed departments that are expensive to run, such as modern languages. A growing number are also turning to financial markets to fund their expansion plans.

…and international

While UK universities have a world-class reputation, they face strong competition from overseas institutions. This year’s world university rankings reported that of the 76 UK universities in the worldwide top 1000, 41 improved their position since last year, while 14 remained in the same position. But while this was the best ever UK performance the compilers of the rankings warned that rising class sizes and the UK’s ability to attract overseas students post-Brexit could have a negative impact on future placings. It’s also becoming clear that global league tables themselves are having an impact on universities.

Added to this, the uncertainty over Brexit is already having an impact on university research funding. Official figures published at the end of 2017 showed that there had been a downturn in both UK participation in, and funding from, the flagship Horizon 2020 project. The need to find alternative sources of funding is pressing, as can be seen in the success of RESEARCHconnect, a tool to help universities identify and manage funding opportunities.

The struggle to widen participation

The proportion of people going to university has risen dramatically in the past fifty years. In the 1960s, five per cent of young people went into higher education; today, around half of young people do. Universities have committed themselves to widen participation, but the statistics suggest they are struggling to achieve this, particularly concerning students from BAME and disadvantaged communities.

Figures published earlier this year recorded a 0.1 percentage point increase in the proportion of state-educated students who started full-time undergraduate courses in the autumn of 2016, compared with the previous year. The statistics showed a slight rise in the proportion of students from disadvantaged areas, but critics have argued that this was cancelled out by the fall in part-time students (who are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds). In nine out of the 24 Russell Group of universities, the proportion of state school pupils fell.

Further evidence of the country’s leading universities’ difficulties in widening participation has been brought to light by David Lammy MP. His enquiries on the number of ethnic minority students offered a place at Oxford and Cambridge Universities have found that more than a third of Oxford’s colleges admitted three or fewer black applicants between 2015 and 2017. For each of the six years between 2010 and 2015, on average, a quarter of Cambridge University colleges failed to make any offers to black British applicants.

Moving away from “one size fits all”

The government says it is determined to ensure that everyone, no matter what their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education. In 2018, the new Office for Students (OfS) was launched, merging the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access. The OfS aims to regulate higher education in the same way that bodies such as Ofwat and Ofcom regulate the water and telecoms sectors. Its Director of Fair Access and Participation has a particular remit to ensure that higher education institutions are doing all they can to support under-represented groups.

A 2018 report has suggested that the OfS “has the potential to be an agent of profound change, particularly with regard to widening participation.” Among the reports contributors, there was a consensus that widening participation needs to be thought of with a broader scope:

“…‘one size fits all’ solutions will not work if we wish to make higher education representative of the diverse society it serves. Different groups such as care leavers, refugees or those with physical disabilities or mental health problems have different needs, and support should be tailored accordingly.”

Changing the face of higher education

Clearly higher education is facing enormous challenges. But for staff and students of universities, there are concerns about the forces of change that are transforming universities from communities of learners and scholars into businesses.  Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London, has commented:

“If the driving ethos, the thing which directs your behaviour day on day is maximising your income, maximising your position in the league tables in order to maximise your reputation and your fees, that means that you behave in a way that is very different from a traditional university where that wasn’t the driving force. You do get the sense that if that is 90 per cent of what is being thought about by central management, you are fundamentally changing the institution.”

Time will tell whether those changes are for better or for worse.


RESEARCHconnect supports universities, research institutions and research-intensive companies across Europe in identifying and disseminating R&D funding. In the current economic climate, there is increasing pressure to exploit alternative funding sources and RESEARCHconnect ensures that global funding opportunities will not be missed. Find out more.

Read our other recent blogs on higher education:

University degrees – are they worth the cost?

college graduates group

By Heather Cameron

Often cited as the best path to a successful career, university degrees continue to come under the spotlight with questions over their actual value, particularly with tuition fees now starting to increase.

