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Chris Durkin, Associate Director, Northampton Institute of Urban Affairs, School of Social Sciences

By Chris Durkin, Associate Director, Northampton Institute for Urban Affairs, School of Social Sciences

During 2012 the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and The University of Northampton will be collaborating on a series of activities and discussions linked to social enterprise, innovative thinking and the development of socially creative solutions linked to becoming ‘a leader in social innovation’. Our first joint event (a roundtable discussion) took place on Tuesday 17 January 2012 at the University outlining our shared strategies for encouraging social change and innovation. The event was co-chaired by the University’s Vice Chancellor Professor Nick Petford and Matthew Taylor. The group consisted of a number of fellows from the University, other RSA fellows, colleagues from the public sector and local authorities, Simon Tucker, CEO of the Young Foundation and Allison Ogden-Newton, Chief Executive of Social Enterprise London.

The University has put social enterprise at the centre of its strategy, with ambitions to be involved with partners in developing the surrounding area as a national centre for social innovation. However, what does this mean?

Inevitably if you bring together a number of people you explore different perspectives and ideas. Fundamentally the event questioned what the University was for and where does social enterprise fit within the institution – is it merely a ‘bolt on’ to an existing structure or is it about organisational change with the student at its core. This then brings you into looking at the University’s connection with its surrounding areas and how students could be involved in the wider social enterprise agenda that is slowly changing the face of the public sector.

As a University we need to engage with local communities but not lose sight of our role as educators, part of which is to question, explore and help develop innovative solutions

One approach that has proved successful in generating ideas is the University’s ‘Social Entrepreneur in Residence’ (a joint project with the Young Foundation) – but has that changed the University and enhanced the student experience? On one level it has by using social media to generate ideas through the ‘We do Ideas’ initiative, but like many social enterprises this is only small scale and perhaps it has not changed the University radically, a fact that was not lost on one participant who pointed out that universities are not really innovative and have not changed much since the 19th century. Part of the difficulty in developing the strategy may be a tension between the social and enterprise.

As an ‘Anchor Institution’ the University needs to connect with and help develop local innovation systems if the strategy is to succeed. As a University we need to engage with local communities but not lose sight of our role as educators, part of which is to question, explore and help develop innovative solutions. If this is to occur the University needs to create space for people from different disciplines to come together.

Essentially we need to ask searching questions of ourselves, recognise that although we have come a long way in one year, we need to step back and ensure that our core values are at the centre of all we do and that everybody – staff and students alike are ‘signed up’ to these values; values that are articulated in the University’s strategy. It is these values that will provide the added value and the parameters for engagement with students, staff and surrounding communities.

Although the discussion posed more challenging questions, it will help us focus our strategy. This was an event that is a key element of a developing relationship with the RSA; this small event is part of our journey and the contribution of the RSA and its network of Fellows is already proving invaluable.

This blog was originally published on the RSA Fellowships blog –

Dr Scott Turner, Senior Lecturer, Computing, School of Science and Technology

Recently there has been a lot of interest in the news on more programming and computing  in schools ( I believe this is very likely to be seen positively by a lot of the computing profession. The British Computer Society (BCS) have been  campaigning about computing being seen as a separate subject to information and communications technology (ICT), or computing – at the very least – as an option within ICT in the National Curriculum.

So what is the problem? Computing is more than ICT; there is a belief that people are being put off computing by the difference not being clearer. Common myths include:

  • Everything has been done. This is not true, it’s an area where new things come along all the time. This is one of the exciting challenges of being a computing professional.
  • It is all about using databases and spreadsheets . Using databases is important but so is the theory of them. Spreadsheets, in a computer science course, only play a very minor role and may not even be taught.
  • It is all about business analysis. That is just one aspect, other aspects included but certainly not limited to are:
      • Programming
      • Games and other graphics. Who writes the software in the first place?
      • Hardware. Someone has to write the programs that go into aircraft or cars.
      • Mobile applications A growing area at the moment.
      • Web based applications. Webpages can be produced without a lot of computing knowledge, but making the pages do some of the more ‘clever’ things does.
      • Security. All those online transactions we all do, understanding where the loopholes are, programming tricks that hackers will or could try, takes some computing knowledge.

What role can universities play? Even before the recent news articles, universities have been actively going into and working with schools, trying to bring in a different perspective of computing. Examples from this University include.

  • Junkbots: Using a real programming language to program Lego robots. This has been successfully carried out in primary and secondary schools reaching over 150 students.
  • Be Switched On: An on-campus activity giving Year 12 and 13 examples of computing at university. Activities include programming robots or building 3D computer models.
  • Women into computing: presenting an alternative face to computing by school students meeting female computing professionals and computing students.

