8 of the greatest challenges facing higher education in 2020

Cathy Parnham talks to six key influencers in higher education on the climate emergency, social justice, student wellbeing and more

We interviewed a panel of senior higher education leaders to discuss the challenges in higher education for 2020. Read on get up to speed and ask any questions about the challenges you face by joining our member-only LinkedIn Group called Higher Education – The Conversation.

DISCUSSION: 8 of the greatest challenges facing HE in 2020 (meet the panel):

Emma Leech director of marketing and advancement, Loughborough University
Jon Wakeford group corporate affairs director and chair, UPP Foundation
Smita Jamdar head of education, Shakespeare Martineau
Phil Richards chief innovation officer, Jisc
Professor Joy Carter CBE, DL vice-chancellor, University of Winchester
Professor Roderick Watson vice-chancellor, Anglia Ruskin University (ARU)

8 Top Challenges in Higher Education 2020

Student mental health a top priority for HE providers

1 Student Wellbeing

With a move towards collaborative living to help foster peer-to-peer support, plus digital developments from apps to chatbot technology, we have seen major advancements in helping to encourage and support good student wellbeing. What’s in the pipeline for 2020?

JW: Universities and accommodation providers have a critical role to play in promoting student wellbeing, so alongside partner university pastoral teams, our Student Experience Champions lead initiatives, campaigns and events focused on welcoming, settling and integrating students. Through the UPP Foundation, we have worked with charity Student Minds to pilot mental wellbeing training for our employees and those of our partners. 

SJ: From a regulatory perspective, we are expecting greater intervention from the Office for Students (OfS) in relation to student wellbeing, possibly through changes to the regulatory framework on which they intend to consult in the new year.

We are finding ways to signpost students to good, trustworthy self-help sources such as the Big White Wall
– Professor Joy Carter CBE, DL, VC University of Winchester

JC: We work in partnership with our students to help provide the best support possible. We have set up a peer listener support service and introduced a range of workshops – linked to the Winchester Wellbeing Toolbox – to help students develop skills to, for example, manage stress or build emotional resilience. A key to the success of these initiatives has been to embed them across the curriculum and student experience. Technology certainly helps with this, enabling signposting and support beyond the face-to-face. 

We have seen a large increase in students seeking therapeutic support (counselling) and practical mental health support. We have also seen an increase in lower level support needs, often linked to mental health or challenges in transition to living independently. 

Students are increasingly seeking and expecting immediate support, often out of hours. We are finding ways to signpost students to good, trustworthy self-help sources such as the Big White Wall. 

This enables us to support students to become more self-reliant where they can and enable our team (particularly in the area of mental health support) to have capacity to support those who require more detailed intervention or are at most risk. 

RW: We have a new ARU buddy scheme offering trained, personalised, face-to-face support to all new undergraduate students. We’re also pleased to be able to offer our students free access to digital mental health platform SilverCloud, and we’re developing live chat to support student enquiries, on- and off-campus, as well as Skype-based counselling provision.

EL: 2020 is likely to see a sharpening of emphasis around how universities better support students with a range of new tech including the OfS-backed pilot of Enlitened, an app to support student mental health and wellbeing, that’s gaining traction. Events, support for students and a strengthening of upfront communications with parents and carers about how they can also support young people transitioning to HE will be key themes. 

Should universities play a greater support role for freshers?

JW: In our public affairs work, we have discussed whether institutions might consider establishing pro-vice-chancellor positions focusing on the transition of students from school or college to university. It is important that students are given as many ways to ask for support as possible and so, in 2020, we will be rolling out our new student app across our 35,000-room portfolio, which will play a central role in our student wellbeing strategy.

SJ: There are a number of areas where young students need support in adjusting to campus life, whether that be in relation to mental health, coping with independent living, consent classes or managing interactions across a diverse student body. If universities don’t help students to understand and meet expected standards of behaviour or engagement, they are more likely to have to tackle the problems it causes later. It makes sense to take proactive and preventative steps to reduce any possible problems.

