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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.

References

Armour, S (2020) ‘Young men most likely to break lockdown rules, mental health study shows’ (7 May) University of Sheffield https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/young-men-most-likely-break-coronavirus-lockdown-rules-psychology-mental-health-study-1.888316

Booth, S (2020) ‘Heads reissue calls for a plan B as PM says September reopening a ‘national priority’’ (31 July)  Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/heads-reissue-calls-for-a-plan-b-as-pm-says-september-reopening-a-national-priority/.

The Careers and Enterprise Company (2020) Gatsby Benchmark,https://www.careersandenterprise.co.uk/schools-colleges/gatsby-benchmarks/gatsby-benchmark-8.

Cornforth, C (2014) ‘Understanding and combating mission drift in social enterprises’, Social Enterprise Journal, 10 (1): 3-20, https://oro.open.ac.uk/39882/1/SEJ%20paper%202013%20revised-final.pdf.

Education Endowment Foundation (2020) Rapid evidence assessment Impact of school closures on the attainment gap,https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/REA_-_Impact_of_school_closures_on_the_attainment_gap_summary.pdf.

DfE (2018) Careers guidance and access for education and training providers. Statutory guidance for governing bodies, school leaders and school staff  Department for Education,https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/748474/181008_schools_statutory_guidance_final.pdf.

Helm, T and McKie, R (2020) ‘Teachers and scientists sound alarm over plans to reopen schools in England’ (2 August The Observer https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/01/now-teachers-sound-alarm-over-plans-to-reopen-schools.

Helm, T, McKie, R and Sodha, S (2020) ‘School closures ‘will trigger UK child mental health crisis’’ (20 June) The Observer https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/20/school-closures-will-trigger-uk-child-mental-health-crisis

Horrocks, S (2020) ‘Bridging the digital divide: evidence and advice on remote learning and digital equality’, Education Development Trust

https://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/our-research-and-insights/commentary/bridging-the-digital-divide-evidence-and-advice-on.

O. Khan. 2020. ‘Covid-19 must not derail efforts to eliminate equality gaps’, WonkHE, https://wonkhe.com/blogs/covid-19-must-not-derail-efforts-to-eliminate-equality-gaps/

Machin, S, and Murphy, R  (2014) ‘Paying Out and Crowding Out? The Globalisation of Higher Education’, Centre for Economic Performance, Discussion Paper No 1299http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/60451/1/dp1299.pdf.

Moss, G (2020) ‘5 reasons to be cautious about estimates of lockdown learning loss’ (1 August) Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/5-reasons-to-be-cautious-about-estimates-of-lockdown-learning-loss/.

National Foundation for Educational Research. 2020. Schools’ Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning, https://www.nfer.ac.uk/media/4073/schools_responses_to_covid_19_pupil_engagement_in_remote_learning.pdf (accessed: 22 June 2020).

Office for Students (2020) Uni Connect https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/uni-connect/.

Ørngreen, R, and Levinsen, K (2017) Workshops as a Research Methodology

Rainford, J (2020) ‘Moving widening participation outreach online: challenge or opportunity?’, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education (online 30 June 2020)

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13603108.2020.1785968?needAccess=true.

Raven, N (2018) ‘The development of an evaluation framework’, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 22 (4), 134-140

Raven, N (2020) ‘Covid-19 and outreach: the challenge and the response’, Widening participation and lifelong learning, 22(2) 255-263.

Roach, P (2020) ‘The digital divide affects teachers as well as their pupils’ (4 May) Schools Week

Robinson, G (2020) ‘The digital divide continues to disadvantage our students’ (29 May) Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/the-digital-divide-continues-to-disadvantage-our-students/

Savage, M (2020) ‘Full September return unlikely, with schools warning: ‘it’s not business as usual’ (31 May) The Guardian,https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/31/full-september-return-unlikely-with-schools-warning-its-not-business-as-usual.

