The University’s Strategic Plan 2012-2017: A review two years in

IBERS

Photo – Tomos Nolan

THREE years ago, Aberystwyth was the best university in the UK when it came to student satisfaction. It was a huge selling point for potential applicants, and one that the University continues to promote today. Five years ago, the Geography department sat in the top twenty and the International Politics department in the top fifteen.
Over the course of the last five years, though, Aber has seen its stature drop significantly. The Complete University Guide has dropped Aberystwyth from 45th to 70th place in that time, The Guardian’s University Guide has it dropping from 69th to 88th, and the QS Worldwide University Rankings have us dropping from 386th globally to between 551st and 600th. That’s an average drop rate of around 42% across the board. Compare that with Bangor’s 15% and Swansea’s 5% (it actually climbed 35 places according to The Guardian) and it doesn’t take an Aberystwyth graduate to see a trend emerging.

For both this year and next year applications to Aberystwyth are allegedly down, whereas at other Welsh universities they appear to have held steady. Nevertheless, Aber has religiously taken between two and seven per cent more of its applicants in four of the last five years than Bangor, Aber’s closest rival in terms of size and ability.

In 2012, one year after the arrival of brand new Vice-Chancellor Professor April McMahon, the senior management at Aberystwyth University hatched a plan to kick-start Aber’s rise back to the lofty heights of previous years and into the UK’s top 30 places to study, aptly named the Strategic Plan.Whether you’re aware of it or not by now, a read through would be beneficial to any student wishing to engage with the university. By the year 2017, Aberystwyth University was to become one of the best places to study in the UK. Now, having almost reached the halfway point, we should stop to analyse the successes and failures of this plan and to address them accordingly.

The plan itself is broken up into six sections, or six areas in which the University is to “deliver through strategically driven activity” Aber into the top thirty. These were as follows:

• Creating opportunities
• Research with excellence that makes an impact
• Teaching that inspires
• Engaging the world
• Working in partnership
• Investing in our future

As a student media organisation, we have watched since our inception how the University has changed, and I decided it would be worth taking a look at the Strategic Plan in an attempt to shed some light on the issue.

To begin with, the Plan recognises the “values” which make Aber what it is, or was in 2012. “Ambitious,” “innovative,” “people-centred,” “international,” “community-based,” “collaborative,” “open” and “responsible;” the chosen adjectives to describe what makes Aberystwyth special.

The document goes on to highlight the importance of its students and staff, stating that amongst other things, they intend to “work closely with the students union” on decision making, to “provide staff with a quality environment in which to work” and to “recruit high quality students across a broad range of subjects.” Regardless of whether you agree as to the positive or negative progress on these goals, the fact that Aber appears to be accepting a higher percentage of applicants than others means that the selection of ‘high quality’ students could be perceived as one failure.

That being said, the disparity between the entry standards and requirements of 2009 and 2014 is only a jump of 14 UCAS points according to The Complete University Guide. And if the Guide is to be believed, Aber’s standards are nineteen above Bangor. However, both remain a clear 150 points, ten more than a single A* at GCE A Level, below the current 30th place (Glasgow).

Add to that the student-led petition recently created to oust April McMahon which gained 550 signatures, stating that “management of the University since 2011 has left much to be desired”, and a further petition from ‘students and staff’ has gained a further 717. This, combined with the barrage of protests over staff pay (which was a national issue), and the heated protests over Pantycelyn in which students of Aberystwyth claimed not to have been included in decision making at all, does not necessarily make for happy reading.

In ‘Creating Opportunities’, Aber focuses on its ability to provide a university education to anybody with the capacity, highlighting its ‘Summer University’ scheme which 78 people attended last year. It also listed various organisations that the university works alongside to ensure employment opportunities for graduates.
According to the Plan, by 2017 Aber is to “increase opportunities for employer and alumni visits by 10% annually,” to “ensure all staff actively participate in professional development” and to “achieve graduate level employability at least 5% above the national average.” Averaging statistics from the Complete University Guide and The Guardian’s graduate prospects, Aberystwyth has raised its graduate employment level by 4.27% over the past two years. Bangor have increased theirs by 6.04%, and the 30th ranked university has only increased by 1.08% on average. Just 1.5% behind our rival doesn’t seem so bad; it’s still an increase. The Times even put us as having a higher starting wage, so maybe that extra month or so of job searching is worth its weight in gold.

Aber’s second and third aims are to “research with excellence that makes an impact” and to maintain and improve “teaching that inspires.” These may actually be two of the strongest points, highlighting the fact that Aberystwyth is already “recognised as being world leading or internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour.” It’s a point I wouldn’t disagree with wholeheartedly, having looked at the Geography and Computer Science departments alone, although I’d perhaps rein in the rhetoric. Maybe it’s because I’m just an Interpol student and I don’t understand, but some of the things I’ve seen to measure glaciers and advance robotics are insane.