JC: Absolutely. We talk a lot about working together to build a flourishing community. We pride ourselves on doing all we can to support our students as they transition into university life. It is a massive change. For most, it is the first time they have left home to live independently. There are a lot of decisions and choices to be made, new and often daunting encounters, loneliness, excitement, anticipation, fears, all wrapped up together. Each year we build on what we learn from the previous arrivals and welcome week to weave in new ways of supporting our new students and helping them put in place the things they need to succeed and flourish. 

EL: Universities are waking up to the new role they need to play at freshers and we’ve seen a shift in approach as HEIs understand the value of support at this critical time and the importance of freshers in settling students in, supporting transition, reducing drop-outs and signposting students to all the support available to them at an early stage. Belonging is increasingly important to students and their parents and a focus on helping students through freshers is now a necessity rather than a nice-to-have.

People with banners protest as part of a climate change march

2 Climate Change

With universities uniting globally to declare a climate emergency, how can they keep pace with the demands on them to meet net zero targets – and beyond? 

JC: Like others, the University of Winchester has declared a climate emergency. Since 2006–07, we have achieved a 45% reduction in emissions intensity against a 30% target. We want to be net zero by 2025. 

But the climate emergency is about more than carbon emissions. There are other decisions to be made about how we power our campuses and the buildings we put up. All our electricity comes from renewable sources, none of our waste goes to landfill and our recycling rate is 60%. Also, all our recent buildings are BREEAM excellent. We have pledged to eliminate all unnecessary single-use plastic by December 2020. We also plan to expand food waste collection to include halls of residence, which would redirect around 90 tonnes of food waste from general waste to anaerobic digestion. 

RW: We’ve signed an agreement to source electricity directly from onshore wind farms and are stepping up our efforts to become fully carbon neutral by 2030. Technological measures have delivered impressive gains over the past decade but, as things stand, will be insufficient to deliver carbon neutrality on their own. This is not an institutional or sectoral challenge, but a global one. UK higher education must help make the case for bolder action and then provide the intellectual capital to help provide realistic solutions.

EL: Universities need to be on the front foot with the sustainability agenda – it is now an important consideration for students, and universities need to play a key role in tackling climate change. From buildings and recycling to how they invest, institutions can expect to be under increased levels of scrutiny. To keep pace, we need to study and listen to our own research and not shy away from best practice because of cost, which the sector has perhaps been guilty of in the past.

Flags of the United Kingdom and the European Union. Brexit concept.

3 The ongoing impact of Brexit…

Given the political turmoil of the past few months, are we still an attractive offering to international students?

JW: In the short to medium term, and assuming EU students fall outside the UK student tuition fee and loan regime, we might expect to see a decline in the number of EU students attending British universities following Brexit. It is also clear that Brexit will impact on universities in terms of access to employees and research income streams.

Despite this, many vice-chancellors feel that any potential decline in EU students can be compensated for by demand from elsewhere. Given strong global demand and increasing student mobility, the future of UK HE still looks extremely bright. 

SJ: It much depends on what the long-term relationship with the EU is. A close relationship with access to Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ will have far less impact on higher education, although staff and student mobility will be subject to more bureaucracy through the immigration rules. Unfortunately, there is still a risk of a no-deal cliff edge if the transition period is not extended – this would be far more catastrophic for HE.

The standing of UK higher education remains high internationally, despite the political meltdown, aided in part by Trump’s shenanigans in the US. But we must not be complacent as other countries, such as Canada, France and Australia, for example, are keen to increase international student numbers. Some of our overseas markets are also vulnerable to political pressure, for example China, where ongoing government support for student mobility will be vital for many UK institutions to meet their recruitment targets.

The standing of UK higher education remains high internationally, despite the political meltdown
– Smita Jamdar, head of education, Shakespeare Martineau

JC: A big unknown is what impact Brexit will have on students coming from the EU into UK universities. In terms of future student recruitment from within the EU, access to continued funding via student loans is crucial. Many universities have undertaken to set any future EU fees at the same level as home fees, but without recourse to funding, many EU students will not consider the UK as a study destination. There will still be a market among international schools within the EU, and among more affluent member states, but the landscape will be more challenging. 

The current political turmoil in the UK is creating more uncertainty for EU students due to the uncertainty of their status in the UK. The situation for international (non-EU) students is less problematic. 

