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Lies, damn lies and Unistats

5 Sep

I have a good sense of timing (though others will find my decision baffling).

I have just left a university job having helped put a new course on the map and having achieved a 100% student satisfaction score.

What was I thinking?

I use these stats so no one can accuse me of sour grapes for what I’m about to say.

I should also say that I was a reluctant convert to the current fees arrangement because I believe that universities should be properly funded and feel that a system that is in effect a graduate tax is fairer on everyone than raising general taxation so that a lawyer’s daughter can train to become a doctor at everyone else’s expense.

So I’m not opposed to everything that’s happened in HE in the last decade. But ‘student satisfaction’ is a monster. Let me explain why.

Once you create a market, you unleash the power of marketing. Just look at the amount universities spend on media advertising.

What a marketing-led approach to HE means is that all energies must be devoted to student recruitment (putting on a smile at open days). Once recruited, these students must be retained (so no low marks or fails, please – and do avoid being so boring in lectures). Ultimately, they must be kept happy for three or more years in preparation to the annual National Student Survey taken by final year undergraduates.

It’s true that these are best placed to evaluate their course across three years. But it’s also true that they’re focused on getting the highest degree classification with the lowest amount of risk. So no low marks or critical feedback on semester one assignments, please!

Look around our universities. The bright, primary (school) colours are all about the ‘student experience’. The higher fees have resulted in a building boom to improve facilities – and there’s a huge industry making large profits out of student accommodation in our big cities (again, look for the brightly-coloured buildings in city centres).

The safe spaces, no-platforming, puppy-petting culture is another sign of our student-centred world.

Now, where do lecturers fit into this? To university managers they are a cost. To many students they are the difficult people who set challenging assignments and give critical feedback. Why don’t lecturers simply explain how to do the assignment well?

In a perfect world of student satisfaction and university profitability, you’d do away with them. Except…

I’ve told bosses that you can either have high student satisfaction or be a university. Education is messy; it’s challenging. It involves asking difficult questions. It demands risk taking. It’s wasteful.

So much easier to put the money into marketing.

Then there’s the use of the stats. Every course at every university will look through their NSS results and cherry pick the high marks. So everyone’s a winner!

I share these stats because they look exceptionally good. But look down and there are some concerns:

Marking and assessment has been fair: 62%

‘It’s not fair! I tried really hard and you didn’t give me the mark I wanted!’

So, in order to improve my NSS results I’d have to allow students to mark their own work (that’s only fair). Now you see why the number of Firsts have increased year on year.

If I were in the same job next year, I’d be sitting in front of some university managers explaining why my student satisfaction scores had gone down. I’d have to show the plan I wrote this summer to improve on 100%. No, really.

There are good courses out there; there are good universities providing a supportive environment for good teachers. But you couldn’t tell that just from the student satisfaction results.

In a world of university marketing, everyone is putting on their best show. For prospective students and their parents it’s a case of ‘caveat emptor’.

Sorry, I shouldn’t use archaic language (think of student satisfaction).

In world of marketing, it’s a case of ‘buyer beware’.

Now, was I good at explaining this? I have a 100% score to maintain. How was my teaching today?

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When I were a lad…

20 Jul

I was teased the other day for lapsing into Four Yorkshiremen* territory.

The context was a discussion about the purpose of higher education and how we should free students from timetables and assignments and coach them towards solving big problems.

The problem – as it seems to me – is that secondary education is going the other way and students would feel adrift without the constraining structures we provide in higher education.

Assessments were indeed harder ‘when I were a lad’. My university degree was achieved entirely on the results of a series of three-hour closed-book exams. Luckily, I am good at concentrating for short bursts and rose to the challenge. But I’ve never since been required to hand write an exam script. So was this a valid form of assessment?

My students have it easier at one level. But there’s more to life than grades and exams, and they have to negotiate different challenges.

A typical degree course has multiple modules or units each year. Each of these may have several different forms of assessment at different times in the university calendar. Multiply four modules by three assignments and you have 12 assessment points in the year, say. Miss any of these – or mess up on them – and passing the degree becomes much harder.

Keep this in mind when you read the headlines about grade inflation.

We now have the statistics to back up my sense that there are more Firsts being awarded.

It’s said employers can’t make sense of these awards. So what if a First is no longer an indication of a genius (and a red flag to many sensible employers). Instead, it’s a mark of supreme organisational skills – so becoming a useful guide to a skill employers should admire.

Setting aside the problem of handwriting (I’ve lost this skill after decades of typing) – I’d still choose to be assessed by an exam than by continuous assessment. I’d find it easier to perform well the once than to be as well-organised as the best of my students.

