News round-up: Online learning raises questions and issues of accessibility become a growing concern

This week, universities continued to come to grips with the prospect of shifting online, raising questions about quality and accessibility. CDBU also expressed their support for disabled students who feel left behind amid Covid-19 chaos, and we have issued a call for ‘Manifestos for Change’ from institutions across the UK.

NEW on the CDBU blog:

Disabled students left behind amid coronavirus chaos – CDBU, 27/05/2020

The Council for the Defence of British Universities would like to express their support for disabled, neurodivergent, and chronically ill PhD students who are currently appealing for specific reasonable adjustments due to the disruption of COVID-19. We believe that the need for these adjustments sheds light on serious inequalities in academia, and the urgent need for better representation and accessibility for disabled students within academic spaces.

Responding to the Covid-19 crisis: a 5-point plan for the University of Nottingham – CDBU, 29/05/2020

Ultimately, the precarious situation of the University of Nottingham is the result of an increasing marketisation of higher education, in which education has become a commodity to be bought by those who can afford it. This dependency on the ‘student market’ now undermines the viability of provision at our university.  The University of Nottingham is especially vulnerable to these shocks because of the focus we have placed on international campuses and particularly high levels of international student recruitment. 

Manifesto for Change’ from the University of Manchester – CDBU, 29/05/2020

Effective and collegial governance is more important now than ever before. It is the only means by which the University can come together in a shared enterprise in difficult times. This requires more than visions and slogans. It needs a governance structure with transparent processes, working relationships and behaviours that promote meaningful engagement and consultation: a willingness to discuss and come to a joint approach. Only with good governance can we ensure that decisions taken put our people first, because the University is its people. It exists for the long term – founded in 1824 we have weathered two world wars, a global flu pandemic, multiple economic crashes, the last barely a decade old.  The essence of our university is that we are accountable to the past and the future, not simply or even primarily to the present. We cannot just be defined by the results in the next quarter.  

Thousands of UK students caught in rent trap by private landlords – The Guardian, 16/05/2020

Halls of residence make up only a part of the student rental market, catering mostly for first-year students. The larger rental market is second and third-year students who move out of halls. Many are also finding that while their university has closed, their landlords are still demanding full rents.

Scotland’s students given powers to leave rent contracts early – Research Professional News, 21/05/2020

Students in Scotland will be able to give seven days’ notice if they want to leave their university or purpose-built student accommodation because of Covid-19, under new emergency powers. An update to Scotland’s Coronavirus Bill, revealed on 20 May, means students are allowed to give a week’s notice period if they want to move out of the university-owned accommodation, or private purpose-built student accommodation blocks, because of the pandemic. Most of the provisions in the emergency bill are set to end in September.

BMA backs teaching unions’ opposition to schools reopening – The Guardian, 15/05/2020

The British Medical Association has thrown its weight behind teaching unions opposing the government’s push to reopen schools in England, as the debate over millions of pupils returning to classrooms grew increasingly acrimonious.

“We cannot risk a second spike or take actions which would increase the spread of this virus, particularly as we see sustained rates of infection across the UK,” the BMA council’s chair, Chaand Nagpaul, said in the letter to his NEU counterpart, Kevin Courtney.

Plans to reopen English schools ‘fail to address risk to BAME staff’ – The Guardian, 26/05/2020

Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT, called on Boris Johnson to ensure that the government’s approach to reopening state education will address the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME people. In his letter, the union leader requested urgent clarification from ministers that they would fulfil their legal duties under the Equality Act “to prevent further discriminatory impacts related to the transmission of the coronavirus”.

Pandemic ‘will drive universities into lifelong education – Times Higher Education, 15/05/2020

Longevity experts predict that with universities forced online and desperate for new revenue, shift to older students will follow. The coronavirus will push universities around the world to embrace lifelong education in a dramatic “market shift” as they seek a way out of an “existential crisis”, according to two leading experts on longevity.

In this pandemic, admissions policy is being developed in real time – Wonkhe, 14/05/2020

Since the Covid-19 crisis hit, we have seen numerous examples of policy being created and negotiated in the public sphere. This has also been some of the most turbulent times in higher education policy in living memory – the sector is being asked to respond seemingly in real-time to a crisis for which we have almost no understanding, considering both short term problems of how we finish the academic year and medium term problems of what the sector will look like when most courses hope to reopen for business in September 2020.

Universities must not forget about BAME students during this crisis – Wonkhe, 14/05/2020

We already know that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students experience differential outcomes in admissions, attainment and employment following graduation. Covid-19 will likely exacerbate these disparities for a generation of BAME students at pivotal stages of their educational journeys. The sector must consider the whole student lifecycle when planning and strategizing through this crisis.

Cambridge University moves all lectures online until summer 2021 – LBC News, 19/05/2020

Cambridge University has become the first UK institution to announce it is moving all lectures online until summer 2021.

The university said, “given that it is likely that social distancing will continue to be required, the University has decided there will be no face-to-face lectures during the next academic year.” Tutors have been told that lectures will be held virtually, including live-streams. However, the institution still plans to hold seminars, workshops and small group-based learning in person with “strict social distancing” in force.