There are a number of factors working in our favour. The weakness of the GBP makes the UK a financially sensible choice for study, for both EU and international students. The decline in the value of sterling (we refer to it as ‘The Brexit Scholarship’) makes the UK an increasingly attractive destination.

Given the challenging tone of the Brexit debate, we are seeking to make our campus a place of ever greater welcome and support for EU and international students, with an increased level of wellbeing. Evidence would suggest that with the right offering, UK universities can remain an attractive destination for EU students. We saw a 28% increase in registrations from EU students in September 2019 compared with 2018, and we have already seen a 50% increase in applications from EU students for 2020 entry against the same point last year.

RW: Studying in the UK has always been an attractive option because of the high standard of teaching and the fantastic reputation of our universities. The introduction of the two-year post-study work visa, coupled with the competitive exchange rate, has led to a significant rise in applications from international students. The fact that funding for EU students has been guaranteed for 2020/21 has meant that applications from within the EU are pretty much on a par with this time last year.

EL: Brexit has had – and will continue to have – a major impact on the sector. From the lack of uncertainty to the impact of the election outcomes, it is clear that many policy decisions impacting on the sector will continue to be delayed – and uncertainty in already turbulent times makes it harder for universities to plan. The impact on international students will need to play out – the impact of Brexit on sterling has arguably made the UK more attractive in some markets but, for now, the quality of a UK education remains attractive despite increasing competition from other countries.

Accommodation is an increasingly important consideration for students

4 The student buyer

Universities are under increasing pressure to meet the needs of the student – the buyer – who expects a ROI. How is this impacting in terms of facilities, tech and support?

JW: Following the removal of Student Number Controls in 2015/16, competition between universities for students has become fiercer than ever and this means that providing the best ‘shopfront’ to students has become exponentially more important. Accommodation and the wider provision of facilities act as an important draw to students and the delivery of learning in a residential environment is becoming a key approach to producing a truly immersive learning experience.

JC: It has been striking to see how important accommodation has become for students making their choice of university. As a result, the student accommodation market is highly competitive and looking at situational USPs is crucial. As with any competition, this has the potential to lead to better provision for students. But, unfortunately, as we have seen in a number of university towns this year, it has also led to poor practice from the private sector that has left students without anywhere to live when they start at university. 

We have a diverse accommodation portfolio and student rents include access to many facilities, services and support, including the support of Housing Security wardens and Residential Assistant Teams. We also add value by being signed up to the Student Accommodation Code (www.thesac.org) and being UMH licensed.

Competition between universities for students has become fiercer than ever… the best ‘shopfront’ to students has become exponentially more important
– Jon Wakeford, group corporate affairs director and chair, UPP

JC: For most universities, the key challenge is to take the complex technical ecosystem that has grown organically over a number of decades and make them as intuitive to use and impactful to the student as the technology they are so used to using in their daily lives. Often students arrive at university with technology, equipment and skills that outstrip what we provide. Having to log into multiple systems to engage with outdated, difficult and ‘clunky’ interfaces is something that increasingly students are questioning with regards to value.

RW: At ARU, the student is an active partner in their own learning. We’re acutely aware that many of today’s students are focused on the moment they graduate and enter the world of work. That’s why we have invested in a range of support to help our students develop the skills required in the workplace. This ranges from foreign language tuition and CV-writing classes, to volunteering schemes, work-based projects and internships – plus, free access to our careers’ services for three years after they graduate. We’re also proud of the work we do to help students launch their own businesses, with start-up funding available through our Big Pitch competition.

EL: Student expectations will continue to rise and universities need to find ways to keep up without breaking the bank. The quality of education and expected employability outcomes will see universities needing to continue to invest in careers support while the quality and cost-effectiveness of accommodation will become increasingly important in student decision-making. 

We will also see pressure growing for more resources directed around mental health and wellbeing and a greater emphasis on developing supportive communities across campuses including mentoring, coaching, peer-to-peer and enhanced pastoral and academic support. 

Universities have been slow to get to grips with the digital agenda – tech AND training – and I see this emerging as a key driver of student choice in an increasingly digital world.