When you consider in the challenge of growing up with the pressures of always-on social media, we clearly had it easy ‘when I were a lad’.

I’m meeting some very switched-on graduating students tomorrow. I have high hopes for them and because of LinkedIn and social media I’ll know whether my judgement is vindicated by their performance in the workplace in the coming years.

My degree showed I was good at monotasking. Now let’s praise the multitaskers.

*I already knew I had Bailey ancestors from industrial revolution Yorkshire (see photo). I learnt only this week that my mother’s Sibson ancestor was born just a few miles from me in sheep farming country.

The most important year of your degree

16 Jun

A conventional three-year degree course is more of a marathon than a sprint.

I’ve seen students begin strongly but lack the passion to sustain this to the end. I’ve seen yet more begin slowly but come good at the end.

Most students probably view the year in the middle as the unexciting bit: it’s not new, but nor is it near the end.

That’s why your second year is the most important of the three.

You’ve adjusted to higher education by surviving year one. You’ve worked through the doubts and questions about whether you’re on the right course.

Year two is your time to make progress without the imminent pressure of graduating (or the self-imposed pressure of believing that only a First/Upper Second counts).

You’re familiar with your surroundings, your classmates, your lecturers, the routine. You should have learnt a lot about yourself and what motivates you. It’s time to start putting some lessons into practice.

If you’re studying public relations, that means gaining work experience in different sectors. That means applying lessons to ‘brand you’ and exploring how to develop professional relationships.

Who does this well?

Lucy Hayball has won our #bestPRblogs contest while still in her second year (of four: she’s about to spend a year working in the PR team at L’Oreal in London).

She was an outsider to win the contest as she’d started her blog during the year and had taken time to find her voice.

She’s not a show-off. She’s not a know-it-all. Instead, she’s a thoughtful learner who took us with her as she made connections, applied for placement opportunities and built her personal brand.

Most impressive of all, she did it alone. No classmates were in competition to produce better blogs; no tutors incentivised her by assessing her efforts; the placement year application process is solitary (she’s potentially in competition with her classmates).

I’ve spoken to Lucy about her year, and these are the lessons worth capturing from her year two experience:

  • Keep learning
  • Be humble
  • Push yourself
  • Experiment to find your niche and your voice
  • Find your community and be supportive of others
  • Busy people find time

She made the long journey to spend an afternoon with me at the Search Leeds conference yesterday (where we met someone who’s achieved spectacular success in the five years since graduating with a PR degree).

Lucy knows she’s still a work in progress and there are many tougher challenges to come – but she has the ability to see the bigger picture.

Only at the end did I think to check her age. She turns 20 next month. So she’s achieved this as a 19 year-old.

That’s worth noting – and her achievements are worth celebrating. Youth and wisdom: what a great combination (as we saw from most of the speakers at Search Leeds).

Four Modes of Public Relations

27 Dec

four-modesIt can be trivial, it can be serious. It can be transactional and it can be relationship-driven. It can be tactical and also strategic. It can be external or internal. It relates to marketing – and also to management consultancy.

So how do we describe the full scope of what we call public relations to those students whose life experience and imaginations may be limited to just one or two modes (usually the press office, content marketing and publicity functions)?

Here’s a model that seems to me to describe these four modes. It’s based on the relative level of creativity and the relative level of value-added consultancy offered. It uses the existing division between marketing communication (‘marcom’) and corporate communication (‘corpcom’).

In this model, the ideal position is to be a highly creative consultant adding value to the client or organisation through strategic public relations leadership.

The least value is offered by those transactional functions that are routine and less creative: these roles attract the lowest pay and are first in line to be automated.

There are tensions, though. At one end, there is the continued encroachment of marketing into the domain of public relations (or some would say blurring of the boundaries between the two). At the other end, there is the question of whether public relations remains a distinctive management discipline, or whether it becomes a part of management consultancy.

The recently-announced acquisition of risk and crisis management experts Regester Larkin by business advisory firm Deloitte is a significant development in this value-added space.

Teaching quick, learning slow

15 Dec

Education is ripe for disruption. The expense, the waste, the disappointment, the frustration.

I see this first as an educator and describe it in this paradox: the more I teach, the less they learn. But if more is less, does it necessarily follow that less is more?

Large fees and the pressure for high levels of student satisfaction mean that higher education is in danger of offering less just as paying ‘customers’ are demanding more.

So I’m not surprised that the entrepreneurs are circling. I’m glad that Richard Branson sees the irony of speaking out on education, but welcome his challenge to what we do.

Of course education can be speeded up (I’ll give some examples); but it’s growing up that takes time.