Speck, D (2020) ‘Exclusive: Covid-19 ‘widens achievement gap to a gulf’’ ((29 May) Times Educational Supplement https://www.tes.com/news/coronavirus-widens-achievement-gap-gulf


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Welcome to the new second class: Covid negative with underlying health conditions

by Katherine Deane

HE staged a joint seminar with the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) on 21 July 2020, after NADSN published a Position Paper on “COVID-19 Post-Lockdown: Perspectives, Implications and Strategies for Disabled Staff” on 21 May 2020. The paper provides a list of 12 recommendations for higher education institutions to consider when planning for reopening campuses. Seminar participant Katherine Deane (East Anglia) gave her take in this, the first of two blogs.

First please understand the risks – you are given a bowl with 100 sweets in it. You are invited to pick one to eat. But, you are warned two of those sweets will kill you, 18 of them will make you so ill you will be hospitalised, but most people find their sweets OK.

Have a sweet.

No? These are the risks the average person runs with Covid-19.

Now, let’s make you over 70, or with an ‘underlying health condition’, so your bowl of sweets has up to 15 that will kill you and most of the rest will hospitalise you. I hope you’ll agree no sane person would voluntarily eat those sweets.

But I can guarantee in weeks to come I will be gaslighted; told I am over-reacting, being over-cautious as I continue to self-isolate. You see I am at higher risk because I have multiple disabilities which mean my capacity to be resilient in the face of Covid-19 is reduced. I’m not at highest risk, but I would expect to be hospitalised at least with Covid-19.

So, when the lockdown is released and you can “get back to normal” spare a thought for people like me. We will be staying indoors, working from home (where we can), and hoping to not pick up Covid-19 as it sweeps through our communities again and again. Yes, the numbers of those infected will be lower, the risk reduced, but would you want to risk eating even a single sweet from that second bowl? Every trip outside, every meeting, every class, every hospital appointment, will offer people like me another chance to catch Covid-19. And until we have a vaccine – likely to be at least 2 years away – this will be our life. We will be living in ‘splendid isolation’.

This will affect people who previously would never have identified as disabled – asthmatics, diabetics, anyone over 70. Their lives will be disabled by the need to not catch Covid-19. For up to 2 years. We have lives to lead even if they are restricted by Covid. So, we hope that you remember us and continue to offer to get our shopping. We hope that friends will still call us. That theatres and bands will still offer us virtual viewings. For those in education, whether at school or university, we hope that these institutions continue to support online learning for students who fear returning to the large crowded classrooms and lecture theatres.

We hope (probably against hope) that the government will protect workers’ rights to not take a sweet from that toxic bowl, and that whether we are in the highest risk group or just have ‘underlying health conditions’ we are allowed to work remaining isolated if we choose to. We may wish to work from home, and we would like that to be a right where possible. We may need retraining if our previous work role can’t be performed virtually. We would love it if working from home was not implied to be shirking. We would love everyone to remember how difficult ‘splendid isolation’ is to live in.

And remember this is likely to affect huge numbers of people – I guesstimate at least 20% of the working population. With skills and talents and value that should not be wasted just because of a virus. Covid-19 is going to have massive impact on society. Let’s not allow it to create a new disabled underclass isolated and having to make invidious choices between poverty and health.

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


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Don’t call me vulnerable

by Katherine Deane

SRHE staged a joint seminar with the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) on 21 July 2020, after NADSN published a Position Paper on “COVID-19 Post-Lockdown: Perspectives, Implications and Strategies for Disabled Staff” on 21 May 2020. The paper provides a list of 12 recommendations for higher education institutions to consider when planning for reopening campuses. Seminar participant Katherine Deane (East Anglia) gave her take in this, the first of two blogs.

Covid-19 came along and suddenly we had a whole new dictionary of terms to learn. Social distancing, social isolating, shielding. But some of the terms were already ‘known’ and came with their own baggage. Some people were told they were vulnerable and should shut themselves away – shield themselves from the virus. But as my 79 year old fiercely independent mother said: “I’m not vulnerable, I’ve never been vulnerable in my life.” And she was right – she was at high risk of poor medical outcomes if she were to catch the virus – but she wasn’t vulnerable – she was in a vulnerable situation.

