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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.

World events highlight stark inequalities in HE

Sutton Trust associate director of media and communications Hilary Cornwell and research and policy assistant Maariyah Dawood comment on equality and widening access issues that have emerged in a week of higher education news.


Gavin Williamson told the Commons this week that the government is considering plans to delay 2021 exams to allow for more teaching time, with Ofqual confirming they would publish a consultation before the end of the term. Initial proposals suggest holding them in July, but teachers and union leaders have raised concerns about the quick turnaround in marking and the subsequent knock-on effect on progression to further and higher education. Former UCAS head Mary Curnock-Cook warned it would 'wreak havoc' on the university admissions system, and favour better-off students who are more able to navigate sudden changes. How the government chooses to address the concerns remains to be seen. 

The fear of a second wave of the coronavirus could mean another set of school closures, which means there are no clear cut answers to how exams proceed. The potential rejig of the exam season and university application cycle may provide some insight to those who favour post-qualification admissions to university, which would also require a significant change to the school year. This issue is likely to gain traction as the Guardian reported on Friday that the Department for Education is considering adopting post-qualification admissions as part of a 'radical overhaul' of England's admissions system.

Oxbridge admissions is always a favourite talking point among the Twitterati, and this week was no different. Oxford released their latest admissions data on Tuesday and the figures showed that one in five British undergraduates admitted to Oxford in 2019 came from a black and minority ethnic (BAME) background. Whilst the 7.1 per cent increase since 2014 marks an improvement, many were quick to point out that only 3.1 per cent were from actually a Black background and that the figure does not account for differences between ethnicities within the category. The discussion comes off the back of a heightened debate about the usefulness of the term 'BAME', and the varied experiences, attainment and socio-economic backgrounds of those who come under the umbrella term.  Perhaps not the issue Oxford were seeking to avoid when it initially delayed the release of the data due to 'world events'.

Nonetheless, it is 'world events' like the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement have rightly brought to light the stark inequalities in our education system as well as wider society. Lack of access to a tablet or internet is not just an issue for school-aged children but for disadvantaged university students too. Sutton Trust research released in May showed 23 per cent of students did not have a suitable study space. It is therefore vital that those of us working in the HE sector do not let the pandemic derail the progress made on closing equality gaps, as Omar Khan, the new Director of the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO), succinctly highlights in his WonkHE blog.

Khan introduces a new online toolkit produced by TASO that summarises the existing evidence base on effective approaches to widening participation and student success, with more research planned on the effectiveness of outreach schemes like summer schools, and approaches to addressing continuation and attainment gaps for disadvantaged students. This will be of particular interest to us at the Sutton Trust to assess the impact of our outreach programmes, but will also go some way to understanding where the sector can make up for any lost ground caused by the pandemic.

Some of the impact of Covid-19 will be assessed by Sir Michael Barber before he steps down as chair for the Office for Students. Sir Michael will lead a review on the quality of online learning at English universities in light of the pause to campus teaching before ending his term as chair in March 2021. WonkHE associate editor David Kernohan assesses Barber's impact since the establishment of the OfS in 2017. The new chair will have a difficult set of waters to steer the regulator through but whoever it is must continue to place importance on access and outcomes in higher education for the most disadvantaged students.