News round-up: Warnings of admissions chaos as coronavirus hits

Inevitably, this week’s round-up is dominated by one story – the coronavirus’s impact on teaching, exams and admissions

Exam cancellations to spark ‘almighty scramble’ in UK admissions

Times Higher Education, 20/03/2020, Anna McKie

The cancellation of exams caused by the closure of all schools amid the coronavirus outbreak could hurt the poorest students most, lead to the most prestigious universities “hoovering up students”, or hasten the advent of post-qualification admissions, experts suggest.

In response to the crisis, prime minister Boris Johnson has ordered schools in England to close from 20 March and for GCSE and A level exams to be cancelled this year, with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments also making the same moves.

Licence to ‘remix’ research alarms humanities scholars

Times Higher Education, 20/03/2020, Jack Grove

UK-based scholars will be powerless to stop their research being used in racist or homophobic propaganda if proposed open access rules are adopted, a publishing expert has warned.

Under the new policy unveiled by UK Research and Innovation last month, any article accepted for publication from January 2022 should be made “freely and immediately available online” in a journal, open access platform or institutional repository if its author acknowledges research council funding.

Coronavirus: emergency research funds required, warns Russell Group

Times Higher Education, 19/03/2020, Jack Grove

The Russell Group of research-intensive universities is calling on the UK’s main research funding body to establish an emergency fund to cover the salaries of staff, PhD stipends and other research costs during the coronavirus shutdown.

In a letter to UK Research and Innovation published on 18 March, the group’s chief executive Tim Bradshaw said current plans to give a no-cost extension to research grants and reimburse some travel costs would not be enough to mitigate the huge disruption caused by the near sector-wide closure of laboratories.

Schools shutdown creates UK university admissions uncertainty

Times Higher Education, 19/03/2020, John Morgan

Admissions for UK universities have been thrown into uncertainty after the government moved to shut down schools and cancel this summer’s examinations amid the coronavirus crisis.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs that officials were working with exam boards “to ensure that children get the qualifications they need”, after prime minister Boris Johnson announced the move on 18 March.

Cambridge University students call for final-year retakes

BBC, 19/03/2020, Anonymous

The University of Cambridge is facing calls for students to be able to retake their final year, after the coronavirus caused exams to be cancelled.

An open letter to education pro-vice chancellor Graham Virgo warns that remote learning could affect academic performance and student wellbeing.

Predicted A-level grades are wrong four times out of five, universities warn

Daily Telegraph, 19/03/2020, Camilla Turner

Universities now face a “near impossible” task of deciding which students to offer a place to, vice-chancellors say as they warn that predicted A-level grades are wrong “four out of five times”.

The decision to cancel A-levels and GCSEs is a “mistake” and puts students in an unfair position, according to Professor Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University and former headmaster of Wellington College.

Oxford and Cambridge send students home over coronavirus fears

Daily Telegraph, 19/03/2020, Camilla Turner and Dominic Penna

Universities across the country have scrapped face-to-face learning, as Cambridge last night told students to “return home” following the coronavirus outbreak.

Students at the University of Oxford were also told to go home unless they had a “compelling reason” to stay.

Athena SWAN revamp urged as academics lose faith in awards

Times Higher Education, 19/03/2020, Anna McKie

Applications for Athena SWAN awards are to be revamped to stop them penalising the very academics that the gender equality mark is supposed to help, following a review which revealed widespread sector disquiet with the charter.

The independent review of Athena SWAN, published on 19 March, draws on a UK sector survey that attracted 1,578 responses – 83 per cent of whom had worked on an application for an award. However, only 26 per cent of these described this as having been a positive experience. Thirty-nine per cent said that it had been negative, and 35 per cent were neutral.

Muslim students less likely to be awarded top class degrees

The Guardian, 18/03/2020, Richard Adams

Students from Muslim families are less likely to be awarded top class degrees than students from other religions or beliefs, according to research examining UK higher education attainment for people of different faith backgrounds.

The research, based on official statistics gathered from more than two million students attending British universities, found that just 65% of students identifying as Muslim gained firsts and upper second class degrees as undergraduates, compared with more than 76% of all other students.

