2020-21 is the most challenging year for UK higher education since World War II. The government has asked universities to open while passing downwards the responsibility for the problems this creates. Despite great work in developing testing systems in many institutions, there are dramatic public health problems, with the Covid-19 pandemic flaring up in more than 120 individual universities and with more to come. Intensive student accommodation, swollen by a 7 per cent increase in numbers, incubates the pandemic with the danger that this will spill over into local communities. For institutions there are fundamental uncertainties about retention, revenues and financial sustainability. For students face to face learning, the boundaries of legitimate activity and freedom of movement can transform or disappear overnight. Teaching provision is unstable as universities work their way through mixed and hybrid modes subject to sudden changes; teaching and welfare loads have ballooned; while at the same time staffing has been cut back in some locations. Particular groups of students face major issues, including local students from non-university and non-white families who face challenges in any year, newly arrived international students without friends in unfamiliar environments and confined to their rooms, immunocompromised students and disabled students. It is likely that the incidence of mental health problems is increasing though monitoring is patchy. We need to know more.
The compact between students and their institutions is also in question. Universities that promised a new normal experience prior to enrolment, knowing that this could not be guaranteed, must now deal with the frustrated expectations. Yet arguably, universities were forced into this zone of bad faith by a government that both insisted on opening the campuses (against the advice of its own SAGE), and refused to provide financial support for institutions that fall short of enrolment maintenance. The government set the risk parameters but it is the universities, their staff and the students that must handle the outcomes. This is not a good time to be a student in UK higher education, though one positive outcome of the pandemic is the upsurge of student agency in many parts of the country. A spirit of optimism and mutual support is carrying many through the crisis but not all of the problems are yet apparent.
Join CGHE’s discussion of these crucial issues with Jason Arday, Danny Dorling and Andy Westwood.