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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.
Charlie Ball, Head of Higher Education Intelligence for Prospects at Jisc, reviews a week of higher education news which felt much like every other since lockdown, as new research on graduate earnings and university admissions was published.
Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Students Employers, reviews a week of HE news in which student accommodation, fee refunds, graduate jobs, and research funding surfaced as key issues.
Reviewing a week in which issues affecting women’s lives were in the spotlight, Sandra Booth, Director of Policy and External Relations at the Council for Higher Education Art and Design (CHEAD), sees hopeful signs of moves to address gender equality in higher education.
Commenting on a week of higher education news, Alice Gent, Policy, Research and Communications Intern, and Ruby Nightingale, Communications and Public Affairs Manager at the Sutton Trust, highlight evidence that Covid-19 is having a disproportionate impact on students and graduates from poorer backgrounds.
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.
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