Is remote learning here to stay? In the second part of their conversation, Nikesh Gosalia and Phil Baty discuss changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic and various other issues related to higher education. They start with the Research Excellence Framework, and Phil shares his thoughts on the importance of such frameworks and the controversy of universities gaming the system. They also explore the long-term impact of the pandemic on higher education — according to Phil, remote learning will be permanently incorporated along with in-person education to produce a hybrid learning model. Phil addresses the inevitable application of AI in higher education and the need for governance systems to ensure that AI usage remains beneficial. He also talks about the global leveling up of university rankings with greater representation from less dominant nations. To wrap up, Phil shares the most pivotal moments of his career.
Phil Baty is an established expert in university performance and strategy. With 25 years of experience in global higher education, including a decade as the editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Phil is an award-winning journalist and highly sought-after speaker. He is also the creator of the THE’s World Academic Summit. Phil can be reached on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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I know that there is the Research Excellence Framework in the UK, and perhaps many other countries trying to adapt to it, or maybe customize it to their requirements as well. Just like anything else, there are maybe two sides to the story. There has been some criticism around the research frameworks, but at the same time UK in many ways has led just coming up with a framework and perhaps, improving it every 6 years. Just in terms of your opinion on the Research Excellence Framework, does it work, do you think universities need it? And if there are changes to be made, what would be your recommendations, Phil. Yeah, that's a big, big question. It's interesting actually because I think a lot of academics love to hate the REF, as we call it, the Research Excellence Framework. It used to be the RAE in previous incarnation. A lot of academics hate it. It's high stakes. It's grueling. It's a huge bureaucracy. It obviously puts a lot of pressure on individuals around their performance. It is a huge and unpopular exercise and expensive as well to administer. But I have to confess, actually I still believe it's a really, really important principle, on two levels. One, on the most rudimentary level, I think evaluating quality of research nationally is important. I think the transparency is always good for taxpayer funding. We do want to understand taxpayer funding that is incredibly hard to come by in difficult times is being spent well, and that universities are accountable for that and they are assessed for that. There's no question that since assessment was introduced, the quality of British or UK research in general has been improving. I think that competitive element drives performance, focuses attention, focuses minds. I think there is a fundamental point that its measurement is important. But what it does as well, the REF in Britain, is that it is a really important source of funding. We have the dual support funding system which I think is brilliant. Perhaps, one of the reasons why the UK does actually punch above its weight, the UK is relatively underfunded in terms of research. We are way behind the OECD average in terms of the proportion of our GDP that we spend on research. We've been talking about trying to hit the 2.3% for a long, long time. We are way short. We are a long way off. We are worse funded in research than a lot of other nations, and yet we still perform incredibly well. I think part of that is the evaluation system but also this dual support element. We have the research councils who will give out grants for specific projects on competitive basis. You bid, you succeed or fail, you get grants for a specific project. That's the lifeblood of many academics’ day jobs. There's a controversy there about how high the failure rates are, how much time is wasted on failed grants. But ultimately, that grant system is directed. We've got funding for these key areas and you go and bid for that funding. But the Research Excellence Framework funding is what we call QR, just Quality Research. Based on that exercise, universities just get this massive lump sum – it's not always massive, but they get a lumpsum. It says we've evaluated your research. On the basis of your excellence and your strengths we're going to give you X amount of money, and it's yours and you can do what you want with it. For me, that's a really important principle because it effectively protects academic freedom, it protects that really rare opportunity for universities to have blue skies, thinking to have curiosity-led research, and it almost protects the sort of framework of academics and scholars pursuing curiosity, pursuing a blue skies approach. And they are often the ways that create the biggest breakthroughs. The most important research might come from areas where you don't know what the outcome will be, you don't know where it's going. And so it balances the applied research saying we have a problem, we need to solve it, or we have a widget we want to invent. The other area, blue skies, we want to