It is in the best interest of universities to do this.  Undergraduates who know something about programming and computing before they start would make the courses even more intellectually stimulating.

As an aside, personally I find ideas tried in outreach activities sometimes inform or lead to activities I do with undergraduates, as well as the other way around.

Ross Thompson, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Management, Northampton Business School

As a strategic management lecturer I am often bemused by the fact that students and colleagues alike seem terrified at the thought of introducing the concept of real options into the strategy curriculum.  I was so perplexed that I put this very question to Professor Robert Grant of Boconi University when he visited my University’s campus recently.  Rob thought that the problem was rooted in the negative impression many academics and students had towards the complex mathematics involved in the valuation of options. Taking on board Rob’s comments I have concluded that educators such as myself have not done a very good job at ‘selling’ options (no pun or should that be put! intended) and have given students, and the wider community, the impression that these are highly technical and specific financial instruments that are so remote from real life meaning that studying them is unwarranted. Nothing could be further from the truth.

These negative impressions are largely based upon the perceptions of financial options, or to put it another way, derivative options, options that have no primary asset identity and instead are based upon the value of an underlying primary asset such as a share, commodity or bond.  Treasurers use these instruments to hedge risks, arbitrageurs look to make profits via cross-market trades and traders (like me) use options speculatively. However this is less than half the story as many options are real rather than derived and affect all aspects of our lives.  They are also worthy of consideration when it comes to decision making in both our personal and business lives.

An option can be described as a right but not an obligation to do something and therefore exist in all walks of life from  getting married to taking the train or a coach.  Options are therefore valuable as they give us choice; this value is caused by a number of factors but principally by the ability to delay a decision until further information becomes available thus increasing the chance of making a better decision.  One such real option though is particularly important to me and other educators: the level of optionality embedded in degree programmes. 

As part of my own research interest in graduate employability, I am very interested in learning the scope and value of the various career options embedded in University degree programmes. What I am suggesting is that certain degree subjects are more option laden than others and this, often hidden, component adds to their value as they effectively contain the key to many careers. Probably the best example I have found is mathematics; this subject is simply replete with options because as well as being a highly rated academic subject, it provides an excellent technical underpinning for careers in science, engineering, actuarial science, accounting, surveying and manufacturing to name but a few.  Sometimes degrees that seem specialist in nature and therefore look, on face value, to be lacking in options do indeed have a number of embedded options.  Let’s now take the example of engineering: initially one might think that an engineering graduate who decides not to pursue a career in engineering may be a little stuck for choice. On closer examination though, one can see that the core skills needed to succeed in engineering (such as mathematical modelling skills) are similar to those needed in financial career such as technical analysis and structured finance.

This is very interesting and sends out two very clear messages. Firstly, educators who are interested in maximising the employability of students on their degree programmes should consider identifying and advertising the embedded career options in their courses.  Secondly, prospective students should also consider the embedded career options on degree programmes before making their final selection decisions.

Dr David Burnapp, Senior Lecturer, Leisure Management & Languages, Northampton Business School

An area of higher education activity which should be seen as fertile ground for the development of open-access materials is staff continuing professional development. Taking the UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education as a starting point, and analysing it for traces of its underlying ethos, it can be seen to be based in an expectation of openness and sharing. The standard descriptors are based on an expectation of developing research, scholarship and/or professional practice both as a principle of personal development and also in the development of learning communities.

The paradigms of action research and reflective practice – which often underpin CPD – essentially involve both individuals and institutions in wider communities of practice. At one stage of the reflective and reiterative cycle you need to review examples of best practice within such communities, and at a later stage you feed back to those communities the fruits of your own development activities via conferences, journal articles, and involvement with professional interest groups.

As our own communities of practice can be seen to be not just local – that is within our own institutions, but simultaneously national or even global – then the development of web 2.0 technologies allied to the philosophy of open access can create powerful resources for CPD. A clear example of this is the recently completed Teaching International Students project hosted at the Higher Education Academy.

I have been involved in the development of two other open-access resources designed to enable CPD, particularly in relation to internationalisation of higher education. The earlier of these is a course pack of open materials commissioned by the Centre for Languages, Linguistics, & Area Studies, Supporting international students in UK Higher Education: a course for staff. The more recent, and perhaps more innovative, is an online tool which is an output of a National Teaching Fellowship project concerning international collaborations.

This project involved researching the growing types and increasing complexities of international collaborations in higher education, with a view to enabling institutions to take advantage of previous experiences within the sector to enhance their own collaborative developments. As well as producing linear reports, consisting of seven thematic chapters and 14 case studies, the project has also designed an online tool which allows users to select different pathways to follow through the materials, as different forms of collaboration might need to address different issues, such as resourcing, or quality assurance.