Disabled people, people with underlying health conditions, older people, have the same rights to life as anyone else. We are not vulnerable. But this virus – and the governmental response to it – does place us at higher risk. But risks are something that can be reduced, mitigated, done something about. Risks are the responsibility of all of us to manage, whereas vulnerability lies with the person – and there is nothing that can be done about that.

These labels – vulnerable, elderly, frail, with underlying health conditions, disabled – became an excuse to dismiss the deaths. Oh well, what could you expect – they were already ill and then they got Covid-19, so of course they died. The government reassures the public still – it’s only if you are ‘vulnerable’ that you need fear this virus. But it’s become clearer and clearer that this has allowed a great toll of unnecessary deaths to be excused. The language has prevented criticism and deeper examination of why these people died. After all, they were vulnerable – so they must have contributed less, been a burden on society. The responsibility for their response to the virus was laid upon their shoulders. These people are vulnerable – there is little we can do – so let’s shrug our shoulders. Should they even expect them to have the same access to healthcare, social support, or respect even, as a fit healthy young person does? Their deaths are ‘to be expected’.

But what if the tables were turned – if the virus took the young and fit preferentially. Would there still be stories of the deaths of ‘vulnerable young people’ dying – so sad, but what can you expect? Would they be told off for going outside? Would they be expected to shut themselves away for potentially years on end as they wait for a vaccine? Doesn’t sound so ‘reasonable’ or ‘expected’ now, does it?

We are now seeing that this virus highlights many of society’s inequalities. That it is more likely to kill you if you are black, poor, live in an area of high air pollution. Are these ‘vulnerabilities’ too? Or are they risks? This virus has placed a magnifying glass on some of the structural biases within our society. Are we seeing institutionalised eugenics by neglect?

So, watch your language. As a disabled person I am at risk of an early death from many things, including this virus. We can do – and need to do – something about these risks. Don’t ignore your responsibility for calling for change by calling us vulnerable.

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

Ian Mc Nay


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Some reflections on learning during lockdown…

by Ian McNay

This is a listing of thoughts that came over 3 months of isolation when learning was in a different context.

