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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Marcia Devlin


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Making space for compassion

by Marcia Devlin

As is the case in many countries, the COVID pandemic continues to wreak havoc in Australian universities. While many universities are now beginning to experiment with ‘hybrid’ models that combine online and face-to-face teaching and learning, efforts are tentative. Executives and staff are nervous about committing to what many students are increasingly telling us they want – a ‘normal’ university student experience with on-campus components.

This nervousness is well-founded. Our vaccine rollout is not rolling, the federal and state governments are blaming each other, and we have had to have another snap lockdown just this week. Ensuring ‘COVID-safe’ campuses in these circumstances is tricky and, not to put too fine a point on it, connected to potential life and death scenarios.

International borders remain closed. International students – so important to Australian universities and their finances – are not allowed into the country. The current Education Minister gave a speech about the future of international students this week. It was invitation only but from what can be gleaned from social media commentary from those fortunate enough to secure an invitation, it didn’t leave audience members brimming with confidence about the immediate future.

In this set of circumstances, it is challenging to focus on the core university ‘businesses’ of teaching and research. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that those providing the education and research are human beings who are themselves living in and through the pandemic. The work of academics and professionals in universities is complex, messy, deeply human and relies on individual passion and goodwill as well as qualifications, knowledge, skills and experience.

I attended a seminar recently at one of my alma maters, Macquarie University, led by a well-known Australian author, Hugh McKay: the importance of compassion was central. Arguing that the most significant thing about us as people is that we share a common humanity, that we humans all belong to a social species, that we are “hopeless” in isolation and that we need others to nurture and sustain us, McKay underscored the importance of compassion, kindness and simply being nice to one another in our current shared pandemic context.

I’m not sure about other SRHE readers, but compassion and kindness aren’t topics I’ve often heard discussed in universities in my 30 years in the sector. McKay suggested the pandemic has been a mass experiment around what happens to people when they are isolated. The results have included more anxiety, more suicidal ideation, more domestic violence, among many other negative outcomes. But also more time for introspection and for deep consideration of what is important to us. Many of us have more clearly understood how crucial our social and personal connections are.

McKay proposes that many of us have previously found useful hiding places in ambition, IT devices and consumerism, which have promoted individualism and competitiveness and a greater focus on ourselves than on our role in families, communities and society. As I reflected on university life, and life more generally, I couldn’t help but think he had a point.

As we co-create the ‘COVID-normal’ university, I wonder if we might all find a bigger space for our humanity, our compassion and our kindness to each other. Not only might that bring a better experience of work in universities for ourselves and those around us, the quality and impact of our education and research might also improve as a result.

Former Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor Marcia Devlin is a Fellow of SRHE and an Adjunct Professor at Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia.


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Let them eat data: education, widening participation and the digital divide

by Alex Blower and Nik Marsdin

The quest for an answer

As an education sector we like answers, answers for everything, right or wrong. Sometimes we’re more concerned with arriving at an answer, than we are with ensuring it tackles the issue addressed by the question.

Widening HE participation is led by policy that dictates which answers we provide to what questions and to whom. All too often this leads to practitioners scrambling for answers to questions which are ill fitting to the issue at hand, or looking for a quick solution in such haste that we forget to read the question properly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has once again laid bare the stark inequality faced by children and young people in our education system. With it has been an influx of new questions from policy makers, and answers from across the political and educational spectrum.

A magic ‘thing’

More often than not, answers to these questions will comprise a ‘thing’. Governments like tangible objects like mentoring, tutoring, longer days, boot camps and shiny new academies. All of which align to the good old fashioned ‘fake it till you make it’ meritocratic ideal. For the last 40 years the Government has shied away from recognising, let alone addressing, embedded structural inequality from birth. It’s difficult, it’s complicated, and it can’t readily be answered in a tweet or a soundbite from a 6pm press conference.

The undesirable implications of a search for an ‘oven ready’ answer can be seen in the digital divide. A stark example of what access to the internet means for the haves and have-nots of the technological age.

‘So, the reason young people are experiencing extreme inequality and not becoming educationally successful, is because they don’t have enough access to technological things?’

‘What we need is a nice solid technological thing we can pin our hopes on…’

‘Laptops for everyone!’

Well, (and I suspect some voices in the back know what’s coming) access to technology alone isn’t the answer, in the same way that a pencil isn’t the answer to teaching a child to write.

Technology is a thing, a conduit, a piece of equipment that, if used right, can facilitate a learning gain. As professionals working to widen HE participation, we need to challenge these ‘oven ready answers’. Especially if they seem misguided or, dare I say it woefully ignorant of the challenges working-class communities face.

After distribution of the devices, online engagement didn’t change

Lancaster University developed the ‘Connecting Kids’ project during the first wave of COVID-19, as a direct response to calls for help by local secondary schools. The project achieved what it set out to in that it procured over 500 brand new laptops or Chromebooks, and free internet access for all recipients. Every child who fell outside of the Department for Education scheme who was without a suitable device in the home would now have one. Problem solved, right?

Not quite. Engagement in online learning environments prior to the DfE scheme and Connecting Kids initiative in years 8 and 9 was hovering at about 30% of students engaging daily, and 45% weekly. After the distribution of devices, engagement remained at nearly exactly the same level. Further inspection of the data from the telecom’s provider demonstrated that of the 500 mobile connections distributed, only 123 had been activated. Of those 123 only half were being regularly used. Of the 377 ‘unused’ sim and mi-fi packages around 200 showed ‘user error’ in connection status.

Again, this may come as no surprise to the seasoned professionals working with children and young people at the sharp end of structural inequality, but it turned out the ‘thing’ wasn’t the answer. Who would have thought it?

Understanding communities and providing resources

Fast forward 6 months and monthly interviews with participating school staff (part of the project evaluation, not yet complete) show that online engagement in one school is up to 92%. The laptops have played a valuable role in that. They have enabled access. What they haven’t done however, is understand and make allowances for the circumstances of children, young people and families. That has taken a commitment by the schools to provide holistic wrap around services in partnership with other organisations. It has included short courses on connecting to the internet, and provision of basic learning equipment such as pencils, paper, and pens. It has included the school day and timetable being replicated online, live feedback sessions with teachers and learning assistants, and drop-in sessions for parents and carers. Most importantly, it has included a recognition of the difference between home and school, and the impact it has on the education working-class of young people.

Back to policy and widening participation. If we are to make our work truly meaningful for young people, we must critically engage with a policy narrative which is built around a desire for quick fixes, soundbites and ‘oven ready things’. We owe it to the young people who are being hit hardest by this pandemic to take a step back and look at the wider barriers they face.

To do this we may need to reconceptualise what it means to support them into higher education. This starts with challenging much of the policy that is designed to improve access to higher education built upon a premise of individual deficit. The repetitive waving of magical policy wands to conjure up laptops, mentors and days out on campus will only serve to leave us with ever increasing numbers of students and families who are left out and disengaged. Numbers that will continue to rise unless we take the time to engage critically with the complex, numerous and damaging inequalities that working-class young people face.

Reshaping university outreach

This leaves us with something of a conundrum. As HE professionals, what on earth can we do about all of that? Is it our place to address an issue so vast, and so intimately tied to the turning cogs of government policy and societal inequality?

Well, if recent conversations pertaining to higher education’s civic purpose are anything to go by, the answer is undoubtedly yes. And we need to do it better. Within our mad scramble to do something to support young learners during the first, second, and now third national lockdown, our ‘thing’ has become online workshops.

For many of us the ramifications of the digital divide have been acknowledged, but we have shied away from them in work to widen HE participation. We’ve kept doing what we’ve always done, but switched to a model of online delivery which restricts who has the ability to access the content. Can we honestly say, given the disparity in digital participation amongst the most and least affluent groups, that this is the right answer to the question?

Rather than an online workshop series on ‘choosing universities’, would our time and resource be better spent by organising student ambassadors from computing subjects to staff a freephone helpline supporting young people in the community to get online? Could we distribute workbooks with local newspapers? Could we, as they did at Lancaster, work in partnership with other local and national organisations to offer more holistic support, support which ensures that as many students are able to participate in education digitally as possible?

