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Behind the HE headlines is one key question – the purpose of universities

The past week’s higher education news demonstrates that there are certain expectations of universities that policymakers, HE leaders and the Augar review are expected to address, says Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of the Engineering Professors’ Council and Chief Executive of outreach organisation Push .

30 VCs sign new Civic University Agreement

Leaders of thirty universities have signed a Civic University Agreement, reaffirming their institution's commitment to their local communities by pledging to put the economy and quality of life in their home towns and cities at the top of their list of priorities.

How to improve the student experience -- ask the students themselves

Jenny Shaw , Student Experience Director at Unite Students, draws lessons on the higher education sector's efforts to improve the student experience from a week of HE news and views.

HEi-think: Why universities should support two year degrees

From this September, students will be able to opt to study an accelerated two year degree, as opposed to a traditional three year course. Professor Malcolm Todd, Provost (Academic) at the University of Derby, discusses why universities should consider the change in legislation and look to offer accelerated degrees.

Research England names KEF pilot institutions

Research England has selected 21 English universities to take part in a pilot Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), which will run between February and May 2019.

HE sector feels the January blues

Feeling blue? It must be January in higher education

Brexit woes and the other "B", Blue Monday, set the tone for a week of HE news and views in which unconditional offers, support for disabled students, and freedom of speech struck a chord for Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE.

 

Looking back at the week’s news, I am reminded by Wonkhe that it started with the “B” word. No, not that “B” for a change; I refer of course to ‘Blue Monday’. Regrettably, the other B word, in all its inglorious chaos, continues to feed our January blues. 

However, it is very reassuring to read how our sector is doing its best to mitigate the possibility of no-deal. While the government gives ‘Plan A’ the once-over to what’s widely anticipated to be a repeat of ‘Plan A’, it was extensively reported, including in iNews, that the universities have brokered their own treaties with institutions across Europe in an attempt to limit the threat of crashing out of the EU without a deal. There is a good summary of the sector’s mood in an HE Insight Paper from HEi-know. In our sector alone, it is sobering to think about the human impact, on people and families, staff and students, through this continued and painful uncertainty.

I despair at the over-simplistic statements bandied about saying how simple ‘leaving’ can be at any price and at the energy and resources institutions are having to divert to firefight the potential crisis. Where the next turn comes in the Brexit debate is literally anyone’s guess, but for my money I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see May get her plan through as the threat of ‘no deal looms’. This has to be the ‘mamma and pappa’ of all negotiations!

I was interested to read a piece in the Guardian by disabled postgraduate student Caroline Butterwick, who says both universities and students themselves should be doing more to help support disabled students, making them more aware of what support is available. As in many areas, government policy and support has changed considerably, therefore it shouldn’t be too surprising that she highlights the latest government survey that reports that just two in five disabled students know the funding available before they start their studies. It will be interesting to see what universities minister Chris Skidmore’s ‘roundtable’ comes up with in respect to disabled student support. The article prompted me to reflect on how a focus on inclusion can help to harness wider benefits. Our latest  blog from Dr Pauline Hanesworth, reminds us that, “inclusive assessment is seen not just as a method by which we can address the requirements of our disabled students, but also as good pedagogic practice for all.”

The release of OfS’s insight paper, Unconditional offers, Serving the interest of students? hit the airwaves and newswires on Friday. The particular concern about the increase in “conditional unconditional offers” leading to a decline in a student’s achieved grades and lack of motivation to study seems to me to be a legitimate one in terms of “serving the best interest of students”. If I am honest, I am not sure I would have worked quite so hard at my A levels knowing I had a secure place at my university of choice. However, I look forward to the OfS’s consultation on how the admissions system can “best achieve the goal of providing every student with a fulfilling experience of higher education". The answers will not be easy, but I strongly believe in both the autonomy of HE institutions and their commitment and ability to support the student interest without, I sincerely trust, the OfS needing to resort to ‘consumer law’.

A sombre piece in the Science & Technology section in The Economist this week under the title of ‘Genetic Disorder’ discusses ‘the reprimand’ of the pioneering biologist and Nobel Laureate, James Watson, for his “unscientific and offensive” views on women in science and particularly on race. The article concludes that Watson’s lifelong desire to provoke “might write a bitter epitaph to an otherwise great scientific career.” Whilst freedom of speech is a defining tenet of academia, happily, the sector is a long, long, way from these indefensible views. In a few days’ time, Advance HE will be announcing the 50th, 51st and 52nd institutional signatories to the Race Equality Charter. We will continue to do all we can in support of institutions in the career and leadership development for women, through our Athena SWAN Charter and supporting programmes.

Finally, on a lighter note, the daily dispatch from the same publication concludes with “Music to read The Economist by”, proposing a playlist inspired by the weeks stories: among them, Jacques Brel, the Pet Shops Boys and Asian Dub Foundation. Come on THE, Wonkhe, Media FHE...the gauntlet is thrown, what should we read your articles by!

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