2020 has been a hell of a year whatever your personal experience of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Though higher education policy slowed down across the country, the policy cogs have continued to turn, fuelling expectations for 2021. And the pandemic itself taught us a lot about what happens when the sector comes under extraordinary stress.

Universities can do things quickly – but at a cost

At the great online pivot in March there was a palpable sense of euphoria amid all the anxiety. Though the pandemic brought major financial problems for universities, personal tragedy for many who lost loved ones, as well as that pervasive sense of existential anxiety we’ve mostly learned to live with now, the sector was also really quite impressed with the speed of its own response.

And for those who had been frustrated at the frequently glacial pace of change in universities, the rapid turnaround prompted the question – what else might we change if we wanted it enough?

At the start of the pandemic, universities appeared to be facing a financial abyss, as the loss of in-year income plus the question mark hanging over the sustainability of student demand prompted a crisis on a scale well beyond the reach of a decisive strategic pivot.

The experience of seeing relied-on income streams at risk will have prompted some to reconsider the sustainability of existing business assumptions. But given that the financial issues facing the sector are now reportedly merely challenging and not existential, we could see a dampening in the enthusiasm for change – which would require making some very tough decisions about allocation of resources.

And the burden of coping with the pandemic on university staff – including leaders – has been significant, with people working around the clock, under difficult conditions. Universities learned a lot about the necessity of clear and frequent communication. A number have seen a flare up of tensions with staff, as unions have disagreed with senior managers’ handling of the pandemic response.

The pandemic created a visibly burning platform in which change was the only option. And though decision-making in a crisis can be pleasingly speedy, it’s not clear that the other challenges facing universities are sufficiently and immediately pressing to force a serious rethink – there may be a strong temptation in 2021 to hasten back to normal as soon as possible.

In 2021 there is an opportunity to tap into the sense of openness to possibility that the pandemic unleashed, to share the learning and the unexpected leaps forward – but it will require a lot of sensitivity to the toll the pandemic has taken. A gung-ho attitude will most likely not go down very well at all, but working out how to do things in a way that enhances collective wellbeing could pay significant dividends.

Flexibility is the future

In 2020 we learned a lot about the possibilities and limitations of technology. Without the internet, and digital platforms and tools, teaching, research and work in universities would have ground to a halt entirely.

Over the summer we surveyed the Wonkhe community on how the pandemic might change organisations and higher education policy. The most desired thing for organisations by far was to retain flexibility in working, ending the culture of presenteeism and shifting to a more purposeful working pattern, in which people come together to collaborate and to share ideas and information, and otherwise have choices about where and how they spend their working time.

For higher education policy, there was an expectation that flexibility would increasingly apply to the learning environment, with less distinction between on campus and online learning, more start points during the year and possibly a resurgence of a modular approach that would allow students to step on and step off at will. Jisc’s learning and teaching reimagined initiative presents a vision for 2030 in which higher education “seamlessly spans the physical and virtual worlds.”

Technology offers the prospect of expanding access, strengthening professional collaboration, and enhancing research and teaching. But 2020 was also the year in which the realities of digital poverty became painfully clear, with universities having to supply students with digital devices and connectivity. Digital fatigue was also a thing, as we learned just how exhausting it is to maintain a schedule of online meetings. And many found that teaching to a gallery of black boxes just isn’t the same as having students in a room.

Universities need to make choices about which technologies will best support work and learning. At the same time, universities have a role to play in shaping the culture of engagement with technology, steering a path between breathless tech utopianism and Luddite rejection of the novel.

Digital and information literacy, ethical use of technology, the intersection between technology and wellbeing, and digital pedagogy are all areas in which universities need to enhance their expertise, not only to inform digital strategies and university operations, but to inform the curriculum and research priorities.

The 50 per cent target is dead – but HE could still expand

Universities minister Michelle Donelan was accused of failure to read the room in July, when she delivered a speech on “true social mobility” to a phalanx of gobsmacked widening participation professionals. Donelan argued that “social mobility isn’t about getting more people into university” and went on to condemn “recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals.”