For us, the answer is yes. Yes we should. And we can start by meaningfully engaging with the communities our universities serve. By taking the time to properly listen and understand the questions before working with those communities to provide an answer.

Currently based at the University of Portsmouth, Dr Alex Blower has worked as a professional in widening access to Higher Education for the last decade. Having completed his doctoral research in education and inequality last year, Alex’s research interests focus around class, masculinity and higher education participation. Follow Alex via @EduDetective on twitter.

Nik Marsdin is currently lead for the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (part of the Eden North Project) at Lancaster University. Nik worked in children’s social care, youth justice and community provision for 12 years prior to moving into HE.  Research interests are widening participation, school exclusion, transitions in education and alternative provision. Follow Nik via @MarsdinNik on Twitter.


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Redesigning global hybrid education now that everything’s changed

by Hamish Coates, Xie Zheping and Xi Hong

This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020.   Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.

In July 2020, my nine-year-old daughter picked my 1968 edition of Funny Jokes and Foxy Riddles from the shelf and asked me: “Why did the girl catch a plane to school?”. I paused, wondering if this was fantasy, folly, fantastic, foresight, fortune, futuristic or just funny. “So she could get a higher education”, my daughter answered, signalling how comfortable today’s children of faculty have grown up feeling about international university study.

In 1968, the idea that millions of young middle-income people mainly from Asia would swirl around the globe for undergraduate study, financially turbocharging research at major universities, was fanciful. A one-hour trunk call might cost more than a 2019 trans-Pacific plane ticket; the 747, the monumental whale which lifted globalisation, was fresh from the hangar; only very high elites in largely developing Asian economies were thinking about university, and such study was barely a prerequisite for a fantastic and fulsome or even a professional life.

My ideas wandered before my daughter pitched the punchline, but one gnawing anxiety pulsed stubbornly in my imagination. In this year of pandemic-induced accelerated global transformation, with 747s scuttled, billions carved from university budgets, and 14-day hotel quarantine dwarfing the pain of even 14-hour flights, what, I thought, would higher education be like in 2030 for my daughter’s generation? The nomenclature of qualifications and credentials proliferates but scares about ‘over-education’ and diminishing returns from degrees have, paradoxically, led to more people spending more time in more study. Promulgating the promise of technology has seen the campus flourish into sacred learning places. Higher education will continue to grow in value. I have learned that forecasting the future is fraught with failure, but also that failing to plan means planning to fail.

Such observation helped to frame analysis of how engaging with transformed fundamentals is necessary to design global hybrid higher education. The point of our recent Studies in Higher Education paper, and my broader book on Higher Education Design, was not to dramatize contentious political contingencies, polish pedagogical pedantries, earmark technological solutions, or cast policy prescriptions. The point, rather, has been to clarify multidimensional tectonic rumbles, make clear often hidden but non-ignorable innovation underway, and frame constructive narratives and perspectives for considering the shape of things to come. Given that higher education does change, slowly, then suddenly, let’s get ready and be prepared.

Our Studies in Higher Education essay starts by charting recent experiences of me and co-authors. Like many in higher education, our lives have been filled with what felt like ‘free flowing globalism’, with myriad experiences pounding rhythms of seemingly unstoppable growth. Then, swiftly, in January 2020, the world got acutely personal and unusual.

This gave time and remit to question what shocks or changes have been evident, how have these registered, and what implications they carry. Our analysis is framed in terms of system-level shifts, education reconfigurations, research developments, and the movement of people.

Notable system shifts included the re-assertion of government power, notable in terms of border closures, health priorities, and emboldened regulatory structures. Myriad shock vectors arising from the pandemic also appear to have grounded the ‘isomorphic ivy striving’ fixations of plushily renumerated executives, directing their attention to more local communities and concerns. “Teach local students like your job depends on it”, one top-university president told his professors, sharply diverting from the entrenched ‘world-class university’ rhetoric of publishing and patenting to pump up the rankings. Such fundamental re-orientation around local communities generates novel futures for education and engagement, and carries broader implications for sectoral and institutional structure. At the other end of the geographic spectrum, the pandemic shock spurred reconfiguration of important cross-border engagements. Such reconfiguration of cross-border education, student mobility, faculty work, and research fundamentals will leave a lasting impact on higher education. For instance, there will be greater need for global coordination around education regulation and quality assurance, particularly education which is broadcast online.

The global shift to ‘emergency online learning’ caused by the shuttering of campuses is likely to be one of the biggest ever changes to education. In 2020 there were estimates that more than 90 per cent of the world’s learners, more than 1.5 billion people, were confined to their homes. As I articulate in Higher Education Design, online learning emerged from these emergency conditions as a plinth undergirding future higher education. Tellingly, however, online learning was relegated as a servant of in-person provision, not as the triumphant master, as long expounded by techno-zealots. The maturation of hybrid forms of education was made possible by the consolidation of very sophisticated education service firms. Such partnerships carry step-change implications for future higher education. Clearly, these education-related changes and reconfigurations merely scratch the surface. While ‘change rhetoric’ runs rampant in higher education commentary and scholarship, realistically education plays out across decades through large systems with long pipelines. It is too soon to calculate the effects of contemporary disruptions on students who have been preparing their whole lives for dreamlike university futures. While the shape of the post-pandemic recovery remains ‘a question mark’, the magnitude of disruption has already reconfigured education in ways which will ricochet for years to come.

Personal experiences, media stories and discussions with colleagues all conveyed major shifts in academic research. Trapped at home, all academics and consultants found more time to write, surely ensuring that, through essays like ours, 2020 will be one of the most highly documented yet. Such inquiry has raised fresh questions about the overall direction of our field. The year 2020 has required higher education research to deliver in robust and relevant ways. We became convinced, as outlined below, of the need for the field to engage with fundamental forms of higher education design. Beyond higher education studies, it was hard not to project that abrupt changes to academic research will reap enduring consequences. Governments stepped in to subsidise fields not independently viable. Through writing, investigative and editorial work we noted swift changes with publishing. Fuelled by the vaccine quest, medical researchers cemented decades of debate into collaborative ways for expediting and strengthening peer review, which will carry universal implications. The swing towards open-access publications was accentuated, potentially to help faculty working from home, certainly affirming growing interest in open science and, related to this, establishing momentum towards citations and other impact-related metrics. New global realisation emerged of the role of research in Asia, not just in supporting more established systems, but in pioneering frontiers and innovations.

Higher education is about people, and changes regarding people have already had the most profound impact and implications. Across Asia, travel which used to take six hours and six hundred dollars, in 2020 took six weeks and six thousand dollars, considering costs for visas, health certificates, flights and quarantine. It has been impossible to ignore the impact of the pandemic on students, on faculty, and on broader global flows. It does not take too much acumen or courage to foresee that transnational education will look very different over the next 25 years. The pandemic has flattened ‘international education’ and fuelled evolution of the new ‘global era’. As our essay conveys, the conditions and arrangements built up since the mid-1990s to sustain ‘international higher education’ have cracked, sometimes in irreparable ways. The ‘emergency’ arrangements patched in to sustain education across the first half of 2020 cranked important ratchets which will prove hard or unpleasant to reverse. Emergent changes reveal the need for new transnational perspectives, partnerships, practices.

As our essay articulates, we started 2020 researching global higher education futures, sustained academics through pandemic-induced turbulence, then realised that contemporary changes had reconfigured fundamentals. A volatile, exciting and thought-provoking time. Far from muting or stalling the initial research, we realised that our experiences in 2020 has presaged the shape of things to come. A constructive way to engage, we conclude, is to engage in fresh forms of higher education design. Higher education has never been more important.

Hamish COATES, XIE Zheping and XI Hong are at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education.

Hamish COATES is a Tenured Professor, Director of the Higher Education Research Division, and Deputy Director of the Tsinghua University Global Research Centre for the Assessment of College and Student Development. He was Professor of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, Founding Director of Higher Education Research at the Australian Council for Educational Research, and Program Director at the LH Martin Institute for Tertiary Leadership and Management. He concentrates on improving the quality and productivity of higher education. hamishcoates@outlook.com

With a PhD in political science, Dr XIE Zheping is an Associate Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, as well as the Deputy Director of Policy Research Office at Tsinghua University. She also serves as an academic board member of the Chinese National Commission for UNESCO. Before joining Tsinghua she worked at Renmin University of China, and was a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has published several papers and books on education and international cooperation. Her current research focuses on higher education and global governance.

