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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.
A growing number of higher education conferences and events are being postponed or moved online in response to the Coronavirus restrictions.
Amid predictions that higher education will be changed forever by the current pandemic, Professor James Miller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University, suggests the innovative ways the sector is responding to the crisis will make it even more valued in the future.
The current crisis has underlined the critical role played by the UK’s experts and researchers and the institutions supporting them, as well as the need for collaboration between them, says Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business.
Plans for a framework to assess teaching quality, a concerted drive for more women in senior posts, and reassurance over the review of research councils, were among key messages for vice-chancellors from universities minister Greg Clark in a speech at the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s annual conference.
More focus is needed on ways to make differences in teaching quality more discernible to actual and prospective students, he told delegates at the conference in London. He said he envisaged measures to assess teaching that would support a similar competition on quality to that of the Research Excellence Framework.
“I welcome the work HEFCE is doing to refine and test new indicators of teaching quality and learning gain and, indeed, innovation in teaching,” he said.
The Minister assured vice chancellors and other senior university managers at the event that institutions would have significant input into the review of research councils by Sir Paul Nurse and be well represented on the review panel.
He dismissed fears that the review threatened the present system for funding research, promising that “the dual funding system – supporting research projects and institutions – works well and is here to stay”, and adding: “Excellence, determined by peer review and funded wherever it is found, is the touchstone of that system.”
The review will work with the research councils and build on their firm foundations while looking at the “opportunities for agility and for further collaboration in the 10 years ahead,” he said.
The minister rejected calls for the £9,000 tuition fee to be raised with inflation, saying there was instead an opportunity for institutions to be a bit clearer about how the fee was used, giving greater clarity to students.
While praising higher education for its significant contribution to the economy and its world class reputation for research, the minister criticised the lack of diversity in its leadership. At least half of the top students in universities were women and recruitment increasingly reflected society, but women were still absent from long lists for senior university appointments. It was “not good enough” to say women were absent because they had not applied.
“In the commercial world if you are recruiting to a position you value highly you want to go out and find the best people, to tap them on the shoulder sometimes quite literally, and say do apply, you will be brilliant at it - not just wait and hope they will see it. Academic networks are among the most developed in the country - people know people and they need to be activated. I know there is an appetite to do that but the pace could be increased a little,” he said.
Further emphasising the point, he added: “If I am presented with a long list for appointments from which women are absent I send it back – not because I believe in quotas or reserved positions, but because I suspect that the recruitment process has failed to do enough to find the full range of talent and leadership that I expect to be able to appoint from.”
In comments clearly aimed at Labour’s proposals to lower tuition fees, he said it would be “a profound misjudgement” for any future government to throw away a system that was delivering.
“It would bring on the chaos of permanent and fundamental uncertainty that would result from the need to go cap-in-hand to the Treasury each year for funding attached to a tangle of strings,” he said. The idea of a graduate tax was more of a graduate penalty and “a klaxon warning that if you’re talented and expect to earn well then don’t risk getting a higher education”.
Jeremy Pocklington, the Director of the Enterprise and Growth Unit and the Treasury, told the conference successive ministers had recognised the importance of higher education to the economy based on macro-economic evidence. But difficult decisions remained to be made in future about where the marginal pound would be invested.
“To help the sector make its case it is important that we all continue to build on that evidence base,” he said. “There are areas where we need to continue to engage with you to understand the value of higher education to the individual and to the country.”
Jonathan Dimson from McKinsey & Company said the world’s economies were heading east. “Where you look at where the middle class consumers – and your students - will be coming from it is predicted there will be 2.2 billion globally by 2030 and 1.7 billion of them will be coming out of Asia Pacific.”
Speaker Diane Coyle, professor of economics at the University of Manchester, said people tended to focus on and over-hype the short term impact of technology and under-play the longer term changes it would make to the world. Technology should be complementary to what institutions do and not replace it. She advised: “Think about what you are giving student face to face that they can’t get from computers.”
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