In September, the Prime Minister echoed these sentiments in a speech on skills:

We seem on the one hand to have too few of the right skills for the jobs our economy creates, and on the other hand too many graduates with degrees which don’t get them the jobs that they want.

The Westminster government has called time on a perceived mindset that a university degree is the primary means by which individuals can achieve their aspirations. This is not a distinctive position, but a wider policy trend away from growing general education in the hopes that there will be a knock-on effect on productivity, and towards expanding provision of qualifications more closely aligned to the labour market.

In Wales the mooted tertiary commission for education and research will have a role to play in developing a strategy for, and coordinating provision of, post-compulsory education across further and higher education. In Scotland the first stage of a review of Scotland’s post-compulsory sector by the Scottish Funding Council has indicated that the future holds greater coordination of provision at regional level.

That much of this debate in England is couched in language about dropping the 50 per cent young participation target (whose relevance ended a decade ago with the demise of New Labour), clamping down on “low quality” courses and raising standards, while it might represent the preoccupations of some individuals within DfE, in historical terms is merely mood music.

The high level policy drivers of these agendas are both about cost (or efficiency, if you like), about nation-building – especially against the backdrop of Brexit – and about providing meaningful opportunity for the people who currently do not progress into higher education. So none of this is intended to reduce progression into HE per se; policy success actually looks like expansion of post-compulsory education, with more people taking up higher education courses or qualifications – albeit with fewer opting for the three-year full-time degree.

But shifting the demand away from “traditional” HE will be no small task. As the smart people at dataHE keep reminding us, demand for HE is set to skyrocket over the next decade, with growing numbers of 18-19 year olds in the general population who, crucially, are the offspring of parents who themselves benefitted from a university education. It is frequently said it is unwise to bet against rising demand for HE.

And governments do not have many policy levers at their disposal. Clamping down on student choice is hardly the Conservative way. You can’t force colleges and universities to provide courses for which the evidence of student demand is limited.

The development of new qualifications – whether the mooted higher technical qualifications or university designed and validated versions of shorter courses at levels four or five – will take time to bed in, and there will need to be evidence that these are meaningful both in the labour market and in terms of education progression.

Proposals for a lifetime skills guarantee in which student loans can be accessed for the equivalent of four years’ post-compulsory study over a lifetime are a classic case of great on paper but let’s see the detail – especially on plans for credit transfer, which remains one of the great policy challenges in HE.

In other words, making all this happen will require a great deal of regional coordination and good will – and not a little funding and possibly some political cover as well, if there are hiccups in the early days. Universities will have to make strategic choices whether to double down on established routes into HE and hope to see a slice of the projected expansion in demand, or risk diversification of the offer with uncertain returns. Though I should caveat that universities are hardly novices when it comes to provision at levels four and five, this kind of provision has taken a backseat in the last decade as the three-year degree has come to dominate.

Whatever your personal views of the post-compulsory education agenda – and we look forward to the debate in early 2021 when we’re expecting some kind of response to the Augar review as well as a skills white paper, plus legislation in Wales and the Scottish Funding Council report on the sustainability of Scotland’s colleges and universities – whether it makes a real difference to higher education depends a great deal on the capabilities of policymakers to implement it well. Are you feeling confident?

Universities are in the outcomes business, not the experience business – up to a point

The creation of the Office for Students introduced a batch of new concepts to the policy lexicon. “Risk-based regulation” would ostensibly see reduced regulatory burden on thriving and compliant providers, with regulatory focus on those that seemed to be, well, riskier.

A regulatory “level playing field” would create the same access to student loans, degree awarding powers and university title for smaller, newer, private providers as for the established publicly-funded universities.

And an “outcomes-based approach” would ensure that universities were judged on whether their students were satisfied (NSS), stayed on course (non-continuation), and progressed into employment (DLHE) – and on the scale of the discrepancies that might be found between different groups of students.

All this was codified in a truncated Quality Code, baked into the Teaching Excellence Framework, and enshrined as the B conditions on quality and standards in the regulatory framework for higher education.

