News round-up: New year, same problems

As the world welcomes a new year, the issues that the coronavirus pandemic has inflicted on higher education remain. Students across the UK have begun rent strikes, university staff face the prospect of returning to unsafe campuses, and debates about the value of online learning rage on.

Calls for students to get rent rebates at universities in England – The Guardian, 06/01/21

Pressure is mounting for universities in England to offer rent rebates and academic safety nets for students, as staff and students say they have been left in limbo while institutions await further instruction from the government after a last-minute change to the start of the spring term. The National Union of Students and the University and College Union, which represents staff, are urging universities to waive charges for the accommodation students are unable to use until face-to-face teaching resumes. For most students this is scheduled for when lockdown ends in mid-February, although the UCU, which tracked more than 50,000 Covid cases across campuses last term, is pressuring universities to remain online until Easter.

Universities in struggle to survive the winter – The Telegraph, 20/12/20

Universities racked up an estimated £622m of Covid-related costs in 2020-21, including on safety, online learning and additional mental health support according to Universities UK, which represents 140 institutions. Increased costs have been coupled with a hit to revenue. Students at Manchester University won a 30pc rebate on their accommodation costs after a rent strike and angry protests in which they pulled down fences installed to block entrances to their halls of residence. The £4m concession is thought to be the biggest ever secured following student rent strikes but is small fry compared to the financial woe universities feared as the pandemic began. Accommodation, catering and conferences account for £1.6bn of income annually – and all are under pressure because of Covid.

UK university students ask for emergency cash to cover fees and rent – The Guardian, 01/01/21

Students have called on the universities minister to provide emergency financial support to cover fees and rent after she announced that most of them should not return until at least the end of January. Michelle Donelan also told international students preparing to travel from overseas that they should “consider whether they in fact need to travel to the UK at this time”. The spread of a new Covid-19 variant and the extension of tougher tier 4 restrictions across part of England were cited by Donelan as reasons why the government had to consider further steps to reduce transmission in education settings. However, the announcement on Wednesday evening left students scrambling to make plans, with some directly challenging Donelan on social media to help them with costs including rent for accommodation that will not be used and fees for course that will not be delivered as envisaged.

Top universities grew intake by 8 per cent after grading shift – Times Higher Education, 16/12/20

The most selective UK universities accepted 8 per cent more students after this summer’s decision to U-turn on teacher-assessed grading of A levels, according to new figures. Data from the Ucas admissions body show that overall the number of 18-year-olds accepted by universities rose almost 6 per cent from before the policy change to the end of the admissions 2020 cycle. But it was at higher tariff providers where acceptances appeared to rise the most, growing by 7.5 per cent, the report says.

Top universities taking hundreds of thousands of flights every year despite climate crisis pledge – The Independent, 28/12/20

Britain’s top universities have spent tens of millions of pounds on hundreds of thousands of flights over the last four years, it can be revealed today – despite repeated pledges to tackle the climate crisis. Almost 170,000 plane journeys, including long-haul, continental and domestic trips, were taken by staff at just eight institutions including Cambridge, Bristol and Newcastle universities, The Independent has learned. Imperial College London alone racked up 38,000 flights in the period between 2016 and 2020, the equivalent of 26 every single day of the year. Aviation is one of the single biggest causes of global pollution and a key factor in climate change. Yet, astonishingly, the new figures represent just the tip of the iceberg. Of the 24 Russell Group universities which The Independent asked to provide details of flight numbers, 15 – including Oxford, Manchester and Glasgow – refused or said they did not record such travel.

Study abroad: UK to spend £100 million on Erasmus+ replacement – Times Higher Education, 26/12/20

The UK will spend more than £100 million next year on the Turing scheme, the home-grown student mobility programme it is creating after opting against participating in the European Union’s Erasmus+. The Turing scheme will provide funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas in 2021-22, the Westminster government said. The initiative – named after computing pioneer Alan Turing – was announced after participation in Erasmus+ was excluded from the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal with the EU.

Losing Erasmus would have a devastating effect on social mobility – The Independent, 17/12/20

For those who can be bankrolled by their parents, internships abroad – whether they’re unpaid or part of the fast-growing sector of ludicrously expensive paid-for international internship experiences – will always be an option. What’s more, class privilege amongst UK students is already entrenched. Research done at the London School of Economics shows that students from privileged backgrounds who get 2:2s in their degrees are still more likely to get a top job than working class classmates who get a 1st, and will earn on average £7,000 a year more. In abandoning an inclusive, equal access scheme like Erasmus, the UK government risks further disempowering working class students when the cards are already stacked so high against them. 

More students choose local universities as Covid pandemic rages – The Guardian, 02/01/21

More final-year pupils than ever before are applying to local universities so that they can study closer to home, amid concerns that the impact of the pandemic may extend into the next academic year. Year 13 pupils across the country are currently finishing their applications ahead of the 15 January deadline, after which universities are no longer required to consider applications equally. A Ucas survey of more than 20,000 pupils planning to go to university suggested that nearly a quarter (23%) want to study closer to home, accelerating a longer-term trend.

How on earth do we run 2021 admissions now? – Wonkhe, 06/01/21

In England, the Secretary of State for Education has said a lot about university admissions in the last three months. His stated preference is to move the admissions system to a post-qualification system, although this would never have been for the 2021 cycle, so the default is to use a system that supposedly “limits the aspirations” of students. The other major policy pressure on admissions is to shift away from “unconditional offers” – which are offers that do not use A level results as the determining factor. Unconditional offers are, according to Gavin Williamson, a “damaging practice”. In summary, actual high-stakes exam results (and not coursework or anything else, thank you Mr Gove) seems to be solidifying as the only means by which students are admitted to university courses.