Xi HONG is a PhD student at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education. Xi is the recipient of the ‘Future Scholar Scholarship of Tsinghua University’. She specialises in the field of higher education, focusing in particular on student development, higher education policy, higher education assessment, and minorities.


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The impact of COVID 19 on private higher education: the Ethiopian experience

by Wondwosen Tamrat

This blog is a short summary of the author’s paper for a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. This issue is currently free to access and includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020. Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021. The paper presented the findings of a study that sought to examine the impact of the pandemic on the private higher education (PHE) sector in Ethiopia. It employed a mixed-methods design using a weekly diary of significant events kept between the months of April and August,2020, and two online surveys conducted between the months of April and May, 2020, and at the end of August, 2020, respectively. Among 110 private higher education institutions contacted for the purpose of the study, ninety-seven institutions (89%) responded to the first survey while 77 (70%) institutions gave back their answers during the second survey.

Together with tourism and travel, higher education has been identified as one of the major sectors upended by the COVID-19 pandemic (The Economist 2020). Despite the lack of research on the area, anecdotal evidence suggests that the effect of the pandemic may be more pronounced in the private higher education (PHE) sector whose resource base and capacity are too limited to withstand the impact of a crisis of this magnitude.

Arguably, in many systems, private colleges are over-reliant on student tuition and do not count on direct government support or emergency grants to keep them afloat. The search for external support is also not easy at a time when institutions are losing their selling points due to the pandemic which has indeed presented an unprecedented challenge such as reduced admissions, cash flow problems, inability to pay salaries, and furloughing of staff. 

Initial experiences and reactions

The first confirmed case in Ethiopia, reported on 7 March, was a Japanese advisor employed to provide technical assistance to Ethiopian schools. Things moved quickly after the Ministry of Health reported the case in public media. Ethiopia’s 30 million learners in schools and nearly a million in its 50 public universities and more than 250 private academic institutions were identified as high potential transmission sites. On 16 March, the Prime Minister announced that schools and universities would halt classes for 2 weeks. On 17 March, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education gave further directions on how universities should act during the closure.

In the immediate aftermath of the closure, the Ethiopian government set up a national task force that mobilized the public towards combatting the impacts of the pandemic. Most higher education institutions (HEIs), including the privates, responded to the call by donating money, sanitary items, essential supplies, and even their buildings to be used for quarantine and storage purposes. According to a figure obtained from the Ethiopian TVET and Private Higher Education Institutions’ Association, donations worth more than ETB 30 million (nearly US$ 1 million) were raised by private institutions for the cause. Private medical colleges also enlisted nearly 4000 of their medical students to be deployed by the government to combat the pandemic.

Government also made further interventions in the form of declaration of a state of emergency and providing support to the private sector. Whereas the initial government shutdown had a largely common impact across sectors, the declaration of a state of emergency loomed as potentially disastrous for many private institutions. The limited assistance provided to private enterprises by government went mostly to manufacturing, hotel, horticulture, floriculture, and others labeled most affected by the pandemic. Unfortunately, PHE was not on that priority list and as a consequence, the only workable benefits extended to PHEIs were a 4-month employee income tax exemption, the postponement of pension payments for a few months, and regulation that bans landlords from increasing rents and evicting tenants including PHE institutions.

The challenges of shifting online

Shifting to online delivery was difficult in the Ethiopian context for many reasons. Poor internet access, cost, availability of computers and related technology, little previous preparation, and students’ and teachers’ twin problems of limited technical knowhow and negative attitudes towards the use of information and communication technology stood out as the most prevalent problems both for public and private HEIs.

Most institutions used social media platforms like Facebook, Telegram, WhatsApp, and Google Classroom in their program delivery, a few struggled to develop their own learning management systems more recently. Despite such efforts, not much is known about the most disadvantaged students who are being left behind. Mechanisms such as creating zero-rated access to specific educational websites, universities, digital libraries and online knowledge hubs, and offering free data bundles to students, that were observed in some African countries have not been practised in Ethiopia.

Impact on income

Ethiopian PHEIs rely entirely on student tuition and fees. An overwhelming majority had the practice of collecting fees on a monthly basis which immediately put many of them in jeopardy immediately after the official closure of the sector. Government policy that crippled undergraduate finance has been a weightier problem for private than public since PHE depended almost solely on tuition from its undergraduates.

The strain of paying monthly rent, staff salaries, and other expenses was also a serious challenge. Under normal circumstances, along with salary, rent accounts for more than three-fourth of PHE’s monthly expenses. PHEIs were forced to ask for the postponement of payment periods, abandon some of their branches, and/or settle their rents by taking loans from other sources. While a limited number of institutions continued to pay salaries, the majority faced the increasing difficulties of meeting this responsibility. Making late payments, salary reductions and entering into litigations due to failure to pay such expenses were challenges faced by many HEIs.

Impact on employment

Many institutions have frozen new employment and stopped employing part-time workers who constitute a significant portion of the workforce in the private higher education sector which relies heavily on such staff. Another impact has been the reduction of the productivity of workers compared to the earlier days. Institutions also claim that the output of their employees has been reduced significantly after the disruption of classes. The pandemic is further expected to have a significant impact on the future employability of graduates (around 150,000 per annum) across both the public and private sectors.

Leadership challenges

The leadership in the private sector carried huge burdens in combating the impact of COVID 19 which was exacerbated by the sadness of the pandemic and the little preparation they had. Institutional limitation in collecting fees and paying salary and rent has created a condition whereby leaders had to abandon their normal plans and attend to day-to-day challenges. The declining work ethics and their failure to provide enough information about the fate of their institutions was another challenge. The struggles to convince students to pay and employees to share the financial strains they are going through were the major occupations of institutional leaders for the past several months.

Leaders were also perturbed by a high level of uncertainty and hopelessness as regards the fate of their institutions. Although they are hopeful about the start of classes in the last two months, the feeling of uncertainty still appears to linger in their disposition as adjusting to the ‘new normal’ cannot be an easy task. Further, the limited help obtained from the government so far appears to have worsened the feeling of hopelessness compounded by the fear of the unknown which still appears to haunt most of the leaders.

Conclusion

It is possible to envision a post-COVID future in which PHE has lost much bad as well as some good from its long-unbridled expansion and in which some of the fitter not only survive but improve their organizational management and certainly their use of technology in educational provision.

Private institutions still expect meaningful interventions in areas that include tax exemptions, long-term loans, rent waiver or reduction, direct financial support from the government, assistance with online platforms, reduced internet costs, facilitating student access to computers with reduced costs, etc.

It is understandable that the government is overwhelmed by a multitude of social, political, and economic pressures unleashed by COVID-19 as it is preparing for the reopening of higher education institutions. However, unless a substantial intervention is made in terms of assisting the PHE sector and/or influencing financial institutions to provide meaningful assistance, this sector, which boasts the largest number of students in Africa (Tamrat and Levy, 2017) and caters to the needs of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians will be significantly weakened.

While solving the challenges of the economy remains a key to addressing anticipated problems caused by COVID-19, the findings of this survey strongly point to the need for close monitoring of PHE to curb the continued impact of the pandemic. Further, continuous and fruitful dialogues are needed between the government and sector representatives in order to maintain the confidence of PHE institutions in government policy aimed at ensuring their survival.

Wondwosen Tamrat is an Associate Professor and Founding President of St. Mary’s University in Ethiopia. He is an affiliate scholar of the Program for Research on Private Higher Education (PROPHE) headquartered at the State University of New York at Albany, US. He coordinates the Sub-Cluster for Private Higher Education in Africa under the African Union’s Higher Education Cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa, CESA 2016-25.