In 2020 it became clear that the B3 condition “The provider must deliver successful outcomes for all of its students, which are recognised and valued by employers, and/or enable further study” would take on a particularly vital role in determining what quality looks like. OfS went to court to defend a ruling that a provider where a sufficient proportion of students were not achieving good outcomes – with the threshold determined by OfS – did not deserve to be a registered provider.

The Augar review in 2019 had raised concerns about “low value courses” – defined as those in which the economic return was considered insufficient to justify the investment in the course. Though a number of government spokespeople made media hay from condemning this subset of “low value courses” the practical and moral issues of using graduate salary as an indicator of pedagogic value meant that the agenda morphed into a crackdown on “low quality courses”.

In an otherwise unremarkable policy proposal on reducing burden and red tape in higher education, the government announced that OfS should carry out a review of the National Student Survey, claiming that it drives down standards, prompts students to choose courses that are “easy and entertaining” rather than “robust and rigorous” and encourages academics to “spoon feed” students. The NSS does not correlate well with other “more robust” measures of quality, it was claimed, citing non-continuation and graduate-level employment as key examples.

Though the first wave of the OfS review has yet to report, the signalling is strong that a survey the sector has invested in lovingly over the last 15 years may suddenly mean very little in regulatory terms – though it may continue to feed into league tables and public information.

Later in the year OfS announced that it would consult on a new metric: “Start to Success”, which would combine – you’ve guessed it – non-continuation and graduate employment, broken down by course level. In its annual review OfS signalled that quality would be a priority for 2021.

And while we still haven’t seen the independent review of the TEF conducted by Shirley Pearce, which reported in 2019, as Jim Dickinson has charted extensively on Wonkhe, the next iteration of TEF will almost certainly align with OfS views on reasonable outcomes thresholds at course level. Possibly with performance significantly above threshold becoming a necessary condition of a TEF award, given that OfS has said it will pay attention to those courses performing only slightly above threshold as well as those falling below it.

In the process, without much fanfare, the established practice of benchmarking student outcomes by student demographic has fallen by the wayside. OfS has said that it sees no reason why students from less advantaged backgrounds should achieve at a lower rate than their more advantaged peers, which is either a stunning and laudable commitment to enforcing equity or a serious glossing over of contextual and social factors that are outside universities’ control – and probably both.

But if we’ve learned anything this year it’s that student experience really matters – and that the regulator really doesn’t have much in its arsenal when it comes to students having a terrible time here and now. Our Don’t Drop Out research with Trendence UK in October found that 54 per cent of the 7,000-odd students who responded to our survey were broadly satisfied with their academic experience this term – but also identified a long, long tail of isolation, loneliness, boredom, anxiety, and a sense of abandonment.

In some cases this has translated into reduced academic engagement and progression, with impacts on students’ wellbeing and mental health. In some it has crystallised into anger, protest, and a spike in complaints, some of which will make their way to the OIA.

Independent adjudicator Felicity Mitchell has been clear that, despite the not inconsiderable challenges of maintaining provision during the pandemic, the duties of universities to students under consumer law remain the same – which when you boil it down essentially means delivering what you say you’re going to and not writing clauses into contracts that excuse you from not doing it.

Throughout the pandemic the Westminster government and the English regulator have said that universities should continue to deliver courses at the same quality, without really defining what that means in practice, or ploughing any additional resource into universities to make it happen.

Universities have been left to deliver whatever they deem is reasonable – right, perhaps, for autonomous institutions – but it is surprising that given all the upheaval of the pandemic, not a single university has ever publicly admitted that anything they deliver will of reduced quality. There hasn’t been an environment where that could be allowed to be admitted.

And while there’s no doubt university leaders and staff have worked themselves to the bone this year, and in many cases put things in place to mitigate as far as possible the limitations of the current delivery model, it surely cannot be healthy to insist, even if only tacitly, that quality remains the same under these most adverse of circumstances in all cases, across all courses.

We’ll see the extent to which the pandemic has affected outcomes over the next few years – though it will be very hard to disaggregate the effects of the pandemic from other factors that might come into play during that time. And of course, for the individual students affected, by then it will be too late.

