A hostile environment for universities?

The higher education sector has come under great scrutiny in recent years. Universities are now seizing the opportunity to prove their worth

COVID-19 has been a challenge for universities, but the higher education sector’s woes predate lockdown. I’ve worked in and with universities for pushing on 40 years, and I’ve never experienced a more hostile time than the few years leading up to the pandemic.

A hostile environment

Universities, through this period, were being packaged as part of the elite. Opprobrium was being visited on vice-chancellors because of their salaries, and there was a perceived absence of value for students. At £9,000 a year, many questioned whether tuition fees were worth it.

It seemed to me that universities were struggling because the things that had made them relevant in the eyes of the public; things like leading change, transformational research, widening opportunity and exceptional academic standards were being questioned in that pursuit to identify value. At the same time, the reserved caution that characterises the sector – that ‘small c’ conservatism – was prevalent. Where were the brave voices speaking up to defend universities? Their silence was audible.

Rediscovering relevance

Despite this, I felt there remained a perhaps mis-placed sense of optimism in the sector; a feeling that everything would be alright. Universities have been around for hundreds of years, of course. They’re great survivors.

And actually, through the COVID-19 crisis, universities have begun to rediscover their relevance. Everyone’s looking to scientists for a vaccine, and for expertise on human and behavioural responses to the virus. Who’s advising the government on how to manage the pandemic and get through these great challenges economically and societally? Universities are at the heart of this effort. They’re rediscovering their mojo and, without question, they‘re demonstrating their value.

I’ve worked in and with universities for pushing on 40 years, and I’ve never experienced a more hostile time than the few years leading up to the pandemic

International reach

UK universities’ global reputation helps in rebuilding both national and sector confidence in higher education, but COVID-19 has complicated what was already a challenging international student recruitment market. When we went into lockdown in March 2020, those that enrolled in September 2019 – including international students – were on campus, hard at work. Universities in the UK, in the first phase, faced a crisis of delivery; it was about remote teaching and learning, and potentially also about pastoral care. Only later did it become a fiscal crisis too.

Prejudice built in

Many people in the UK have a polarised view of tertiary education. Further education is seen to be training people for ‘real’, practical jobs that keep the economy moving – and, perhaps not before time, there is currently a clear focus on funding there. At the other end of the spectrum are historic, redbrick, research-intensive universities. Rhetoric around lower-value degrees, around students being failed, is often a side swipe at ‘newer’ universities and some of the programmes they run.

Prejudice is in-built in our system. I’ve seen it. In my previous job as managing director of HE at Tribal, I invited some Russell Group university administrators to visit a former polytechnic in a challenged part of the UK to see how it was using software in really innovative ways, making sure it met the needs of the faculty and students. The administrators wouldn’t go. Because they perceived the former poly as “not like us”, those insights were thought to have no credibility. I now work at the education and technology not-for-profit, Jisc, and we have a role there, because we work closely with our members, and we see through our work the richness of what goes on in universities with different strategies, plans and objectives

Building back better 

The achievements of the higher education sector through the pandemic should be acknowledged and celebrated – but vice-chancellors know there’s more work to do. They tell me they need to develop staff digital skills, and there’s a growing awareness that students aren’t all ‘digitally savvy’ either; their access to technology and their propensity to understand and use it differs hugely.

So, universities are hard at work, doing what they can to make on-campus experiences as good as they can be while up-skilling academics and students for a blended or distance learning approach.

Universities are also thinking creatively about their futures and Jisc is central to that effort, working with member institutions and partner organisations on a HE research exercise, Learning and teaching reimagined. By drawing connections together to share and develop messages, this work has great potential to help digital change happen.

As I say, universities are great survivors – and in facing up to recent and current challenges, they’re seizing their moment to shine.

 Jonathan Baldwin is managing director of higher education at the education and technology not-for-profit, Jisc

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