Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

In normal times we’ve hosted The Wonkhe Awards at Wonkfest – recognising the contribution of the Wonkhe community to the policy debate. But with our flagship festival and awards shindig awaiting the end of the pandemic to return in-person, today we’re recognising the very best of Wonkhe from 2020.

We’ve rounded up our favourites of the most-read and talked about articles on the site this year – the issues and topics that got the community talking, and helped you think through your coping strategies and plans for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and everything else that happened. It’s been a rather eventful year, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Although below are some of the highlights, we’d like to pay tribute to the whole Wonkhe community – partners, contributors and readers – who have made it through this most challenging of years with us. We hope you have a restful break and we look forward to serving you up more HE policy debate, analysis and insight in 2021.

Managing Covid-19

Consultant and facilitator Doug Clow wrote our first piece on university preparations for Covid-19 in early March – it was one of our most popular articles this year and reading it back now demonstrates what an intense year it has been for everyone, and how much we have all needed to learn and adapt.

In March, as we went into national lockdown, NUS vice president (welfare) Eva Crossan Jory warned of the crisis facing student renters – identifying difficulties that haven’t gone away as 2020 draws to a close.

Home working has a disproportionate impact on women. In April Emily Yarrow and Julie Davies took us through what this means for higher education.

Winchester SU’s Megan Ball and Bath SU’s Eve Alcock explained how to listen to and work with students during a global pandemic.

It was not a great year for anyone, but postgraduate students arguably got a worse deal than anyone. The University of Exeter’s Andrew McRae set out some of what they were facing back in April.

Brilliant Club chief executive Anne-Marie Canning issued a clarion call reminding us that widening participation matters too much to allow Covid to shut it down.

And in a timely piece that many of you clearly found helpful in grappling with preparations for the start of the autumn term, Graham Scott, from the University of Hull, thought through the implications of a socially distanced campus.


Jenny Louise Lawrence from the University of Hull took to the site at the back end of March, early in the first lockdown, to offer some very timely tips on maintaining well-being while working from home.

Covid-19 triggered a rethink of many ideas around the way students learn and staff work – leadership coach Kate Tapper called for an end to platitudes about resilience.

University of Leeds vice chancellor Simone Buitendijk underlined in November the danger of burnout among university staff who had worked impossibly hard throughout 2020.

Julie Hulme revealed largely untold stories of the dramatic effect on the lives of students arising from the pandemic.

Charlotte Jones and Fred Cooper argued that Covid-19 seems to be creating the conditions for new extremes of detachment and isolation amongst students.

Race and anti-racism

The aftermath of the murder of George Floyd challenged every part of society to radically rethink how issues of race underpin much of what we do – in June Tahmina Choudhery from Middlesex SU deftly drew out the troubling assumptions that underpinned some of the thinking about the way students would return to campus in the autumn.

But even a week before Floyd’s murder, Karis Campion of the University of Manchester was cautioning us not to lose sight of the needs of Black and minority ethnic students in dealing with the pandemic.

We’re humbled to have learned from the many voices from around the sector that have written for Wonkhe on this topic, and our Black Lives Matter event curated and hosted by Amatey Doku was our most popular of the year.

Access and widening participation

Antony Moss argued that Covid-19 may make integration into higher education harder for those first in their family to attend.

This was the year of the examnishambles. Alice Dee was in Tower Hamlets for A level results day – and was shocked by what she saw.

Alex Blower reflected on a speech on social mobility and concluded that the minister failed to read the room.

A punk-DIY ethic is needed if we’re not to lose what’s been achieved in HE participation, said Anne-Marie Canning.

Amidst concern about predicting grades, were there wider access issues that Covid-19 generated? Hollie Baker thought so.

A case of a disabled student made to sit in the lobby of a lecture theatre was all over the news. Mette Westander thought through how disabled students might hold universities to account.

Building back better

In England government and the regulator cracked down hard on the “conditional unconditional” offer – back in January Nottingham Trent registrar Mike Ratcliffe was one of a courageous few to argue convincingly in defence of the practice.

Recruitment was very much the topic of the summer for planners and policy makers – in April Martine Garland at Aberystwyth University offered us an early data-driven analysis of the risk that could be presented by providers replacing international students with more UK recruitment.

In April, in a piece that could equally well have been written last week, Andy Westwood set out the challenges for government in imagining a higher education system beyond Covid-19.

Loughborough University’s Elizabeth Gadd questioned some fundamental assumptions about current practices in academic publishing – as academic work on combating the pandemic highlighted the need to share and reuse information as quickly as possible.

Drawing on work commissioned by UCU, Tim Fanning described the potentially devastating economic impact that would arise from the higher education sector getting smaller.

And Richard Wallis and Christa van Raalte asked how students attribute value to their undergraduate experience from the perspective of post-university employment.

Teaching through the pandemic

2020 was the year everyone got to know education technology a little bit better. For Tansy Jessop at Bristol, the experience should lead to a wider rethink of the way teaching happens in universities.

In September hugely experienced learning and teaching consultant Sally Brown reminded us of some simple but hugely important methods of supporting students through the first weeks of term.

New methods of teaching bring new questions – Jack Harvey started a lot of conversations when he explored why students on zoom calls may choose not to use their cameras.

Wonkhe SUs

Reflecting on the experiences of students and efforts of universities, Bath SU’s Jiani Zhou argued that integrating Chinese students can’t be done in isolation.

As universities wrestled with new restrictions and student Covid conduct policies, Durham SU’s Gareth Hughes argued that now would be a very bad time to treat students like children.

Megan Brown from SPARQS got us thinking about changes to degree programmes – from the delivery of teaching, to assessment methods and, in some cases, to course content itself.

Lancaster SU’s Bee Morgan described the powerful question that she argued every university meeting needs to answer.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, now vice president for higher education at NUS explained that the sector has lots to learn from SU leadership.

Robert Liow argued that if we’re not careful, the debate over “no-platforming” may end up sucking the life out of campuses.

In January, Ben Vulliamy argued that students and europe is about more than Erasmus+

And Surrey SU’s Alan Sutherland delivered us a masterclass in understanding and interpreting university jargon.

The best of Wonkhe partners

Uberwonk Mark Corver at dataHE set out how universities could run robust admissions for 2020 entry even in the absence of A level exams – which in hindsight more people should probably have paid attention to.

Fika’s Head of Psychology Fran Longstaff offered up advice on keeping emotionally fit for the long term, as we faced up to the possibility of months of lockdown.

Smita Jamdar saw a student consumer rights crisis coming at the sector all the way back in March – and offered her analysis on how providers could stay on the right side of the law.

Throughout 2020 UCAS kept a close eye on the admissions cycle and the perspectives of applicants – in April UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant offered some timely reassurance to an anxious sector.

Justine Andrew at KPMG set out how boards of governors and executive teams were having to rethink strategic planning during the time of crisis.

Gilly Salmon at OES shared her system for thinking through the ramifications of the pivot to online learning.

Aula founder and chief executive Andrews Krohn warned that Covid-19 would expose gaps in students’ digital learning experiences, and set out how to build online and blended “dream courses”.

Gary Guadagnolo at EAB reported on the findings of a survey with AHUA, exploring the financial response of universities to the pandemic.

In July we published research on the student experience of learning during Covid-19 in partnership with Pearson, and Anna Jackson broke down the findings and implications.

Richard Gascoigne at Solutionpath warned of the risks of waiting for perfect data when tracking student engagement to identify students who may be in need of support.

Richard Brabner at UPP made the case for universities to play a role in reinvigorating left behind towns and regions.

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