The plan goes on to entail much more of the same, and to “build on the outstanding success of the Aberystwyth and Bangor Research and Enterprise Partnership” with the ‘Strategic Alliance’, which came into force shortly after the appointment of the new Vice-Chancellor and is funded to the tune of £10.9m. Some of Aber’s 2017 goals in this area are to “have 60% of our research judged in the Research Excellence Framework”, to “increase our number of postgraduate students by 250%”, and to “build on our successful research partnerships to create ten internationally-renowned research centres (two per year).”

strat planTo put this in to perspective, in 2013 Aber actually won a Times Higher Education Award for Outstanding Contribution to Innovation and Technology and The Times actually has us showing research up by 40% between 2012 and 2013. This was sadly followed by a drop of 18.89% the next year. This does average out at around 13% overall, compared to Bangor’s actual drop of 2.52%. However, it doesn’t change the fact that despite Bangor’s drop, The Times (who gave us an award, remember?) actually rate Bangor consistently higher than Aber, by four whole points even after our 40% jump and Outstanding Contribution award. In creating “internationally-renowned research centres”, Aber are also getting a foot in the door with a total of 41 research centres listed online in place this year. Whether they are internationally renowned is yet to be determined, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Their postgraduate goals actually fall into their fourth aim too, ‘Engaging the World’, in which they aspire to “introduce at least 10 new taught postgraduate programmes each year.” Although I could not find exact numbers on this point, I do know that my own Masters, ‘The International Politics of the Internet’, and another in Interpol, ‘Food and Water Security’, are both new. With two in a single department, ten doesn’t seem too far off. Also, with investment being put into postgraduate development in the Old College, Llanbadarn and a new Postgraduate Centre on Penglais Campus, we’re also showing a step in the right direction.

As to “engaging the world” in other ways, Aber Student Media have recently reported on how the university “envisages cooperation in all fields of scientific exchange as well as book and publishing exchange” and intends to “hold joint researches, gatherings, exhibitions and meetings with the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy and have recently made firm their plans to open a brand new campus in Mauritius. Both have been questioned by many, the former for its State being consistently ranked as ‘not free’ by Freedom House’s ‘Freedom in the World’ reports, and the latter for its unapparent cost. Neither, however, can be stated as the University failing to “engage with the world.”

For “teaching that inspires”, Aber intends to “improve on our already outstanding performance in the National Student Survey to be the top university in the UK for student satisfaction”, and to “revise our undergraduate portfolio and develop programmes such as Hospitality Management and Bio-Veterinary Science” among others. Whilst we don’t yet offer a course in either of the latter, we do hold an Animal Science degree and we still have another three years to get that sorted. When it comes to the National Student Survey however, things don’t seem as peachy as they look. Whilst Aber does religiously hold its place in the top 30, it’s down from 3rd place overall in 2012 to 25th now, dropping 4.35% in just three years. Bangor shows a similar drop percentage wise. It’s difficult to analyse as Aber clearly does still have a huge student satisfaction rating, but for how long?

The Plan’s final two aims, ‘Working in partnership’ and ‘Investing in our future’ focus on “collaborating with other universities, with the local community and Further Education”, along with “ensuring Aberystwyth’s future sustainability and growth.” Here, it highlights not just the partnership with Bangor, which since 2006 has generated a total of £64m in funding, but with the Welsh Government and the Aberystwyth community. It made note of events such as The Halford Tour Series which I myself had the pleasure of stewarding two years ago, adding myself to some of the “17,000 hours of volunteering in the local area” contributed by students to the local community and the CADARN Regional Strategy for Mid and North Wales working with colleges to establish learning routes other than Bachelor’s degrees.

All of it sounds fantastic, and the goals of the two (if achieved) are also. ‘Working in partnership’ intends to, by 2017, “develop eight global partnerships with universities outside of the UK”, to “increase our partnerships with industry,” and to “establish at least 20 additional continuing professional development projects.” I’ve already stated that the University is establishing partnerships in Azerbaijan and Mauritius, with talk of China on the horizon as well.

If all of the previous sounds fantastic, then “Investing in our future” may look a little less appealing. Losses have been projected due to student intake. With the goals of this aim to “generate a sustainable operational surplus, rising to 3% by 2015 and to 5% by 2017”, and to “refurbish all of our teaching spaces to world class standards, facilitating flexible and inclusive teaching and learning”, making a loss year on year into the millions does not bode well. However, what we have seen is that the University is investing, despite all of this.

I’ve already mentioned Sports, Halls, Old College, Llanbadarn and Mauritius. It’s evident from the wonderful IBERs building, the research greenhouse at the National Plant Phenomics Centre and the Dyfi Biosphere; all of which the University have had a hand in developing. We live in one of the most beautiful places you could go to university, and things like The National Library, Old College and the wonderful seafront wouldn’t have been made possible without the Uni. It’s just a shame that as student numbers dwindle and student satisfaction goes down, the amount of money brought in by tuition fees and university accommodation rent will go down with it. It’s one hell of a difficult situation that the management is in, but it’s their job to sort these issues out.

It’s clear here then that by 2017, we can’t really expect Aber to have met all of its expectations set out in the Strategic Plan. However, that’s not to say it can’t in the future. We are, whether you believe it or not, making progress in a lot of areas, just very slowly and not at the same pace of our Varsity competitor.

I realise perhaps that this may just read as an Aber/Bangor comparison, but given the fact that within this Strategic Plan we’ve signed up to many of the same directives, it’s clear that they are doing something that we aren’t. Both of us have invested in new Welsh halls, and both haven’t gone down swimmingly to say the least. Both have invested in sports facilities, and Aber have recently renovated their swimming pool, adding new rugby and football pitches to the Fferm Penglais development. And both have invested in halls of residence and postgraduate development, with Aber’s Old College due to be refurbished to that end.

There’s also something to be said of the University management’s approach, even if the Strategic Plan may not be working out perfectly. Even Kieron O’Shea, possibly one of the staunchest anti-establishment supporters we’ve seen at the University, finally got a meeting in the Visualisation Centre following his petition and decided that the management were doing the University more good than harm. Whether that’s true or not is pretty impossible to tell without the test of time, but after going over some of the facts I’m happy to sit back and see. The Strategic Plan is available to view online from the University’s website. Well worth a read!