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Staff experiences of the rapid move online: challenges and opportunities

by Eileen Kennedy and Allison Littlejohn

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The authors’ statement can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated major changes to research, teaching and professional working in Universities. In the UK more generally, there was surprise at the degree of public support for lockdown, and the Prime Minister’s directive to “join together” to beat the virus. Commentators have observed, however, that despite the constant suggestions that we are all in this together, the pandemic has affected people very differently. For example, the UN has observed that while the virus may not discriminate, but the impacts on individuals certainly do

We wanted to investigate how far this picture of uneven impacts may be affecting university staff. So, to capture staff experiences as they changed how they worked during this period, we launched a programme of research at UCL which involved a series of staff surveys and follow up interviews, Moving to Online Teaching and Homeworking (MOTH). This research was led by Allison Littlejohn with Martin Oliver, Lesley Gourlay, Eileen Kennedy, Tim Neumann, Kit Logan, John Potter and Jennifer Rode. Our aim was to understand how the crisis might be exacerbating pre-existing structural inequalities that impact adversely on staff, as well as posing challenges and opportunities for teaching and research.

We had 421 responses to our initial survey, which included asking about the challenges and opportunities of the shift to online teaching and researching at home. We also asked participants to share images that they considered communicated their experience. We sent out follow up surveys throughout the summer, and invited 32 participants to take part in in-depth interviews to explain their responses in more depth. 

What the findings showed us quite clearly was that the impact on staff was not the same for everybody.  Although respondents who identified as men and women reported caring responsibilities, caring appeared to manifest differently. Women found it more difficult to focus on research because of the caring labour they were doing – caring for children and adult dependents, for students, for colleagues. These activities lead to reduced time for research and to publish research papers with potential consequences for long-term career progression. 

Staff with physical and/or mental health challenges – either pre-existing or as a result of the pandemic – also experienced the lockdown differently, with reports of headaches, eyestrain, aching back, shoulders or wrists health impacts from 7.7% of survey respondents. Those with more space were more positive about the move than those with fewer rooms to work in, and staff on fixed term contracts experienced anxiety about the impact of the pandemic on their careers. 

The research we conducted showed very clearly that University staff experience is not uniform. This is an important message to those making decisions about how to support staff at universities during this crisis and beyond.

As for the move to teaching online, once again, experiences greatly differed. A slightly higher number rated their feelings as positive or very positive than those who rated their feelings as negative or very negative. Most people, nearly 40%, were undecided. A number of themes emerged, however. In terms of the challenges they described, the biggest issue were the lack of interaction and engagement with students online, technology problems, time and resource demands and the need for professional development. 

It became apparent from the survey that the most reported challenges that concerned teaching involved using live video systems like Teams or Blackboard Collaborate, and the key problem was the lack of visual cues, impacting interaction and engagement from students. This made online teaching more difficult and stressful for staff. This was borne out in the interviews. Staff said that students would not switch their cameras on,  “so, I was talking to a picture of myself on the screen” (interview participant). Staff really missed the energy from students they were used to in traditional teaching, and without this teaching online was stressful and exhausting. What made the difference for those staff who were more positive about online was prior experience. Those participants were also much happier with student engagement, and saw the move online as an opportunity presented by the pandemic.

“I feel positive about the probability that one of the outcomes of the COVID crisis will be more widespread general understanding about productive ways to use technology to support learning, not least among academics, but also, I hope, among education administrators and managers” (survey participant).

This research has given us insights into how university staff have experienced the pandemic. But it has told us more than that. A defining feature of the data was the central role that emotions played in every aspect of the move to online teaching and homeworking. Participants regularly described their anxieties about colleagues and students, the extra time they were putting into tutorials,  pastoral  care for students who experienced extra difficulties during the crisis and the impact this was having on themselves. This has led us to revisit the theme of emotional labour in teaching, and how we can make sense of the care that participants show in digital education. This is an aspect of online teaching that is seldom discussed. Our question, therefore, is what is the role of technology and the move to online and home working in supporting the caring labour of University staff?

Dr Eileen Kennedy is a Senior Research Associate based at UCL Knowledge Lab, UCL Institute of Education. Her research focuses on ways of enhancing and sharing practice in online and blended learning. Eileen works with two ESRC-funded research centres: the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) and the RELIEF Centre. With CGHE, Eileen is exploring the transformative potential of digital technologies for higher education. With RELIEF, Eileen is researching ways of using digital education (particularly in the form of MOOCs) to build inclusive prosperity in the contexts of mass displacement.

Professor Allison Littlejohn is Director of UCL Knowledge Lab, UCL Institute of Education. Allison works in the field in Education, specialising in Digital Higher Education. Her expertise is in applying learning theories to complex interventions for professional learning that capitalise on digital technologies. The context of her research spans the energy, health, finance, education, and international development sectors across various countries.


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When can we get back to “normal”? Long term predictions of the impact of Covid-19 on teaching in UK universities

by Katherine Deane

Probable Timelines

January – July 2021 – Expect to need to maintain non-pharmaceutical interventions – including social distancing, face masks, cleaning, and rapid tests. Exact interventions may vary with government guidance.

January 2021 – Rising levels of Covid-19 in the community after Christmas mixing may lead to further lockdown conditions.

February-April 2021 – End of Phase One vaccination program. Levels of Covid-19 in the community expected to be initially high, likely requiring some social restrictions to continue in the first few months.

April-July 2021 – End of vaccination of remainder of population. Covid-19 levels dropping across these months. Social restrictions likely to be reduced as the months progress.

Summer 2021 – End of pandemic in UK. Able to stop all non-pharmacological interventions.  Staff recover and take holiday.

Autumn 2021 – Start of term with normal teaching program.

The current situation in UK universities

Most universities are providing limited face-to-face teaching using non-pharmaceutical interventions to prevent transmission such as social distancing and additional cleaning protocols. Some universities have implemented higher quality interventions such as the use of face masks indoors, and the availability of asymptomatic swab testing on campus. A few universities have gone to completely online provision. All of these interventions have helped reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in UK universities.

The initial exponential growth of Covid-19 cases at the start of term in many universities has slowed down. Some of this reduction has been due to non-pharmacological interventions and university specific restrictions on student activities. However the level of Covid-19 in the community has had significant impact on the levels in universities. So, claims for the efficacy of the Covid-19 safe workplace interventions are yet to be proven, particularly in the context of higher levels of community Covid-19 (Manchester University, 2020).

It is expected that the levels of Covid-19 in the community will continue to be high during winter months as the virus spreads more easily in indoor unventilated environments, and survives for longer in cooler temperatures (Huang, 2020).

Medical risks from Covid-19 are not equitably distributed. People at increased risk from Covid-19 are older, male, have other illnesses, or are from Black, Asian, or other minority ethnic populations (Williamson, 2020; ONS, 2020). It is recognised that young students are at low risk of having a poor acute reaction to being infected from Covid-19. But their risk of infection may be higher as students often live in overcrowded accommodation which substantially increases the risk of Covid-19 transmission (Williamson, 2020). Whilst a severe reaction to Covid-19 is rare, it’s not impossible, with a number of infected Manchester University students ending up in Intensive Care (Parker, 2020). Finally students are in contact with lecturers and support staff who represent a much wider range of ages and medical risks. They are also in contact with the local community and some students (e.g. those in health faculties) are in contact with patients, all of whom could be at higher risk from Covid-19 infection (SAGE, 2020).

A survey of staff at the University of East Anglia identified that about half of respondents were at greater risk from Covid-19 themselves, and/or were in households with people at greater risk or had caring responsibilities for people at greater risk (Figure 1: UCU UEA, 2020). This highlights how complex and interconnected modern society is. It is impossible to segregate those at greater risk from Covid-19 (SAGE, 2020; Griffin 2020).

Figure 1: Would you class yourself or those in your household as moderate or high risk from Covid-19? (UCU UEA 2020)

We now have a better understanding of Long Covid (ie symptoms for more than eight weeks) (Sudre et al, 2020). Long-COVID is characterised by symptoms of fatigue, headache, breathlessness and loss of sense of smell; but also evidence of organ damage (Dennis et al, 2020) and increased risk of neuropsychiatric complications as well (Butler et al, 2020). Long Covid occurs in one in 20 people infected with COVID-19 (Sudre et al, 2020). However it appears to be more common in younger age groups, and affects around 10% of 18-49 year olds who become unwell with COVID-19. It can be severe enough to prevent patients from returning to work or study, and can last for many months.