Admissions must be based on exam grades – except when that’s inconvenient

Rumbling concern about the growth of unconditional offers flared up into panic in 2020, as the prospect of a drop in student demand in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic caused some universities to start scattering them like confetti, leading to a temporary but outright ban on the practice from OfS, and subsequently, the introduction of student number controls to stop popular universities scooping up all the available students at the expense of the rest.

At the time, both OfS and Universities UK were in the middle of separate reviews of admissions, OfS’ at the request of Gavin Williamson, who quickly outed himself as PQA-curious on taking up the role of education secretary in 2019.

August saw the examnishambles, in which the system of centre awarded grades fell over as soon as a small cohort of prospective students realised their prospects of progressing into their preferred university had been stymied, not by any failure on their part, but by an algorithm. When the sheer unfairness of this was pointed out to the various governments, vocally and at length, they had little choice but to allow predicted grades to stand.

So the carefully constructed edifice of offer-making and student number controls was swept away as a frantic government sought universities’ help to honour the offers they had made on the basis of a different set of assumptions than what ultimately came to pass.

All of this could have been avoided, if as uberwonk Mark Corver argued for on Wonkhe, predicted grades had been allowed to stand in the absence of exam grades in the first place. At the core of the argument is that there is no perfect way to assess a person’s academic capability. The fetishisation of exams as the “fairest” way to assess is a political choice, and one that, it turns out, has serious vulnerabilities, for example, when a pandemic makes traditional forms of assessment impossible.

But for as long as end of year exams remain the cornerstone of the university admissions system (for school leavers, at least) there is a case for implementing post qualification admissions in some form, notwithstanding all the arguments about how difficult it would be to implement.

Which was essentially the conclusion that the UUK review of admissions came to in November, when it proposed moving towards a system of post qualification offers in which students would maintain open applications with a fixed number of universities and only receive offers once they had received their A level (or equivalent) grades.

In a startling twist, the secretary of state, never one to miss an opportunity to step on a policy agenda, immediately went on the BBC to call for the implementation of a full post qualification application system, and promised that DfE would consult on proposals in the new year – in the process bringing the sum total of reviews of admissions to three.

But while we know that 2021 will bring more debate over the exact nature of post qualification admissions we think can be implemented at some point in the future, it will also bring the prospect of a more difficult 2021 admissions cycle, with different approaches to administering assessment in each devolved nation, the strong likelihood of the English exams plans being derailed by the pandemic and predicted grades lacking any credibility to inform university decision-making in the wake of the events of the summer of 2020.

Incidentally, the UUK admissions review proposed that universities adopt a code of practice on admissions that would radically restrict the use of unconditional offers. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that if ever there was a time to bring back the unconditional offer, it’s this year.

Black Lives Matter – but universities are now in the firing line in the war on woke

2020 saw an upsurge in anti-racist activism on a global scale in the wake of the brutal killing of unarmed black man George Floyd by US police officers in Minnesota. Terms like “white fragility”, “lived experience”, and “systemic racism” entered the mainstream lexicon, as individuals and organisations confronted the realities of their (our) complicitness in social inequality, whether as active contributors or passive bystanders.

In November, on Wonkhe David Richardson, vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia and chair of the Universities UK panel convened to develop guidance in the wake of the 2019 Equality and Human Right Commission report into racial harassment at UK universities, said that universities, through their histories and structures, have helped to perpetuate systemic inequality, and institutional racism – and that the pace of change must now increase.

Individual universities made some serious and meaningful commitments to their black staff and students, and 2021 will show whether those commitments will be sustainable and begin to deliver the change required. The elephant in the room here is that before the Black Lives Matter protests intensified the pressure for change, there was already frustration at the limitations of the existing levers and practices in delivering, for example, diversity in leadership and governance, meaningful responses to racial harassment, and the narrowing of the awarding gap between black and white students.

