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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.

More than one virus is threatening to disrupt UK higher education

Reviewing the week’s higher education news, Johhny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and The Engineering Professors’ Council, warns that coronavirus is not the only deadly contagion afflicting UK HE.

A virus is spreading, threatening to keep students away from lecture theatres, possibly forcing whole universities to close. In fact, there’s more than one.

In the past week, it became apparent just how devastating Covid-19 – aka coronavirus – may prove to the normal daily functioning of higher education, to wider society, to the economy, and – most importantly – to vulnerable individuals who fall ill.

Universities in Northern Italy have already been shutting their doors. The effect on optimism, it seems, is contagious: The THE quoted Mike Barer, professor of clinical microbiology at University of Leicester, talking about how UK institutions “could potentially get away without closure”. Not exactly a hopeful way of putting it.

The fever will get worse before it gets better. There will be an impact on student recruitment from affected regions and, should the UK experience an epidemic, it may deter international students just at the moment when Brexit may be infecting recruitment in other ways. The financial malady for many universities and departments may be dire, and meanwhile, back at home, student admissions may be affected if exams – or the preparations for them – are disrupted.

In the past days, my diary has started emptying as events are cancelled and I too have had to make contingency plans in case a conference that I’ve spent months planning with colleagues needs to be called off.

Whatever inconvenience we face over the next few months, even as patients start to recover, livelihoods and educational systems may take longer to return to full health. Meanwhile, as practical concerns bring the story close to home, it whets our fears for those we love and for whom any illness is a serious illness.

However, as I said, Covid-19 is not the only virus gripping last week’s media. There is another contagion swarming and multiplying. And, while we need to maintain perspective – it is not lethal – no amount of handwashing will protect higher education from it.

In last month’s reshuffle, Chris Skidmore was removed as Minister for Universities and Science. The role has been split in two – arguably as a tactic to divide and rule, or possibly allowing more ministerial time to each – with Amanda Solloway, a non-graduate with no background in science, adopting the science brief and Michelle Donelan taking on universities.

This week, Skidmore wrote about how he tried to steer the Government away from “university-bashing for the sake of a few cheap headlines” during his tenure. With his departure, will the bashing spread? Indeed, will it be his colleagues taking up the cosh? Well, this weeks’ headlines – cheap or not – did include unfriendly references to “a clash of classes”, more complaints about no-platforming or supposed restrictions of free speech, and Donelan herself was trotting out the line from the Conservative manifesto about “low quality courses”.

The reason I liken this to a virus is that the cause of the university bashing – the evidence on which it is based – is microscopic, but it is passed on irrepressibly, stoking hostility. This animosity is disproportionate: for example, the claims of rights abuses over free speech usually disintegrate the moment you remember that the right to speak is not the same as a right to make everyone listen to you.

Similarly, the gossamer evidence for “low-quality” courses is based on Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data (LEO) partly dating back to courses that were studied in a different age and which use earnings as the sole indicator of value. Rachel Hewitt’s excellent HEPI paper this week (which revisits themes around employability that I wrote about for HEPI in 2015) explodes this narrow perspective.

Just because the bashing is baseless, it doesn’t stop the nonsense being adopted by two kinds of people: those who don’t have a sufficient interest to scratch beyond the surface; and those whom it suits to embrace the anti-HE narrative. Having scapegoated the EU and foreigners, higher education is a great new target for so-called ‘populists’. Universities represent enquiry, not obedience; opportunity, not social stagnation; challenging the status quo, not preserving it.

This week’s rash of negative press follows the narrow interpretations of the report last week from the much-respected IFS (from which Donelan drew her claims). The week before there was also a paper from the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange that argued that universities need to make deep changes, not because there is evidence of failure, but because some people have a negative impression of them. It did not question whether those people are well informed nor whether the impression has any validity, nor did it consider the agenda of those promoting such images.

Such reports can give a veneer of respectable credibility to a rising populist narrative. Higher education must communicate better and find a way to inoculate society from this disease.