News round-up: Academic freedom, student safety, and widening inequality for Scottish students

This week, Policy Exhange published a new report which claims that academic freedom is being stifled at UK universities, the SQA has been heavily criticised for lowering exam grades for 125,000 students – many of whom feel they have been unfairly targeted because they come from deprived areas, and universities are weighing up the risks of reopening campuses in September.

CDBU in the News!

The Guardian featured Professor Simon Marginson’s blogpost for CDBU in a piece about the safety concerns surrounding reopening university campuses. You can read the piece here, and Prof. Marginson’s blogpost here.

Policy Exchange report: Academic Freedom in the UK – Policy Exchange, 3/08/2020

‘Britain’s universities are world-leading. Yet there is growing concern that academic freedom in these institutions is being undermined in a way that departs from the liberal traditions and democratic norms of British society. This paper uses one of the largest representative samples of UK- based academics carried out in recent years to explore the concern that strongly-held political attitudes are restricting the freedom of those who disagree to research and teach on contested subjects.’

SQA under fire after downgrading 124,000 predicted exam results – The Guardian, 04/08/2020

Scotland’s exams authority has been warned it will be deluged with appeals after it rejected nearly 124,000 recommendations from teachers for this year’s exam results. The Scottish Qualifications Authority said it had downgraded nearly a quarter of all the recommended results for school pupils this year, after school exams were scrapped due to the coronavirus pandemic.

School pupils protest over SQA exam results – BBC News, 07/08/2020

Hundreds of school pupils have turned out to a demonstration in Glasgow over their exam results. The pass rate of pupils in the most deprived data zones was reduced by 15.2% from teacher estimates after the exam board’s moderation. In contrast, the pass rate for pupils from the most affluent backgrounds dropped by 6.9%.

Universities get some SAGE advice on reopening campuses – Wonkhe, 25/07/2020

‘Most UK universities won’t want the expense or blame associated with their own student testing regimes, mask and thermometer supply, symptom tracking apps or bespoke tracing arrangements – but as we get closer to September, pressure may grow to go above and beyond the fledgling NHS Test and Trace programme as universities rush to offer reassurance to embassies, local authorities and worried parents.’

UK universities putting finances above student safety – The Guardian, 1/08/2020

In a coruscating blogpost published by the Council for the Defence of British Universities, Professor Simon Marginson argues that universities have been forced to promise students something approaching a return to normal because “the government refuses to provide guarantees of funding and institutional survival” if students don’t turn up. Marginson says that if some universities had chosen to buck the trend and stick to teaching online this autumn they would have risked a total collapse in enrolments – something none can afford because teaching funding now comes direct from student fees.

“If institutions go bankrupt because it is impossible to sustain themselves, [the government is suggesting] it is their fault, and this can be celebrated as a healthy cleansing by market forces,” he writes. “It is not far from celebrating death itself as a healthy cleansing and in a global pandemic that is too close to the bone.”

Sector leaders predict TEF will be scaled down and pushed back – Times Higher Education, 27/07/2020

Sector leaders say the 2021 round of the UK’s teaching excellence framework (TEF) is unlikely to go ahead and predict a scaled-back version when it finally comes around. Although the awards under the current TEF are due to run out in 2021, the delay in publishing Dame Shirley Pearce’s independent review of the exercise, coupled with the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, makes assessments next year unlikely.

Lockdown hits vocational education hardest, widening inequalities – Times Higher Education, 28/07/2020

Vocationally focused colleges and universities say it has been particularly hard to shift their courses online because so much of what they teach is hands-on and requires physical instruction − and it is precisely these institutions that typically take more students from poorer or otherwise disadvantaged families. While hard data are as yet difficult to come by, “it’s generally agreed that vocational education and training [VET] students are more hit than general education, academic students”, said Shinyoung Jeon, a policy analyst at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) who specialises in the area.

Majority of UK employers have had to cancel work experience due to Covid-19 – The Guardian, 29/07/2020

UK students hoping to enter the jobs market have had work experience placements postponed, interviews cancelled and job offers withdrawn as businesses struggle in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, a new survey has revealed. Three fifths of employers (61%) say they have had to cancel some or all of their work experience placements, with many warning they will be hiring fewer or no graduates in the next year.

UK universities’ pension fund deficit rises to £13bn – Financial Times, 29/07/2020

The deficit at the UK’s largest private-sector pension fund, serving the pressured university sector, has more than doubled to £13bn as Covid-19 market turbulence ramped up the cost of retirement promises. On Wednesday, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which has more than 400,000 members, will report the plan’s funding hole had widened to £12.9bn at the end of March this year from £5.4bn the same time a year ago. The worsening of the scheme’s financial position largely reflected falls in interest rates, aimed at stimulating the Covid-19 ravaged economy, but which have the effect of inflating the cost of “defined benefit” pension promises. 

UK lecturers ‘strongly support colleagues’ academic freedom’ – The Guardian, 03/08/2020

British university staff oppose efforts to sack colleagues who produce controversial research, according to a report on political diversity in higher education that claims to reveal “an important reservoir of support for academic freedom”. The report by the right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange urges the government to impose a new free speech regulator on British universities and students to guard against no-platforming and what the authors call “political discrimination”.

Many of the findings are based on a poll of 820 working or retired academics, which found little evidence of overt political discrimination.

