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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.

Removal of statues is “censoring the past”, warns universities minister

The universities minister has strongly criticised the renaming of university buildings and the removal of statues prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement as “short sighted” and an attempt to censor the past.

Michelle Donelan, who has been in post for 125 days, said that, as a history graduate, she agreed with Boris Johnson’s view that “we should not seek to censor or edit our past”.

Her comments came as UK higher education responds to a wave of Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd in the US.

Recent moves include Liverpool University agreeing to retitle halls named after  William Gladstone, who inherited wealth from his slave-owning family; a review by Bristol University of the Wills Memorial Building, named after Henry Overton Wills III, whose family made money from tobacco farmed by slaves; and the removal by Imperial College of a Latin inscription on its logo that mentions Empire.

In an online interview with Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), Donelan was asked if universities needed to go further on Black Lives Matter and equality issues.

She said: “Recent actions - renaming buildings name after Gladstone or campaigns to remove the statue of Rhodes - are quite short sighted because we cannot rewrite history, instead what we should do is remember and learn from it.”

The minister agreed that plaques explaining statues were better than pulling them down, citing as an example the educational work of the Holocaust Memorial Trust.

Donelan also announced a new online platform for students, Student Space, which will deliver targeted mental health support to help students handle the additional pressures caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The new platform, to launch in July, is led by Student Minds and supported by up to £3 million funding from the Office for Students (OfS). It will offer immediate help for students in distress, include text support, phone listening and guided cognitive behavioural therapy, and provide resources to help students manage stress and maintain wellbeing in the context of the pandemic.

Donelan acknowledged that lockdown had created a “very unsettling time for students” and said the impacts going forward would “be stark and varied”. She reiterated the warning by the OfS that any blended or dual provision offered in the coming academic year must be high quality and that the breadth and depth of the curriculum, teaching quality and the value of degrees “must stay the same”.

She defended the student number controls introduced in England, saying they would help stabilise the system, and confirmed that they would be temporary. Responding to strong criticism of English student controls in Wales and Scotland, she said the move would prevent aggressive recruitment in those countries which could have potentially made the number caps “null and void”.

The expected decline in international students because of the pandemic was a “key pressure facing the sector and a top priority”, she added, saying she was working with the Home Office to ensure flexibility and the removal of barriers to participation.

In a question about shortfalls in research funding, the minister said she was working closely with Amanda Solloway, minister for science, research and innovation, and a cross-ministerial working group on a package of measures.

The government is also drawing up a “domestic alternative” to the Erasmus scheme that would go beyond countries in Europe, the minister revealed.

“We are working on a domestic alternative so there is no break in provision and which would give us the opportunity to be more international and meet our priorities on social mobility, reaching students from all walks of life. We are negotiating with the EU and are open to participating in Erasmus if it is in British interests, but it is prudent to have a plan B.”

The minister also indicated that a response to the Augar Report would be announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review, which has been moved from July to the autumn.


Michelle Donelan