understand the world better. We don't know if it'll be worth any money. We don't know whether we'll make a breakthrough. But we need to understand this. And by understanding it, you sometimes get the greatest breakthroughs. Over the course of history so many of the biggest breakthroughs ever have been through research projects that didn't have a specific outcome in mind. They were byproducts. I think the dual support system that the Research Excellence Framework funds is brilliant and really, really important and it's been very successful for the UK. I think within that of course you have a lot of criticism of specifics. What are the metrics? What are the levers? And obviously, the minute money is attached– and actually in the UK it's not just the money that's attached through Research Excellence Framework, it's the prestige that's attached. It does inform how universities are perceived, how their league tables in the domestic scene are perceived. Reputation wise and funding wise, it's very, very important. Of course, what you do find there is gaming. You do find universities doing whatever they can to game it, whether that's controversial. But in the past excluding scholars, saying they are not research active, not submitting them so their careers are sort of damaged, and they feel slightly humiliating thing to say you are not going to be submitted, you're not research active. There're all sorts of gaming around, do you go for quality or quantity? So, do you submit only a very small number of your very best researches to get a good score? But obviously, you don't get much funding. There was a terrible transfer market where it's almost like the Premier League Football where the top researchers would be paid huge sums of money to defect and take their team to another university, and they take their research with them. That’s not like a footballer who scores goals for Barcelona and then gets headhunted by Manchester City. They don't bring their goals with them. They have to start again. So, there's a lot of gaming and a lot of manipulation because the stakes are so high. But each time around they try and refine it, they try and improve it. They try and reduce gaming and tighten it up. Ultimately, the heart of it is a massive peer review exercise, human judgment, peer-to-peer expert judgment that sits on top of it all. Despite the fact that it's hated and it's problematic, I have to confess, I am not making myself popular here, I actually think it is a positive force for UK Higher Education and I am sure I’ll get a lot of criticisms for that. But fundamentally, it does the right thing for the right reasons. I'm hoping that a lot of listeners are football fans like me, and I think that analogy was really well mentioned. I think you hit home the point. Looking forward, Phil, I don't know if I can say that we are probably out of a pandemic or just on our way. During the last 2-1/2 to 3 years, all of us and all of the industries had to adapt and make a lot of changes. Just looking forward, maybe due to the pandemic or even otherwise, how do you see the next 5, 10, perhaps 15 years, as far as higher education is concerned? I mean I think there's no question that the pandemic massively accelerated our understanding of the role of digital remote learning in higher ed. Obviously, we were all forced overnight to go to remote learning. I think that what's probably been misunderstood is a lot of cases people thought,‘Oh, it just means lectures have moved on to Zoom, and they are boring, and they're passive, and it's all a bit inferior.’ I think what's been clear to me is that there are cases of great innovation and great excellence in good practice and teaching in a remote environment with digital support. There’s no question it’s been a very rapid acceleration of our understanding of that world, our ability to harness that world in a positive way. I think there's probably a sense that there's no fully going back to the old ways. Of course, students want to be back on campus. Of course, the campus environment is still really important. Of course, in-person lectures have huge value, in-person interactions have huge value. But I do think we'll see a more hybrid world where we try and harness the best of both. There's a lot of merit in being back on campus. There's a lot of merit in meeting face-to-face. There are huge advantages to that. But actually there's some amazing opportunities in digital that we should harness, from being more accessible to students, to giving students their access to information on demand, to capturing more of the student behavior in terms of using sort of digital and data to understand and personalize their learning, to bringing in guest speakers from across the world, using some of these platforms to mix up the environment. The flipped classroom, you can bring in a guest speaker on an on-demand lecture from Harvard, and have the students view that online on demand. But then you can then turn it into a rich seminar where on the ground in-person you really explore those ideas and challenge those ideas. I do think there's a wonderful hybrid world out there that we have accelerated. And a lot of universities have talked about starting to really feel confident about coming out of the pandemic. Universities are often saying,‘We won't go fully back. We will always now retain an element of hybrid.’ I think that's here to stay. I think that raises questions about the sort of physical environment. I do think the idea that the campus is dead, or in-person education is dead is nonsense. I think that's a huge exaggeration. I do think universities will use campuses differently. Do they need a lecture theater for 400-500 students when they are all sitting in silence listening to a great wise scholar? Is that an appropriate way of learning anymore? You can get that online? Should you use the spaces for more interactive learning, for more collaborative learning, smaller groups, seminars, problem solving? Maybe, the traditional lecture is starting to phase out and to lose its relevance even though it's been in place for centuries and it’s been effective. I think people are recognizing it's not the best way to impart knowledge. So, that's an issue. I think assessments, the forced move away from everyone sitting in an exam room in silence for 3 hours has probably asked people to say, hang on a minute, is that really how we should assess people's ability to thrive in the workplace or their ability to thrive in the society? Do we ever really have those sorts of assessments? Should we not rethink assessment and be more thoughtful about how we challenge and test students’ knowledge, how do they prove themselves in the real world? And it's usually through teamwork and problem solving, etcetera. I think those sorts of changes will be permanent and accelerated. I think it's good. I think it'll enhance the overall student’s experience. I mean, in terms of the future one of the major pushes that we see everywhere is lifelong learning and micro-credentials. I went to a Tech Summit in Saudi Arabia not long ago, and a very senior Chief Executive of a learning platform said,‘Oh, well, what Spotify has done for music, what Netflix has done for entertainment, what Airbnb has done for the hotel industry, we are going to do for higher ed.’ And the hype was crazy, who needs the university when you've got an education platform where you can just take bite-sized courses, MOOC courses, micro-credentials, build your own credentials. I think that hype is misplaced. I think universities have been around for centuries for a very good reason. There are very important reasons why a 3-year or 4-year-degree, an immersive deep-learning degree is right and appropriate. I think those skills and that type of learning will be essential for our future knowledge economy, the digital economy. We need problem solvers, deep thinkers, critical thinkers, communicators, contemplative people to get us through the future of uncertainty around AI, etcetera. But I think lifelong learning will be massive. The set of skills you learn at university should be lifelong skills, qualities and attributes, rather than actually technical knowledge, because your technical knowledge will need refreshing a lot. I think a lot of flexible, a lot of on-demand, a lot of micro-credentials, a lot of credit accumulation transfer will be a normal part of education out there. Hopefully, your degree will teach you how to learn, to learn how to learn, to learn how to think, but you'll perhaps have to keep going back to either universities for small courses or other providers in the private sector for bite-sized chunks, micro-courses, flexible learning throughout your life. But I don't believe that the traditional university model is going to be fundamentally disrupted. I just think we're going to have a more blended economy, a more mixture, more entrepreneurial universities. But for me, the core 3-year or 4-year immersive full-time degree will still remain incredibly popular and incredibly important. We just need to be flexible and creative around the edges of that in terms of widening access and letting people access smaller chunks of learning throughout their lives. I fully agree with you. I think, yes there will probably be some enhancements. There'll be changes to make the whole experience perhaps just more engaging, seamless, but the fundamentals probably won't change. Personally even I've decided to kind of go back to studying, to upskilling myself as part of lifelong learning. I agree with you, Phil. I know you briefly touched upon AI to kind of elaborate a little further while talking about the future of higher education. Do you think technology, specifically things like AI, do they have a place in higher education or do you think it's highly controversial, there are some ethical issues. I think it really depends on the application. I think on one level inescapable, I think AI is just going to become more and more of a part of our world. It’s going to be developing so dramatically. It'll be much more of an important part of our economy, much more of an important part of our daily lives, and also the workplace. Certain roles and skills could easily be replaced by more autonomous thinking machines etcetera. There is a sense it's inescapable. On one level actually I think that it almost makes the demand for university degrees in the arts and humanities more important, because actually we need an ecosystem, we need lawyers, we need philosophers even to cope with what it really means if we do get to position, and I am sure we will, where we can't differentiate between a thinking machine and a human being. Actually, the dystopian idea is that machines could potentially subjugate humans. