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Emerging HE policies highlight new political landscape

Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.

Rethinking universities from the outside in

Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.

Is the government missing the real 'levelling up' value of HE?

The Westminster government should wake up to the full potential of higher education to help it meet its ‘levelling up’ goals, argues Professor Martin Jones, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire University.

After a week of 'people power' it is time to listen to students

Jonathan Baldwin, managing director of higher education at Jisc, reflects on a week that’s felt the force of people power – and says it’s time for university leaders to respond to students’ calls for change.

It’s been a week of people power. The George Floyd case, which last year sparked the global Black Lives Matter movement, drew to a close as evidence recorded by a then-17-year-old on her mobile phone helped convict a police officer of murder. Meanwhile, although far more trivial, it’s been an extraordinary week for football. As a Manchester United fan, I’ve experienced some highs and lows – but never have I seen supporters rise with such unity, rage - and, as it turns out, collective power - as they did when UK Premiership club owners and their advisers moved to create a Super League.
What was really being proposed was an elite ‘mission organisation’ in football. A Russell Group, an Ivy League, a Group of Eight. It’s a stratification that reflects what we’ve seen in higher education (HE) over the past few decades. But as sport holds on to its established systems and structures, I wonder whether those that prevail in universities are sustainable into the future. 
During a podcast debate I hosted recently, the Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, Professor Chris Husbands, said “we thought we knew our students. It turns out, we’ve got to get to know them a lot better.” That’s stayed with me – and it runs through many of the major HE news stories of the week. 
For example, we’re looking at reforming our admissions process with a proper eye on the customer – the student – rather than the institution. The idea of post-qualification applications (PQA), where undergraduates apply to university after receiving their exam results rather than on the basis of their predicted grades is a big shift - but HE was disrupted by COVID, so why not take that as an opportunity to look again at our structures, processes and approach? 

Change will bring focus on the ongoing challenges students report at university too. Tackling harassment on campus means listening to what students – particularly female students - are feeling and experiencing. Ditto the issue of free speech. These are clouds institutions can’t blow away until they address both the reality of the problems, and the perceptions of the problems. It is difficult to move forward when students and their parents have lost trust.
And what of teaching and learning? We’re acknowledging that the vocational vs academic debate, and our understanding of learner preferences for blended and distanced approaches, need to be more subtle, nuanced, and reflective of what students want, whether they’re mature learners or school-leavers. Meanwhile, universities are looking again at how we support students through their courses and assessments, and I’m pleased ministers are considering criminalising essay mills in a way, according to Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, “that doesn't penalise students, they are the victims”. We can talk strategically about putting the student first but, historically, National Student Satisfaction surveys have shown that assessment and feedback are often perceived unfavourably, so it’s important to understand what’s going on in the sector. That brings conversations around digital assessments and online proctoring, and a need for open mindedness around the opportunities that artificial intelligence (AI) offers. New technologies may help speed processes up for students, and work in a more personal way. 
Never have questions of value in HE come more acutely into view than during the pandemic – and, if we’re honest, responses from some universities have been patchy. This is a time for the sector to rediscover place and relevance – and that means reassessing our relationships with learners as well as with leaders. It goes back to the idea of people power and the need to stop and listen to our students; to get to know them better, as Professor Husbands, the Sheffield Hallam University Vice-Chancellor, puts it. So while there are frustrations around a lack of teaching on campus as students return from 17 May, we can press on with positivity, continuing with our planning and opening up the social and sporting opportunities learners have missed. Let’s celebrate our wins too. After all, despite our challenges, UK universities still top the league for impact.