Wonkhe community survey 2021: a sector pulled into too many directions

Debbie McVitty dives into the Wonkhe community's views on universities' handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, feelings about the future of the sector, and what HE's priorities should be

Back in October we published the first round of findings from our Wonkhe community survey which took place over the summer, focusing on the views of Wonkhe readers on equality, diversity, and inclusion.

In that survey we also asked about respondents’ feelings about the future of the sector and what they thought the priorities of their organisation should be in 2021-22. And as the English sector waits – seemingly endlessly – for clarity over the promised “HE settlement” from government, it’s worth reflecting that whatever that settlement turns out to be it’s unlikely it will bring a sense of clarity about the future for HE.

Our sample is 642 respondents, primarily based on English higher education providers, but diverse in academic/professional role and seniority. And while we did ask some quantitative questions, we mostly wanted to hear people’s unfiltered views, so a lot of our questions were open-ended.

We asked about respondents’ views of their organisational response to the pandemic, and found that in the main respondents were positive about their organisation’s pandemic response and the degree of sensitivity shown to their personal circumstances (in the chart below 5 represents strong agreement and 1 strong disagreement).

Where there was less confidence was in the extent to which respondents believe that their organisation has the right strategy and leadership in place to emerge from the pandemic and take their organisation forward. This points to the difference between retrospective reflection in which it is often hard to imagine that things could have been any different, and looking towards an uncertain future in which a sense of security and confidence are harder to muster – and there’s certainly not been many opportunities to move towards a greater clarity in the last few months.

Feelings about the future

We asked: “Thinking about the experience of working in higher education during Covid-19, and the wider external policy environment for higher education, how are you feeling about the future for UK higher education?”

Around a quarter (24.3 per cent) answered one or two – ie very or somewhat pessimistic, while a third (33.9 per cent) answered four or five ie very or somewhat optimistic. The majority selected three – neutral or mixed feelings.

Parsing out the reasons for feeling pessimistic, we found a clear theme relating to the sense that, in the words of one respondent, “government is gunning for the sector.” Many anticipated government spending cuts, and regulatory change that could lead to difficult decisions in the future on things like department closures, and restrictions to expenditure. This is framed as especially galling given the challenges – and achievements – of managing the pandemic crisis.

I actually think that the sector has coped admirably with Covid and new approaches to pedagogy and other working could, with the right support, revolutionise the sector. However, a government hostile to HE and which is blind to its benefits is not likely to offer such support. I expect that Universities will be too busy fighting cuts and adapting to enforced and strangulating change to embed any positive developments effectively.

The sector did an amazing job with the pivot to online learning, and teaching staff have worked incredibly hard (and remarkably effectively) at supporting students on an academic level. At the same time, the sector (stuck between the rock of financial pressures and the hard place(s) of demands for ‘quality’ from the OfS and compensation from students whose experience has not been what they wanted) has not done as well at explaining their decisions and embracing the complexities of what students want and need out of their HE experiences. This plays into the hands of a government eager to argue that HE does not provide students (or society) with value for money.

Those that felt actively optimistic about the future of the sector were not blind to the challenges of Covid recovery, funding, and a challenging policy environment, but expressed much greater faith in the power and resilience of the sector to weather the storm. There was also a fair amount of confidence that despite government intentions, demand for higher education would remain healthy and grow.

HE is in a very strong position and has become something of a national treasure. Our importance nationally means that investment will continue from one source or another. All things remaining equal, domestic demand for education is not going to diminish for a long time and international demand will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. The impact of HE research is so profound that it would be suicidal for any government to allow the sector to fall into disrepair. Money is tight and there will be bumps along the way but the future still appears to be secure.

Yes some HEIs are poor, and some may have to merge or close because of (short-sighted) government policy and financial impact of the pandemic but in 20 years time HE will still be here pretty much as we see it today, albeit with a broader/blended offer.

A crowded policy environment

We asked what policy issues or changes to practice respondents believed would significantly shape their work in 2021-22 – and the sheer range of issues cited rams home the number of active debates and agendas universities are obliged to stay across simply to function.

Here’s just a sample of the issues that are shaping the work of the Wonkhe community:

Place: levelling up, regional funding, devolution, local authority changes, community engagement, securing good local graduate jobs

Funding and the post-18 review: student finance, prospective minimum entry thresholds, tuition fees, lifelong loan entitlement, foundation years, credit transfer, “intergenerational fairness”.

