In the aftermath of Brexit and the Higher Education Bill, are there reasons to be cheerful?

Adam Longcroft

Category: Anglia Learning & Teaching

18 August 2017

In the aftermath of Brexit and the introduction of the Higher Education Bill, the atmosphere within the sector has of late - perhaps understandably - tended towards pessimism. I’d like to, therefore, write about some reasons to be cheerful.

Let’s be honest, the last decade has seen a series of seismic shocks within the Higher Education (HE) landscape. The introduction of student fees has driven a change in the relationship with students, concerns about the commodification of HE, and a shift towards the notion of students as consumers. The dramatic increase in student numbers has placed intense pressure on universities' resources, and difficulties in maintaining a healthy staff-to-student ratio. A gradual decline in direct government funding for universities, increases in pension costs, and increased global competition for international students has resulted in a ‘perfect storm’– one exacerbated by recent government policies on immigration. The introduction of the National Student Survey (NSS) and University League Tables have further intensified the development of a competitive HE marketplace. The arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been the subject of widespread concern in terms of the suitability of the metrics employed, the potential cost implications, and the potential reputational damage resulting from an Olympics-style gold, silver and bronze rating system. Subject-level ratings will soon materialise and we will soon see the creation of a new Office for Students as well as a new quality audit regime.

Seen in this context, the current trend towards pessimism about the future of HE might seem entirely justified. But I’m not pessimistic. Instead, I believe there are real reasons to be cheerful. One reason is the incredible resilience of the sector. It has seen many challenges in the past decade, but has met them all head-on and succeeded in maintaining a peerless global reputation for quality. I’ve worked in the sector for more than 20 years and have been struck by the enthusiasm of my colleagues, their passion, and their expertise in supporting a world-class student experience. I’ve witnessed many truly inspirational examples of teaching by academics who are highly expert in the pedagogies they employ. Professional services staff also make great efforts to ensure students receive the information, resources, and support they need. The professionalism of our colleagues will help to ensure that the sector is well-placed to overcome whatever challenges it is faced with. We may just need to work in different ways, employ different pedagogical strategies, and build new relationships with our students and other stakeholder groups, including parents, employers, alumni and policy makers.

The TEF hasn’t been universally welcomed. However, it’s likely to drive a renewed emphasis on high quality teaching and student-centred pedagogies. It may also result in a re-balancing of the relationship between research and teaching that some might argue is overdue. The HE Bill has not had a smooth passage through the Lords and, on week commencing 6 Feb 2017, the Bill was watered down by the Lords to break the link between the TEF and rises in tuition fees. A significant issue or a major setback? We shall see.

Many universities have invested in new infrastructure (e.g. virtual learning environments, wireless networks and other online resources), exciting new blended learning strategies, new buildings, (including dynamic teaching spaces that promote active and collaborative learning) and building new relationships with diverse external partners. Big Data, including learner analytics, are already transforming (often in a positive and exciting way) the way in which we make decisions, monitor student progress, and support student engagement and achievement. Concerns about social inclusion and mobility have driven a dramatic diversification of the student body (including students from disadvantaged backgrounds) and the introduction of policies aimed at ensuring the provision of inclusive pedagogies, learning materials, and approaches to assessment. The renewed emphasis on pedagogies that promote effective student engagement, and a fundamental shift in the way we measure the ‘value-added’ aspect of higher education via metrics of Learning Gain, will ensure that teaching and learning remain at the heart of dialogues in the sector.

Some questions to think about…

  1. Do you agree that there are reasons to be cheerful?
  2. What are you most optimistic about?
  3. How do you think recent changes will open up new opportunities or drive further enhancements in teaching and learning?

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