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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.

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.

The DFE must answer growing calls for more student support

Reviewing a week of higher education news and sector developments, Mike Ratcliffe, Academic Registrar at Nottingham Trent University, argues that it is time for the Department for Education to address growing concerns about the plight of students whose education, finances and wellbeing have been severely affected by the pandemic.

The ongoing storm

That was the last week of January.  It may have felt like the eighth or ninth week of January, but it was the last.  Any of the freshness of the early part of the month, with unfunded white papers, interim responses to 18 month old reports, or threats to duplicate existing freedom of speech legislation, had worn off.  In normal times, even the universities with the longest of vacations would have had their students back, campuses would throng, everyone back to lecture rooms (or exam halls for those with semesters). On Thursday the ONS provided an estimate of how many students were back, probably surprising DfE with the news that 40 per cent of those who used the Student Travel Window have returned to their term time accommodation.

The nation marked the significant milestone when 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 were recorded. Any remaining processes of looking forward were upset mid-week by the announcement that a review of when schools would return would replace the anticipated date that schools would return.  A promise of two week’s notice for return pushes that to 8 March.  In the evening, DfE confirmed that ‘schools’ meant colleges and universities too. There a pattern there - an assumption we’d made confirmed by a belated DfE statement.

The regulator in the storm

Away from the pandemic, OfS closed its consultation on how it intends to regulate quality and standards on Monday. Various bodies published their responses, the ones with concerns about outcomes being picked up: notably the QAA who diplomatically noted that a “one-size-fits-all approach to outcome indicators, particularly in relation to progression, could have considerable unintended consequence”. 

HESA data published on Thursday included the national picture of degrees awarded in 2019-20. One of OfS’ stated areas of concern is grade inflation and their statement unequivocally linked ‘no detriment’ policies to the “significant increase in first class honours awarded to students graduating in 2020”. OfS are trying to tread carefully on how their actions may guide providers’ actions. Back on 14 January they had said:

“you may determine that it is no longer necessary to implement the type of ‘no detriment’ policies put in place by some providers in 2019-20”

But a revised set of guidelines issued on Friday 28 January developed how providers might implement such policies:

“We recognise that, where circumstances and patterns of assessment permit, awarding bodies are likely to introduce policies that will reduce pressure on students in the current difficult circumstances, such as ‘safety net’ or ‘no detriment’ policies.”

OfS is completely right in the guidance to call for providers to give “adequate and sympathetic consideration to the disruption caused to students’ learning and experience since the beginning of the pandemic”.  Having baked in ‘grade inflation’ for A levels, DfE were unsurprisingly happy to let OfS be reported on this in the media.

Supporting students

There had been no mention of future student financial support, maintenance loans and grants, in the interim response to Augar, but the pressing concern about the current state is continuing to build.  For many students the affordability of their accommodation is supported through part-time work.  Now those jobs are vanishingly sparse and there is no plan to vanish the rent they owe, this is more than the issue as to whether they are actually ‘allowed’ to live in it. A DfE written answer confirmed:

“As … the Prime Minister, said on the 7 January 2021, we are considering what more we can do to provide further support to students.”     

The Scottish Government was criticised for only finding £30 million more to support students, the Welsh Government finding £40 million more last week.  The UK government’s £20 Million more for England – for a student population many times larger – is coming under more pressure.

At the end of the week two great campaigning news organisations came out on the side of students. Channel 4 exposed the plight of international students – assumed (and mostly required) to be self-funding and now queuing for food banks.

Then the Daily Express started a Save our Students campaign. There were some howlers in their data: the claim that 65 per cent of students had not set foot on campus since the start of the pandemic is palpably false – in reality the ONS noted that 65 per cent of a sample had not been on campus on one week during the November lockdown. The optimism that £46 billion of reserves held by 168 universities should solve the problem is diminished not only by the nature of those restricted reserves but also their rather uneven distribution (£9 billion are held by two universities).  

Parliamentarians were also on the side of students: the all-party parliamentary group issuing a report calling for £700 million to support students in England.  

Clearly DfE are busy with all sorts of things, but what Higher Education needs now is planning: let’s have some timely guidance, perhaps reflecting that there won’t be one answer for the diversity of providers.  What students need from DfE is what the OfS has asked providers to do: 

“Give adequate and sympathetic consideration to the disruption caused to students’ learning and experience since the beginning of the pandemic”.