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Sandra Booth, Director of Policy and External Relations for the Council for Higher Education in Art & Design (CHEAD), reviews a week of higher education news in which concerns emerged over universities’ financial stability due to Covid-19 and the impact of the crisis on students.
A growing number of higher education conferences and events are being postponed or moved online in response to the Coronavirus restrictions.
Amid predictions that higher education will be changed forever by the current pandemic, Professor James Miller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University, suggests the innovative ways the sector is responding to the crisis will make it even more valued in the future.
The current crisis has underlined the critical role played by the UK’s experts and researchers and the institutions supporting them, as well as the need for collaboration between them, says Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business.
As a growing number of universities move teaching and assessment online in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the University of Derby is holding a virtual conference which aims to support staff in making the transition.
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.
What are universities for? This week that question seemed half-hidden behind so many higher education headlines.
Simply at the level of tautology, higher education is about educating people more highly. That might suggest HE is really about the teaching. However, even if teaching is more important than, say, research, it still poses questions about who deserves to be taught: should higher education be the preserve of the most able, particularly those who have demonstrated their ability through academic attainment? Or should it be a tool for promoting social equality, providing opportunities to anyone with potential?
The continuing rumbles in the unconditional offers debate suggest that many do see grades as an essential passport. Recent leaks from the Augar review suggest that he shares the view that there should be a floor of 3 Ds at A level, although in an interview for THE, the English Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore rejected a threshold: “It’s about protecting the most disadvantaged students who may not have had the opportunity to reach those [higher grade] qualifications.”
Personally, I welcome the Minister’s view. The Augar report is already creating divisions in Whitehall, but these will be mere foreplay if its recommendations threaten access to higher education. If per capita student funding is reduced, then one of the first and easiest cuts will be for universities to reduce the £900Mn a year they currently spend on access measures. That would be hugely regressive.
In case anyone needs reminding of the importance of this investment, HESA’s latest data shows progress has slipped into reverse, because the sector, OfS and the government have, in my opinion, taken too short term a view. Meanwhile, the National Education Opportunities Network also published a damning report showing that white, working class school-leavers – men especially – are being overlooked.
As well as protecting the funding for access activities, universities need to take a bold approach on admitting students from under-represented backgrounds with lower grades. A number of Scottish universities have committed to doing just that, but they could and should go far further if they want to make a real difference.
Even if we agree whom HE is for, the question shifts to why? There are those who want to make it about work-readiness as quickly as possible. (Student surveys do consistently show that the first reason for studying is to improve job prospects). On the other hand, some argue HE should be about learning for its own sake.
I don’t believe the two are in opposition. Indeed, as was discussed at a roundtable last week, the best career preparation is entirely consistent with developing a mix of hard and soft skills through a rounded education. Conversely, a paperchase approach to credentials is no more than what the late Ron Dore called “the diploma disease”.
Education, social equality, preparation for work – the job list for universities is getting longer. But we’ve barely scratched the surface. The government has it own ideas about what universities should do and it has been building its ungodly trinity of frameworks to mark HE’s scorecard. Research is rated through REF, teaching through TEF (which has been in the news this week as Dame Shirley Pierce’s review gets under way) and now, as KEF enters a pilot and consultation phase, ‘knowledge exchange’ will also be anatomised.
KEF is well intentioned (far more so than TEF), but sadly, without any funding attached nor any clamour from anyone for the analysis it will provide, KEF runs the risk of being a solution in search of a problem. Nonetheless, Mr Skidmore last week hailed the contribution KEF would make in encouraging universities to contribute more to their communities at the launch of the Civic Universities Commission’s ‘Truly Civic’ report.
This impressive report has prompted 30 VCs to sign up to compacts with their local community. KEF is pale by comparison when it comes to describing the rich ways in which universities often serve a vital function as the economic, social and cultural engines of whole towns and cities.
This focus on urban communities complements another report this week from the think tank The Bridge Group which describes how growing up in a rural community leaves young people beyond the reach of most universities’ outreach and, all too often, when students move away skills are drained and their communities are left behind. We want universities that support not just communities but whole regions too.
So, what are universities for? This week’s news stories demonstrate the weight of our expectations. But, as Augar’s report looms, I fear his recommendations will hinder rather than help universities rise to the challenges. As I wrote in a paper for HEPI in November, instead we need a funding system that aligns universities’ diverse goals with each other rather than setting them in opposition.
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