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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.

Government and employers must match HE’s positive moves on equality

Reviewing a week of higher education news, Action on Access Director Andrew Rawson celebrates positive action on equality and social inclusivity taken in the HE sector and calls for matching support from the government and employers.


One of my functions as Director at Action on Access is to continually monitor and share information from different sources on issues and current news about outreach, access, participation and student success to inform the 1,748 subscribers of the Higher Education Widening Participation community who are registered on our WP ACTIONONACCESS@JISCMAIL.AC.UK list. I am pleased to be able to review a week in media when Widening Participation issues took such prominence - at least partly in response to Covid-19 impacts, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Instead of a focus on the data regarding BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) discrimination and inequalities, extensive media focus has been on demonstration and looting; attacks on police; and pulling down of statues – all of which has distracted from the real issues of discrimination and disadvantage. The Black Lives Matter movement has shone a vital light on the structural racism and inequality endemic in our UK society, which the data tells us is played out and reinforced in higher education institutions. An informative Guardian article this week observes that few UK universities have made meaningful changes despite students and academics over the years calling for a decolonised curriculum.

We are all struggling to understand the tumultuous present and trying to predict the future with very few reliable predictors. Much depends on the actors (reactors) in government and leaders in both industry and institutions to enable HE institutions and employers to manage the effects of Covid-19; and to deal with the opportunities and challenges of Black Lives Matters (and also Brexit) on all students, but especially students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.

I was heartened to see the Office for Students’ chair Michael Barber in his 29 May letter to the Education Select Committee published by the OfS last week, reinforce the need to identify and support negative impacts of the pandemic on the quality of teaching and learning for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

An encouraging plethora of reports and initiatives announced in the press last week and designed to address these issues show the way forward:

• The continuing OfS series of coronavirus Briefing Notes, two of which were published last week, on the following topics: postgraduate research students; Information, Advice and guidance for prospective students; supporting International Students; supporting students without family support; supporting student mental health; and student accommodation.

• Universities UK’s ‘Step Change’ support programme newly revised to reflect students and staff adapting to new ways of living, working and studying.

• A new mental health platform ‘Student Space’ funded by the OfS and designed to respond to additional pressures in universities and colleges caused by the Covid-19.

• Institutional announcements to explore the decolonisation of curricula in response to student and BAME demand.

• National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL) Good Practice guide for care-experienced and estranged students.

• A new guide on ‘Engaging commuter students during and after Covid-19’, from Edge Hill University.

• UKAT, the United Kingdom Advising and Tutoring association published its ‘Top Ten Tips for Tutoring at a Distance’, (Action on Access is working closely with UKAT to celebrate and integrate the contribution of personal tutoring to continuing student participation, retention and student success).

• UpReach’s Professional Internship Programme.

A report from UUK on a survey of institutions confirmed that almost all will return to in-person teaching at the start of the coming academic year, and almost all will offer in-person social opportunities to students, including outside events and sporting activities. We have seen that institutional responses to Covid-19 saw an astonishingly rapid shift to online and digital learning for current students. These new online digital teaching opportunities need to be embedded in the ‘new normal’ of teaching and learning to increase and improve student participation and success.

Finally, a concerning article in The Times  reported that graduate job opportunities have fallen by 77 per cent from the beginning of the year with 100 graduates competing for each job. About 20 per cent of employers suspended their selection processes and stopped making graduate job offers. It is against this background that the HESA report from the latest available data, ‘Higher Education Graduate Outcomes Statistics: UK, 2017/18’ highlights the continuing inequality faced by BAME, female, disabled and disadvantaged graduates who are all proportionally less likely to be in employment and likely to be paid significantly less. As graduates face an increasingly challenging labour market employers must be encouraged to ensure their recruitment practices are fair and non-discriminatory for all graduates; and institutions need to provide enhanced continuing employability support for students who inevitably face adversity when starting work.