What happens next?

There is excellent news about a number of vaccines which have been shown to create good levels of immunity (Gallagher, 2020a; Gallagher, 2020b; Bosely 2020; Roth 2020). All the vaccines need two injections to be effective. The government plans a massive roll-out of vaccinations with GP practices (Kanani, 2020) supplemented with vaccination centres set up in conference centres, sports halls, community centres. The immunisation plans start in care home residents and staff at the start of December, with all high risk people and health and care staff immunised by the end of February 2021 (JCVI, 2020; Rapson, 2020). The vaccines would then be rolled out to everyone else with the aim to have the whole adult population of the UK vaccinated by April 2021. This would have massive impact as it would deliver herd immunity (estimated at 60-70% immunity) and stop the pandemic in its tracks. However a number of issues could lead to delays: vaccines need to be approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA); some stocks of vaccines are already manufactured but more need to be created; vaccines need to be transported to the UK (which may be affected by Brexit); the -80oC cold storage of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during the transport process is challenging and failures will lead to the vaccine being unusable; finding sufficient staff to deliver the vaccines will be hard when the NHS has 100,000 job vacancies; and concerns about vaccine safety may lead to hesitancy and lower than needed uptake. Overall, the estimate of a successful vaccination program being completed by April is the very best case scenario.

Other factors such as greater availability of rapid Covid-19 tests will reduce the frequency of people having to isolate for extended periods of time, so social restrictions are likely to be reduced as the year goes on. However the risk of being infected with Covid-19 will remain relatively high during the first quarter of 2021. Until the population have been fully vaccinated, the proposal of allowing Covid-19 to circulate unchecked in order for the population to develop herd immunity from infections has been refuted as impractical and unethical (Griffin, 2020) and could actually increase the infectivity and lethality of the virus (Spinney, 2020; Bonneaud, 2019). Therefore universities need to be cautious and pragmatic and understand that both the spring and summer terms will almost certainly still need non-pharmacological interventions in place in order to ensure the safety of students, staff and the surrounding communities.

Impact on teaching practice

The University and College Union’s national position is that all university courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they involve practical training or lab work (UCU, 2020), for both the spring and summer terms in all universities. However, few universities have adopted this position. If face-to-face teaching is to continue it should remain at current levels with social distancing, with inevitable consequences in terms of room capacity and the need for repetition of teaching sessions in order to reach entire student cohorts.

As vaccinations start to be rolled out, individual risk levels may reduce, but overall the university community remains at high risk from infection, and of transmitting that to the community they live in (SAGE, 2020; McIntyre, 2020). So whilst it is expected that Covid-19 levels will reduce substantially as we head towards the summer, care should still be taken to reduce transmission on campus.

In addition university management should recognise how tired and burnt out their staff are, with the substantial effort of keeping universities running mostly virtually, and trying to maintain the quality of teaching alongside their own concerns about their health and the health of their friends and families. Many will have suffered losses; many will have supported students dealing with losses. Staff will need time to recover, to take holidays that were not taken during the pandemic, and to decompress from this stressful period of over-work. Then they will be able to return to campus in the autumn of 2021 able to teach effectively.

Don’t just return to ‘normal’

Not all of the pandemic lessons have been negative. I am a disabled lecturer who uses a wheelchair and has an energy limiting disability. I have found virtual working a huge advantage. Other staff with disabilities, caring responsibilities, or just long journeys to work may find the greater flexibility to work more from home also helpful. This flexibility will allow easier management of responsibilities in work and the rest of life. Students with similar issues may find accessing a university level education easier if some or all of their course was delivered virtually. It will be a challenge for university finances, but the opportunity for greater equity of access to university level education is undeniable.

SRHE member Dr Katherine Deane is a wheelchair using Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences and Access Ambassador at the University of East Anglia. She is working to remove barriers to accessing life so people can express their brilliance. Post Covid-19 re-opening guidance with a focus on disabled visitors available here https://embed.org.uk/covid-19-reopening

Reference UCU UEA. 2020. A survey of UCU members’ opinions on the impact of Covid-19 on teaching and workload at UEA. University and College Union, University of East Anglia Branch. November 2020. Available from k.deane@uea.ac.uk on request


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Scenario planning for digitalised education

by Matt Finch

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. Matt Finch’s statement can be found here.

How do you prepare for the future which you didn’t see coming? From the global financial crisis to presidential elections, the Brexit referendum, and changes to both our technological and natural environment, our times are characterised by events which challenge previous expectations and norms.

COVID-19, in particular, has challenged institutions to radically and rapidly transform their ways of working. Ongoing social, economic, technological, and environmental trends add to the sense that the sector may well experience continued turbulence and uncertainty in months and years to come.

Predictive modelling falters under conditions of uncertainty, whether or not we are already aware of the factors which we can’t pin down – the “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” made famous by Donald Rumsfeld. Turbulent times remind us that no-one can actually gather evidence from the future, and confident prediction is more about faith in a given model than true certainty as to what the future holds.

As Frankie Wilson of the Bodleian Libraries commented at the evidence-based practitioners’ conference EBLIP10 last year, sometimes strategy requires a judgment which is evidence-informed but not entirely beholden to what can be learned from the past. James McMicking of the UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute articulated a similar notion when, presenting scenarios for the future of air travel, he reminded his audience that “We can manage by numbers but we can’t lead by them; the narrative matters.”

So how do we find new narratives when the future is unclear and uncertain? Harvard’s Peter Scoblic argues that when uncertainty precludes analogy to situations faced in the past, leaders can usefully develop their thinking by simulating possible future contexts to inform strategy. This is the basis of scenario planning: the foresight practice which involves imagining multiple plausible futures, and thinking them through in a disciplined way to give decision-makers a fresh perspective on their situation in the present.

Instructional fables for organizations: a short history of scenario planning

Scenario planning began in the early days of the Cold War with nuclear wargaming. Realising that the anticipated conflict was unprecedented, and strategies could not be developed with reference to previous military experience, think tanks like the Rand Corporation began devising imagined future contexts to sharpen strategic thinking and highlight the implications of commanders’ and policymakers’ choices. They adopted the term “scenario” from Hollywood, meaning the detailed outline of a proposed fictional movie.

Later, Pierre Wack and his colleagues at Shell led the way in developing scenarios for use in big business. One of their great successes came in the early 1970s, when Shell’s scenario work successfully prepared them for the consequences of the Yom Kippur War. 

Shell had explored the future possibility of oil producers behaving like a cartel because they recognised it would dramatically change the sector they operated in. When the West supported Israel, angering oil-rich Arab states, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) put an embargo into effect. 

Wack and his colleagues had neither predicted the war, nor the consortium’s actions, but they had been successfully rehearsing for a world in which the oil supply was throttled by producers. Shell was able to weather the subsequent volatility of the 1970s through judicious strategic decisions, informed by the scenario work, on matters affecting the reconfiguration, sale, or shutdown of their refineries and installations.

Wack’s work enriched the scenarios process by emphasising the contrast between foresight and predictive forecasting. Scenarios still focussed on empirical observation of signs indicating the potential for change – Wack memorably described scenarios work as being like observing rain on a mountain-top, and realising that this could mean floods in the valley below a few days from now – but a scenario’s value did not lie in whether it came to pass, rather whether it stretched decision-makers’ thinking.

Rather than attempt to identify the one future which will certainly happen, scenario planning empowers organisations to imagine a number of possible future contexts which can challenge and enrich strategic thinking. These contexts are chosen not for their predictive power, but their plausibility; a scenario’s value lies in whether thinking it through usefully informs a given strategic decision – as the OECD’s Joshua Polchar puts it, they are like “instructional fables”, which needn’t have taken place in reality for them to provide helpful learning.

How will we learn next? Scenario planning for the education sector

A project conducted with the University of Oslo on the eve of the COVID-19 outbreak explored the future of digitalisation in Norwegian schools, but its findings also have value for other parts of the education sector and other national contexts.

