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Sandra Booth, Director of Policy and External Relations for the Council for Higher Education in Art & Design (CHEAD), reviews a week of higher education news in which concerns emerged over universities’ financial stability due to Covid-19 and the impact of the crisis on students.
A growing number of higher education conferences and events are being postponed or moved online in response to the Coronavirus restrictions.
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.
The current crisis has underlined the critical role played by the UK’s experts and researchers and the institutions supporting them, as well as the need for collaboration between them, says Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business.
As a growing number of universities move teaching and assessment online in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the University of Derby is holding a virtual conference which aims to support staff in making the transition.
In a week when the country was even more focussed on Brexit than usual, other issues were preoccupying higher education, finds Professor James Miller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University.
Brexit (heavy sighs across the land!)
In the week when the UK was supposed to leave the European Union, when we were about to enter our utopian future or the sky was about to fall in, depending on where your sympathies lie, there were surprisingly few Brexit-and-HE news stories. Sheffield Hallam University Vice-Chancellor Chris Husband’s piece did strike a chord - who hasn’t had the experience of overseas colleagues asking uncomfortably astute questions about what is happening in the UK. I suspect not too many of us could probe the dynamics of a political turmoil in other lands with the same informed confidence.
The exam question posed was ‘Can Universities heal the wounds of toxic Brexit?’ The answer sidestepped a simple yes or no to conclude merely that there was more that could be done – but more of what? More importantly, what impact would it have? One thing is for certain – the pre-dominantly remain supporting sector failed (did it really try?) to persuade a wider public in the first referendum. What might be different as we face the very real prospect of a second? Perhaps one answer is to look to the universities where social innovation is at the heart of what they do. There are certainly lessons to be learned and much still to do to heal the wounds before any more are inflicted – irrespective of whether Dr Victoria Bateman keeps her clothes on or not!
Finances (was that another sigh?)
Money and higher education are all too familiar bedfellows in the media and the last week has been no exception. This ranged from the BBC’s rather poorly presented data on the gender pay gap (N.B. BBC – universities are not ‘public sector bodies’ no matter how much governments would like them to be!), to James Marriott’s feature on low pay at Oxford University, to students protesting at the sum paid to have a disgraced vice-chancellor’s portrait painted. It seems we have a knack as a sector for providing easy fodder for headline writers. The news that the DFE is gearing up for the potential collapse of some universities in England and looking for a financial expert to advise on such a calamity doesn’t give much cause for optimism either.
The use of financial data as a proxy for measuring the impact of higher education continues to cause consternation. A clutch of stories from WonkHE, DFE and The Times examined what the LEO data can and cannot tell us. There is no doubt that it has some value. For example Richard Adams’s piece in the Guardian uses it to demonstrate the widening gender pay gap amongst graduates and goes on to provide a balanced explanation as to why that might be the case. However, when pulped to a league table friendly metric to assess the worth of a graduate education there are more questions to be asked! When so many of our vital graduate professionals - nurses, social workers to name but a few - are in public sector roles where salaries have been suppressed for so many years, the LEO data is merely an indicator of public sector pay policy - not a proxy measure of the value of a university education. David Kernohan’s summary of UUK’s 10 reasons why LEO data should not be used (“LEO is an indicator. It is not an exact measure and it isn’t a prediction”) is indeed a good health warning. Chant it every time it is used.
In the week that we learned that more students than ever are entering Scottish universities and that students are joining forces to protest at the Scottish Government’s poor financial settlement for higher education, one piece of news from the past week that didn’t get the prominence it deserved, is that SPARQS (Student Partnerships in Quality Scotland) has a new chair, the much-respected Sir Andrew Cubie who takes over from the equally impressive Professor Norman Sharp. Student engagement is often talked about and is achieved with varying degrees of success by all universities. SPARQS is an exemplar of impactful partnership with students at a national level and provides support to students and organisations to achieve the very best from all student engagement activities. Congratulations to all the award winners at their annual conference on Thursday 28th March – that was one party that wasn’t going to be spoiled - whatever happened on Friday 29th March!
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