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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.

HE 'needs targeted government support' to help it respond to Covid-19 crisis

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.


While adjusting to life in lockdown as the scale of Covid-19 has intensified, there’s been a push on productivity and an adrenaline-fuelled sprint to transition online. The higher education sector remains resilient and is strengthening responses to meet staff and student support requirements. 

With increasing worries over institutional financial stability, The Times reports that university leaders seek a government bailout to counter up to a £7bn loss of income. The impact of potential student number controls looms with the Guardian running an article on caps being introduced.

Amidst this financial turmoil and ever shifting intentions of prospective international students, academics report concerns over their own precarity, increasing casualisation and fears of Covid-19 leading to opportunistic cost-cutting, especially for staff on temporary contracts who fear coronavirus cuts, says the Guardian. It would be preferable to offer protection by favouring furloughs over redundancies.

Reporting on weakened International student markets, ICEF Monitor draws on a survey from QS showing that nearly two thirds had decided to defer their studies for a year. PIE News reports that the pandemic is having a significant impact on student mobility, and that education agents around the world are urging prospective students to postpone their study.

Owing to uncertainty over admissions, we would expect home recruitment patterns to be destabilised, however UCAS says student decision-making behaviour remains consistent and that most still want to study this Autumn, although applicants would be wise to assess Institution’s online provision as part of their choice-making. WonkHE Associate Editor Jim Dickinson suggests that the rational decision students could make is to defer entry to HE for a year.

Should HE press pause rather than make panic decisions on whether next academic year is delayed, or delivered partly or wholly online? Irrespective of whether Institutions go later or go virtual, in letters to The Times, an academic calls for the academic term to be put back by five months.

Amidst calls to regulate recruitment markets either through student number controls or by the OfS clampdown on (mis)use of unconditional offers, many university leaders have concerns. Other commentators are more optimistic. Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, writes in the THE, of a boon for universities, predicting that a post-coronavirus recession could drive demand for higher education.

These forecasts are as changeable as the financial markets. University leaders shouldn’t pivot without first calling for some strong policy impetus and government intervention to mitigate risks thus easing mounting financial pressures. Well-targeted Government support would buy an extension of thinking time for leaders to plan more strategically by giving a steer, stimulus and some guarantees on the HE sector emerging intact and with better safeguards for students as called for by Lucy Holland writing for WonkHE.

Whilst the sector considers potential recovery models, students are paying a high price. The transition to online teaching has caused massive disruption. Institutions can’t assume that learners have a secure home environment with equivalent access to technology. Students state real financial anxieties as the BBC reports that some at the University of Bristol are staging a rent strike . Students feel unsupported and tensions over assessments have emerged. If exams are shifted online, continued or postponed, questions over fair grading systems will arise. The Times reports that students at Imperial College London are already in revolt over the “punitive” decision to press ahead with exams, whilst the NUS has called on universities to cancel or postpone this summer’s exams.

The Institutional response to student concerns has been to introduce No Detriment Policies as a safety net intended to protect students’ interests. However, whilst these rapid adjustments are welcome, the extent of extenuating circumstances will be unpredictable and unprecedented.