Built around the choices facing Norwegian headteachers in early 2020, the team created three visions of Norway in 2050 – far enough out that our social and economic relationships to digital technology might have shifted significantly. In one scenario, the schoolchildren of a climate-ravaged world largely educated themselves using digital self-directed learning. In another, the collapse of oil demand led currently-prosperous Norway into a rustbelt future dominated by right-wing populism.

In the third scenario, a heavily privatised and surveilled society faced disruption from parents who fought “the algorithm” over questions of their children’s health and wellbeing. This scenario, which initially seemed the most outlandish, proved within months to speak most directly to the challenges of 2020, as Norwegian parents formed Facebook groups to dispute the government’s COVID regulations on schooling. The scenario group had not previously considered that health would be a significant battleground between carers and schools when it came to future digitalisation of the education sector, yet within months issues of online learning, and whether students should be at home or on campus, lay at the heart of Norwegian education choices.

Previous scenario engagements with the higher education sector have highlighted both the benefits and challenges of the approach. Lang’s study of two scenario planning rounds at the Open University in the early 2000s found an increase in social capital as the scenario process prompted new and deeper connections between participants in wider discussions about the university’s future. However, institutionalising the approach on an ongoing basis – as has happened for corporations like Shell or government agencies in Singapore – proved more challenging.

Not every organization may achieve the level of scenario planning capacity and competency found at Shell or in the Singaporean government. However, even institutions without the appetite or resource to sustain a major or ongoing scenario process can still improve their capacity for foresight through methodical engagement with uncertainty. This is the equivalent of watching the football highlights on your smartphone, even if you don’t have the opportunity to visit the stadium or watch the whole match at home on a high-definition TV – you can still get the results, and a sense of what is going on!

Conclusion

The pandemic has accelerated or triggered numerous transformations whose full consequences are yet to become clear, while other, previously existing trends may now bend or break as a result of 2020’s crises. The pandemic response may, in turn, cause new uncertainties – from the long-term health of the economy to the immediate question of university admissions. Ramírez and Ravetz refer to such unstable situations, caused by our own interventions, as “feral futures“.

Under such circumstances, new strategic capabilities must be developed by universities – rigorous and disciplined approaches to uncertainty which allow us to make leadership decisions on bases other than the evidence and experience of a past which may never repeat.

Scenario planning offers one method to convene a community of forward-thinking practitioners and engage them in the serious discussion of our strategic blindspots, informing and enriching future decision-making for the post-pandemic university.

Matt Finch is Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland and a facilitator on the Scenarios Programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. He currently hosts episodes of the OECD’s Government After Shock podcast. His website is mechanicaldolphin.com.


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Flexible digitally-enhanced courses that foster active learning

by Giovanna Carloni

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website.

Giovanna Carli’s statement can be found here.

The lessons learned from emergency remote teaching implemented during the Covid-19 disruption can be used to inform the design of flexible digitally-enhanced education in the post-pandemic university. Flexibility, which has emerged as pivotal during the pandemic and as a key dimension of educational practices in the aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdown, is likely to affect the development of higher education deeply in the near future. In this respect, course design needs to provide students with the opportunity to increase their degree of agency in planning their learning pathways by enabling them, for example, to decide autonomously to switch between various participation modes and select among various types of activities. In this light, course designers and instructors need to bear in mind that digitally-enhanced learning is deeply interwoven with active learning.

Research carried out on some blended and fully online foreign language pedagogy classes delivered as emergency remote teaching at university during the lockdown has identified the affordances of various digitally-enhanced practices suitable for fostering the development of content knowledge and critical thinking from a multilingual perspective in flexible learning environments. The findings of the studies have been used to outline the design of flexible digitally-enhanced courses, combining face-to-face and online modes, taught in a foreign language and suited to catering to the multifarious needs of university students in a post-pandemic learning context. 

The flexible digitally-enhanced course outline developed addresses both the issues related to social distancing and the need of collaborative content knowledge development in higher education. In flexible digitally-enhanced courses, students can choose whether to attend face-to-face classes or online classes, which is likely to cater to students’ multifarious needs in the new normal while increasing their sense of agency. In particular, technology-enhanced activities representative of the Redefinition category of Puentedura’s SAMR model  – “Tech allows for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable” – have been designed to promote innovative and highly engaging learning processes. Activities, such as ice breakers, targeted at making learners feel as members of a learning community have been created. To foster a sense of in-group membership, collaborative activities requiring students to co-construct multimodal artifacts have also been included in the blended learning environments outlined. 

In the post-pandemic context, the attainment of students’ wellbeing needs to be integrated into the pedagogical dimension of the learning experience. In this light, in flexible digitally-enhanced course design, teaching and learning practices have been devised from a pedagogy of care perspective. Furthermore, equity, another dimension emerged as essential during the pandemic, has been accounted for while designing flexible digitally-enhanced courses by adopting an open pedagogy approach, targeted at catering to the needs of all the agents engaged in post-pandemic university education. In this respect, adopting open textbooks, instructors can foster equity; in particular, open textbooks enable instructors to personalize content and activities catering to students’ needs in face-to-face and online learning environments. Likewise, using open textbooks, students can modify content to build new technology-enabled knowledge. Digital open educational resources, suitable for enhancing critical thinking through scaffolded hypothesis making and discussions in a foreign language, play a pivotal role in active learning development.

Overall, post-pandemic education needs to be flexible, digitally-enhanced, and targeted at fostering students’ active learning as well as learners’ metacognitive and professional skills through collaborative work.

Giovanna Carloni, PhD, is a lecturer at the University of Urbino, Italy. Her fields of expertise are foreign language didactics, teaching Italian as a second and foreign language, CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), English linguistics, corpus linguistics, virtual exchanges, educational technology, design for learning, and teacher training. Among her publications: Corpus Linguistics and English Teaching Materials (Milano: Franco Angeli), CLIL in Higher Education and the Role of Corpora. A Blended Model of Consultation Services and Learning Environments (Venezia: Edizioni Ca’ Foscari), and Digitally-Enhanced Practices and Open Pedagogy in English-Taught Programs. Flexible Learning for Local and Global Settings in Higher Education (Milano: Franco Angeli).

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Policymaking in a pandemic

By Rob Cuthbert

Policymaking in a pandemic must be decisive, transparent and inclusive (1)

After Secretary of State Gavin Williamson announced in March that there would be no GCSE or A-level examinations in Summer 2020, higher education focused at first on whether it would be desirable or even possible for students to begin the new year in Autumn 2020, with particular doubts over international students’ ability and willingness to travel. With the number of UK 18-year-olds in a demographic trough we expected extreme pressure on universities at the exposed end of the market, and there was much talk about the ten or 12 or 14 institutions said to be already especially financially vulnerable. The response of a number of institutions was to make tens of thousands of conditional offers unconditional, reducing uncertainty for themselves and also for their potential students. But ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, even in the market decreed by the government, never seemed to respect the integrity of student choice; it seemed reasonable that they should be outlawed, but government and the OfS went much further.

OfS published its regulation on unconditional offers on 4 May (updated on 17 August 2020, after A-level results by algorithm were announced), enabling OfS to take “… action against higher education providers that use offer-making practices which would not be in the interests of students and the wider higher education sector in these exceptional circumstances.” These included: “Other unconditional offers to UK students that could materially affect the stability and integrity of the English higher education sector …”, which in theory might have threatened selective institutions aiming to hoover up home students to compensate for a possible shortfall of international students, regardless of the effects on universities less well-placed in the market. But after the government imposed temporary student number controls no-one was in much doubt that the target was precisely those less well-placed, in case students dared to choose them rather than those higher up the league tables. Government policy is that student choice is paramount, but only if students choose the institutions which the government think they should choose.

On 16 July the DfE announced a ‘restructuring regime’ in response to Covid19, a mixture of University Strategic Planning 101 and oddly selective messages about the specific requirements to be satisfied by the minority of universities expected to need ‘support’. The Secretary of State’s foreword said: “Public funding for courses that do not deliver for students will be reassessed. … all universities must, of course, demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech, as cornerstones of our liberal democracy. … The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns. Vice-chancellor pay has for years faced widespread public criticism … equally concerning is the rapid growth over recent decades of spending on administration more broadly, which should be reversed.”

