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Jonathan Baldwin, managing director of higher education at Jisc, looks at the changing role of post-Covid university leadership and the enduring need for collaboration.
The government's announcement of a major review of the National Student Survey signals a worrying shift in the HE regulatory landscape, warns Jon Scott, higher education consultant and former Pro Vice-Chancellor (student experience) at the University of Leicester.
Statements from ministers this week have made it clear that higher education in England is facing significant reforms, re-setting its focus towards helping to plug the UK's skills gaps and rebuilding the economy. Fariba Soetan, Policy Lead for Research and Innovation at the National Centre for Universities and Business, argues that the proposed changes bring a welcome focus on graduate outcomes and supporting the careers of young people.
Universities UK and GuildHE have commissioned the Quality Assurance Agency to develop a new approach to reviewing and enhancing the quality of UK TNE. QAA will consult on a new review method later this year and will launch a programme of in-country enhancement activity in 2021.
After a week of largely disappointing news for UK higher education, Nicola Owen, Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) at Lancaster University, fears that gloomy forecasts for the future of the sector may prove to be uncomfortably accurate.
A growing number of higher education conferences and events are being postponed or moved online in response to the Coronavirus restrictions.
Organisations are marshalling their digital know-how to try to ensure a programme of events runs this spring, from small seminar to substantial two-day gatherings. But many have been unable to avoid pushing conferences back until later in the year or even next year.
A total of 63 events listed for the next three months on HEi-know’s regularly updated HEi-planner have been postponed so far, while 20 have been moved to online delivery and many others are under review. Only 13 have been cancelled. Most organisers of events planned for July onwards are awaiting developments before deciding how to respond to the situation.
Some organisations, such as Westminster Higher Education Forum, have moved the bulk of their events online for the foreseeable future using facilities such as Zoom and Teams and more dedicated platforms including Zoom Webinar, Adobe Connect and Webex. Other bodies, such as Universities UK, have cancelled or postponed spring events but are still exploring the online options for some.
According to James Clay, head of higher education and student experience at JISC, one of the common mistakes in online delivery is trying to replicate the original format. Without the visual and verbal cues that come when people are in the same physical space, it can result in a frustrating and disappointing experience.
“It’s one thing to sit in a conference hall for an event, it’s something else to be sitting at home for a whole day with a headset on listening to speakers,” he said. “It’s like a Netflix binge, but a lot less entertaining. In these critical times there can be online conference and event overload. Everyone is running online webinars and events, and people are also being forced to use video conferencing to stay in touch with family and friends.”
Online delivery necessitates important adjustments. Keynote presenters need to be more dynamic as presenting to a webcam can flatten their performance. Good audio is critical: so speakers need decent microphones, as most viewers may put up with poor video but will switch off if the sound is poor. Sessions should be shortened from their offline version, as attention spans suffer when viewing an online event.
Technical support for “attendees” is critical, said Clay. Helping delegates to access the platform and making sure they can hear the speakers are essential considerations. Questions and answers work best if they are restricted to textual questions: “Avoid opening up the microphone, no matter how tempting it is,” he warned.
One advantage of the online option is asynchronous discussions, where participants can access and participate at different times and at their convenience. In times of poor bandwidth or low-powered equipment, delegates can view at another time, and possibly when they are doing other unavoidable tasks, such as childcare. They are also able to view workshops that may have run concurrently at a traditional conference.
Clay points out that enabling asynchronous discussion may mean moving a one-day conference to a one-week conference, to allow for reflection periods and other life commitments.
Online does have limitations. Some of the cut and thrust of panel discussions and questions from the floor can get lost in translation and these events require an experienced online chair who is prepared to mute speakers. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has decided to postpone the majority of events for the time being rather than go down the online route wholesale.
Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at HEPI, said: “We felt that lots of our events involve panel discussions and back and forth and this doesn’t feel like it is something that lends itself to those sorts of platforms. They probably work better for one main keynote with a few questions.”
For HEPI, one of the vital components of their face-to-face events is networking and it was felt that this would be much more restricted in online delivery, even with the use of substitutes such as visual coffee bars or Twitter hashtags.
One of the issues that may arise in the coming months is the rescheduling of events for the summer when traditionally many in the higher education sector are less available. Alternatively, September and October could be overloaded with events at a time when employees have to get to grips with their day-to-day work after a long absence.
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