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Is the government missing the real 'levelling up' value of HE?

The Westminster government should wake up to the full potential of higher education to help it meet its ‘levelling up’ goals, argues Professor Martin Jones, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire University.

After a week of 'people power' it is time to listen to students

Jonathan Baldwin, managing director of higher education at Jisc, reflects on a week that’s felt the force of people power – and says it’s time for university leaders to respond to students’ calls for change.

Eventful week sees HE buffeted by spelling and campus re-opening rows

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.

Graduate earnings and HE admissions data mark another Groundhog Week in HE

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.

Students feel "abandoned or ignored" by universities they have applied to, study finds

Research by Pickle Jar Communications has found that while most prospective students in the UK are still planning to go to university, many do not feel they are being provided with Information they need to address their concerns. Robert Perry, Pickle Jar's head of research and insight, outlines the findings.

 

Universities are places of tradition. They follow an accepted annual cycle – the academic year, the admissions process, Clearing, welcome weeks, everything else… and although we experience changes to the cycle every now and again, these changes rarely happen in so drastic or immediate a way as happened with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s an overused cliché to say that we’re in an unprecedented situation, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not true. And while we in higher education rapidly adapted (or, at least, tried to adapt) to life under lockdown, the lifeblood of our sector – the students themselves – are also finding their way in extremely unfamiliar territory.

There have been plenty of surveys and polls of students that have attempted to gauge their likely intentions for 2020, and they’re an extremely useful indicator of potential behaviour. But we wanted to find out more about what students were feeling about their situation and what was driving these choices.

Our new report – The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students preparing for university in 2020 – is the first part of that work. There are a few things that stand out as important:
 

  • Most students are still planning to attend university. They have different motivations for this – achieving career goals, experiencing the rite of passage that university represents, or a genuine drive to succeed academically. Whatever the reason, they’re still keen to study in September, but – again depending on their motivation - they do have a lot of concerns about online learning or not being able to socialise in the way they would like.? 

  • For those who are motivated by experiencing the full spectrum of university life, the possibility of a socially-distanced campus, or an online start in September, is not appealing. They are willing to defer or change university to increase the chance they can have what they see as a “real” student lifestyle.?

  • Some students believe that the fees they pay for university are supposed to incorporate this entire experience – social aspects, teaching, support services – so would not be happy to receive what they would perceive as a lower level of service for the same cost.?
     
  • Among those students who have been communicated with by their chosen universities, the most popular things they’ve received have been those that involve real people. Things such as an email from a named member of university staff, an online discussion with other students, and even live Q&As with senior university representatives are seen as effective in making them feel supported.?
     
  • Unfortunately, most students do not feel that they are being provided with information that addresses their concerns. They acknowledge that there is uncertainty in many areas of life, but they would still like clarity around university admissions and plans for teaching and other aspects of campus life. Because of this, many students feel abandoned or ignored by the universities they have applied to. They feel that the communications they receive - if they receive any at all - do not address their circumstances.


All of this adds up to a cohort of students who are struggling to make decisions with the little information available to them, and having to wait what they believe to be an unfair length of time before they find out what will happen to them next. It’s not surprising under those circumstances that many would consider deferring their decision to a time when there’s more certainty about what their university experience will look like.

There’s an opportunity here for universities to treat students like the people they are, to help them make a choice that’s right for them. Although the financial pressures on HEIs will be immense this year, that doesn’t mean that students should be persuaded to take up a course that won’t work for them. Honesty – as much as possible – will be key. Communicating the work that’s being done to make online teaching effective, talking about social distancing measures, showing the digital communities that students have already created to keep in touch during lockdown – all of these things will demonstrate that applicants’ concerns are being addressed, and that university can still be a positive experience for them.

That way, when they make their choice, they’ll do it in an informed way – and they’ll remember the honesty and humanity of the universities helped them to make it.

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