Coronavirus: English regulator to ‘support financial sustainability’

Times Higher Education, 18/03/2020, Jack Grove

England’s higher education regulator has signalled that it will act to support universities’ “financial sustainability” given the enormous economic damage caused by the coronavirus crisis.

In a letter to higher education institutions sent on 17 March, Susan Lapworth, director of competition and registration at the Office for Students, explains that the organisation has now set “three key objectives for the coming months, which reflect how we will intend to respond to the impact of Covid-19”.

Coronavirus: Cambridge University urges students to ‘return home’

BBC, 18/03/2020, Anonymous

The University of Cambridge has suspended examinations and is urging all students to “return home now” in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

International students have been asked to make travel arrangements “as quickly as possible” as global restrictions take hold.

See also: Oxford and Cambridge send students home over coronavirus fears (Daily Telegraph, 18/03/2020, Camilla Turner and Dominic Penna)

Sudden shift to teaching-only contracts ahead of REF census

Times Higher Education, 18/03/2020, Simon Baker

UK universities have reclassified hundreds of academics as being on teaching-only contracts as the census date for the research excellence framework approaches.

Two institutions saw a sevenfold increase in the year to 2018-19 in the number of full-time staff officially classified as not having research duties, according to the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Chinese students flee UK after ‘maskaphobia’ triggered racist attacks

The Guardian, 17/03/2020, Sally Weale

Chinese students at UK universities are “fleeing back to China” amid concerns about the British government’s handling of the spread of the virus and an increase in racist attacks triggered by so-called maskaphobia.

While some students have already returned, many of those who remain are struggling to secure seats on a dwindling number of flights, which are being sold at inflated prices. There are also reports that some are trying to book private jets to get home.

UCU postpones reballots, but has strike fatigue set in already?

Times Higher Education, 17/03/2020

The UK’s biggest higher education union has had to pause its campaign to persuade members to sign up to further industrial action owing to the coronavirus outbreak, but when it does restart it must contend with mounting fatigue among university staff after walkouts stretched to more than four weeks already this academic year.

Fourteen days of strikes at 74 institutions over pensions, pay and conditions ended without resolution on 13 March, and those were preceded by an eight-day walkout before Christmas. University and College Union (UCU) members were set to continue action short of a strike – working strictly to contract – and were scheduled to be reballoted for further industrial action from 17 March onwards as the previous mandate at many institutions is due to expire.

‘Going home puts my parents at risk’: UK students hit by coronavirus upheaval

The Guardian, 16/03/2020, Rachel Hall and Alfie Packham

UK universities are shifting to online learning and exams to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but many students are anxious that this isn’t happening fast enough.

Last week, many universities, including the London School of Economics, King’s College London, the University of Durham and Manchester Metropolitan University, announced plans to replace face-to-face teaching with video lectures and online seminars, end term early, or cancel exams.

Essay mills are ‘public safety issue’, university watchdog warns

Daily Telegraph, 14/03/2020, Camilla Turner and Fin Kavanagh

Essay mills have become a “public safety” issue, a higher education watchdog has said as it warns that the practice is now spreading to school children.

The number of undergraduate students paying companies to write essays and coursework for them has increased “dramatically” in recent years and now includes sixth-formers, according to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), which monitors standards in universities.

Five Oxford students diagnosed with coronavirus, as universities take drastic action to prevent outbreaks

Daily Telegraph, 13/03/2020, Camilla Turner

Five Oxford students have now been diagnosed with coronavirus, as universities across the country take drastic action to prevent outbreaks.

A spokesman for Oxford said they were all in self-isolation, and that contingency planning is underway with a number of upcoming events being cancelled.

Coronavirus: Minister urges universities to stay open as classes shut down and exams cancelled

Independent, 13/03/2020, Eleanor Busby

The education secretary has urged universities to remain open to students as institutions across the UK announced plans to shut down classes and cancel in-person exams over coronavirus fears. 

Gavin Williamson has urged all educational establishments, including nurseries and universities, to look at medical and scientific advice and to refrain from closing their doors.

University strikes: Students handed nearly £3m in payments for lost teaching hours during walkouts

Independent, 13/03/2020, Eleanor Busby

Universities have handed out nearly £3m to students for lost teaching hours from strikes in recent years.  

