This is an extremely challenging week. The news has been dominated by rising Covid infections rates and speculation about tightening local and national restrictions. For universities, increased numbers of reported positive cases have prompted decisions to increase the proportion of online teaching. At Sheffield Hallam, we have taken the decision to adjust the balance between online and face to face teaching for the next two weeks. Staff are working flat out, adjusting teaching delivering plans and supporting students to adapt to these changes. The situation is reviewed daily, sometimes hourly, working closely with our key partners across the city and region.
We are rightly focused on immediate operational priorities, reducing risk for students, staff and our wider community, whilst providing the best possible learning experience in these difficult and challenging times. But, at the same time, there are broader considerations that we must not lose sight of.
There is much talk of issues including fee rebates as students return to a COVID-responsive academic year, the effectiveness of a technology-enabled offer, student wellbeing, plans for 2021 A-level and BTEC assessments, and the government’s intentions, outlined by the Prime Minister to shift its focus to non-university post-18 education and training.
The headlines, of course rarely convey the complexities of the external environment. On each of these, there is complex set of questions to be addressed. Alongside working with my colleagues on managing the beginning of the new academic year at Hallam and adapting our provision, I’ve been trying to exercise some influence on policy debates in these areas.
The issue of student fees is one which has already gained some salience, with the chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee urging universities to reduce fees. There are some challenging problems with the idea. The first is that a reduction in fees would have no real impact on students, because, of course, students do not pay fees: graduates do. A reduction in fees would reduce the overall amount of student debt, but the way the student loan repayment arrangements work that would have no impact on repayment rates. The only ones who gain from a reduction in fees would be the Treasury, because a higher proportion of overall student debt would be repaid. On the other hand, a fee reduction would create enormous problems for universities in the short-term. There are, as I have pointed out, much better ways to support students: changing the threshold of earnings at which loans begin to be repaid, changing the effective rate of interest on the loans or reducing the amount collected through the tax system.
Alongside the challenges of the current academic year, the Prime Minister made an important speech last week about the importance of skills and of vocational education and training. Some commentators have said that the speech is so important that it is one which all new Prime Ministers make, though turning it into action is far more difficult. There were, without doubt, some important and welcome elements in the speech: the education and training of all our people is important, whether or not they go on to university. So the intentions – on lifelong learning, on improving skills, on further education – were important. At Sheffield Hallam, we may be ahead of the curve here: the intensive work we have done on our close partnership with Sheffield College, the work we have done to pull together a regional post-18 council and our engagement with the two University Technical Colleges all position us strongly in the area of civic engagement and skills. Some of the Prime Minister’s other aspirations – for example on a credit transfer scheme to allow more ‘stop-off-and-resume’ engagement with advanced education – have, of course, a long history and are challenging in practice. They have been difficult in the past and they are no easier now.
The dust may just have settled on the A-level and BTEC challenges of 2020, but the university admissions round for 2021 is about to open: the first UCAS deadlines are just a couple of weeks away. With learning having been seriously disrupted throughout the summer of 2020, and the virus impacting each week on schools and colleges in unpredictable ways, the changes of a fair and valid set of examinations being run in 2021 seem slim. In an article in The Times last week, Sir David Eastwood, the Birmingham Vice-Chancellor and I set out a plan for a different approach. It’s our belief that learning is more important than assessment, and so we proposed extending teaching time for A-level and BTEC students right the way through to July, and charging the awarding bodies with developing a robust approach to the moderation of teacher assessments. A decision on that now would provide greater certainty for universities, schools, and critically, for students, than anything else.
In all these domains, Covid-19 continues to up-end policy and practice. The day-to-day delivery of the university is rightly the major focus of everyone’s attention now and making demands on everyone – but there are issues underlying that need attention too.