There have been signs of efforts to bring about wider cultural shift, such as in the movement to decolonise the curriculum, or universities investigating the legacy of their involvement in the slave trade. But these efforts will involve universities aligning themselves against the school of political thought that argues that “identity politics” have gone too far, that efforts to address inequality at systemic and cultural levels are patronising to people of colour, and that the whole analysis of systemic racism somehow signals a deep lack of patriotism in the form of failure to agree that Britain is the best place in the world to live whatever your colour or creed, and incidents of harassment are regrettable but not representative of most (black and brown) people’s experience or most (white) people’s intentions.

That the government has some skin in the game in this “war on woke” was signalled by women and equalities minister Liz Truss in a speech given the week before Christmas, where she bizarrely blamed postmodern theory for systems-level analysis of inequality (if forced to choose, Conservatives clearly pick agency over structure every time).

This was a speech designed to offer reassurance that the government recognises felt injustice on the part of economically left behind regions, at the same time as bolstering the school of Conservative thought that mistrusts the idea that in an unequal society power accrues on the basis of unearned factors (gender, race) as well as earned.

Truss pledged to move beyond the list of protected characteristics identified into the 2010 Equality Act to focus on geographic and socio-economic inequality – though it’s notable she also listed a bunch of ways that people with protected characteristics face discrimination – and said that the government would concentrate on data and evidence, not campaigning and lobbying.

None of this is especially novel or really holds up as a coherent argument – as if campaigners don’t use evidence to make their case, or as if the existence of protected characteristics excludes the possibility of taking action on socio-economic disadvantage – but universities are, of course, hotbeds of systems analysis and have been known to provide the scenic backdrop for a campaign or two, so should expect a few broadsides in the war on woke to stray their way.

So there may come a dual test of leadership in 2021 – honouring commitments made when the eyes of the world were on racial inequality, and maintaining accountability to the staff and students to whom change was promised – while also publicly defending the choice to invest time and resource in changing cultures.

The government could face tough choices between levelling up and Global Britain – or fail at both

This is a government led by a Prime Minister who, as we know, likes to have his cake and eat it. The Conservative majority at the last general election was grounded in a policy platform appealing to a coalition of voters: a mix of former Red Wall voters in left behind regions and towns, and traditional Home Counties-type Conservatives.

These voters have different life experience and priorities. The levelling up agenda focuses on economic and civic renewal for the areas of Britain that have lacked investment and political attention. Skills, innovation, local infrastructure, and public services will be the priorities for funding and action for this group.

The Global Britain agenda focuses on reshaping Britain’s role in the world post-Brexit. Competitive tax rates, international free trade deals and collaborations, and an immigration system that attracts the top talent – you might also include the environmental sustainability agenda in this basket.

While this is a pretty rudimentary split and would probably horrify the wonks at Public First, the point is that had the pandemic not hit it might have been possible to deliver enough to keep each on side in 2024. But the Treasury is now carrying debt on a scale normally only seen in war time, and will be unlikely to authorise funding of each and every possible ministerial initiative. The pandemic has depleted the optimism that came with the promised breaking of the Brexit deadlock, and any reserves of public trust in the competence of the government.

A flurry of media commentary at the back end of the year, as the prospect of an end to the pandemic came into focus with the news of vaccines, and Dominic Cummings departed Number 10, offering the prospect of a government reset, emphasised the necessity of making choices – most notably this piece from Public First co-founder and author of the Conservative 2019 manifesto Rachel Wolf.

And while you might argue that success in the Global Britain agenda enables the delivery of the levelling up agenda, moving the dial on either such that voters feel the difference would take real, sustained, focus, investment, and bandwidth.

Universities have a stake across both agendas, being both civic and global in their outlook. Picking one would go very much against the grain of a sector that traditionally refuses to agree on anything except the proposition that UK universities are world-leading.

But if the government fails to find its focus, universities will lose the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to, and shape, policy change. Instead, universities will be obliged to engage with the breadth of government policy agendas, with none of them delivered in a convincing or sustainable way, and possibly to carry the can when the over-promised changes do not materialise. It’s not a particularly enticing prospect.

One response to “Seven things the HE sector learned in 2020 – and what universities should prepare for in 2021

  1. Once again, remarkably prescient – I suspect we’ll look back at this article next January and wonder how you foresaw the conflicts between global and regional agendas.

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