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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.

Augar and beyond -- technology can help HE tackle its big challenges

As university leaders anxiously await the Augar review report, Paul Feldman, Chief Executive of Jisc, reflects on this and other HE news this week and looks further ahead at how technology may help the sector address some of the key issues it faces.

It’s been a busy bank holiday weekend. First the Prime Minister resigned, then her colleagues stepped forward to pitch for her job. On my last count, 11 MPs were in the running. On Monday, Nigel Farage’s six-week-old Brexit party trounced both Labour and the Conservatives in those European elections we weren’t supposed to fight.

The impact of any and all of these things on UK education could be huge – but first, the Augar review is coming. Perhaps May will leave a legacy in our field after all. Here’s hoping it’s a welcome one. The report into funding for post-18 education is expected to be published this week, and we wait with baited breath. My hope is that the whole post-18 sector is sustainable and sufficiently resourced so that the UK can become the most digitally advanced education and research nation in the world. FE in particular needs investment if it is to give our children the opportunity to get the skills they deserve.

Meanwhile, as the nation obsesses over Westminster, a Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) report reveals an ‘epidemic’ of mental health struggles among university staff. The THE, the Guardian, and the BBC frantically jabbed the finger of blame for this in a number of different directions - from rising bureaucracy and increased workloads to precarious contracts and a ‘culture of surveillance’.

What can be done? I work with people who think creatively about how technology can support education, educators, and students. We recently formed the Horizons group with other sector experts to address key challenges - and our first report, published in April, focused on student mental health.

This has helped highlight this issue, but there’s a lot of work to be done. Jisc is helping people in institutions better support their students. Our Learning Analytics Service can show when a student’s attendance drops, for example, so someone working in student services can try to find out why and signpost them to help if needed. But who is looking out for the staff? With 55 percent of UK academics saying they’re “stressed”, four in 10 considering quitting the sector, and bullying reportedly being mismanaged within universities, Amazon’s emotion-tracking Alexa is unlikely to provide the level of support required. The sector must address these high stress levels in staff – and at Jisc, we’re asking how technology can help.

We hear a lot about the fourth industrial revolution, and I’m sure this will impact on education in ways I haven’t yet imagined, as well as in ways I have. AI, robotics, big data, the internet of things, and mixed reality all contribute to my vision of ‘Education 4.0’. It sounds a bit science fiction – but some ‘impossible’ futuristic dreams are already a reality. We may not see students whizzing around on hoverboards, but UK undergraduates are turning to chatbots for practical and emotional support and learning through immersive, interactive and responsive technology.

Technology brings fantastic opportunities, but we must tread carefully. This week, The Trust, Transparency and Tech report explored how data should be used ethically to benefit society. In education, this means making sure that students’ privacy is protected, and that they benefit from services that use their personal data.

We also need to teach students how to handle and interpret data. ‘Post-truth’, it’s hard to know which news sources to trust - and even harder to separate facts from ‘alternative facts’. This week, the THE said we should teach undergraduates to question what they read, helping them to use technology to support and enhance their learning.

These issues – leadership, funding, mental health, Education 4.0, data ethics – are all global. To tackle challenges in the education sector and stay influential worldwide, our universities must be outward-looking, collaborative, and at the cutting edge of technology. We must think about everybody and work together to benefit from the digital age.