In all there are 10 such pathways. We believe the tool can be used in two ways relating to CPD. The first can be considered a bottom-up approach, where a group of staff who are developing an idea concerning collaboration can use this tool to help to identify issues which they must address, and also to suggest to them new facets they can add to their project to make it more effective and more likely to win backing. The second is a more top-down approach, where managers might use the tool as part of a staff development or as a team-building exercise. The tool, Strategic Implications of International Collaborations in HE (, is now available as an open resource.

In this age of online sharing and learning, plus increasing time restraints on us all to use our time most effectively, professional development through open access materials will only increase in popularity. Its quick and easy to access, and can be tailored to your own needs and learning outcomes. Just look at the popularity of Stanford’s Engineering Everywhere initiative which offers engineering classes free of charge to students around the world, however you want to learn, whether as a traditional student or for the development of your own skills and expertise.

This blog was originally published on’s Higher Education Network (7/11/2011)

Vice Chancellor Professor Nick Petford

What is a social enterprise and why should UK universities take notice? Social enterprises can be defined as organisations that use business methods to make profit for reinvestment in order to achieve a social mission, and not neccessarily shareholder gain. This makes them different from charities and mutuals, and could be used as inspiration for universities.

At Northampton, we are asking what it would mean to reconstitute ourselves as a social enterprise, as a means of reconciling the opposing forces of the market with those traditional cultural values that have made higher education what it is today.
A recent research report published by ClearlySo for the City of London Corporation, City Bridge Trust and Big Lottery Fund, points the way to a number of significant opportunities to engage with the social enterprise agenda. Investor Perspectives on Social Enterprise Financing shows that, in 2010, City investment in social enterprises (businesses with a social agenda but without shareholders) was a paltry £190 million, a tiny figure in comparison with traditional ‘finance first’ investment models.
But things are changing. Since the financial meltdown in 2008, concern has mounted across the world about the desirability of a global financial and banking system seen as serving its own self interest over those societies in which it is embedded. The mood music is that regulation alone may not be enough to satisfy people’s concerns over a system gone awry. But while a command economy is not the solution, blended investment vehicles designed explicitly to maximise return on social impact for the greater good, combined with an expectation of near-market rate returns, may provide an elegant way forward.
The report also shows, however, that despite evidence of demand, institutional investors in the square mile are struggling to identify social-investment products due to a lack of choice. This is compounded by concerns over liquidity, risk mitigation, size of investment required (bigger projects favoured over smaller) and how to measure social impact in a coherent and compelling way.
But what’s in it for universities? The need to maintain income in the new fees environment is one driver and brokering of investment opportunities in social entrepreneurship provides one opportunity. Social impact bonds, such as the scheme run in Peterborough prison that brought together 17 social investors to reduce repeat rates of offending, show how the private, public and third sectors can work together towards a common goal that offers a real financial return on investment. But this is surely just the tip of the iceberg. Universities, with a wealth of expertise in community-focused social care, policing, law, health, teaching and volunteering are sitting on a potential gold mine of intellectual property capable of developing exactly the type of innovation-led products sought after by socially responsible investors.
Key to this will be the Big Society Bank, set up by the government and the UK’s four biggest high-street banks under Project Merlin. Its role is to stimulate the nascent social market by investing in intermediaries who are able to bring social enterprises and allied third-sector organisations together with investors willing to provide access to capital. The outcome would be a suite of financially sustainable social enterprise products geared towards addressing outstanding social needs.
So while the bank represents a supply-side initiative by providing finance, the demand side is where new opportunities await innovative universities, either by creating ‘oven-ready’ social enterprises able to receive investment or by fostering a climate of social entrepreneurship in which social enterprise can flourish.
Students, staff and alumni all have roles to play. Evidence suggests that some of this investment could come from high net worth individuals. Seventy per cent of wealth managers when questioned saw a link between their clients’ philanthropic goals and a bias towards social investment in their asset-management strategies. But just as for institutions, investment by private clients is hampered by lack of choice. A university that can steer its fundraising and development effort towards satisfying this demand is likely to reap significant rewards.
The report makes a number of clear recommendations: use the bank to support intermediaries in building the social market; create pooled financial vehicles to build economies of scale; develop metrics that allow potential investors to assess social return on investment; and develop case studies and models of best practice to promote your strengths to investors. Universities have the ability to play a crucial role in taking this agenda forward and it is in their best interests to do so.
This blog was originally published in Research Fortnight (2 November 2011)
Vice Chancellor Professor Nick Petford

This academic year has started strong for the University – as well as the announcement of our involvement in the Waterside Enterprise Zone in Northampton, we were delighted with the news that the Department for Education has approved two new University Technical Colleges within the county, of which we’ll play a large role. The two UTCs, which are designed to offer 14 – 19 years olds an opportunity to take full-time, technically orientated courses alongside top level work experience opportunities with significant regional employers, are due to be open by 2013 and will cater for over 500 pupils each.