Students were paid as much as £4,500 in tuition fee refunds but most of the elite institutions did not offer any financial compensation to students disrupted by walkouts in 2018 and 2019.

Schools stay open (for now) but coronavirus forces some universities to shut early

The Times, 13/03/2020, Rosemary Bennett

Schools and universities have introduced different restrictions to protect students and pupils from coronavirus.

All overseas school trips will be cancelled on the advice of the government, meaning thousands of pupils will miss out on ski holidays and cultural visits.

See also: Coronavirus: More universities halt teaching and exams (BBC, 13/03/2020)

UK universities switching to online lectures and exams

The Guardian, 12/03/2020, Richard Adams

British universities are ending in-person lectures in an effort to arrest the spread of Covid-19, saying they will switch to remote learning and even online exams for students within weeks.

The London School of Economics, King’s College London, the University of Durham and Manchester Metropolitan University said they would soon end face-to-face teaching in favour of digital delivery, including video lectures and online seminars.

Coursera goes free for universities affected by coronavirus

Times Higher Education, 12/03/2020, Anna McKie

Online learning platform Coursera is making its entire course catalogue free to universities worldwide to help counter the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has been forcing campuses to halt in-person teaching.

The announcement comes as more institutions across the globe were instructed to suspend classes to halt the spread of the virus. Following in the footsteps of Italy, Europe’s most affected country, Poland, Ukraine and Hungary have now ordered campus closures, alongside a slew of US states.

University leaders ‘prioritising reputation over tackling harassment’

Times Higher Education, 12/03/2020, Ellie Bothwell

UK university leaders are still wary of tackling racism and sexism on campus because of fears that improved reporting procedures could damage the reputation of their institutions, a vice-chancellor has claimed.

David Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia and chair of a Universities UK (UUK) group that aims to address racial harassment, told institutional leaders not to “be afraid” that better reporting mechanisms could mean they are seen “by the press as a university where, for example, sexual harassment or racial harassment is rife”.

English regulator wins ‘landmark victory’ against college

Times Higher Education, 12/03/2020, John Morgan

The English regulator has won a “landmark victory” after a court backed its decision to block a for-profit college from accessing public student loans over quality concerns.

The decision is a boost to the Office for Students’ (OfS) registration regime, confirming that its decision to refuse registration to Bloomsbury Institute over quality and management concerns was lawful.

‘Laddish behaviour’ forces university to abolish lectures

Times Higher Education, 12/03/2020, Anna McKie

Disruption caused by “laddish behaviour” was so bad that a UK university had to stop teaching via lectures on one course.

The case was disclosed by researchers who have explored the pervasiveness of lad culture in higher education and found that its prevailing association with alcohol consumption and sports teams meant that other forms of sexism and misogyny were going unrecognised.

Departing professor hits out at ‘heavy-handed’ email termination

Times Higher Education, 11/03/2020, Jack Grove

A history professor who was cut off from his institutional computer account on the day that he resigned has criticised his former employer’s “heavy-handed” approach to departing staff.

Last month Huw Bowen quit as professor of modern history at Swansea University, where he had worked for 14 years, leaving with immediate effect.

UK graduate premium ‘falling faster for those with 2:2 and below’

Times Higher Education, 10/03/2020, Simon Baker

The relative wage premium that UK graduates can expect to get compared with non-graduates has dropped sharply for those who do not leave higher education with a first or 2:1, a new study suggests.

According to an analysis that compared the pay of graduates and non-graduates in two different cohorts, those born in 1990 who left university with a 2:2 or lower earned just 3 per cent more at age 26 than people who did not go to university.

See also: A degree really is worth less nowadays, as study reveals pay gap between graduates and school leavers has narrowed (Daily Telegraph, 10/03/2020, Camilla Turner)

University free speech society told  it is a ‘red risk’ and needs to have all external speakers vetted 

Daily Telegraph, 09/03/2020, Camilla Turner

Sheffield University’s free speech society was told that it is a “red risk” and needs to have all external speakers vetted and approved.  

The free speech society was informed that it must submit an application to the students’ union at least three weeks in advance each time it invites a speaker, and that “full and final approval” would be needed in order for the talk to go ahead.