5 Clearing

Clearing in 2019 was unprecedented in terms of numbers of applicants entering university via this route. What are the implications of this on HEIs and for 2020? 

JW: Ucas has made the clearing process significantly easier than it was in the past and, of course, there are also more places available. While the number of students choosing to ‘trade up’ between institutions is small, it appears that the brand value of universities is becoming a more fundamental part of student choice. Assuming this trajectory persists, the competition between universities will continue to intensify.

SJ: Recruiting a large number of students via clearing creates real financial and resource challenges for universities, as well as legal and regulatory concerns. Complying with consumer protection requirements can be challenging at the best of times, but with the high pressure and truncated timescales of clearing, there is an increased risk that something will be overlooked. 

The OfS is also interested in ensuring that the experience of students remains of a high standard, even when large numbers are enrolled at short notice. There is no reason to think that clearing will be any less fraught next year, unless, of course, a new government introduces lower fees from the following year(s), when we might see a lot of deferrals.

Clearing creates some uncertainty – both for prospective students and universities – but it also provides flexibility and opportunities, too
– Professor Joy Carter CBE, DL, VC University of Winchester

JC: Cambridge, for the first time, was open to applications through adjustment for students who met certain widening participation criteria in the summer of 2019 – which helps to dispel the myths that clearing is just for students with low grades and is only for ‘recruiting’ providers.

As the 2020 cycle coincides with the bottom of the demographic downturn in 18-year-olds, it is likely clearing will continue to be a popular route for both potential students (it is a buyers’ market) and providers with vacancies to fill. Clearing creates some uncertainty – both for prospective students and universities – but it also provides flexibility and opportunities, too.

RW: The trend for later applications bypassing the main Ucas cycle is set to continue for the foreseeable future, especially for courses without external capacity limits. It’s therefore important that universities ensure that preparatory and support services are in place for these later entrants. Applicants who first apply to enter university in late summer often need additional support and guidance to be ready to start studying and to be successful students from the moment they join the university community.  

EL: What is really clear is that today’s students know that there is more than one route into university and, as such, we have seen steady increases in the numbers shunning the main Ucas cycle and going directly to clearing – sometimes shopping around knowing they already have grades in the bank and their gap year ahead of them. We will see old algorithms failing as we enter a new era of self-release and anticipate seeing more ‘poaching’ of students midway and at the end of the cycle. Ensuring students stay loyal to their first-choice institution will become more important as part of recruitment strategy planning; working out how to take market share from competitors (especially over clearing) will be a whole new battleground for the sector.

6 Social Justice

How can we ensure a fairer admissions process? And should universities make more contextual offers – if so, what are the challenges?

JW: We believe that everyone with the potential and ambition to go to, and succeed at, university should have the opportunity to do so; however, there are still too many barriers to access for some groups. 

For example, universities should be looking at what they can do to remove the barriers that exist for people with convictions. The UPP Foundation recently teamed up with the charity ‘Unlock’ on a project that saw 10 UK universities make a commitment to offering a fair chance to students with a criminal record.

One of the difficulties arising from contextual offers is that each university will in all probability apply different weighting to different criteria
– Prof Roderick Watkins, vice-chancellor, ARU

JC: With the pressure to maximise student recruitment across the sector, a risk is that consistency and fairness become secondary concerns. However, it is vitally important for all providers to remember that they should operate a fair admissions process underpinned by the five principles of the 2004 Schwartz report.

The use of contextual offers is a helpful tool for providers in meeting the principles above. However, at a time when there are fewer students than there are places, with providers offering greater flexibility with acceptable entry tariffs, it could be argued that contextual offers are currently not as important as they will be in three to seven years’ time. This is due to the forecast growth in 18-year-olds entering HE in England between 2020 and 2030 and the resulting increasing selectivity of providers.

RW: We strongly support the use of contextual offers to ensure admissions decisions are fair and personalised. However, one of the difficulties arising from contextual offers is that each university will in all probability apply different weighting to different criteria. There is, therefore, often insufficient transparency in the process, making it more difficult for applicants to gauge the likelihood of receiving an offer. There also needs to be a simplified set of checks that can take place on the contextual information provided by applicants, to make sure it can be quickly and accurately verified.  

