For more than a year, now, universities have worked against the odds to keep students on track during the Covid-19 pandemic – with minimal government support. It’s been gruelling, but also, often, inspiring, with deep collaboration and innovation in evidence across the sector.
There’s good reason to hope that students can return to something like normal from this September. Though it is likely that Covid will remain with us for some years to come, the rollout of the vaccine offers the hope of radically reducing the spread and protecting those who are most vulnerable.
As we emerge blinking from crisis mode, it could be tempting to trigger a post-mortem, analysing where mistakes were made or what funding should have been made available when and to whom. Over in the Westminster village, we’ve already seen calls for an independent inquiry over the government’s handling of the pandemic.
But that would not serve the best interests of the young people and students who have patiently weathered the crisis, complied – in the main – with restrictions to their social lives, sacrificed opportunities for personal and professional development, delayed key rites of passage and continued, as best they could, to keep up with their learning.
We do need to understand – without allocating blame or raking over decisions that were made under pressures of circumstance – how the pandemic has affected students’ learning, development, and prospects, so that we can now offer them the best chance of future success.
That’s why I had no hesitation in accepting the invitation to chair the UPP Foundation’s Student Futures Commission.
What the Commission will do
Together with Wonkhe and Public First, we’re pulling together a group of experts from across the sector, including students, to undertake an intensive piece of work to ensure that students get back on track as quickly as possible to secure their successful futures.
Through the collection of written and oral evidence, we want to understand where the most damage has been done to students’ academic progress, their wellbeing and mental health, their social and extra-curricular experiences, and their confidence to steer towards successful graduate careers.
We will look for new practices in online teaching, learning and assessment that matured in the Covid year and could be amplified and promulgated for post-pandemic students. And we’ll be particularly interested in how practical, professional and workplace training approaches (and catch up, where required) can be optimised.
Most of all, we want to address the spectre of a difficult jobs market to graduate into and consider how universities can dial up interventions to help students prepare for and succeed in the post-Covid economy.
As we explore these multiple facets of rebuilding or reinventing the university experience, we want also to consider the nature of university estates and physical facilities and their potential to reshape around new ways of learning and living at university.
We know the sector is working hard on these issues already, so we want to collate the best of current thinking and draw on expertise from multiple stakeholders to gather insight and generate ideas that can be widely shared to help the post-pandemic student experience recovery.
Listening to students and hearing their concerns as well as their ideas will be essential. The Commission will seek to embed the student voice through every aspect of its work, including the appointment of student commissioners, and engaging students’ unions in evidence gathering.
Sadly, there will be some students whose lives and education potential might have been more precarious even before the pandemic. The Commission will want to consider sensitively the specific additional challenges that some groups of students will have because of their background and the context within which they have weathered the lockdown months.
It will be important for us to understand the extra help that students from disadvantaged backgrounds might need, or those with disabilities, as well as being alive to the different challenges that mature, commuting and part-time students might face, for example.
We want to be future focussed, and we want to think about practical action. That means that there will be some issues that we will not address. The Commission is not about making recommendations for individual student redress for perceived unfairness, or fee refunds, or rent rebates; nor is it focused on what universities could or should have done better during the pandemic.
Our attention is one hundred per cent on the accumulation of interventions, however small, that will quickly help students get back on track towards successful outcomes and enable them to take part in the full breadth of the university experience.
How will universities support students starting their studies or starting back on campus after a year of disjointed, uncertain and possibly lonely learning? What part will remedial learning play, and how will we rebuild students’ confidence in their academic progress? Will students need more support in forming or reforming friendship and rebuilding student societies after a year of relative isolation from their peers and university staff? How do we recontract with students for whom all the basic expectations of university life have been so disrupted?
And what extra challenges will there be for new students, transitioning to higher education with less solid foundations of learning, less trusted exam grades, and perhaps with less social and academic confidence? How, for example, will students’ relationship with money and how they spend it have changed after a year of privation, and will the part-time on-campus roles that so many depend on for extra income still be available?
How we’ll work
The Commission will itself need to be flexible and resilient to changing circumstances as it goes about its work which will no doubt be challenged by continuing or new restrictions. We plan to publish and disseminate our findings frequently, sometimes informally, to ensure that the rich content we envisage curating is quickly available to those who can make use of it.
Although our work is initially focused on what universities can do quickly and easily, and initially we will want to understand what universities are planning for the start of the new academic year, we also want to contribute concrete recommendations for the sector to take forward in the medium to longer term.
Students’ sense of agency in their own life stories has undoubtedly been undermined during the pandemic. The Student Futures Commission wants to address this through a pragmatic and rapid piece of work that will play an important part in re-building students’ faith in higher education as an immersive and foundational experience that will change their lives for the better.
Working in partnership with universities, students and the sector, the Commission will develop a national conversation about students’ futures that will help to start to heal the scarring effects of the pandemic.
You can read more about the commission here.