Be ready for anything

Higher education looks to be beset by any number of challenges in 2022, not least more Covid disruption. Resilience may again be the year’s watchword

January 6, 2022
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Predicting the future is always risky, but crystal-ball gazers are particularly well advised to keep their forecasts near-term at the moment.

Think back to the early part of the past decade, and we were awash with forecasts and visions of what would come to pass by 2020. None even came close.

Even short-term predictions can be derailed: in a blog in January 2020, the Higher Education Policy Institute said, presciently, that “there tends to be one topic that dominates the discussion”, suggesting that in 2020 it would be “value”. If only (though in fairness, value for money did become a key subplot as the pandemic unfolded and universities moved their activities online).

As we look ahead to 2022, we must wearily accept that Covid will continue to dominate much of our lives, but we can also consider what other themes to watch in higher education.

One prediction is that – notwithstanding the global nature of the pandemic, sustainability and fractious geopolitics – the dominant issues will often be local and specific to the national context.

With that in mind, I asked a few of UK higher education’s wiser heads what to look out for.

For Mary Curnock Cook, chair of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission, the government’s long-held ambition to shake up and diversify levels and modes of delivery will be key.

“Everyone will need to think about how to play Level 4 and 5 provision into the higher education landscape, whether solo or in partnership with colleges,” she says. “Take a look at the successful Challenge Competition bids for short courses announced [by the Office for Students] to read the tea leaves – it’s a good guide to what skills the government wants to be on offer, but the challenge will also be demand.”

Nick Hillman, Hepi’s director, is also thinking about educational opportunity, in the context of the “intergenerational impact” of fighting Covid, and the sacrifices younger people have made.

“The rest of society surely now has a duty to repay them, and that means making it easier for them to find the right educational opportunities, to settle down and to reach adulthood. I don’t mean a one-off cash payment or anything like that; I mean embedding at the level of policy a recognition that they deserve a fairer chance to get on with their lives. Perhaps we need an equality impact assessment on all major new public policies to judge how they affect the Covid generation.”

Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, highlights the impact that the economic climate will have on the sector’s operating environment.

“Universities are price controlled in core markets, but equally facing additional demands (for example, investment in technology and digital systems, or staff development).

“But inflation is now at 5 per cent. Even if it falls in the spring, there are baked-in higher costs, which will impact on campus staff relations and student assumptions as well as core operations.

“Universities will face two possible responses: seek to diversify out of price-controlled markets (which has challenges as UK demographics mean more 18-year-olds) and/or push hard on an internal efficiency agenda. We’ve had 25 years of low inflation – no one has had to lead or manage, teach or administer, in an inflationary world.”

For Sir Anton Muscatelli, vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow, the continuing strain that Covid is putting on us all is a theme demanding attention.

“The sector has learned to be very adaptable in 2020-21, but sustaining that requires communities to stay united. In that sense, more than the year of ‘value’ in higher education, I would have thought that it will be the year of ‘values’: those that hold our communities together around our common purpose of advancing knowledge and learning. Those institutions that manage to sustain that resilience will probably cope best at what will continue to be an uncertain time.”

So sector-targeted policy reforms, intergenerational fairness, the impact of heavy economic weather, and a need to lean once more on the values that underpin academia (and which have got it through crises, and indeed pandemics, in the past) are all contenders for our themes for 2022.

The year ahead will undoubtedly pose all these challenges and more.

So perhaps resilience is an all-encompassing topic: finding ways to tap into and replenish reserves of energy and optimism as the slow march out of the Covid mire continues – whatever twists and turns are yet to come.

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Key issues for sustainability: Local offer based on values Run the campus environmentally efficient Strategic partnership Tackle reluctance of mutual module recognition