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WEEKEND READING: 2020/21 – The Year of Living Nervously?

  • 27 June 2020
  • By Liz Morrish

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Liz Morrish, a Visiting Fellow at York St John University and author of two HEPI reports:

  1. Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff (HEPI Occasional Paper 20), May 2019; and
  2. Pressure Vessels II: An update on mental health among higher education staff in the UK (HEPI Policy Note 23), April 2020.

Always alert to fluctuations in performance indicators, universities will be concerned that The Times has reported student satisfaction falling for the first time in three years.

In actual fact, this story it is not about student satisfaction at all (the National Student Survey results have been delayed until July 15th this year), but instead about perceptions of value for money, reported in the annual HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey.

Having risen for the last three years, the indicator has taken a dip this year. Strikes in many universities over pay, equality, workloads and casualization of the workforce caused disruption for two extended periods of the 2019/20 academic year, and the end of the last period of strike action finished in mid-March just as the Covid-19 pandemic was driving universities to move their teaching and assessment online. In these circumstances, some students are feeling resentful about, what for many of them, is a diminished experience of university life. Academics fear they may get the blame. That already appears to be happening in some sections of the media. You and Yours (BBC Radio 4 on 5th May) took calls from some very despondent students with stories of online lectures and lack of contact, and asked the question, ‘what is your degree worth at the end of this?’. Not £9,250 seemed to be the verdict.

A similar view was presented in a BBC News online story (on 9th June) with the headline (since updated) ‘Is it worth going to university this year?’ together with a standfirst ‘But will UK universities open in September?’ that misleadingly suggested universities were all shut.

This evoked an eruption from academic Twitter with lecturers indignantly pointing out that universities have been very much open for the entire duration of lockdown, and that staff have worked hard and continuously to support students. They have found that teaching online involves much more than just uploading lecture videos and learning materials to the virtual learning environments (VLE). It means shifting to a whole new pedagogy and there has been little time to prepare. In spite of having risen to this task, they now face job cuts, career insecurity and a massive extra workload in preparing for teaching in face-to-face, online and hybrid modes next year. There is uncertainty, but it is not the fault of those who have completed teaching and assessment in a hugely disrupted academic year.

Even as academics have struggled with the pivot to online and home-based working, some university mangers have demanded ‘business as usual’ and have sent reminders to their staff about productivity expectations for the next REF including publications, rankings of targeted journals, citations and h-indexes. A timely repudiation of such insensitivity came from Daphne S. Ling in a Nature article entitled ‘This pandemic is not an extended sabbatical’. She writes:

Many of us are also dealing with precarious housing, food and financial insecurity, unexpected care of children and relatives, exacerbation of chronic physical illness and mental-health struggles, family members working on the frontlines and separation from families and friends. Our struggles, anxiety, fear and grief are real. We don’t all have access to the same resources or support systems, and not everyone’s struggles look the same. Disparaging messages about productivity are especially toxic to people struggling with their mental health who have been cut off from their support networks.

Some universities have borne this in mind. The VC of the University of York wrote ‘I want to reassure you we understand additional responsibilities that many of you now have…Do work when you can.’ King’s College London has been equally understanding:

If you have young children at home when the schools are closed or have other caring responsibilities and are working at home, we know that you may be unable to commit to a full day of work. We understand that and thank you for your best efforts. You do not need to take annual leave to make up any perceived difference. Do what you can, ask for help and take care of your family. If you are unable to work at all because of caring for dependants, please talk to your line manager about dependant’s leave.

Nevertheless, there are concerns about the number of institutions which have announced freezes on pay, promotions and hiring. Some universities came out very early to declare that they would protect precarious and early career staff (Kings College London and Cardiff Metropolitan University) but, across the sector, a large number of precarious staff (who make up 70 per cent of researchers and who do 25-30 per cent of the teaching in many universities) have been notified that their contracts will not be renewed next year. In response, a campaign for a ‘Corona contract’ has emerged. It is vital for the sustainability of university research and teaching that the current crisis does not target the most vulnerable academics otherwise we risk losing a generation of scholars in the UK. None of us want to see universities become the provenance of the independently wealthy. We note that such privations are not currently affecting universities in the Netherlands or Germany.

It has been suggested that the UK’s uniquely marketized system has rendered whole institutions vulnerable to financial collapse. Recently The Times pronounced, ‘The likely bankruptcy of some institutions would be neither surprising nor particularly regretful.’

That is disturbing to contemplate, especially when we consider that SOAS, one of the institutions reporting large deficits and making threats of redundancies, educates and employs many Black and minority ethnic students.

Moreover, its researchers provide just the kind of critique of colonialism and slavery that will help us navigate a new and necessary engagement with these issues. Black scholarship matters. But sadly, SOAS may become a casualty due to its high proportion of overseas students and emphasis on postgraduate programs.

How has the regulator stood up for higher education? You might expect the Office for Students to have reinforced the message from Universities UK whose leadership has asked the government for emergency funding to stabilize the higher education sector. Instead, they have released guidance for higher education institutions on preparing for market exit and ensuring Student Protection Plans reflect the current high likelihood that some students might find their university in receivership. This is neither likely to comfort the afflicted nor restore the confidence of students who are currently considering whether to defer their places or forgo university altogether.

Susan Lapworth, Director of Competition and Registration at the Office for Students, places a high priority on compliance with the Competition and Markets Authority in clarifying for students what has changed since they applied for the university course, in terms of content and assessment:

It is likely that adjustments will need to continue into the next academic year and therefore the information that applicants for courses starting in 2020-21 received before the pandemic and which has informed their decisions about what and where to study is now likely to be subject to significant change.

And so, while the Office for Students acknowledges the enduring state of flux, universities are nonetheless expected to assure contractual clarity. This is an unreasonable stance by the regulator.

The Office for Students had already issued an injunction in early May not to implement any admissions policies which might cause instability in the sector. This was interpreted as a warning to those universities which had been named and shamed for offering ‘conditional-unconditional’ offers in the hopes of grasping some certitude by luring applicants from the clutches of more prestigious, but selective universities. But then the government saw fit to destabilise the admissions process all on its own. The award of 5,000 places on the basis of selective metrics was, as David Kernohan of Wonkhe explained, a calculated decision to further rig a market which has stubbornly refused to bend to incentives over the years to deliver market supremacy to the Russell Group.

Next year is going to prove difficult for higher education managers, staff and students. Following my maxim that the only thing to reliably trickle down is contempt, everyone will have to work hard to ensure that does not prevail. In order to be kind, it helps to feel appreciated. And that appreciation should start with government.

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