The announcement was much criticised but it receded from view as the threat of ‘restructuring’ diminished. Demand for HE with a 2020 start remained strong, with UCAS numbers higher than expected. The intentions of international students were still in doubt, but attention shifted to the slow-motion shambles of A-levels, and the hardly less shambolic, though less remarked, handling of International Baccalaureate and technical and vocational qualifications. Ofqual and DfE remained committed to their A-levels algorithm, doubling down on the assertion that it was the fairest way to determine grades in this unprecedented situation. This was despite the growing clamour of expert opinion pointing out the many faults and unfairnesses in the approach determined by Ofqual. The DfE/Ofqual response might have seemed resolutely decisive, but was neither transparent nor inclusive. A series of blogs from HEPI and many others provided more transparency than the government and Ofqual statements which had led most people to believe wrongly that ‘teachers are determining grades’ and ‘there is a robust appeal system’.

Scottish Higher assessments followed a similar approach to the English but were announced on 6 August, a week ahead of A-levels. Facing mass public protest, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted on 10 August they had got it wrong; education minister John Swinney the next day announced they would abandon their algorithm and use only Centre-Assessed Grades (CAGs), a reaction which ticked the decisive/transparent/inclusive boxes, albeit after the last minute. The Scots decision sent the English DfE into panic mode. Gavin Williamson had repeatedly nailed his colours to the this-algorithm-is-robust-and-fair mast; he would not follow Scotland’s lead, and there was no sensible alternative. So he went for something that wasn’t sensible – the announcement late on Tuesday night (11 August, just 36 hours before students would get their grades) that students could use mock grades under certain circumstances instead of the algorithm’s grades. It was a decision made without consultation with anyone, so not at all inclusive, and certainly less than decisive, but at least it seemed transparent.

For thousands of students who had taken mocks, it sounded like blessed relief. Not only could they apparently now make an individual appeal (something previously ruled out), they knew it would succeed. But that was late Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning Ofqual, Schools Minister Nick Gibb and Universities Minister Michelle Donelan were doing their best to dilute and obscure the message, saying only that mocks might form part of the grounds for an appeal and even suggesting that not many appeals were expected. Schools and colleges, who had only that day received their students’ grades with shock and horror, pointed out the huge variability and complete lack of standardisation of mocks even within one school, let alone across the whole sector. Williamson stood firm on his ‘triple lock’ – mocks or algorithm grades or Autumn exams. It was presented as a solution for all, when it was nothing of the sort. He had announced that Ofqual (who had not been consulted in advance) would issue guidance on how the new appeals system would work; Ofqual understandably said they would need a few days to work out how to operationalise the process. They issued advice on the amended appeals process by early afternoon on Saturday, suggesting (correctly) that CAGs were a more reliable basis for judgment than mock exams. Then very late on Saturday evening Ofqual withdrew its advice, saying that the Ofqual board would review it and another statement would follow ‘in due course’. Speculation centred on the suspicion that it was the mention of CAGs that might have caused the Department for Education to tell Ofqual to change tack, mostly because of a report in The Sunday Telegraph by the well-briefed Camilla Turner. This was the position at midday on Sunday.

The next day (Monday 17 August) came the final climbdown, as Williamson confirmed that England would follow Scotland in using CAGs rather than the grades determined by the algorithm. Universities were left scrambling to cope with the U-turn, and many students were left wondering whether they still had the place they originally wanted, as many in-demand courses had naturally been filled as usual very soon on the day of the announcement of results, 13 August. Former NUS President and chair of BPP University Aaron Porter wrote for Schoolsweek on 18 August 2020 about the consequences of government ‘passing the buck’ to universities to sort out the A-levels fiasco, and Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon called for the abolition of Ofqual.

Universities minister Michele Donelan wrote to universities on 20 August 2020 confirming the lifting of all student number controls and the establishment of a task force to oversee clearing and admissions for 2020. She said: “The interests of students were at the heart of the change in awarding results … we all agree that providers should: (1) Honour all offers accepted to date. (2) Honour all offers made and met through the new arrangements for both firm and insurance offers where students would like to take them, wherever this is possible.” That ‘wherever this is possible’ gave everyone a get-out clause, while doing its best to shift the blame away from government and onto the universities, but the blame game picked up speed. A VC’s diary in The Guardian on 21 August 2020 accused government ministers of incompetence and lack of compassion, and it was clear that universities could hardly be blamed for the A-levels mess. Ofqual’s attempts to shift the blame onto schools and colleges were equally unconvincing. It had emerged that the Royal Statistical Society had much earlier offered Ofqual the services of the redoubtable Guy Nason (Imperial) and the statistically legendary Sharon Witherspoon, but the RSS had declined to sign the non-disclosure agreement which Ofqual had proposed. Roger Taylor, chair of Ofqual, wrote to the RSS on 21 August 2020 saying “nothing to see here, you were being much too picky” (we paraphrase), but the next morning Stian Westlake of the RSS was on Radio 4 Today saying the NDA was far too broad and vague to be acceptable.

The first head rolled: Ofqual chief executive Sally Collier stepped down on 25 August with immediate effect; Collier’s predecessor Glenys Stacey was drafted as an interim replacement. Ofqual were summoned to an Education Select Committee hearing on 3 September, and Roger Taylor released a statement just hours before the hearing, memorably summed up by Committee chair Robert Halfon as saying “Not me, guv”. Taylor, it emerges, is also chair of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which advises the government on artificial intelligence – presumably not including what the Prime Minister called Ofqual’s ‘mutant algorithm’. Taylor made various promises to the Committee of transparency, of which some remain unfulfilled. It was reported that Taylor had kept his chair’s role because he threatened to publish all the correspondence between DfE and Ofqual, showing how much DfE had known all along about the algorithm and its effects.

Samantha Booth reported for SchoolsWeek on 21 August 2020 that Susan Acland-Smith, “has been appointed as second permanent secretary at the DfE for six weeks, temporarily leaving her role as chief executive of the HM Courts and Tribunals Service. The government said she will work “closely” with permanent secretary Jonathan Slater and “support” the department’s response to this year’s exam results.” Slater’s position was said to be under threat, and sure enough, Slater’s departure was confirmed on 26 August, with Acland-Smith becoming his permanent successor.

Taylor, against the odds, remains as Ofqual chair. In an unusual step, the respected Institute for Government Director Bronwen Maddox called for Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson to resign, in her 27 August 2020 blog. “The misjudgements in education have been some of the worst the government has made since the start of the pandemic. They were avoidable, given the time available to plan … they are serious in their impact on children’s education, the gap in achievement between social groups and the ability of the nation to get back to work. At the heart of these misjudgements are decisions that could only be made by politicians, not civil servants.” Senior Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin said Williamson had “lost the trust of his officials to such an extent that he can no longer serve effectively in the cabinet”, according to a report by Toby Helm and Michael Savage in The Observer on 23 August 2020. My HEPI blog on 16 August 2020 about the A-levels debacle said: “for five months the Government and Ofqual have been too secretive, made bad choices, refused to listen to constructive criticism, tried to tough it out and then made the wrong concessions too late.” Not decisive, not transparent, not inclusive, and not how to make policy in a pandemic.

  1. That was the view of Ramathi Bandaranayake and Merl Chandana (both at LIRNEasia, a regional digital policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka) on the LSE Impact Blog on 1 October 2020.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics


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More important than ever: the school perspective on outreach in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic

By Neil Raven

In recent months the attention of those working to widen university access has been directed towards understanding and responding to the impact of the pandemic-enforced closure of schools and colleges. However, there is now a need to look further ahead. It seems increasingly unlikely that the new school year will witness the resumption of traditional outreach activities. Indeed, it is possible that those engaged in widening access may be crowded out, as schools and colleges focus on catching up on months of missed work, and as restrictions placed on external visitors and visits by groups of pupils limit opportunities to interact with students. Drawing on the findings from a recent virtual workshop held with teaching and careers professionals at one school, a proportion of whose pupils come from educationally deprived areas, this blog explores the role that widening access could play when the new school term starts and how outreach could be effectively delivered.