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that that could be a reality. It's a science fiction nightmare that may well happen unless we actually create the right framework, the right structures to govern that properly. I do think all the softer elements of university degrees around arts and humanities will play a massive role in that, genuinely understanding what humanity is in a world where AI could have really, really progressed massively. I am a massive fan of lawyers, ethicists, philosophers, historians to be really part of the , conversations about how AI affects society. But that's really looking at AI as a society. In terms of AI in higher ed, I think if it's governed properly and done well, I think it has extraordinarily potentially positive applications in identifying talent, helping with admission processes, marking and providing feedback to student work. That could all be very positive if the correct ethical frameworks are put in place. Obviously, we do know even from these early ideas around early AI where human biases get implanted, racial prejudice almost comes through, you got all sorts of things where the design of these things, human weaknesses and human prejudices creep through. I also remember hearing about a conference we did, and all the black delegates were all held up with the facial recognition systems because they didn't actually properly recognize and understand their skin color, just really basic errors like that. You hear about all these bots that become prejudiced and unpleasant because they are learning from the data on social media, for example, and have all the human weaknesses there. If we can have a governance system that prevents all those awful potential negative side effects, I think we should be thinking of harnessing AI in positive ways. Certainly around research, you think about basic elements of research where you have to maybe manually scan. In medicine, for example, you are manually scanning for tumors or abnormalities and the ability to extremely rapidly process information. Those sorts of benefits bring huge opportunity to higher education i f harnessed correctly. I think it's in the same way as its role in society is going to be highly provocative, highly controversial, and will require really serious scrutiny and ethical frameworks in governance. I think it could be deployed to very positive ways in society and in higher education with the correct degree of accountability, scrutiny, and guarding against some genuinely worrying negative consequences. Thanks, Phil, I know that you wrote an article describing a global leveling up that's currently taking place. How would you describe the leveling up that's happening in the universities? I think that is something that really, I touched upon earlier actually, that when you look at longer term trends in rankings, particularly the world rankings, you do see that traditionally dominant nations are starting to wane a little bit in terms of the rest of the world catching up. In the world rankings that are coming out in October, we will see much greater representation from Africa, for example. We will see the continuing rise of the Middle East. I mentioned Saudi Arabia and UAE earlier on. They will continue to rise and show further progress of ranking. China and other East Asian nations will cement and creep up and show more representation. It’s really a sense that the rankings, the traditional world rank has been massively skewed towards North America and Britain, in particular Western Europe. We will see that that dominance is slowly but surely starting to wane. There's much more equal excellence out there, much more equally distributed excellence. It’s still numerically the US, UK dominate, but it's starting to change. I think that hopefully has a virtuous circle element that other nations get more prominence, other nations are better at retaining talent, there's not just such a straightforward brain drain from East to West, because that's traditionally been the case, hasn’t it. If you are a student in India or a student in China, if you want the best education you've always thought, well, I’ll move– with the exception of IITs in India, I'll move abroad, I'll go to Britain or go to America. That's changing rapidly now. There are many more universities in Asia, Central, Southern, and Eastern Asia that can say we are world class now. We can keep hold of more of our talent. It will be a virtuous circle. It's the rising of rankings. Hopefully, that means they retain more talent, they retain more equal collaborations and partnerships and they strengthen further and it's good news for the world. That was my main point around leveling up. The other point I'd make as well is that even our sense of what excellency is, is starting to change. I spoke earlier about the sustainable development goals. There's no question for me that actually the way the global sector has embraced impact of the SDGs as a mechanism for showing their excellence has almost change how we perceive excellence. Let’s say, Harvard is one of the very best universities in the world because it has very, very comprehensive excellence, has world class researchers across all departments. It produces research that's the most prestigious. It attracts the best students. That's excellence in one measure, but what about excellence in social mobility? Harvard's not leading the world in giving opportunities to most talented young people from deprived backgrounds. It's not doing the best job in terms of making sure its doors are