EL: This one is complex, involved and there are no easy solutions. Post-qualification admissions offers one route but isn’t a quick fix because of the impacts on systems and processes that would need wholesale revisiting. Contextual offers will help but we also need to do more to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds earlier in their academic careers and to ensure they are supported to their fullest potential. 

It’s also important for us to be aware that where there are systems, people will try to play them, and we need to push back as a sector where we see this happening.

Tech is increasingly important to students

7 Technology

With constant changes and developments in the HE tech landscape, how can universities meet the needs of its students, while also balancing the books?

PR: In terms of quality, I would encourage universities to look closely at offerings from small, innovative edtech companies that can make a difference in niche areas of the curriculum and in student support. 

To give institutions more confidence about working with edtechs, Jisc launched its step up programme in May. Delivered in partnership with Emerge Education, it aims to de-risk university and college engagement with edtech start-ups that have passed our step-up check, knowing that some due diligence has been carried out and the solution is procurement ready. 

JC: Technology now needs to be upgraded at least every 18 months. This is a significant ‘hidden’ cost in offering modern courses, but if we are not able to move with the market, we lose any competitive advantage. 

One way to help balance books, as well as improving some of the student experience, is to move to modern ERP systems. Another idea, although not new, is to move to cloud-based solutions for most activities, including storage for student work and email provision, as well as solutions to run technologies. These allow universities to benefit from scale of lots of others utilising the platforms. It reduces the risk of procuring and maintaining local hardware, allows better scalability of resources and makes budgeting easier as you are faced with annual costs and not the cycle of capital expenditure needed to replace the hardware for local servers and storage. 

An added benefit is that while there are still significant impacts on the environment of any computing enterprise, modern off-site managed ‘server farms’ are much more environmentally aware than you will ever be able to be when housing things locally. While this may not have an impact on the bottom-line, it certainly has an impact on our ethical books.

RW: Involving students in the planning and design of new services is vital, as is a watchful eye on new developments and emerging consumer trends. Trial and error and careful risk management play their part, but it is often impossible to anticipate the arrival of disruptive technologies. We aim to be ‘leading edge’, without being ‘cutting edge’.

EL: Universities need to be on the front foot and support both staff and students in getting the most from systems available to them with proactive and helpful training, support and much more focus on plug-and-play and support for BYO devices. Technological developments will only increase in speed and we need to be nimbler in taking advantage of new developments. 

Voice is high on my list at present and thinking about how that can be harnessed better to support student success.

8 HE Disruptors

What will be the biggest disrupter in higher education in 2020?

JW: The most likely short-term disrupter of HE in 2020 will be driven by the outcome of the general election. 

We may have a new Minister for Universities and, depending upon which party forms the next administration, these individuals will have a different approach to HE policy. 

Were the Conservatives to secure a majority, there is still some doubt as to what extent the recommendations from the Augar Review will be implemented. 

By contrast, Labour has committed to scrapping fees and returning to a grants-based system, which in turn could see the re-introduction of Student Number Controls.

I think we may look back at 2020 and see it as the first big year of the digital ecosystem in HE
– Phil Richards, chief innovation officer, Jisc

PR: I think we may look back at 2020 and see it as the first big year of the digital ecosystem in HE – with the big players such as Microsoft and Google increasing the impact of their full range of platform services, from enrolment through post-graduation and into the employment market. Related to this, we are seeing a spike in interest from UK universities in using, for example, Microsoft Teams as an online learning environment. While there are undoubted benefits to such an approach, I would always advise universities to be cautious about ‘locking-in’ their valuable data with one particular vendor.

JC: How rapidly, or not, the sector responds to the climate emergency. 

EL: This is a tough one because there are so many currents of change for us to navigate. I think we need to be more aware of wellbeing and mental health and what that means for us as institutions – I see impacts across all aspects of what we do but increasingly on how this might start to disrupt traditional patterns around student choice. Tech will continue to disrupt us, but I also think rapidly changing patterns and influences on student recruitment will cause disruption to those who haven’t got their eye on the ball. 

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