The focus on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on young people from under-represented backgrounds has been reflected in recent reports and studies. Responding to the lockdown and the closure of schools and colleges has been a necessary first step. However, we also need to look further ahead. It seems unlikely that the new school year will mark a return to more ‘normal’, pre-pandemic conditions, including the resumption of outreach activity as ‘traditionally’ practised.

When the new school term starts, widening participation could be crowded out (displaced) for two reasons. First, with many young people having been away from school – and formal education – for the best part of six months, the need to concentrate on the curriculum and catch up on what has been missed is likely to be uppermost in teachers’ minds. Should they decide to ‘circle the wagons’, as one teaching contact put it, then outreach might be viewed as a luxury, perhaps even a distraction from the core mission.

The second reason is more practical, in terms of delivering outreach. As Savage suggests, schools are very unlikely to ‘fully re-open’ in September. There may be restrictions on external visitors and outside visits by parties of pupils. Even if external visitors are allowed, the way classes are organised – in peer group bubbles with limits on the numbers congregating in any one place – may well hamper outreach efforts. The threat of sudden local, regional or even national closures should new coronavirus outbreaks occur, would see a halt to any face-to-face and school-based encounters.

However, this is speculation: we need to gather the teaching professionals’ perspective. They are busy individuals facing an unprecedented set of challenges in preparing for the new term, but I was able to arrange a meeting with a small group from one secondary school, a proportion of whose pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds. That this could be done virtually was a significant advantage, with two of the three participants working from home. It was also conducted on an online platform that these teaching professionals have become very familiar with over recent months. Our discussion took the form of a small workshop with those who could bring a strategic as well as operational perspective. All three had remits that encompassed careers and progression in their roles as deputy head, head of careers, and careers co-ordinator respectively. In addition, the classroom viewpoint was covered since one of the participants was also a teaching member of staff. Consequently, we were able to consider the school’s perspective on outreach, the nature of the outreach challenge faced by its pupils, and what a realistic outreach response might be.

The first reaction of the group was to reject the idea that the objectives of widening access would have to be set aside. Indeed, it was argued that the need to raise awareness and interest in higher education remained highly relevant. In this 11-16 school, this was seen in the context of ensuring students were as ‘prepared as possible’ in terms of the ‘skills and knowledge’ needed for making a successful transition to post-16 study, as well as in being aware of their options at 18. Whilst this was an institutional obligation, it also chimed with a wider ‘social responsibility’, given the ‘make up of our students and the [lower socio-economic] backgrounds some come from’. There was an imperative to ‘get them to aim high’ and support them in fulfilling their ambitions. ‘Without the input from externals’ this was likely to be a harder task.

Similarly, in reply to the suggestion that there would be a considerable opportunity cost to pay for engaging in outreach activity, in terms of the time and energy diverted away from ‘getting on with the curriculum’, reference was made to Gatsby benchmark 4. There is a regulatory requirement that schools and colleges deliver independent careers guidance and the eight Gatsby benchmarks constitute a recommended framework for doing this. This particular benchmark is concerned with embedding careers into the curriculum. In this respect, it was noted that if ‘you are asking staff to spend [a few] minutes saying this will be useful because it can lead you into this job and that job’, then that would not represent a distraction but an important component of their education.

These teaching professionals felt that the need for outreach will become more acute:  the start of the new term would probably reveal additional challenges, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The school staff referred to the impact of the pandemic on student wellbeing, something also recognised in recent studies. Some students, it was argued, will ‘definitely need emotional support, including in cases where parents have been shielding, or where parents who have lost their jobs’.

Another potential issue concerned students’ ‘ability to study’. Some, it was argued, may have lost their ‘sense of routine’ and it is going to be a ‘challenge to get [them] back into [a] work ethic, [especially] if they have not done much’, or have not been able to do much ‘outside school’. Linked to this were concerns over levels of motivation. Some year 10s (14 year olds) may be questioning how they can ‘pass their exams when they have missed so much work’, whilst there was also a concern that some students could, potentially, have become ‘disengaged’. A study by the Education Endowment Foundation discussed a similar ‘risk’ associated with ‘high levels of absence after schools formally reopen’, especially amongst disadvantaged pupils.

It might be claimed that to address such issues represents a case of mission drift for widening access practitioners whose main concern is to support HE progression. The counter argument is that these additional challenges are likely to fall disproportionately on those groups of young people targeted by outreach initiatives. Moreover, the impact of those challenges may not only hinder their educational engagement but negatively affect their progression prospects.

There is also the question of whether delivering outreach might in practice be crowded out. The reality of this challenge was recognised by the group, with reference made to the improbability of being able to engage in the outreach interventions the school has received in the past, whilst ongoing ‘projects’ targeting various under-represented groups were judged unlikely ‘to happen any time soon’ due to social distancing restrictions. However, a revised and blended approach that included some face-to-face engagement but where greater emphasis was placed on online provision, could work.

Regarding the former, it was suggested that any visitors would need to engage with small groups (or bubbles) of learners, and to work within the classrooms pupils will be assigned to for all their lessons. Turning to virtual initiatives, the school was already exploring placing their post-16 options evening – which includes input from local colleges and universities – online, as well as providing ‘extra information’ on the school’s website for parents and carers, including those with older learners. This would include advice on how parents can support year 11s (15 year olds) in preparing for their next post-16 steps, and that could ‘mirror’ the guidance this year group receive in school about college and sixth choices and the accompanying application processes.

The group also discussed how the virtual outreach offer could be developed. Here reference was made to the value of both universities and colleges (including those with HE programmes) providing videos of what higher-level study would be like. These, it was suggested, could include ‘a day in the life of a student’ and outline the range and types of courses available. Such insights and information were likely to be especially appealing if the students profiled were interviewed and if the videos also showed them attending their classes, as well as illustrating the social activities available and what ‘living in halls is like’.

There was also a need for ‘positive role models’ who, if they were not able to visit the school in person, could do so virtually. Those ‘who have had to cope with [challenging] situations and come through them’ were, it was suggested, likely to have particular appeal. Developing this idea, reference was made to ‘someone who could talk about their difficult journey to university and how they had triumphed over adversity’. That, it was added, ‘would be really useful’ since it is ‘about making positive choices’, especially if these individuals were close to the age of the students they would be talking to.

Mentoring was singled out as a particularly valuable intervention that could, if required, be conducted online. If the sessions took place in school and were supervised by a member of staff, safeguarding measures could be more easily met. Indeed, it was suggested that the challenge could be in securing enough mentors to meet the demand, especially if what was offered included elements of subject enrichment and study support.

Similarly, an online option for embedding careers into the curriculum was identified. Short 3-4 minute videos could be shown in class featuring those in graduate-level occupations talking about what their roles involve and how they trained to do their jobs. These would be especially welcomed if they related to the subjects the students were studying. Such videos could provide a ‘360 degree view of where’ their subjects work. In addition, longer versions of these videos could be shown during registration period, when ‘we do job of the week’. Being aired in class or during registration could also overcome issues around digital access at home and, the ‘digital divide’ that means some learners, often those from poorer backgrounds, have comparatively limited access to the internet, due to a lack of laptops and other devices, as well as the necessary and often expensive data.

Finally, whilst pre-recorded video content had a number of advantages, notably in being accessible whenever required, there could be a role for live links, as long as the technology was in place. Motivational speakers telling their story in real time was likely to have a greater impact than if their message was recorded. Live coverage also offered the chance for interaction with presenters.

In closing, the group emphasised the imperative for outreach practitioners to listen to schools and colleges. Whilst this has always been the case, the need to pay careful attention is perhaps more critical than ever, given that individual institutions are likely to vary in the arrangements they make for the new school year. A small, virtual workshop of the type adopted here may offer a suitable mechanism for gathering these insights and in facilitating the co-production of an effective outreach response to the challenges (both old and new) facing those from under-represented backgrounds.

Neil Raven is an educational consultant and researcher in widening access. Contact him at neil.d.raven@gmail.com

My thanks to Suzanne Whiston, Deputy Head, Jan Woolley, head of careers, education and guidance, and Tim Taylor, careers lead, at Murray Park School, Derby, for their time, insights and expertise.

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