  •  Policy based on science becomes policy blamed on science in the hands of politicians, who rarely, if ever, admit being at fault, which they see as weakness.
  • Researchers therefore need to be very sure of what they publish or advice they give, because the nuances of conditionality of research findings do not transfer easily to a political mindset. Do not rush to publish when data are still emerging in a fluid situation. Rigorous peer review becomes even more important, but seems to have been neglected by The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine over hydroxychloroquine. The reputation of the Imperial group and their influential model was also called in to question when examined by the excellent Radio 4 programme, More or Less, and later in Private Eye (19 June) which discovered that their forecast about the rate at which infections doubled – 5 days – neglected data from Italy and the early days of the UK experience – which gives nearer to 3 days – and therefore led to a delay in lockdown. Maybe not a 4* rating for impact, after all. The cherry picking by ministers and the pressures to edit findings from those in a draft (I have experienced both) may have been a learning experience for some.
  • The definition of ‘world leading’ adopted by government in reviewing its own policy in operation over Covid-19 must use criteria even lower than those in REF derided by Johnston (Ron, that is – ex-VC of Essex, then professor emeritus at Bristol)
  • Presentism was shown to be less essential than Jacob Rees-Mogg thinks. I won’t comment much on the teaching experience since most of mine has been at a distance for some years. Some research approaches – interviews, focus groups – needed to be adapted by my students, whose field work was disrupted. Anthropological immersion in a community for study purposes was challenging – but there is a lot of material being gathered virtually and more to follow when retrospective work is done. Anthropologists and ethnologists may have a field day examining how societies and communities changed – norms, habits, rituals, relationships, communications – and how quickly they responded to crisis: better locally than when driven from the centre. Outside the academic, meetings were shorter with more respect for others in terms of interruptions. Some international conferences had higher attendances than at times in the past when the time and cost of travel was a deterrent. This has been true of SRHE, where some events offered by Networks have had over 100 participants, when the room they were held in BC (Before Covid) could hold a maximum of 50. A higher proportion were from overseas. Currently, therefore, some people, less advantaged because of geography or funding, may get access they could not previously afford. Fees for non-members have also been suspended, though this has led to a drop in the number of members joining or renewing. Please do pay membership fees – they give value for money.
  • The opposite is true for some students where they do not have home technology, and so inequality of opportunity has increased. Universities need to reflect on this and recall that in the first years of the Open University students were provided with not only home experiment kits (including a rotor arm which one postal worker left outside the door of a 7th floor flat in Toxteth: I had to argue hard with the administration to stop the student being charged), but with home computers, so all had access.
  • Working from home had its challenges. As someone who has always gone to work to work, with the journey allowing a role transition from place to place, entering the dining room to work at the table does not have the same liminal impact. The morning walk to the newsagent, which allowed thoughts to organise themselves and next paragraphs and passages to be planned, has been suspended. Papers are now delivered. Lockdown has had a differential impact by gender. Submission rates of journal articles have gone down for women, up for men, with a knock on consequence for REF submissions.
  • The ‘unknown knowns’ of inequality, prejudice and discrimination are now out in the open and, if continued are deliberate and systemic, done knowingly, not some deterministically ‘systemic’ feature about which we can do nothing. The claim that Covid-19 hit high and low alike was based around two people – the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister – neither of whom died. The figures I quoted on deaths of clinical staff last time became even more alarming, with 94% of doctors killed by Covid-19 reported as being from BAME backgrounds. The interconnection of class and race in the distribution of infection and deaths shows that responsibility rests with policies on disadvantage of the poor increasing exposure. We should also have absorbed another ‘known’, that value is not reflected in wage/salary levels, but should be. Humanity and decency should mean that policy seeks to redress inequality, and universities have roles to play in this and need to commit to performing them, beyond looking at their own patterns of discrimination. Especially, perhaps, those running police training courses, who need to review them as economists needed to review their courses after the 2008 crash (some even did so) and those leading MBA programmes after the report from CIPD that only 8 per cent of managers thought about the relevance of values. The history curriculum at all levels needs examining for balance. One of my newspapers surveyed decolonisation and found only 20% of universities had done anything and even fewer on a whole university basis. The ubiquitous media academic de nos jours, David Olusonge, who as I write, as well as appearing on the news, has just started a BBC4 programme on Black British History to sit alongside one on BBC2 about a house in Guinea Street , Bristol, built by a likely slave trader, could be the person to lead on it.
  • Of course universities are not racist; senior managers have issued statements saying so, not after the glaring picture of the statistics but by joining the Black Lives Matter bandwagon of corporate guilt, denial and claimed commitment following recent police killings and decades of discrimination. The heads of Oxford colleges did it most publicly through a high profile letter in The Guardian; others were less limelight-seeking. I did not see any comment from David Lammy, but the next day the Guardian had a report of racist language and harassment in election hustings at an Oxford college … for a cake representative (I kid you not; this is Oxford, remember). More seriously, the day after that came a report that BAME student societies had withdrawn involvement in Oxford’s outreach programme because of the perceived lack of support following student entry. Lessons for us all there. Only three percent of Rhodes scholarships go to those from Africa. The governors of Oriel College have now decided to remove the statue of Rhodes: sometimes people power can achieve things mainstream processes of deliberation do not.
  • Lessons, too, on leadership, where what has emerged during the crisis echoes work by myself and others. What people want is: clarity of policy, so there is certainty about expectations; consistency and continuity rather than constant change, which makes us feel like experimental guinea pigs where different things are tested on us (REF 2021 has 12 major changes); and confidence in leaders, which the first two will help promote, but which also needs a sense of common identity, where we are visibly and evidentially ‘all in it together’. There is a Leadership Foundation in HE report saying exactly that https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/828871 . (Thanks to Rob C for digging that out) The involvement of those at devolved level with expertise is also essential; driving from the centre, with autocratic control, is neither efficient nor effective, and, in some cases not economic. True at university institutional level, too.
  • We have learned that the crisis, like others, offers opportunities. HEPI had a report outlining possibilities for enhancing access; for many, the exposure to distance learning has stimulated broader thinking about curriculum process, and there will be strategic thinking about the portfolio of provision, though English government decisions on extra undergraduate numbers give them to elite universities whatever their TEF grade and ignores many judged excellent by TEF judgements. Yet the elite universities are dropping down international league tables because of, say the compilers (according to a report in…The Guardian 10 June) ‘poor teaching and declining research impact’. Of the 84 in the rankings (very few were modern universities, though Greenwich made it) 66 had a drop in SSRs, 59 a drop in research citations, and 51 a drop in international student numbers, who, for them, will now be replaced by extra domestic students.
  • Finally, we have learned that some academics are market sensitive and see a promotional opportunity when it comes. For those on television, bookshelves became advertising hoardings, with their latest output showing, cover to the front, not spine, just over their shoulder and very legible. In one case, a blown up photograph had been framed and hung on the wall.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich

