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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.

It is time to move beyond fear and begin the journey towards recovery

Reviewing a week of higher education news, Worcester University Pro Vice-Chancellor Ross Renton calls for clarity and support from the government and Office for Students to help institutions alleviate fears and contribute to the UK’s revival.
The strapline for the film Contagion was “Nothing spreads like fear”. If you haven’t seen the film - don’t, it’s not a jovial escape from reality! However, fear of the virus continues to dominate the education news, from opening schools to returning to campuses, many are seeking clarity and reassurance.

Office for Students Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge has stated that students applying for university places in England must be told with "absolute clarity" how courses will be taught - before they make choices for the autumn. The well-intended statement and evidence to House of Commons Education Select Committee sought to ensure prospective students are not misled by promises of a normal “campus experience”. This may compel some universities to understate the 2020-21 student experience to prevent inadvertently overpromising, fearing sanctions from the regulator. However, an unintended consequence of looking for clarity at this stage is a cohort of students delaying or missing out on their higher education, with about one in five British prospective students responding to a survey said they would not enrol in the next academic year if classes were delivered online and other activities curtailed, the Guardian reports.

On Wednesday, the various media outlets, including the Guardian, BBC, The Times, the Financial Times and the Independent, reported that Cambridge was moving all “face-to-face lectures” online for the coming academic year. The reports often missed that others had already made similar announcements and crucially, lectures aren’t a significant part of the Oxbridge experience. A small number of universities, including Worcester and Bolton, announced this week that they intend to return as much as possible to face-to-face education from September, recognising those from widening participation backgrounds have found it hardest to progress their studies during the lockdown. These announcements are being supported further by higher education unions and employers committing to work together during the pandemic and ensuring that campuses are safely reopened for work when lockdown restrictions ease.

The BBC highlighted the adverse impact of the pandemic on education, and in particular the HE sector, arguing that it will be among the hardest hit, largely due to the loss of income from international students. José Luis Mateos González, a Research Associate in Higher Education at the Department of Education, University of York, presents an analysis on which parts of the sector are likely to suffer most from a drop in international recruitment, concluding that ‘less prestigious’ institutions are most vulnerable. It is clear that the Governments’ stringent new 14-day quarantine system will need to be adapted for international students, in the same way it has for seasonal workers and truck drivers, perhaps with a rigorous testing programme supported by universities. 

Mental Health Awareness Week would normally entail a wealth of activity on our campuses promoting the inventive support available across the sector. This year, like so many other activities, we needed a different approach. At the University of Worcester, we were promoting our enhanced ‘virtual’ support, including Shiftline, a new wellbeing package of services for healthcare students out in practice.

The impact of the pandemic on mental health is yet to be fully understood, but it seems likely it will have a lasting impact on current and prospective students. This makes the release of the refreshed Universities UK strategic framework, Stepchange: mentally healthy universities, timely and valuable. It seeks to support universities to prioritise the mental health of their students and staff by taking a whole university approach to mental health, meaning that mental health and wellbeing is considered across every aspect of the university and is part of all practices, policies, courses and cultures. In a WonkHE blog, Professor Julia Buckingham, Universities UK President and Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University London, calls on vice-chancellors to show leadership in responding to UUK’s refreshed “step change” policy on tackling mental health issues in the sector.

There is a growing consensus that a vital contributor to the recovery of the nation will be our universities. The regulator needs to provide clarity on how it will support the future of higher education and trust institutions to make decisions in the interest of their students. The Government must now alleviate the fears for the future of the sector by working in partnership with universities to provide support to help rebuild Britain.