Millions of young people who received their exam results last month will be weighing up their options. But what was perhaps once a fairly straightforward decision for many, is made far more complex by the modern financial burden of undertaking a degree, coupled with the availability of alternative routes without the prospect of accruing tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt in the process.

Cost

It certainly isn’t a cheap option to pursue a university degree. For 2017, many colleges/universities across the UK will be able to charge tuition fees of up to £9,250. And this doesn’t include the living costs of student life. The National Union of Students (NUS) has estimated that the average annual cost of living in England (outside of London) for students is £12,056.

Recent YouGov Omnibus research, which surveyed more than 500 current students and recent graduates, found that one in three recent graduates disagreed that the “costs of going to university were worth it for the career prospects/learning I gained”. It also identified ‘significant pessimism’ among both graduates and students over loans and whether they will ever be free of the burden of repayments during their working life. A large proportion (41%) don’t expect to ever pay off their student loan.

However, it was also noted that many recent graduates may have false expectations about how much they will have to pay back. More than four in ten (41%) said they didn’t understand how the interest rate on student loans works.

Research into the number of ‘contact’ hours a student receives over the course of their degree has been suggested to support the opinion that it is not good value for money. The average humanities student will have around 10 hours per week of scheduled ‘contact’ time in lectures and seminars, although it is often less. And there is much variation across subject areas, which is not reflected in tuition fees. According to an economics lecturer at the New College of the Humanities in London, “It certainly seems like humanities students are subsidising Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] students.”

Job prospects

In addition to the cost of doing a degree featuring in the decision to pursue this path, the employment prospects following a degree have also received attention.

A recent study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that there is a great deal of diversity among graduate earnings. While almost all institutions have graduates with earnings above the 20th percentile of the non-graduate earnings distribution, and most institutions have graduates with earnings above the non-graduate median, graduate earnings for men at more than one in 10 universities were lower than for non-graduates. And earnings for graduate women were found to be worse at nine institutions of the 166 included.

The findings also show that that graduates who came originally from wealthier backgrounds earned significantly more than their poorer counterparts ten years after graduation, even if they had studied the same course at the same institution.

This also raises questions over the value of a degree, particularly for those students from poorer backgrounds.

Having a degree certainly doesn’t guarantee a job with a competitive salary at the end of it, or indeed even a job at all as previous research has shown. Nevertheless, the IFS findings do highlight that higher education does pay for the majority, with graduates more likely to be in work and earn more than non-graduates.

Satisfaction

Satisfaction with degrees among students has shown to be relatively high overall. The latest annual Student Academic Experience Survey reveals that most students believe they are learning ‘a lot’ and perceptions of teaching quality are rising.

However, the survey also shows there continues to be a downward trend in perceptions of value, which has been highlighted as a particular concern. The percentage of students who think university is not value for money has almost doubled in the last five years.

The wellbeing of students also continues to be relatively low compared to the rest of the population and the majority oppose the high-fees model of funding.

Final thoughts

The cost of pursuing a degree along with the evidence on graduate earnings suggests that higher education may no longer be the leveller it once was perceived to be. Rather, it may appear that university degrees are once again becoming a path only for those from the richest households.

Clearly there is a lot for policy-makers to consider.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also like our previous post on graduate employment.

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Science, technology and innovation: the impact of Brexit

Scientist working with a large cylinder-shaped piece of lab equipmentBy Steven McGinty

There have been many twists and turns in the Brexit story. The latest, has been Theresa’s May’s failed attempt to increase her parliamentary majority and gain a personal mandate for negotiating her own version of Brexit.

However, since the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) researchers and professionals have consistently voiced their concerns over the potential negative impacts of Brexit, particularly in areas such as funding, collaboration and skills.

Prospect – a union for 50,000 scientists, engineers and technical specialists – has made it clear that they believe:

Science is an international endeavour and continued free movement of people is vitally important both to the public interest and the wider economy.”

Their research highlights that British participation in prestigious Europe-wide research projects could be under threat, such as the mission to find the ‘oldest ice’ in Antarctica and the European Space Agency’s project to develop the most ambitious satellite Earth observation programme.

