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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.
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.
Rachel Hewitt, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Higher Education Policy Institute, sees signs of a clearer route out of the Covid crisis beginning to emerge for higher education.
It feels like every week in higher education is a key week at the moment, with both policy developments and the impact of the pandemic operating as disruptive forces. But for universities, this week marked a move towards some clarity about the way forward in the rest of 2021, after such an uncertain period.
On Monday, the Prime Minister set out his roadmap for the next few months, moving out of lockdown and towards a largely vaccinated population. Similar announcements have been made in Scotland and Wales, and while it is clear there is a long way to go, it has felt like a moment of optimism as we see a way through this current crisis.
For universities, this meant there is finally information about how they can return to face-to-face teaching with all students on practical and practise-based courses who required access to specialist equipment or facilities able to return to university from 8 March. For students on all other courses, the roadmap sets out that by Easter the Government plans to provide options for how their return will work.
Of course, some students in this latter group will have already returned to campus for legitimate reasons, whether this be a lack of study space in their family home, or due to mental health considerations. At this week’s HEPI / Advance HE webinar, Professor Adam Tickell highlighted that almost 50 per cent of students at the University of Sussex were now in their term-time accommodation.
For those students who live away from home to study and who may have left their university at the end of 2020 with an expectation of returning in January, this week’s roadmap at least gives a sense of when they can expect to receive some face-to-face teaching again – although this may come just at the point when university teaching starts to ramp down ahead of the exam period, meaning there is work to be done by universities to establish what will be on offer from this point and set students’ expectations.
This week, we also got clarity about how A-levels will be awarded, following the announcement at start of the year that A-level and GCSE exams would be cancelled for the second year running. On Thursday, Gavin Williamson announced that grades will be awarded and determined by teachers, ditching the algorithmic approach which caused so much uproar last year. Results day will also be earlier, on 10 August, to allow for a longer appeals process. While this does not remove all headaches for admissions teams, who have to grapple with another very different year for 2021/22 entrants, it does at least provide more clarity about what the picture will look like this summer, rather than the rash of U-turns we saw last year.
Of course, this clarity could all become blurred again. Another virus variant could mean the scrapping of all current timelines for universities reopening for the rest of this academic year – and even impact the next. In addition, not all issues around admissions have been resolved. Despite further information being available on how grades will be assigned to students, there is still more detail needed on how teachers should assign these grades, and it is yet to be seen what scale of appeals will occur. Nonetheless, this week it feels like the fog has started to clear, and there is an opportunity to start to look up, beyond week-to-week issues to the rest of 2021 and the path ahead.
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