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As a growing number of universities move teaching and assessment online in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the University of Derby is holding a virtual conference which aims to support staff in making the transition.

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Study finds fewer Muslim students gain First or 2:1 degrees

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Silver linings for HE in an otherwise sombre week

Amid a further week of gloomy developments relating to the Coronavirus pandemic, Gary Loke, Director of Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery for Advance HE, finds some more uplifting news for UK higher education.

Silver linings for HE in an otherwise sombre week

Amid a further week of gloomy developments relating to the Coronavirus pandemic, Gary Loke, Director of Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery for Advance HE, finds some more uplifting news for UK higher education.

 

I guess the reader will realise that invitations to review the week’s news are agreed a couple of months in advance; what a week I’ve picked!  As I monitored the news and started to put ‘pen to paper’ mid-week, the national mood became increasingly sombre.

Back in early January, Coronavirus was something in the back of my mind and I was concerned about my family and friends in Asia. It wasn’t, however, something that pre-occupied my thoughts and I certainly hadn’t considered how it would impact the UK. How complacent we were. Now it dominates every conversation: not just in the media, but in the family, the workplace and, of course, in our universities. And as nations attempt to address the pandemic, perhaps, just perhaps, even the most sceptical will now wake up to the value of experts. Whatever the headlines, national leaders must hold their nerve, reject the populism that some have been too quick to embrace, and stick with the science. If they don’t, we’re in for a very uncomfortable ride.

So what of the week’s other news? Again, back in January, possibly only keen followers of politics had really clocked Rishi Sunak’s rising profile; and no one, but no one, thought that Dilyn the dog’s continued residency at No 10 was in any doubt. (If you haven’t heard, a baby is on its way and news reports have it that the dog has had its day. What, others may wonder, has to happen to unseat a super-SPAD from behind the famous black door?).

Widely reported early in the week was the Bank of England’s announcement of a reduction in interest rates from 0.75 per cent to just 0.25 per cent – its lowest in history – with other measures in a bid to combat the financial impact of COVID-19. The Chancellor, newly catapulted into No 11 Downing Street, set out the government’s plans for huge levels of borrowing for capital projects designed to ‘level up’ the country.

While the Budget statement was warmly applauded from the government back benches, just about everyone else – and, if they admit it, probably most of the cheerers – have their fingers and everything else crossed that interest rates remain at these extraordinarily low levels. All sides of the House also welcomed the Chancellor’s pledge that the NHS would ‘get what it needs’ to fight COVID-19 but, as the Financial Times reported, this was a Budget speech of breathtaking audacity. This is despite the waggish fact that ‘I shun a risk’ is an anagram of Rishi Sunak. It’s a budget that has No 10’s ‘post-election’ finger-prints all over it. In the rest of the media, the argument about whether this budget ends austerity or not persists.

Sector press noted the apparent ‘good news’ for UK research spending, set to hit £22 billion by 2024-25 and an immediate £400 million boost for 2020-21. I hope I’m wrong in being pessimistic about a government governing by optimism. It’s a huge risk and somewhere down the line a post-Boris PM or government may rue the choice of audacity. You can’t help but reflect that pockets of our sector have taken the very same audacious route. Two other points about budgets: it often takes time - and detailed examination of the small print - for the really big budget story to emerge; and secondly, there’s rarely a budget which doesn’t have at least one unwitting consequence. Watch this space.

At the beginning of the week International Women’s Day was widely reported and celebrated. In WonkHE, Diana Beech, Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick, and a former advisor to universities and science ministers, argued women, including senior academics, must become more visible in the policymaking process for HE. She’s absolutely right, and further I would suggest, the challenge remains for us to strive to be fully inclusive.

Also in the news was the launch of the Disabled Students' Commission (DSC), the new, independent group that will advise, inform and influence higher education providers to improve support for disabled students. We know that the proportion of students who disclose as disabled has more than doubled since 2004, but we know there are persistent barriers and hurdles that disabled students face in higher education. This work is key to dismantling structural barriers, so that disabled students can achieve their potential and the outcomes they deserve. Perhaps events overtook its deserved profile in the news. We’re delighted that Advance HE is the secretariat to the Commission and will be directly engaged in the Commission’s work.

Elsewhere, media drew attention to the Church of England’s Faith in Higher Education: A Church of England vision. The Church Times reports that the ‘paper also picks a course between the two views of education as a private or a public good. . . the nurturing of intelligent citizens is neither a purely private good, nor simply a public one.’ Next week Advance HE will be publishing a new report looking at the differences in student outcomes by their religion or belief, with a focus on attainment. The report highlights there are substantial differences in degree attainment by students’ religion or belief. For example, only 64.9 per cent of Muslim students received a first or 2:1 compared with 76.3 per cent of students overall. Religion and belief became one of nine protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010, yet there has been little research done into the impact of this on students since then. We’re proud to be making a start.

Stay well; wash your hands; follow the science.

One good news item: the launch of a new Disabled Students' Commission
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