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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.
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.
Amid predictions that higher education will be changed forever by the current pandemic, Professor James Miller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University, suggests the innovative ways the sector is responding to the crisis will make it even more valued in the future.
This week was the first full week of effectively a ‘lockdown’ and all universities and HEIs' move into online mode of delivery, some with more ease that others - not just because of the digital readiness but also because some subjects are just more challenging to teach online. That said, whilst new and creative ways have been found to ensure that students continue to engage with their studies, some have noted that the assumption that all students are digital natives is not necessarily the case.
Universities found themselves at the centre of contributing to the efforts in tackling Covid-19. This has taken many and varied forms, from researchers being diverted to think about testing and vaccines, to providing much needed medical equipment as well as support to local communities. This serves as a timely reminder that universities are much more than seats of learning. They are part of local and national infrastructures and their contributions are perhaps only fully understood in such extreme circumstances.
It is therefore fitting that in this week of all weeks we heard that Sheffield Hallam University will act as the host for the new civic university network. The relatively recent past has seen a number of commentators, largely from outside higher education, criticise universities for their lack of connectivity to their local communities. This new network and the response to the Covid-19 pandemic does demonstrate what those within higher education had known for some time: that universities are at the heart of communities.
Whilst there was much coverage of the Office for Students letter, there was relatively little notice paid to the changes for final year healthcare students and their shift to bolster the healthcare professional workforce in the final stages of their programmes. In terms of how universities contribute to the management of this pandemic this was much more impactful and should have been recognised not only for the deftness of the move but perhaps more importantly the willingness of healthcare students in medicine, nursing and all the allied health professionals to rally to the cause.
Whether or not you agree with Sir Anthony Seldon’s analysis that universities will be changed forever, the fact is that there is likely to be a new ‘normal’ once we get through this current pandemic. Quite what that looks and feels like is difficult to tell at the moment but breadth, depth and momentum of the impact of the virus on everyday life does mean that we are facing a paradigm shift in not only how universities function but how governments govern and how the public reacts to public health emergencies. The postponement of the Research Excellent Framework exercise is being seen by some as an opportunity to rethink the whole approach but stopping it altogether seems unlikely nor desirable, according to Professor James Wilsden, Digital Science professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield and director of the Research on Research Institute.
There have been a number of predictions that it will take some time to recover from this in terms of the number of international students coming to UK universities - some going even as far as saying we will never recover. Whether you agree is perhaps more to do with whether you are a glass half full or a glass half empty kind of person. UK higher education will still be a highly sought after prize once the pandemic is over. It could be argued that it will be even more sought after given our response to fighting Covid-19. How we deliver it might be entirely different - as has been seen already through the innovative and creative moves undertaken at breakneck speed over the past week.
In a week where there has been much debate about what should happen and how it should happen in what is universally accepted as unchartered territory, there has been the emergence of what often becomes the case where everyone becomes an expert. What is surely the case however is that once we are through this pandemic, in whatever field of study there are likely to be many PhD theses waiting to be completed on how this whole matter played out.
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