open to talent from wherever the talent comes from with whatever social backgrounds. And that is a form of excellence as far as I am concerned. It’s a role in society that's important. Similarly, you might have one university might get a Nobel Prize for a cancer treatment that’s effective, but another university might not be doing that work but they might be training legions of nurses and healthcare workers that do such important work on the frontline that saves many lives in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. I just think understanding excellence in different ways and understanding the contributions universities make can be multifaceted and highly varied is starting to change the way we look at excellence. In those impact rankings, the nice thing is that yes, we have UK Russell Group universities in the top 10, but we also have far less wealthy, far less prestigious universities from all over the world excelling in those rankings as well. So, that's part of a leveling up as well that it's not just rich Western universities that dominates. We are discovering types of excellence in other parts of the world. So, yeah, I think it's a really positive force across higher ed that we are seeing more diversity and more global equality. And hopefully that drives further global equality as well. I know that you read, and you write a lot yourself about a variety of topics, but of course about higher education, about universities, and future of education. I think what a lot of listeners will benefit from is how do you keep yourself updated about the industry? Well, one of the greatest sources actually, I have to admit, is Times Higher Education itself. As I mentioned, we've been around since 1971 as a source of news. We literally have a great, great army of journalists who are writing about the sector. In the UK, we have roughly 20 journalists. We have some journalists representing us in Europe. We have journalists representing us in Australia, looking at the Asia Pacific region. Of course, because we also have Inside Higher Ed, the other platforms in the Times Higher family, we have a large number of journalists in Washington, DC, covering America. So, we actually have journalists whose full-time job is to tell the world what's happening in higher ed. All of those individuals are experts in their fields, will give news and analysis and commentary on everything that's going on in the world. That for me, being immersed in that means I feel like I am one of the best informed people out there. It's an amazing source of intelligence and information. On top of that of course, you mentioned kindly in the introduction, and I think I mentioned it that I run the Times Higher Education Events. The World Academic Summit is an annual gathering of very senior leaders, four hundred presidents and very senior managers of the world's best universities. They gather every year. This year will be in New York, next year will be in Sydney. They explore the biggest things that keep them awake at night, the biggest challenges, the biggest changes to the sector, all the issues, so that becomes an amazing source of information. And of course that event is annual, but we have spinoffs. We have the Asia Summit. We have the Emerging Economies Summit. We have Leadership Summit. And then we also have events around the world for digital universities for different job titles. We have the Digital Universities Week Series, which is all about how universities are coping with digital transformation, so not just in teaching and learning but through the institutional management and also research how is digital transforming the day-to-day lives of academics and students and researchers. Then we also have something called THE Live. It's actually called THE Campus Live. THE Campus is a resources platform where academics around the world shares good practice. They literally come on to the platform and provide resources to say, how do you solve this problem, how do you deal with this issue, everything from good delivery of teaching online, right through to equality and diversity, right through to sustainable development, early career research. It’s an amazing community of academics sharing good practice. That resource exists on the website. But then we have a meeting across different parts of the world where those people come together and again share best practice. That can actually be from everything from marketing and communications, right through to the day-to-day job of delivering great quality education to students, good practice, trends, problems, analyses, new ideas. So, yeah, it's brilliant. I am immersed in a world that allows me to fully access some outstanding thought leadership and outstanding journalism content. Of course, on top of that I read other publications as well and try and absorb a lot from social media. I am quite active on LinkedIn, I am quite active on Twitter, try and pick out the gems from my community of social media, friends, and colleagues to see what they are reading and see what they are sharing to absorb as much information as possible. Media is the key for me, but the THE events are outstanding in terms of giving insights and understanding where the world is heading. This is really fantastic, because I am sure a lot of listeners will benefit from the fact that there is so much depth around the things that THE does, so thank you for sharing that. I know you are