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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.

Universities and students grapple with Covid and Brexit-related issues

Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Students Employers, reviews a week of HE news in which student accommodation, fee refunds, graduate jobs, and research funding surfaced as key issues.

If you thought accommodation blocks now resemble an abandoned California gold rush town you’d be mistaken. Apart from the many international students who can’t return home, it appears many home students would rather be living with friends than family. In an article for HEPI, David Tymms, Chair of the British Property Federation Student Accommodation Committee, wrote that university halls are approximately 60 per cent full and around 70 per cent of students who live in private housing have returned. We will find out in April whether universities can re-open for the summer term.

It’ll be a while before we know how many workers stay at home post-pandemic, and how much office space companies keep. But could students soon be living in old department stores? The University of Gloucestershire has already bought the old Debenhams in the city centre to convert into lecture space. If redundant office and retail space is converted to accommodation, the increase in supply could improve the affordability of student housing, which has long been an issue the NUS has campaigned on. Larissa Kennedy and Hillary Gyebi-Ababio of the NUS argued on WonkHE that provisions for affordable student housing recently announced in the London Plan could be implemented in other cities.

To provide financial support for students the Dutch are halving tuition fees next year as part of a financial crisis package. Could the UK adopt a similar model, asked the THE? For students that think they are owed a refund, David Ion, Undergraduate Education Officer at Bristol students union, wrote how impossibly bureaucratic the appeals process is. He likens the Office for the Independent Adjudicator's process to Dante’s journey through hell, warning that fee strikes are a possibility if the system isn’t reformed.

Graduating students are entering a jobs market just as tough as that experienced during the financial crash. 2021 graduates will be competing with last year’s cohort who have yet to find work, but we should also encourage students to keep working on their job searches. On the launch of the ISE’s latest development survey, Chief Research Officer Tristram Hooley explained that with graduate recruitment at 85 per cent of normal levels, employers are generally satisfied with graduates’ soft skills, but had concerns about their workplace skills and technical skills. The OfS also released data on graduates’ skills that reinforced this view.

Just how graduate employment outcomes measures should influence policy however remains a contentious issue. Former universities minister David Willetts warned against using graduate outcomes data to track progression to professional jobs as it could have “perverse effects”.

Accommodation problems and arguments over fees are not the only complex financial pressures facing the sector. University researchers have joined the fishermen, touring pop stars and Northern Ireland exporters who are finding out what Brexit means in practice. The THE reported that the Treasury isn’t prepared to provide extra funding to cover the costs of joining the European Union’s research framework. A £1 billion cut could hit the UK research budget next month. And if you are interested in Dominic Cumming’s views on research and why a ‘bog standard VC’ shouldn’t lead the  government’s new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria), he made them clear in front of the science and technology committee this week.

With Easter only a couple of weeks away, I’m sure everyone is ready for a break. Channel Four have gone a step further for their people and gave everyone a day away from the endless round of Zoom and Teams meetings.