Excessive focus on university drop-out rates conflicts with other important priorities – HEPI, 07/01/21

Non-continuation in higher education is rising up the political agenda. The Office for Students plans, for example, to judge the quality of courses at English higher education institutions by their continuation rates as well as the proportion of graduates progressing to managerial and professional employment or higher-level study. There has been extensive discussion on the pros and cons of assessing courses by the destination of graduates but this has not been matched by a similarly close consideration of using continuation rates as another proxy for quality. This matters because there is no consensus on important issues, such as what an acceptable non-continuation rate is, whether it is damaging for individuals to leave a course before the original learning objective is met and how policymakers should respond to the issue. There is not even a consensus on the best way to describe the phenomenon whereby some students enrol in higher education but then leave before completing their original target qualification.

GCSE, A-level and Sats exams to be scrapped in England this year – The Guardian, 06/01/21

GCSE and A-level exams in England are to be scrapped this year in favour of assessed grades, and primary school SATs cancelled, Gavin Williamson has told MPs, saying that after last year’s exams debacle the government would “put our trust in teachers, rather than algorithms”. The education secretary faced condemnation for the decision to close English schools on Monday night, after millions of students had returned for one day after Christmas. The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said wherever Williamson went, “chaos and confusion follows”. Williamson’s statement to the Commons confirmed the plan to drop summer exams in England, including AS levels, given the new round of school closures until at least after the February half-term break.

BBC to expand educational shows in response to UK Covid lockdown – BBC News, 05/01/21

A significant expansion of BBC educational programming for children is to be launched in response to the latest UK lockdowns and school closures that are expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Amid concerns that large numbers of children without access to remote learning are losing out, the BBC said that the biggest education offer in its history was designed to ensure that all children can access curriculum-based learning without the internet. Broadcasting from Monday each weekday on CBBC – which is aimed at children aged between 7 and 16 – it will include a three-hour block of primary school programming from 9am.

Freedom of speech at universities is not under threat – it is actually thriving – The Independent, 17/12/20

While the criteria for such no-platforming has arguably shifted since then, the essential idea remains the same. Especially in an educational environment, surely the right to object to ideas comes under the same banner as the right to have those ideas in the first place? Not all ideas are created equal. Some come encased in a carapace built over centuries of repetition that almost obscure them from view – the patriarchy, or institutional racism, are so monolithic that it’s hard to step back far enough to recognise them as ideas like any other, rather than representations of some sacred natural order. Other ideas are new, vulnerable, soft and fledgling – rights for anyone not white and/or male are concepts in their societal infancy, and require our careful nurture. They need us to shout louder on their behalf, if only to counterbalance the scales, which place an established system of thought on one pan and a feather on the other.

Covid-19 drives 50% of students in UK to become ‘more political’ – The Guardian, 12/12/2020

More than half of university students (52%) have become more politicised as a result of the pandemic, a survey suggests, as grassroot rent strike groups continue to gain support from undergraduates over the festive period. The poll, conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS), also found that almost two-thirds (63%) of the 4,193 respondents did not believe the government was acting in their best interests. Larissa Kennedy, the NUS president, said ministers’ failings were “politicising a generation” and prompting students to withhold rent payments across the country as anger mounts over online teaching and residency conditions.“Whether it be the A-levels fiasco, the masses of student lockdowns or the financial exploitation students are facing, we are fed up and acutely aware that the problems arising are indicative of foundational flaws in our education system that this government has failed to reckon with,” she said.

The pandemic is a chance to rethink education, not settle for online lectures – The Guardian, 18/12/20

Back in March, universities worldwide moved almost completely online in response to the pandemic, with only small classes still being taught face-to-face. This teaching experiment has lasted eight months but now, as we move into 2021, the next step is to think critically. Is blended learning, which combines online and in-person teaching, the future of universities post-pandemic? The main change that most universities have introduced is pre-recorded lectures. But this approach has been challenging for many lecturers and disappointing for some students. It doesn’t build sufficiently on the established and proven practices of university education, developed over many centuries.

How Students Beat the System in 2020 – Tribune, 29/12/20

This year, students exposed the myth of England’s ‘meritocratic’ education system and overturned the government’s A Level results. But dealing with the class divides in our schools will be a far longer struggle. We must make a case for a new way forward — a state education system that encourages children to be curious, critical thinkers, provides them safety and sustenance, gives extra educational and pastoral support where needed, and nurtures individual talents and interests regardless of background. This is all entirely possible, but it’s not a quick fix. Our fight is not just with one Tory administration, but an entrenched system. We must push to rebuild it, so that, one day, three or four letter grades on a piece of paper really don’t have to define a child for life.

How Manchester Became the Epicentre of the COVID Student Revolution – VICE, 24/12/20

“It was very clear that this student movement is not only calling for rent rebates, it’s not only talking about economic justice but actually piecing together the fact that the very same systems that are producing students being fenced in against their will are the same ones that are producing the student mental health crisis, and are the ones that are producing the kind of horrific handling of student lockdowns.” More than anything, the Manchester rent strike would bolster a growing movement of student resistance around the country. The action of the students created a blueprint for other universities, many of whom had launched similar rent strikes to varying levels of success. The campaign now plans to coordinate action across the country, and help other students achieve rent reductions and fairer conditions for the thousands of pounds they’re paying.