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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.

Barriers to online learning and technology must be removed to tackle Covid-19 crisis

As institutions consider the short and long-term impacts of Covid-19, Dr Paul Feldman, chief executive of Jisc, reflects on this week’s news and highlights the need to support disadvantaged learners as education moves online.

Whatever happened to the carefree hedonism of youth? That stereotype feels quite hollow at the moment. Under lockdown and unsure what the next month will bring, let alone the next decade, today’s undergraduates are burdened by worries – most notably money and the environment.
The former concern has dominated the news this week, with the rapid move to online and remote learning prompted by Covid-19 highlighting the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Government is under pressure to respond. The NUS claims that 80 percent of undergraduates are worried about how they will cope financially and is calling for a £60m hardship fund to support university students through this crisis. Meanwhile, a cross-party campaign seeks emergency maintenance grants for learners from low-income backgrounds. Supporting our most vulnerable and disadvantaged learners at this time is a huge concern, and I’m anxious that we do all we can – particularly for those who will struggle to continue learning or keep in touch with friends and teachers while their institution is closed.

That’s why the chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC) and I wrote to the education secretary suggesting a scheme to give learners in need free access to mobile devices so they can continue their studies from home through this period of uncertainty. We were delighted to hear the government commit to delivering this for further education (FE) students – but providing laptops and tablets is only part of the problem; access to the internet requires data, and that costs money. Working to remove this financial barrier to learning online, telecoms providers in the Republic of Ireland have agreed to make access to educational resource websites ‘zero-rated for all customers where technically feasible’. I’m working with the chief executives of Universities UK (UUK), the AoC, and Ucisa, offering to collaborate with government and telecoms companies to support further and higher education (HE) students in the UK by removing mobile data charges for education websites during lockdown.

Universities face a critical time financially in the coming months. According to a report published this week, the higher education sector faces a £600 million black hole in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic as prospective undergraduates plan to defer the start of their course. This is forecast to have a significant impact on jobs and the economy, with universities hit by a £2.6 billion shortfall in the next academic year. Overall, the report suggests there will be 230,000 fewer students entering UK universities in 2020-21, as compared to 2019-20 – and it predicts a devastating impact on 91 of the 125 universities it examines.

In response, Labour has asked the government to underwrite HE funding through this crisis. In the meantime, university and college leaders, including those at King’s College London, the University of Edinburgh and St Andrews University, are taking voluntary pay cuts. It’s a worrying time, and the impact for students, staff and the future of some institutions could be huge.

Through all this, I know that, using technology, colleges and universities are continuing to deliver the exceptional standards of education they’re famed for – yet, in the short-term, there are challenges for many. We’ve heard of online lectures being hacked, sometimes with extreme and disturbing content, prompting some academics to warn that the switch to digital learning during the pandemic may increase harassment at universities. More broadly, there are fears around high costs involved in moving courses online and, in some cases, concerns over a lack of preparedness. But we’ve seen amazing successes through this rapid and sometimes dramatic move online too. Experiences, such as those at Wolverhampton College, are inspiring - and the long-term benefits of online and digitally-enhanced education are being highlighted, with the former universities minister Jo Johnson noting increased potential to reach global audiences, for example. Jisc is ready to collaborate with the sector to support this change.
Overall, during this unsettled and unsettling time, I’ve been pleased to see education bodies, technology organisations, government and others coming together to help everyone move productively to working online. As researchers at Oxford, South Wales and other universities make steps towards finding a vaccine for Covid-19, I like to reflect on the positives we might all draw from this situation. Perhaps we could take inspiration from the environmental student campaigners who’ve succeeded in banning investment in fossil fuels at Oxford University, and heed the advice of PhD student Bethan Cornell, who is so impressed with the process of conducting PhD vivas online she feels there will be no need to return to excessive flying habits. For all the anxiety about the future, I hope we’ll see a positive environmental impact emerge from lockdown. Already, as I open the window of my home office, I notice the absence of aeroplanes overhead. Instead, I now hear birdsong.