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Universities UK: How can we improve student access and success in a Covid-19 world?

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It’s not been uncommon this year to hear two contradictory views of universities in the same news bulletin: are our higher education institutions ‘saviours’, via their groundbreaking vaccine research, or ‘spreaders’, causing thousands of students to move around the country, taking the coronavirus in their wake?

As 2020 draws to a close, this year’s UUK virtual conference was a chance to take stock and reflect on a tumultuous year for higher education. Chaired by Professor Quintin McKellar, Vice-Chancellor, University of Hertfordshire, the conference addressed the question ‘how can we improve student access and success in a Covid-19 world?’. 

The conference coincided with the publication of UUK’s Fair Admissions Review, which puts forward recommendations for how to make our higher education institutions more inclusive and diverse. Recommendations include the end of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, guidance on the acceptable use of unconditional offers, greater transparency around contextual offer-making, as well as a proposed switch to post-qualification admissions (PQA). These recommendations were the subject of much debate over the two-day conference.

Improving access: how can universities attract the most disadvantaged students?

A recurring theme across the conference was the need to offer a positive and supportive experience to disadvantaged students which takes into account a range of needs and backgrounds. 

In her opening address, Emma Hardy MP, Shadow Minister for Further Education and Higher Education, highlighted some of the impacts of COVID on school age students. In particular, Hardy spoke about the exacerbation of the ‘postcode lottery’ in the varying levels of support students received when studying at home during lockdown. For students applying to university this year, she argued that contextual offers will be more important than ever, for example, taking into account whether a student has been in care or is entitled to free school meals. As well as the debate about contextual offers, there was also much discussion of the need to help students better understand unconditional offers, so that students are not pressured into accepting an early offer that might not be right for them. 

At postgraduate level, Paul Wakeling, Head of Department for Education at the University of York, spoke about the role of the university as a safe haven for students in an uncertain graduate job market, and the counter cyclical postgraduate enrolment trend. However, Professor Wakeling went on to highlight the significant cost of postgraduate study, notwithstanding the Master’s loans system, as well as the wider issue of ‘credential inflation,’ as graduates fight to stand out for limited job vacancies.

During a discussion about adult and lifelong learning, Stephen Evans of the Learning and Work institute spoke of the drastic cuts in the adult education budget in the UK since 2010 and how this has reinforced inequalities. Evans shared that the most frequent barriers to lifelong learning are cost, flexibility and lack of clear benefits to studying, despite the rise in lockdown learning this year.

Improving success: what have universities learned about supporting students through blended learning?

The conference was also an opportunity to share best practices in blended learning, in light of the major challenges universities have faced in the pivot to online teaching in March this year.

A recurring piece of advice from the panel was about the importance of understanding the needs and circumstances of your online learners. Kate Lister, Lecturer in Inclusive Education at the Open University, spoke of the importance of space and privacy for students in their overall experience and performance. While blended learning removes some financial and geographical barriers to Higher Education, it is vital to remember that some students’ home environments put them at a disadvantage where they don’t have a quiet place to study. Lister offered helpful guidance on how to adjust teaching strategies for an online environment, such as avoiding calling on students directly in online tutorials. 

Another recurring theme was the concerning impact of lockdown on students’ mental health. Data collected by OfS in October 2020 demonstrates some of the factors impacting students’ ability to participate in their course, with 22% of those surveyed saying that a lack of access to a quiet space to study had ‘severely impacted’ their ability to study, and 11% citing having too little money to live on as severely impacting their participation. These concerns were raised by Professor Roger Dickinson, Dean of Flexible Teaching and Learning, University of Leicester, who also pointed to the rise in students reporting anxiety from a score of 4.3 in spring 2020 to 6.5 in November 2020 in the HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey.

Thirdly, the conference addressed ways to improve the experience of BAME students. Dr Omar Khan Director of TASO, shared reflections on how COVID has impacted BAME students this year, particularly because online teaching has resulted in student engagement and social connections becoming more difficult to achieve. Dr Khan shared some of the research from TASO about how to tackle the BAME awarding gap, such as the importance of role models, efforts to decolonise the curriculum, as well as staff training. However, there was acknowledgement that universities had much further to go in bridging this attainment gap. 

Supporting the graduates of 2020 and beyond

Finally, the UUK conference addressed how universities can support students entering a very uncertain graduate jobs market. 

Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive of the Institute of Student Employers (IES), shared some of the hiring practices on the rise this year, such as online internships, mentorship schemes, and virtual careers fairs, but warned of the growing ‘digital fatigue’ by recruiters and job seekers alike. Data shared by the IES shows that the UK graduate jobs market has fallen by about 12% this year, but Isherwood gave reassurance that the graduate jobs market is generally robust and stable, as employers look to train up graduates with a long-term view. While online hiring practices have made some roles more accessible, Nik Miller of the Bridge Group shared concerns that lockdown has caused unpaid or unadvertised internships to creep back in. With fears that employers have become more risk averse in their hiring practices during lockdown, the panel was in agreement that universities must help prepare students for future skills and make efforts to embed careers advice into the curriculum. 

Overall, it was positive to see the UUK conference take such a student-centric approach, and indeed to hear directly from students and NUS representatives about the impact of the pandemic on their university experience. It was also welcome to see the needs of students from all walks of life reflected, whether undergraduate, postgraduate, mature or lifelong students. 


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