University Technical College for New Technologies, Daventry, will allow pupils to specialise in a vocational curriculum in sustainable new technologies, whilst Silverstone Academy – in the heart of Motorsport Valley – will have pupils training for careers in motorsport, high performance engineering and events management. Traditional core GCSE subjects will still be taught but these initiatives will allow pupils to study in a practice-based way, focussing them on specific career paths and increasing their employability prospects.

So why is The University of Northampton involved? Don’t we teach 18+? The University is a great believer in ‘lifelong learning’ – we have a large cohort of mature students, one of our graduates being 88 years young! But there’s no reason why lifelong learning shouldn’t start even earlier for the higher education sector – we reach out to prospective students in schools and colleges through dedicated activities, and the UTCs will see us directly helping to shape the lives of young people across the county with a firm academic base for the proposed curriculum, and through student mentoring and encouragement of entrepreneurship and business skills. We are making closer links between school age, further and higher education, and UTC students may choose to study further with us, a partner or another higher education institution.

We are a University with established teaching and research excellence – our Schools of Education and Science and Technology are well known for their excellence in mathematics, education, environment-based disciplines and science teaching and will bring much experience and knowledge to the UTCs.

There is also the important issue of skills, especially those that are the kind that employers want and will make sure students end up in jobs. A key theme of UTCs are that employers have direct input into the curriculum, making sure that what is taught is relevant directly to the world of work and the wider economy in general.

Strategically, the UTCs also make sense for us – we are involved with two out of our four partner colleges – Moulton College, the lead sponsor of UTC New Technologies, Daventry and Tresham College of Further and Higher Education with UTC Silverstone. Silverstone Circuits we already have excellent links with – only recently our Journalism students were involved with a competition on-site with them at the British Touring Car Championship – and we work closely with other key partners for the UTCs; Daventry District Council, Northamptonshire County Council, West Northants Development Corporation, and the Daventry Learning Partnership. We look forward to developing closer relationships with all the employer partners involved in the UTCs. These are great developments for the county involving major names and we are proud to be supporting them and helping students achieve their potential at this level of study.

First published in Northampton Herald & Post, 27 October 2011

Professor Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor, The University of Northampton

Universities need research funding. Indeed, I would argue that they need more of it if the country is to realise the full economic and social potential of the excellent research that is done in our higher education institutions – and not just those in the Russell Group.

Universities need investment funding, such as the Higher Education Innovation Fund, so they can pump prime innovations and entrepreneurial initiatives. In Northampton we are deploying our fund allocation to ensure we can deliver our unique social enterprise mission. Other universities use their allocation in other imaginative ways, investing in the delivery of future economic benefits to the country as a whole.

If research and investment funding are ‘project funding’ – and I am not sure they are – then universities need it. What I mean by project funding is money that is won by or given to universities (and other organisations of course) to deliver some form of discrete, non-research project. The now defunct Regional Development Agencies and the European Social Fund have both been sources of large amounts of project funding.

I have a problem with project funding – it comes with a requirement to deliver outputs and outcomes. These outputs and outcomes have to be defined in advance and a detailed plan for their delivery has to be submitted with the project bid. Of course, it is inevitable and proper that the custodians of taxpayers’ money (which is what project funding really is) strive to get the maximum benefit from its expenditure. However, the mechanistic use of outputs and outcomes as targets has two potentially negative effects. First, targets drive behaviour, and this frequently leads to project delivery teams doing things to hit outputs, rather than deliver lasting and real benefit. One of Northampton’s recent PhD students concluded that the funded project she studied (a multi-million pound, regional scheme) had “delivered results that were good for the contract, but negative for the clients”! Second, and more importantly, targets often stifle enterprise and entrepreneurship.

In June this year, The University of Northampton unveiled its new strategy that commits the whole institution to developing social entrepreneurs and social enterprises. It is a very ambitious strategy, involving whole organisation change and huge investments of expertise and capital in setting up new social enterprises, designed to directly improve the lives of people – socially, economically, environmentally and culturally. We have deliberately not sought project funding to help us deliver our mission.

Social enterprises are businesses. They are different from normal businesses in that they have a social purpose and aim to deliver social impact. But they are a business and, unless they are led by customer focused, hard-working, creative, dynamic and flexible entrepreneurs, they go bust. If social enterprises go bust, they can’t do good. What Northampton needs to be a successful, high-impact, socially enterprising university is just about the opposite of what you often get with funded projects.

We will be seeking investment in some of our new social enterprise ventures, but we will be seeking it from the market. Who needs project funding? Not the socially enterprising University.

This blog was originally published on The Guardian Online’s Higher Education Network (26/09/2011) –