Image of Rob Cuthbert


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On not wasting a good crisis

by Rob Cuthbert

Editorial from SRHE News Issue 41 (July 2020)

It seems that in English higher education, some people have been determined not to waste the Covid19 crisis, either as an opportunity or as a threat. How well have they done? Consider the efforts of the Office for Students, Universities UK, and the government in England.

The Office for Students

The OfS were quick off the mark with their ‘Consultation on the integrity and stability of the English HE system’. They had not hitherto seemed too concerned about integrity and stability, given the government’s advertised willingness to let universities close as a consequence of the market established by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA). Nevertheless the OfS drafted proposals to prevent “any form of conduct which, in the view of the OfS, could reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector.”

The proposals, aimed at controlling the behaviour of HE institutions, brought an instant storm of criticism. They were condemned as draconian, excessively broad, vague and retrospective. OfS Chair Michael Barber claimed to the House of Commons Select Committee that they were an appeal to universities’ ‘generosity of spirit’, but no-one was convinced. Indeed, in terms of the original proposals there did seem to be breaches of good conduct, but they were mostly by Government, the media and the OfS itself, not by HE institutions.

As governments of different parties introduced progressively higher fees, students taking out loans for fees and living expenses began to graduate and begin their careers with large debts. Did this “have a material negative effect on the interests of students”? Quality assurance shows that the overwhelming majority of HE provision has been and remains satisfactory or better; government has encouraged new ‘alternative providers’, but a significant number of these new entrants provided inappropriate courses of dubious quality. Did these market initiatives destabilise the HE system and jeopardise its integrity and quality?

Recent HE ministers have repeatedly referred to ‘low quality courses’. Jo Johnson called for: “… the phased closure of poor-quality and low-value courses under teach-out arrangements to ensure that students can complete their studies.” (The honourable exception to this ministerial failure is Chris Skidmore, who tweeted on 16 April 2020: “Might invent Skidmore’s law- anyone who mentions low quality/value in HE without specific reference to a real institution/course are themselves creating low quality/value arguments which should therefore be discounted.”) Most mainstream media reinforced the ‘low quality courses’ narrative, with The Times prominent: an egregious example by Ross Bryant, ‘Underperforming universities should be allowed to fail’, on 27 April 2020;  Alice Thomson on 31 March 2020: “Institutions panicking about finances have to shift their focus away from expansion and back to gold-standard teaching”. Camilla Turner in The Daily Telegraph on 10 May 2020 fuelled the narrative: ‘’Mickey Mouse’ degrees could be weeded out as universities face financial crisis”. Some would say the narrative has “a material negative effect on the interests of students”, whose academic credentials are called into question, and jeopardises the “stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector”.  It might even involve “Making false or misleading statements (including comparative claims) about one or more higher education providers with a view to discouraging students (whether or not successfully) to accept offers from, or register with, those higher education providers.”