The Financial Times also highlights that British researchers have been very successful at winning important grants from the European Research Council. As a result, the UK receives 15.5% of all EU science funding – a disproportionate return on the UK’s 12% contribution to the overall EU budget.

Professor Dr Carsten Welsch, an academic from Liverpool University, underlines how essential EU funding is to his work: “in some years as much as 80% of our funding has been sourced from the EU.

Figures from technology consultancy Digital Science suggest that leaving the EU could cost UK scientists £1bn per year.

Universities UK has also investigated the wider economic impacts of EU funding in the UK. In 2016, their research found that EU funding generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK, adding £1.86 billion to the UK economy. Later research has also shown that international students and their visitors generate £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy. In addition, as a single group, they add £690 million to the UK retail industry.

What do the politicians say?

With their ‘Save our Scientists’ campaign, the Liberal Democrats have been outspoken in their support for continued scientific co-operation across Europe. Their 2017 General Election manifesto stated that they would underwrite funding for British partners in EU-funded projects such as Horizon 2020 – the largest ever EU Research and Innovation programme – worth nearly €80 billion in funding. It also promised to protect and raise the science budget by inflation, and stop cuts to medical research.

But the UK government has also made efforts to lessen the concerns of STEM researchers and professionals. Similarly, Chancellor Philip Hammond has guaranteed to underwrite EU funding won by UK organisations through programmes such as Horizon 2020, even if these projects continue after Brexit. On the 17th January, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her 12 objectives for negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. Within this speech, she stated that:

We will welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives, for example in space exploration, clean energy and medical technologies.”

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, has also tried to provide reassurance by emphasising the important role for science and innovation in the government’s industrial strategy. He has highlighted that the strategy includes £229 million of funding for a ‘world class’ materials research centre at the University of Manchester and a centre for excellence for life sciences. In addition, a new funding body will be created – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – which will bring together several funding councils to create a ‘loud and powerful’ voice for science.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has also published a report arguing that positive steps should be taken to ensure UK science plays a significant role in the global economy. One idea put forward by the report is that:

The UK should offer to host – in partnership with governments and funding bodies from other countries – one or more new, large-scale international research facilities. This would be a bold move to signal the UK’s global standing in science.

International partners – David Johnston Research + Technology Park

At a recent innovation event in Glasgow, Carol Stewart, Business Development Manager of David Johnston Research and Technology Park, set out the thoughts of researchers and companies based at their innovative research park in Waterloo, Canada. Unsurprisingly, their key concern was restrictions on the free movement of labour, and the impact Brexit might have on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

However, Ms Stewart was positive that there would still be plenty of opportunities, noting that the UK and Canada has a relationship as part of the Commonwealth, and that London will still be regarded as a global technology hub.

Overcoming negative sentiment

One important concern is that there is widespread anecdotal evidence that EU nationals are feeling less welcome. Stories of researchers either leaving positions or citing Brexit as a reason for not taking up posts in the UK are becoming the norm. Anxieties caused by a lack of clarity over the long-term status of EU nationals and the complexities in obtaining permanent residency, can only be damaging to the UK’s reputation for international science.  As physicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox explains:

We have spent decades – centuries arguably – building a welcoming and open atmosphere in our universities and, crucially, presenting that image to an increasingly competitive world. We’ve been spectacularly successful; many of the world’s finest researchers and teachers have made the UK their home, in good faith. A few careless words have already damaged our carefully cultivated international reputation, however. I know of few, if any, international academics, from within or outside the EU, who are more comfortable in our country now than they were pre-referendum. This is a recipe for disaster.

With the latest election results, the UK is likely to go through a period of political instability. It will be important  that, regardless of political changes, the UK continues to exercise its role as a leader in science, technology and innovation. That not only means providing funding and facilities for research, but also rebuilding the UK’s reputation as a place where the very best scientists and innovators want to live and work.


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