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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.

Uncertainty over re-opening plans for HE leaves universities and students in limbo

Another week of pandemic-dominated HE news has highlighted the dilemmas facing universities and students over what to expect in the coming academic year says, Mike Ratcliffe, academic registrar at Nottingham Trent University.


‘It’s too early to tell’ was transport secretary Grant Shapps answer to Helen, a parent of a student, at the Government’s press conference on 14 May. She had asked about her son’s housing contract in July, his fees for the course in September and the diminishing of the whole student experience.

That appears to be the case - it’s too early to tell what will happen, but that’s not much comfort to anyone.  Meanwhile, there’s every shade of opinion and every scenario still there to be discussed while the Covid-19 pandemic plays out internationally.  Higher Education did not feature in the Government’s recovery strategy, but this has been another week of working through the consequences of the pandemic.

For many courses, the transition to online has come only at the very end with a few weeks remaining.  It was one thing to finish off a teaching term, and prepare to assess that, but there is a considerable challenge to think about a variation to teaching and assessment for the start of courses.  The North American academic year starts earlier, so we have seen a variety of announcements about the new year, capped with a meeting of university leaders with the US Vice-President firmly billed as ‘best practices to get students back to school’, but there was a concern about litigation in case a student caught the virus. There have been fewer such statements from UK universities, but Manchester University's announcement that their lectures will be online highlights the issues of social distancing in teaching.

The prospect of being open, but it being different, is exercising all providers. The Government’s plans for limited opening of schools have been under much scrutiny, with the notion that class sizes will be limited to 15 to minimise contact.  There’s been focus on the primary classes which might stay together, but less on plans for some face-to-face teaching for years 10 and 12 in Schools and Colleges.  These classes will move around as students engage with their different options.  Universities have very pessimistic views on maintaining the current social distancing guidelines, reducing capacity in lecture rooms not to 50 per cent but more in the 10-20 per cent range.      

The debate will rage on as to whether students will or won’t take courses under these circumstances, and just what position will the funders and regulators of the UK HE sector take.  Will DfE match its enthusiasm for students returning to schools and colleges with measures for students at university level?  A key issue, raised in that question to Grant Shapps, is accommodation, where in the normal course of events new households will be formed – a practice currently against the guidelines. This is not just in September: it will need to happen in July when private landlord contracts change.  More guidelines are promised from DfE  - they’ll need to come soon.

The publication of OfS’ teaching grant on 13 May highlighted the challenge.  Over the last ten years the bulk of funding for teaching has moved to a real-time per-student basis. The Government views the ‘tuition fee’ paid by SLC to be public funding, while students and their parents see it as their money.  It’s more clear for most Postgraduates and international students as the tuition fee really is their money.  If the students do not come, then the current planned arrangements to support English universities next year will not amount to anything; the SLC can’t bring forward a fee payment for someone who’s not here.  It’s not just undergraduates, HEPI’s report on postgraduate courses was picked up in the press because of the number of students from China, but it reminds us of the importance of postgraduate education – with over half a million students. 

There’s evidence all around that the sector is collaborating in answering the questions. In England, the OfS is providing guidance and briefing notes filled with supportive case studies.  It may be ‘too early to tell’ exactly what next academic year will be like, but that’s not for want of effort in trying to find the best way through.