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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.

Social mobility advances in HE offer hope in challenging times

Professor Kathryn Mitchell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Derby, reflects on a week of higher education news.

Social mobility and class barriers to education may not be new problems, but it was encouraging to read news this week of some progress on this front in universities.

I read with interest new research from Brunel University London, which states that first-generation students can be pivotal when it comes to persuading under-represented groups to consider studying for a degree, cited in a BBC article.

More 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are now more likely to go to university than ever before, according to the article, and the number of applicants whose parents did not go to university has gradually risen, which is positive news.

Social mobility is a critical issue which needs to be addressed, but progress is being made. In 2016, Derby was identified as an Opportunity Area – an area where the Department for Education is prioritising resources and bringing local and national partners together, to address challenges of social mobility and ensure all children can reach their full potential.

I am Chair of the Derby Opportunity Area Board, and by working with others, and with the full commitment of staff and students, our city is taking great strides to improve outcomes for young people. As outlined in our University’s Strategic Framework, we champion social mobility and strive to inspire and create opportunities for all across our region and beyond, regardless of age, background or location.

Nearly 21 per cent of our full-time undergraduates at Derby are from the lowest participation neighbourhoods and are often the first member of their family to go to university. For many people, coming to an event – such as one of our Open Days or guest lectures – at Derby is the first time they have ever set foot on a university campus.

At Derby, we understand the positive ambassadorial role our students play – the value of students as role-models should not be underestimated by universities.

It will be interesting to see what the Post-18 Funding Review, led by Philip Augar, will mean for students accessing vital support and the impact this could have on the social mobility agenda in HE.

There is a lot of uncertainty currently for the higher education sector due to the challenging political landscape in which we are operating. 

With the date when the UK will leave the EU still unclear, it comes as no surprise that post-study work visas are back in the press.

It is disappointing to read in a piece by John Morgan in the THE this week that the UK government has missed out on approximately £750 million of tax revenue by scrapping the post-study work visas for overseas students.

The UK has an internationally-renowned higher education sector and is the second most popular destination in the world for international students, with more than 442,000 studying at UK universities in 2016-17.

Already, the US, Australia and Canada have permits in place to allow international students to stay on for a number of years after graduating and, since 2011, countries such as these have seen the number of students enrolling significantly increase, while the UK has experienced a mere 3 per cent rise.

Not only do international students have a significant impact on the economy (in 2014/15, international students and their families generated £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy and 206,000 jobs for the UK economy ), they bring social and cultural vibrancy to universities and cities. They also enrich the research and learning environment and help home students to develop internationally relevant skills.

Derby, in line with Universities UK, supported the proposal of a post-work study visa to be introduced and I agree with London Economics, which conducted the study for the Higher Education Policy Institute cited in the THE article, that the Home Office’s Migration Advisory Committee was wrong to reject the idea. 

In agreement with a blog from HEPI Director Nick Hillman, also published in THE this week, the UK should be opening its arms to international students, not creating a “hostile environment.”

As outlined in the article, the small minority of international students who do stay here from just one cohort are bringing benefits worth more than £3 billion to the UK. If the UK is serious about meeting the government’s target of becoming the most innovative country in the world and increasing its R&D expenditure to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, then it needs to address its skills gap, which can be helped by our international students.

This week, the headlines have been dominated – once again – with news on essay mills. It follows Education Secretary Damian Hinds calling on PayPal to stop processing payments for essay mills after Google and YouTube removed hundreds of contract cheating advertisements.

As outlined in Sheffield Hallam University Vice-Chancellor Chris Husbands’ article for the Guardian, the issue, while big, is not new for universities. It is promising to hear that global companies are stepping up their game in a bid to stop the huge issue from occurring. The question is whether digital interventions are enough.

The Education Secretary has called on universities to introduce “honour codes” for students to sign, pledging to report peers who they suspect have used essay mills. I am interested to see – in light of the severity and scale of the issue – whether this works. 

Universities have a lot to learn in this area. Some of that is cultural differences in our approach to teaching and learning and how we introduce our students in assessing high-quality work. We take plagiarism extremely seriously at Derby, reflected in my decision to join 40 university leaders in signing a petition to make essay mills illegal. This is a critical issue and one which needs to be addressed swiftly if we are to maintain our high reputation of our world class higher education system.