Bolton to install body scanners on ‘Covid secure’ campus – Research Professional News, 20/05/2020

The University of Bolton is planning protective screens, full-length temperature scanners and a bike loan scheme to make sure students can come to campus in September, while the University of Cambridge has confirmed that all lectures will be online in 2020-21.

Swansea University announces plans for face to face and online teaching in September – Wales Online, 28/05/2020

Swansea said all its courses will be “delivered in a dual way” to give both online and face-to-face teaching. There will be no large lectures to begin with and large Fresher’s Week events won’t take place, a spokeswoman said .

UCU says ​​​​​​​universities’ reopening plans are only adding to confusion – UCU, 20/05/2020

UCU says the government needs to step in and underwrite income lost through fees and teaching grants and, in response, universities must promise to work together on plans for safely reopening and when to recommence face-to-face teaching. Inconsistent plans from universities to ban face-to-face lectures, try blended learning and even to try and reopen fully in September are only adding to the confusion for students, said UCU.

Most early career academics face funding cliff edge, survey suggests – Times Higher Education, 18/05/2020

Just one in 10 UK early career researchers whose contract is ending this year reports having received extra funding given the Covid-19 crisis, according to new survey results. In addition, only about 12 per cent of final-year doctoral students in the UK say they have been given the option to extend their studies.

Widening participation matters too much for Covid-19 to shut it down Wonkhe, 17/05/2020

Pandemics exacerbate inequalities in all their shapes and forms. Covid-19 will compound the educational disparities that drive unequal higher education participation. However, this pandemic has also made visible the material poverty that pupils, students and their families face. It has shone a bright light on the disadvantages that have held our learners back.

Fears raised over scope of OfS’ crisis regulatory powers – Times Higher Education, 19/05/2020

University leaders and experts in higher education policy and law have warned that the proposals put forward by England’s regulator to stabilise the sector during the coronavirus pandemic are “alarmingly broad” and threaten the autonomy of institutions. On 4 May, the Office for Students (OfS) announced that it was consulting on a new regulatory condition, allowing it to intervene where universities “act in ways that undermine students’ interests or threaten the stability of England’s higher education sector during the crisis”.

Be honest to new students about closed campuses, universities told – The Times, 18/05/2020

Universities must not lure new students with misleading promises of normal campus life if their lectures will be online-only, a watchdog has said. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said applicants must have “absolute clarity” on what they would be getting before they accepted their places for the autumn. “What we don’t want is to see promises that it’s all going to be back to usual and an on-campus experience when it turns out that that’s not the case,” she said.

Pandemic is amplifying the toxic aspects of academia – Research Professional News, 13/05/2020

On 30 April, the Higher Education Policy Institute released Pressure Vessels II, a report by Liz Morrish and Nicky Priaulx. It follows up on Morrish’s 2019 investigation into mental ill health in universities. The first report looked at data up to the 2015-16 academic year. Bringing the story up to 2018-19, Morrish and Priaulx found that mental distress had increased, particularly among women and professional services staff, with rising use of counselling and occupational health services. Things, in other words, were getting worse, and Covid-19 has placed an additional burden on an already stressed system.

Are we on the cusp of a wave of university mergers? – HEPI, 26/05/2020

There is huge interest at the moment in whether higher education institutions will be more likely to merge with one another as a result of the financial pressures caused by the pandemic. The Universities UK list of asks to the Government included the important suggestion of ‘A transformation fund to support universities over the next two to three years to reshape and consolidate through federations and partnerships or potentially merge’ (which is realistic but may still have come as a surprise to any policymaker who was hoping mergers might save money).

‘Students like the flexibility’: why online universities are here to stay – The Guardian, 27/05/2020

The coronavirus pandemic has forced UK universities to rapidly shift online, and no date has been confirmed for campuses to reopen. New research suggests that 20% of students are reconsidering plans to start university in the autumn – a possible 120,000 student shortfall. Yet so far, the University and College Admissions Service reports that very few have reneged on their offers. And for those already at university, a National Union of Students survey found that almost half of students were happy with their online learning.

Learning the Lessons from the UCU Strikes – Tribune, 20/05/2020

The recent strike extended beyond pensions to cover a wider range of issues, gathered under the label of ‘Four Fights’: pay, workload, job security and the gender and race pay gaps. However, that surge of activity has not yet resulted in transformative gains for university workers, or a decisive shift in the balance of workplace power. The culmination of this year’s Four Fights dispute is an offer, tabled by employers last month, setting out a loose framework for reducing precarious employment and pay inequality over time, but with no immediate or concrete financial concessions.

We Cannot Pause in a Pandemic: Response to Rocha and Marris – New Socialist, 22/05/2020

While we should debate about the strategy and timing of the recent strikes, and while it is clear that we have struggled to build rank-and-file power evenly across every branch in UCU, it is short-sighted in the extreme to expect to win immediately on casualisation, against employers who have a strong incentive to keep us casualised.