The Office for Students itself has still not completed its Register of Providers. OfS said in February 2020 the 2019-2020 Register was still incomplete “so if a provider is not registered at the moment, no conclusions should be drawn about it based upon that fact.” Could that “reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector”? At government insistence the OfS has promoted the Teaching Excellence Framework and its advantages for students, presumably on the grounds that it helped their interests. More recently it postponed the next TEF indefinitely, even though there are dramatic changes to the quality of the student experience everywhere – up-to-date information about Teaching Excellence matters as never before. Dropping the TEF at this stage “could reasonably have a material negative effect on the interests of students and the stability and/or integrity of all or part of the English higher education sector” – unless TEF never had anything to do with teaching quality in the first place, in which case pursuing it had already damaged the stability and integrity of the system.

The OfS proposals said it was inappropriate for anyone to be “Reacting to a major crisis or emergency affecting the UK in ways which may take advantage of behavioural biases”. However it reacted to the crisis by proposing obligations on individual behaviour, obligations to predict or anticipate the behaviour of others, and sanctions if even in retrospect a pattern of behaviour by others emerges which could not have been predicted. This was indeed to “take advantage of behavioural biases” which might induce people to tolerate, in an emergency, measures which would be unthinkable under normal circumstances. In the event the OfS withdrew and confined itself to outlawing ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, and perhaps unconditional offers more widely. By overreaching itself, OfS seemed to have wasted the crisis.

Universities UK

Universities UK also moved early, in April 2020 making proposals to government for a £2billion crisis package to support universities through the pandemic and beyond. UUK said: “Without government support some universities would face financial failure, others would come close to financial failure and be forced to reduce provision. Some will be in places where they are the only local higher education provider with damaging impact on the local community and economy. Many of those institutions most affected have higher levels of external borrowing, lower levels of cash reserves, and higher proportions of BAME students.” Former UCAS head Mary Curnock Cook blogged for HEPI on 15 April 2020 about ‘A student-centric bailout for the universities’, with a piercing critique of the soft spots and gaps in the UUK proposals. David Kernohan crunched numbers on the UUK proposals in his blog for Wonkheon 10 April 2020. He noted that doubling research funding would do little for many universities, and that the student number proposals would still enable selective universities to create major problems for those lower down the pecking order.

The DfE website reported on 4 May 2020 that “Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced a package of measures to protect students and universities, including temporary student number controls, £2.6bn of forecast tuition fee payments for universities being bought forward and an enhanced Clearing system. … to stabilise admissions, support students and allow universities to access financial support from the Government where it is necessary.” The DfE headline was ‘Universities need our help – we must maintain education’s jewel in the crown’, echoing a 2012 Russell Group publication, but the measures fell well short of the UUK proposals. This made clear the potentially devastating effects on many universities outside the Russell Group, with a probable shortfall in student numbers. It was hard to credit that UUK had suggested student number controls in its own proposals, and even harder to believe that all universities had agreed to the UUK’s skewed package in the first place. Chris Cook wrote a long and careful analysis of the perilous situation facing UK universities for TortoiseMedia  on 26 May 2020.

Here was Wonkhe’s immediate assessment. David Kernohan of Wonkhe  took a look at ‘Clearing Plus’, which was being presented as (but was not) a way for applicants to trade up to a ‘better class of university’. Nick Hillman of HEPI said: ” While we need time to digest the finer details, this seems like a carefully-calibrated package that delivers much of what the higher education sector called for without over-exposing taxpayers.” Well, he probably would, wouldn’t he, as a former special adviser to David Willetts. Former minister Jo Johnson, popping up as President’s Professorial Fellow at King’s College London, said that after the pandemic: “The Office for Students will need to design and put in place a multi-billion pound stabilisation fund to prevent the collapse of scores of vulnerable English universities. Access to this fund should be subject to strict non-negotiable conditions, including the phased closure of poor-quality and low-value courses under teach-out arrangements to ensure that students can complete their studies.” Shadow Minister Emma Hardy’s open letter to HE on ResearchProfessional News on 6 May 2020 didn’t add much beyond her disappointment that the government package didn’t accept UUK’s proposals.