I have taught in two weeks a postgraduate course that would normally take a whole semester. We had classes from 9-1 five days a week for two weeks (that’s 40 hours of ‘contact time’) and assessed students before, during and after the teaching. It was intense; it was exhilirating. We were all in a foreign country which added to the richness of the experience and ensured near 100% attendance.

I also teach on professional qualifications which are taught over several days within a year (or by a mix of online and face to face teaching). This reduces costs and increases effectiveness.

Both approaches work well. But in the former case, these were sophisticated, older postgraduates. In the latter cases, these are practitioners who can apply the lessons to real-world contexts.

The challenge comes in the traditional space for HE – the 18 year-old school leaver. For them, HE still needs to provide a rounded education if it’s to provide value lasting a lifetime. Independence, resilience and team working are some of the soft skills that students gain by leaving home and attending university. That’s before they start gaining any specific vocational skills.

So training can often be quick, but education is necessarily slow because it proceeds at the pace of the learner, not of the teacher.

Besides, time is the most precious commodity we have. We deny our children time by over-scheduling their lives. Adults are denied time by the demands of work, living and family. University students are granted a special opportunity in being allowed time to develop.

Sure, much of this time will be wasted – or spent working to pay the bills. But some of it will be used to dream up a better future or new business opportunities. Creativity demands this cognitive surplus, and that’s surely something Richard Branson would applaud.

Without creativity, we’re just drones.

 

 

What’s your relationship with education?

11 Aug

the unseen powerUp to aged sixteen, our relationship with education is defined by compulsion. Up to eighteen by coercion since there’s pressure to stay on at school until 18 and young people are still strongly influenced by parents and teachers.

When students then go on to higher education, many assume their relationship with their university changes to that of a consumer (since they’re paying for a service).

In reality, it’s something else. A consumer is entitled to the product or service they have paid for, but a student is not entitled to a (good) degree just by paying. They have to earn it by demonstrating attainment over a succession of increasingly challenging assignments.

So educators view students as collaborators in learning. Without the levers of compulsion or coercion, we rely on encouraging a culture of collaboration. Among postgraduates and professionals, it’s even possible to achieve a community of learners who can gain as much support and motivation from their classmates as from their lecturers.

Compared to the simple transaction of a consumer paying for a product or service, this may sound nebulous. Some good graduates do not even recognise the role of their lecturers and tutors in collaborating in their progress. But greater autonomy is the outcome of this collaborative process and educators do not necessarily seek recognition. They are, like public relations, an unseen power.

The craft that dare not speak its name

14 Dec

I love PRPublic relations (or PR). There, I said it.

Many people (including some of those who work in the field) have a problem with the term ‘public relations’.

But what’s so disreputable about paying attention to the public (or, better, having regard for the public interest)?

What’s wrong with building relationships with those who matter to your organisation or cause?

If there’s nothing wrong with PR in principle, then the problem must lie in the way it’s practised – or in the gap between principle and practice.

That allows its critics to condemn public relations as, um, a PR exercise. To damn it as spin, manipulation or lies.

That’s why so many practitioners – particularly in the public sector – prefer to use the neutral sounding ‘communication/s’. When the public is paying for your service (though taxes), you want to avoid the charge that you’re using public money to hide the truth.

Communication/s: sounds good, doesn’t it?

There are two problems though (besides the point that no one can agree on whether it should be singular or plural).

One is practical. In a world in which all professional and managerial work involves communication, what sets the paid communicators apart? Doctors and lawyers communicate; accountants communicate; managers communicate. Communication may even distinguish the good ones from the rest, but communication doesn’t define what they do.

The other is a question  of professional status. Communication is what you do when a decision has been reached: you tell people about it. There’s no implication that professional communicators help shape those decisions. (In other words, it suggests a functional rather than a strategic role for comms practitioners).

Yet public relations – the practice that manages relationships with groups that are important to the success or failure of the organisation and which has regard for the public interest – goes beyond communication. It has a say in how the organisation behaves.

Why does this matter? Public relations had a good twentieth century, its first century as a named practice and would-be profession. It established itself; became an academic discipline; increased rapidly in numbers and gained professional and trade associations. There’s now a lot invested in the name.

If that name is misunderstood and widely discredited – then how can the field continue to assert its relevance and significance?

There are no lack of those in more assertive and less self-critical fields who’d like to make a land grab. Marketing, advertising, human resources, management consultancy and the law all overlap with public relations.

This is why discussions around the role, purpose and (even) definition of public relations matter. They’re not mere academic questions: they matter to the work of tens of thousands of people. They matter to the organisations why hire and pay them.

These questions even have implications for the strength of our democracy and society.