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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.
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.
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.
Jonathan Baldwin, managing director of higher education at Jisc, reflects on a week that’s felt the force of people power – and says it’s time for university leaders to respond to students’ calls for change.
Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE, reviews another week in which higher education found itself in the spotlight, even when a royal funeral dominated the headlines.
After a year that most would rather forget, HEi-know asked four vice-chancellors what hopes and expectations for higher education are on their wishlist for 2021.
I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a challenging year, but, as we look ahead to 2021, the extraordinary work of scientists to develop new vaccines gives us real cause for hope. However, we must remember that this is just the beginning of the end of this pandemic, and the focus of the next year will be on recovery. Universities must be at the heart of delivering this.
In the past, some have questioned whether universities are the right institutions to deliver the type of innovative, flexible and translational R&D that the UK needs to be able to recover economically - to create more jobs, address the climate crisis and support health and wellbeing.
However, throughout the pandemic, universities have demonstrated just how well placed they are to rapidly transform the work they do in the national and international interest. Of course, the Oxford vaccine and the speed at which it has been developed exemplifies this, but there are countless examples of universities conducting vital medical research, providing much-needed equipment and sharing their expertise, facilities and resources to support the NHS and their local communities. At the University of Sheffield, our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and Nuclear AMRC were part of the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium which produced ten years’ worth of medical ventilators in just 10 weeks. This tremendous achievement shows what is possible when universities, industry and the government work together.
As anchor institutions, universities have great experience in delivering innovation-led economic regeneration and can drive real transformational change for communities. In Sheffield, that is demonstrated by our AMRC, which has turned the site of the Battle of Orgreave into a high-value manufacturing hub, which has attracted inward investment from global companies like Boeing and McLaren, and trains young apprentices with the engineering skills that businesses need.
As we emerge from the pandemic, universities stand ready to support their communities and play a critical role in the country’s economic and social recovery. I hope that they will be supported to do this.
No one gets to choose their start in life. Every one of us is, to some extent, a victim of circumstance and a product of our environment.
Life, as marvellous, meaningful and fulfilling as it is, can be inherently unfair. I don’t wish to sound glum, in fact quite the opposite as we can change our circumstances and challenge the path that our early years may set out for us.
I am a huge believer in the merits of social mobility – the cornerstone upon which the ideals of equality are built, from access to education and healthcare to civil rights and women’s empowerment.
If I could make a wish for 2021 it would be for more organisations to realise their power to drive forward progress in social mobility. That more work is undertaken across every educational setting, business and organisation to upskill, enable and empower people to seek better opportunities in their lives.
We need more action. This could be anything from more investment in our young people to focus on those from lower socio-economic backgrounds to break the cycle of intergenerational disadvantages to employers creating more diverse routes into their workplaces.
Here at Staffordshire University, social mobility has been put at the heart of our purpose and we recently launched our Opportunity Action Plan, part of the Social Mobility Pledge initiative founded by the Rt Hon. Justine Greening.
We need to pull every lever we can to create a Britain that breaks down the potential barriers to better ourselves and raise aspirations.
This can only be achieved by collective effort – we must all work together to identify inequality in all its forms and move towards a level playing field.
My wish is that higher education institutions lead the pack in these efforts and we work together as a sector to push forward a better future for all.
My major hope is also my main expectation: that the Government will announce in its forthcoming White Paper on skills and technical education the details of the lifelong learning entitlements that the Prime Minister endorsed in a speech in Exeter in September and were trailed in the Comprehensive Spending Review.
I am counting on these being designed to enable adults from the time they leave school up to pre-retirement age to access loans for fees and maintenance for approved Level 4/5 programmes on the same terms as those available to undergraduate students.
I am also envisaging that we will move the discussion of low quality university courses onto some common ground between the DfE/OfS and the higher education sector.
This would encompass a shared acknowledgement that we need both to deploy contextualised metrics to judge quality – as nuanced to local circumstance as those used in the TEF – and to respect the robustness of internal university processes in addressing concerns generated by these metrics prior to any regulatory intervention.
I am anticipating that together with Government we will have to work hard to deliver effective alternatives to current Erasmus, Horizon 2020, and European Social Funds arrangements once the UK’s trade deal with Europe is signed.
Closer to home, I am committed to delivering on NTU’s Race Equality Action Plan. This will see us introducing, amongst other things, a more accessible complaints process for staff and students, a University Shadow Executive Team that reflects the diversity of our community, and white privilege and allyship training for all of our leaders.
Finally, I am looking forward to the time in 2021 when I never feel obliged to use the words Covid-19, pandemic, lockdown and furlough ever again!
UUK’s recent report Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education clearly sets out the urgent need for the HE sector to address racial harassment as part a wider programme of culture and policy reform. I was a part of that group that also provided perspectives from the lived experiences of staff and students. The impacts upon them is severe – and calls for urgent action from all of us.
Indeed, such is the scale of some aspects of inequality – the awarding gap for example – that it is estimated it will take decades to eradicate. I am determined to accelerate that process and to be the change. I want Leicester to become the flagship institution in the UK for tackling inequality, harassment and discrimination.
To that end, I have begun the process in my first year at Leicester – setting up a group to examine the awarding gap, tackling the shortage of ethnic minority staff and creating a truly inclusive curriculum.
We are establishing the Leicester Institute for Inclusion in Higher Education – this will guide and inform best practice across the sector as it conducts research into inequalities that affect different groups. The focus is not solely on race – we need to ensure that universities are places where every student is able to be the best that they can be.
The lessons of Black Lives Matter, of the pandemic and the fact that certain communities were disproportionately affected, and the huge issues to be tackled in closing the gender pay gap are testament to the enormous challenges ahead.
David Richardson, Vice-Chair of the University of East Anglia and Chair of the group of which I was a part, points to the fact that with 2.8 million members, the HE sector can have a transformative effect on society.
In the wake of the pandemic, a ‘new normal’ awaits. It is our duty to rethink that norm. New Year – New Thinking. Let that be the take home lesson for us all.
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