#MeToo is failing at university – Times Higher Education, 02/08/2020

We see patriarchy in action when male ranks close and men protect perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault. We see patriarchy in action when women are bullied into submission and, on occasion, forced out of their jobs. We see patriarchy in action when we fall victim to power structures that function to protect the interests of a particular type of entitled man through the positioning of women/the woman as the problem. This, in turn, becomes a problem for women. Because how do we stop those men who assault, harass and abuse their colleagues and students if their very existence is protected by the structures that are supposed to protect everyone, irrespective of gender and race?

Blackbaud hack: More UK universities confirm breach – BBC News, 25/07/2020

More than 20 universities and charities in the UK, US and Canada have confirmed they are victims of a cyber-attack that compromised a software supplier. Blackbaud was held to ransom by hackers in May and paid an undisclosed ransom to cyber-criminals. The US-based firm is the world’s largest provider of education administration, fundraising, and financial management software.

UK science thrives on international collaboration but faces an uncertain future – The Conversation, 25/07/2020

Over one third of postgraduate researchers and nearly one in five academic researchers, many at senior levels, are now from the EU. The UK’s diverse, vibrant, collaborative and extraordinarily successful research community is attributable, in large part, to the vision and ambition of the EU Horizon programmes. The UK left the EU at the beginning of 2020 and is now in a transition period during which it must negotiate a new relationship with the 27 remaining EU nations. For the future of UK science, it’s essential that the country retains full access to Horizon Europe funding and maintains the network of collaborative links that has grown since the programme’s inception.

Disabled university staff ‘made to feel like misfits’ – Times Higher Education, 27/07/2020

Disabled staff at UK universities are made to feel that they are “unwanted” in their institutions and face considerable extra labour in organising their own support, according to a study. The paper, which drew on 11 interviews with disabled staff at one university as well as insights from four of the authors, all of whom identified as disabled academics, found that disability was still viewed as “a medical problem”, rather than an issue that universities could help tackle by creating a more enabling environment.

UK’s white female academics are being privileged above women – and men – of colour – The Guardian, 28/07/2020

The myth often peddled is that we must choose either gender or race equality – we couldn’t possibly look at both at once. Researching the subject, I found that when conversations about race are introduced, they are seen as secondary, an “add on” because the standard practice is one where gender is considered more important (and valued) than race. Addressing racial inequalities is seen as time consuming, adding to already overloaded workloads. In contrast, work on gender is seen as worthwhile and contributing directly to an equalities agenda and more deserving than race.

The Oxford coronavirus vaccine proves how important UK universities are to the world – Independent, 30/07/2020

News that researchers at the University of Oxford have reached a breakthrough in the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine offers a ray of hope amid the gloom. It is also a reminder that the UK’s higher education institutions truly remain world-beating.

UCU: letting universities fail will mean towns and cities fail – Times Higher Education, 31/07/2020

UK universities typically support up to one additional job in the local economy for every person they employ, and are often among the largest local employers, according to a University and College Union report highlighting institutions’ “huge impact” on local economies. The UCU released the report amid fears that the Covid crisis could lead to collapse for some universities and to back up its Fund the Future campaign, which calls on the Westminster government to provide emergency support for universities to cover income lost due to the pandemic.

Queer Black students are being failed by UK universities – Pink News, 24/07/2020

“Universities weren’t set up with us in mind so they continually do us a disservice. And so when I consider decolonizing education, it’s about how do we stop having queer and trans voices and perspectives being relegated to an add-on to a curriculum which already has, at its heart, our erasure.” To end the practice of Black, queer and trans voices playing a distant second fiddle to those of white academics, Owusu says they want to “flip the entire script”, putting these often-silenced perspectives at “the heart of curriculum design”.

Neil Ferguson predicts R number rise if secondary schools fully reopen – The Guardian, 05/08/2020

The epidemiologist whose modelling helped shape Britain’s coronavirus lockdown strategy has predicted a significant rise in the R number if secondary schools in England fully reopen. He said: “The risk then is that big schools, comprehensives, universities, FE colleges, link lots of households together, reconnect the social network which social distancing measures have deliberately disconnected. And that poses a real risk of amplification of transmission, of case numbers going up quite sharply.”

The future of education or just hype? The rise of Minerva, the world’s most selective university – The Guardian, 30/07/2020

The Minerva offering is very different to what most UK students were accustomed to, prior to the coronavirus pandemic shifting universities online. There are no lectures, faculty buildings, or exams. All teaching is done through online video classes. There is only one programme of study for first years, and rather than reading maths or history, students take courses aimed at teaching transferrable skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving, through classes named “multimodal communications”, “empirical analyses” and “complex systems”. Subject specialisms are chosen in the second year. There is no campus; students are housed in a residence hall in San Francisco in their first year. Subsequent year groups spend semesters variously in Seoul, Hyderabad, Berlin, Buenos Aires, London and Taipei.

Coronavirus: Universities’ ‘perfect storm’ threatens future – 07/08/2020

Universities are facing a “perfect storm” which could lead to “real problems”, a former university vice-chancellor and higher education consultant has said. Sir Deian Hopkin said the number of international students will fall owing to coronavirus and Brexit. Domestic students will also be reluctant to attend during the pandemic, he said. Surveys have suggested the number of international students taking up places in UK universities could drop by more than 50%, while other research claimed domestic enrolment could fall by 15%.