A second round of support simply shored up the bail-out of the Russell Group. The support package announced by government on 27 June 2020 provided extra research funding: a mixture of grants and loans for up to 80% of income lost because of a shortfall of international students in 2020-2021, and £280million for stated research priorities. That will be little consolation to the many vulnerable universities less blessed with research funding and less dependent on overseas student fees.

Judged by the effects on all of its members, UUK not only wasted the crisis, they may well have made it worse. 

Government

The long-running ‘low quality courses’ narrative and the almost-forgotten Augar report proved to be groundwork for a series of government initiatives still unfolding, beginning with a blunt Ministerial statement abandoning the 50% HE participation target and proposing to expand technical and vocational provision elsewhere. Jim Dickinson had blogged for Wonkhe on 11 May 2020 that: “… the headlines in the DfE package were all about treating the issues facing the higher education sector as a liquidity crisis rather than a solvency crisis. Optimists figure this is because it’s only Part One of any plan, and Numbers 10/11 of Downing Street prefer to sort things in terms of impacts of immediate problems than assessing the size and scope of modelled/potential problems which they assume a) might not be as bad as they look, and b) discourage efficiencies and sacrifices if “cushioned” too early, or for too long. … And then, as if by magic, David “somewheres or anywheres” Goodhart appears – with a Policy Exchange report that’s officially on “skills”, but is really on reorganising tertiary. … Research funding for the “best”; mergers, shorter strings and localism for the “rest”.”

Jack Grove in THE on 11 May 2020 wrote: “English universities at risk of financial collapse will receive significant government assistance only if they agree to merge or to accept a “further education future”, vice-chancellors have predicted. … some university leaders … fear that the reintroduction of student number controls − which allow universities to recruit 5 per cent more this autumn than they did last year − signals the Treasury’s intention to intervene far more in higher education, which might include denying some institutions access to research funding.”

The doomsayers were vindicated when Minister Michelle Donelan made a speech on 1 July 2020, in the grossly inappropriate context of an online conference about improving HE opportunities for disadvantaged students. Richard Adams reported for The Guardianon 1 July 2020 on her speech: “Since 2004, there has been too much focus on getting students through the door, and not enough focus on how many drop out, or how many go on to graduate jobs. Too many have been misled by the expansion of popular-sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market,” Donelan said. “Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of, particularly those without a family history of going to university. Instead some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense. … And too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down – either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses. We have seen this with grade inflation and it has to stop.”

The government is poised to offer new policies on skills and qualifications for school-leavers in England, rebalancing away from universities and emphasising social mobility through skilled, well-paid jobs secured through further education and apprenticeships. A white paper on further education is promised, along with a green paper on higher education that will limit courses where a high percentage of students drop out or where few go on to graduate-level employment. Donelan’s comments appeared to repudiate her own government’s guidance to the Office for Students. Asked about the use of contextual admissions by universities to help under-represented groups gain entry, Donelan said: “To be frank, we don’t help disadvantaged students by levelling down, we help by levelling up.”

Chris Husbands (VC, Sheffield Hallam) spoke for many in a powerful rejoinder in The Guardian on 2 July 2020: ‘University changed my family’s life. So why do ministers want fewer people to go?’ As Alison Wolf, now once again a government adviser, pointed out long ago, the oft-mooted expansion of non-university technical education is always regarded as a good thing – ‘for other people’s children’. We must wait and see whether this time the government initiative will be any different from the many other times similar things have been attempted. This time her daughter Rachel Wolf, another long-term adviser to the Prime Minister who co-wrote the 2019 Conservative manifesto, is also making the running. Whether the government has wasted the crisis remains to be seen.

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