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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.
Reviewing a week of higher education news, Jon Scott, HE consultant and former Pro Vice-Chancellor (student experience) at the University of Leicester, suggests that genuine collaboration may be the only way out of the current crisis for universities.
Writing this blog on the 75th Anniversary of VE Day brings to the fore many analogies between the impact and aftermath of war and the current pandemic. Both situations are associated with profound changes in health, in society, in the economy and in education.
Without a doubt 2020 must already rank as the annus horribilis for higher education, indeed reading the news round-up over the last week, it would be easy to conclude that the university sector is in danger of total collapse.
Certainly, the financial picture looks grim with the significant prospect that some institutions may not survive the financial impact of the pandemic as a consequence of the potential loss of significant numbers of international students as well as lost income from other key sources such as conferences, an even bigger hole in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (and don’t forget that the industrial action over USS is only on pause) and a cut in funding from the Office for Students. Meanwhile there is growing pressure from students for a refund of tuition fees. There are also justifiable concerns over the support package announced by the government, particularly given the inevitability of additional strings likely to be attached to that support.
However, as with the outcomes of other crises, this one has seen dramatic responses and an agility that would normally only be a matter of dreams. The transition to online delivery of programmes and the redesign of many assessment structures has been effected with remarkable speed and is a real testament to the dedication of many academic and professional services staff. Despite the view promulgated in some areas, universities are not closed but very much engaged in supporting their core business of providing high quality education. They have also demonstrated the paramount importance of the medical research that is undertaken by universities as well as the training of doctors, nurses and other health professionals. I have been very proud to see the very significant contributions made by the University of Northampton, as just one example, in training and supporting health professionals, making facilities available and supporting the local community.
Universities are also planning for the coming academic year, mapping out different scenarios which could well include changes in the structure of the year. More than ever, the country will need its universities to help restore the economy and this need goes much wider than the health professions and even the scientists and engineers. The sector, though, is also approaching a fork in the road with real choices available. The most important of these is how universities function as a group, or not, in the future.
Over recent years the marketisation of the sector has led to increasing competition between institutions. In the current situation that competition will almost certainly result in the widening of the gap between universities with the inevitable outcome that some will fail, which will be to the detriment of the strength and reputation of the sector as a whole. If, however, the universities use this crisis as a stimulus to work together, in reality rather than just in rhetoric, there is the potential to combine resources and political direction. This may mean biting the bullet and sharing services and facilities, it may mean mergers but it could also mean ensuring a strong, high-quality higher education system to underpin the national research effort and produce the next generations of graduates.
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