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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.

Eventful week sees HE buffeted by spelling and campus re-opening rows

Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE, reviews another week in which higher education found itself in the spotlight, even when a royal funeral dominated the headlines.

The week’s news started with something of a furore about spelling and standards through inclusive assessment. The escalation of the debate might have first appeared an early curtain-raiser to the press ‘summer season’ with accusation and denial in abundance. But there were important issues raised to which I will return.

First though to the news dominating the sector headlines early in the week – in England at least – which is the government’s decision to stop students in non-exempt courses from returning to university until 17 May. For many students this date, of course, coincides with the end of the teaching term. 

As one VC noted, “Students can go to self-catering holiday accommodation, buy a book from a book shop and discuss it in person with their tattooist. However, they can’t go to their self-catering university accommodation and discuss the same book in person with their tutor”. Having said that, universities are reporting very high numbers of students who have already returned to their campus accommodation so the students have voted with their feet. Sadly, they can’t get into see said tutor and thus remain shackled to their laptops.

Westminster, it would seem, has not yet really explained its thinking but have rather chosen to fit students into the ‘roadmap’ date of 17 May for return, when they would generally be leaving campus. As every day passes without face-to-face interaction between students and the tutors, and indeed between students and their peers, students are missing out on the essential interactions of university life. Despite the extraordinary efforts of institutions to respond to the challenges of teaching in the pandemic, nobody can pretend that the full vibrancy of campus life can be replicated without actually being there. Students are far from alone in having their normal life curtailed during the pandemic; but when we look at transmission and cases on campus, the number of students already there, and how well the majority of universities and colleges have handled Covid on campus in relation to the ‘freedoms’ granted more generally across the population – while also recognising the inherent risks of mass movement – it seems unfair that students should be penalised as we come out of it.

The potential for damage goes deeper perhaps: reports in PIE News, and picked up here in the UK in the Guardian, among others, point to the recent Student Experience Survey in Australia which shows troubling falls in this year’s overall scores. ‘Only’ 68.4 per cent of students nationally said they were satisfied with their undergraduate education during the pandemic-hit year, down 10 percentage points from 78.4 per cent in 2019. In one university, 52.3 per cent of students said they were satisfied with their education in 2020 – down from 77.6 per cent in 2019. Interestingly, teaching quality remained high overall – dropping from 80.9 per cent to 77.6 per cent. Let’s not be too surprised if our own annual surveys follow this pattern – it’s obvious that it’s been a very tough year for students. Such reputational damage is unlikely to be confined to England alone; through eyes of the potential international student, we are the UK sector. The pity of the situation is that every university has worked its socks off to create Covid-secure environments, they’re now just rendered powerless to fully exercise these plans.

And so to spelling, where media reported and commented vocally on approaches to assessment which do not penalise errors as, ‘lowering standards and patronising’. Advance HE’s position is this: first, we note that that two assessment areas are being conflated in this debate; for coursework, where spelling and grammar checks are available to all students, a small range of marks should typically be awarded for presentation. This should be clearly indicated in assessment rubrics. Study skills support should be available to all students who are losing marks in this area.

Under exam conditions, however, a different approach is generally applied, with the emphasis on clearly communicating accurate information. This goes right to the heart of the question, ‘what are we testing or assessing for?’ Typically, there is less emphasis on spelling and grammar under these conditions, although technical and scientific terms are expected to be spelt accurately – the question that needs answering is, ‘does the student have the subject knowledge, can they demonstrate how it can be applied, can they build the argument and evaluate etc’. Knowledge creation, testing of that knowledge and use of that knowledge is an ever evolving thing and inevitably political in nature – what is important? To whom? Why? Who decides? How we assess and why, also needs to evolve and always deserves full scrutiny, attention and focus. Advance HE has a wealth of insight, evidence and experience to help and support our members to be the best they can in this complex and very interesting area of pedagogy.

Emerging in the middle and towards the end of the week have been the extremely disturbing reports about sexual assault and harassment in institutions. No stone can be left unturned in dealing with sexual violence on campus; in the same way as there is no place for racism, hate crime or harassment of any kind. We have supported work in this area when we were commissioned by Hefce (now OfS) to evaluate the 119 projects from the Catalyst fund, which was designed to improve student safeguarding in higher education. All of us in higher education have a responsibility to safeguard students and staff and provide a safe environment where people can thrive.

Elsewhere in the media, there was a growing number of reports criticising the volume of coverage afforded to the death of the Duke of Edinburgh whose funeral took place on Saturday. Nevertheless, tributes from the universities and research institutions with whom he had close association paid warm tribute, recognising his intellectual curiosity, energy and commitment, particularly in STEM and in innovation and entrepreneurship. Of course, his legacy for many millions of students world-wide has been the award scheme that bears his title. My own reflection is to recognise his forward-thinking in areas to which we as a sector are increasingly bringing focus: life-long learning, a holistic approach to education where attributes complement academic success, and sustainability and care for the environment through the lens of global citizenship. There is perhaps a lesson to us all to listen more attentively to lone voices and mavericks both within and without the sector.  

Finally, I read in Al-Fanar, a Middle East sector media platform, of the catalyst lockdown has been in bringing new perspectives to university book-clubs. Zoom – other platforms are available – has apparently opened the doors to wider membership and greater debate in these clubs. This month, our own book club members at Advance HE are reading The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s extraordinary and Pulitzer prize-winning novel describing the hellish existence of life as a slave in the southern states of America. It informs our understanding of injustices today, the racism, indignity and barriers to opportunity these bring; and why we are resolute in our commitment to the sector to support driving them out.