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HEi-know talks to Professor Liz Barnes about the challenges facing her as Vice-Chancellor of Staffordshire University after a year of significant change for the sector.
Professor Liz Barnes has been at the helm of Staffordshire University for just over a year, but it has been a year that has brought unprecedented change and challenge for UK higher education.
The impact of Brexit and the Higher Education and Research Bill are of course top of the list of factors that will have far reaching consequences for the sector. Different institutions will be affected in different ways, and Professor Barnes is keen to spot opportunities as well as potential obstacles within the changing landscape.
In the short term, she has concerns about the Teaching Excellence Framework, and particularly its use of and possible over-reliance on metrics.
“It is becoming so dominated by the hard measures and the metrics that it could distract from the good things that we are all trying to do,” she said.
She cites the example of a student who won the Staffordshire VC’s prize last year – a 58-year-old who had only just found the opportunity, after caring for others, to expand her horizons.
“Now she’s running foodbanks, setting up an LGBT group in the church and studying for a post graduate qualification. But ultimately in the Destination of Leavers of Higher Education survey, that’s not going to score us anything when the focus is on graduate level jobs and income. The hard metrics fail to pick up on the kinds of experiences that transform lives, and contribute to society, in many ways other than the bank balance.”
Given that 40 per cent of Staffordshire’s intake is from disadvantaged backgrounds, the whittling away of the Student Opportunity allocation leaves a significant funding gap. To help bridge this Staffordshire aims to play to its regional strengths, and ensure the university is among the recipients, outside of the major cities, that benefit from initiatives and opportunities emerging through for example the Midlands Engine and the Constellation (previously Northern Gateway).
“We are a civic university and very much a regional university,” said Professor Barnes, who was born in Stafford. “We are focusing on how we align our portfolio and courses to the needs of the region which includes our world famous ceramic industry. We are looking at how to increase the number of engineering courses, for instance, and reviewing logistics because we have a lot of distribution centres in Staffordshire as well as exciting developments like Ceramic Valley.”
Strong relationships with employers means the university can make the most of the national focus on higher apprenticeships. Staffordshire is the biggest recruiter with approximately 200 students on higher apprenticeships, expected to rise to 500 within the year. Professor Barnes sees this as “a real opportunity for universities like ours and a positive brand that the general public understands”.
“We are also working closely with college partners,” she said. “For instance we are driving Vodafone apprenticeships. Level 2 and 3 are delivered through Stoke College and then they come to us for the higher level apprenticeship, so it is a seamless delivery.”
Staffordshire is also looking to provide apprenticeships for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) which might only need one apprentice and want a variety of flexible modes of delivery.
After a much more coordinated and strategic approach to student recruitment generally – including a new associate dean role for recruitment - numbers this year are looking positive.
Stoke on Trent has a very low progression rate for HE, but Professor Barnes is looking at that as an opportunity.
“We are working with children in schools, including primary, raising aspirations and looking at the routes through to higher education. We have a sixth form college in the University Quarter and we’ve been looking at making offers to students of six year courses – three years in sixth form, including foundation, and progression to university.”
Research has been only a small part of the university’s activity but Professor Barnes is looking to grow it – investing £6 million in raising the number of research staff and students - whilst recognising the “current climate is challenging”. Collaboration and partnerships beyond the EU are important not just because of Brexit but because they are the “natural and right way of working”.
There are currently nearly 20,000 students overseas studying for a Staffordshire degree. Professor Barnes is looking to increase market share of international students on campus which currently stands at 5 per cent of the Staffordshire student body. She is also championing more linkage between campuses in the UK and overseas with virtual student projects and teaching. There are also plans to encourage more Staffordshire students to spend time overseas as part of their studies, and they are exploring offering grants for flights or living costs. Other promising avenues arise from the fact that some of Staffordshire’s longstanding partnerships abroad, such as in Oman and Malaysia, have resulted in a strong alumni presence, connecting to employers overseas.
She is keen to capitalise on the long-standing industry reputation of Staffordshire computing graduates, who are in high demand. Part of the university’s five year strategy focuses on being digital in every course. Big investment in state of the art facilities means the university can explore research, business and employment opportunities and support the move to digital across all sectors and industries.
“It’s not just about businesses that you would automatically think of as digital. Much of the work carried out by legal companies for example is now digital. We are looking at agri-engineering with South Staffordshire College and how digital technologies are coming in to farming. There are so many conversations to be had,” she said.
Overall, a recent upturn in applications for Staffordshire has helped Professor Barnes feel positive about the future, despite the many challenges ahead.
“We are feeling positive. We are happily over-subscribed in areas like Computer Games, Computing and Cyber Security and overall we’ve also had a very big increase in conversion compared to this point last year”, she said. “After four years of gradual reduction in student numbers, hopefully this year will bring about a change. We haven’t been getting our market share so the focus is on driving it up.”
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