Changing learning: flipped learning, reshaping space/estate and timetabling, policies (eg academic misconduct), student communications, assessment change, open education resources and e-textbooks, the ethics of technology, the cost of e-books, virtual placements.

Work and conditions: shifting to flexible working, staff anxiety, pensions, industrial action, zero hour contracts, hot desking, outsourcing.

Students: mental health charter, engagement, retention, continuation and progression, personalisation, confidence building, digital exclusion, partnership with students, value for money, safety, harassment and misconduct, awarding gap, accommodation/rent strikes, graduate outcomes, NSS, essay mills.

Internationalisation: immigration, transnational education, the Turing scheme, access, the UK’s relationship with China, recruitment/numbers, mobility, global Britain, growing in-country based provision.

Regulation: Proceed; quality, TEF, terms of registration, freedom of speech & extension of regulation to SUs, changes to external examining, grade inflation, student complaints, student protection plans.

Research: REF, KEF, innovation strategy, research culture, people strategy, open science/open research, GCRF, funding application process change, UKRI open access policy, Horizon Europe, ARIA; UKRI review of REF, Plan S.

Academic portfolio: portfolio reviews, changes, concern about emphasis on popular but less high quality courses, blending subjects (arts and science), future of initial teacher education; microcredentials and CPD; curriculum transformation, programme/module rationalisation, reducing numbers of courses and programmes.

FE, skills & apprenticeships: Adult learners, working with FE, Ofsted regulating level six and seven apprenticeships, skills agenda, degree apprenticeship funding and growth, higher technical qualifications, degree apprenticeships review, FE policy change.

And all this is before we pick up issues like EDI, data, sustainability, finance, health provision, technology, and student recruitment – all of which featured, just not in as much detail.

On the one hand given the diversity of roles held across Wonkhe readers, this range may be less overwhelming in practice than it looks like on the page. On the other, the number of pressing issues must make it extraordinarily difficult to sustain an organisational focus on anything in particular.

Organisational priorities in 2021-22

When we asked what respondents think should be their organisational priority in 2021-22, at first glance the range of possible priorities was equally wide. But it was also possible to extract some themes that seem to cohere around ways of focusing attention on strengthening institutions.

By far the most popular response was to do with focusing on student academic experience, inclusion and wellbeing, with staff wellbeing, inclusion, and support close behind. This speaks to an ongoing need for post-pandemic recovery and investment in rebuilding (and building back better) staff and student university community and organisational culture – something it could be easy to lose sight of amid other pressures and priorities.

Flexibility to meet individuals’ needs, whether that be mental health, physical health, development, support etc – essentially to enable staff and students to rebuild themselves and their lives, and engage well with work/education again.

People – students and staff. There are huge problems beneath the surface with people having struggled with the last 18 months. Students have all sorts of mental health issues and have learned poor practices for work and engagement. Staff have had to cope with immense challenges.

A second basket of responses focused on working towards financial stability and sustainability and the need for longer term planning focused on institutional strengths. The problem, of course, is that for some – hopefully very few – unfortunate institutions financial stability and focus may well mean the kind of restructuring that tends to diminish the sense of trust and community. It’s not easy to set priorities and let go of other things – and having to, for example, close down whole departments is a prospect that university leaders will aim to avoid if they can.

But for – hopefully – very many building the kind of learning and working environment that can attract and retain staff and students in the institution will be the key to achieving long term financial sustainability and organisational success.

A final set of responses focused on civic recovery and public service, reasoning that in a challenging funding environment public support for universities will be crucial.

I think that we need to be more proactive in shaping the political agenda. We are too often allow ourselves to be legislated at, rather than using our influence to shape discussions. For me this needs to begin locally with our civic and community engagement. The people in our city need to be proud of us for the work we do with and for them, and resent an attack on us.

Supporting community regeneration and recovery from the pandemic – focussing on building the learning among our students to contribute to recovery, shaping our research to address long term recovery questions, ensuring we have a civic mission focus that takes what we do beyond our institutional boundaries and builds partnerships for long term benefit with the communities we serve.

So while the policy environment continues to be fractious, uncertain and possibly very challenging indeed, from the Wonkhe community’s perspective at least, universities could do worse than to stay focused on their people, and on the communities they serve.

Join Team Wonkhe on Monday 14 February in London for Making Sense of Higher Education, the event for people who want to understand how HE history, policy, and culture are shaping the sector and the decisions that universities are making. Find out more and book your ticket here.

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