extremely passionate about this industry, higher education in general. And throughout the conversation today, I can see that you've highlighted that particular aspect. But any interesting moment or experience that stands out probably in your career that made you feel all of this is worth it, it's so good to be in this industry doing what I do. I could be slightly facetious and say, every day I have that feeling. But it is true, I do feel privileged every day. I guess there are a couple of moments that stand out on a personal level. I guess one was, I remember standing in the Rashtrapati Bhavan with the former President of India, standing up on stage in front of hundreds of people talking about our emerging economies rankings and hearing the president, the late president talking about how this data supports the national system in India because they need those benchmarks, they need those comparisons. That's quite humbling when you think that the data you are providing, the information that you are publishing is helping to shape policy and hopefully helping to promote quality decision-making and improving the university system. But probably the most humbling for me is when I get the real privilege of addressing the Times Higher Education Summits. I am not a scholar myself. I am a journalist through trade. I've been a journalist for many years. Now obviously I'm a business executive to a large extent. But because I run the Times Higher Education Summits, I get the privilege of standing on a stage and welcoming our guests. Just earlier this year, I managed to place myself on the podium where they give out the Nobel prizes at Stockholm City Hall. Only because I am organizing the event, I got to stand at that podium and give a speech to 300 or 400 guests in the beautiful setting of Stockholm City Hall, but also at that moment to release the Impact Rankings and to welcome on to the stage with my colleague Duncan, the winner, the number one ranked university leader from that ranking. I think in that moment to understand that what Times Higher Education is able to do in sharing data, in convening the community, and bringing the sectors from all over the world together. We are the facilitator of their excellence. We don't drive anything. We are there to support, and facilitate, and convene, and inform with data and analysis and content. But just knowing that we have brought together this amazing community of changemakers, of leaders, of people passionate about the social impact, passionate about how to make sure universities do genuinely make the world a better place, it was unbelievably humbling. And then the personal privilege of standing in a place where so many giants of academia and research had been was particularly special. Yeah, I get a lot of those amazing moments but that was probably a big standout for me. I know what you mean. If you are really passionate about what you do, then there are these kind of moments that happen pretty much on a daily basis, because you are just so passionate about making a change. I know you've mentioned you are involved in so many things. There are events to run, there is traveling. I am not sure even if you have one, but how does your day look outside work? Well, I have to confess, I got an incredibly narrow life outside work because I do dedicate so much of my time to it. Obviously, I don't really work 9 to 5 because the community we serve is global. We are often working in different time zones. And if we are not physically traveling– we are doing slightly less travel to support the environmental impacts and we reduce our travel. But when we are not traveling we might often do meetings and have conversations at all hours across different time zones. I am ridiculously busy. I mean, to be frank, I have two priorities, and this is in no particular order. One is Newcastle United. I was born and raised in the Northeast of England and I am a fan of the football club, Newcastle United, the Premier League team that's always usually on the brink of relegation. But it provides a focal point, an outlet for me. I don't get to go to that many games live, but I do follow as much as I can. So, that's a nice outlet. And also link back to my home community. I've lived in London for 30 years now, but I do feel strongly about my home roots and get up there as much as I can. So, that's one passion. My other passion is, I do have two kids who are reaching – one 18-year-old and one 16-year-old, so making sure I am as supportive as I possibly can be of their own ambitions and their own goals and dreams and to be there for them. I don't often talk about my kids because I think they deserve that privacy, but they are my priority. Thank you, thank you for sharing that Phil. I highly appreciate that. And being a football fan myself, like I said, looking forward to the new season and lots of changes at Newcastle United as well. So hopefully, they'll have a great season. We will have another hour podcast about Newcastle to be honest, but now is not the time. Yeah, exactly, the team that I follow, the least that we talk about them is better. I've been a Man United fan all throughout and I guess, I'm still living in the past. So, yeah, the less we talk about it, the better. Thank you so much for your time. It's a pleasure, absolute pleasure to talk, and thank you for your engagement and your time. Thank you everyone for joining us and stay tuned for our next episode.